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Footwear for Hikers

The top priority of essentially all back-packers is securing shelter; this includes clothing and most especially your footwear. I've had the same #hiking boots for more than twenty years, because I purchased my current hiking boots just before setting off on a hiking trip in the Costa Rica jungle. When I returned, I set those back in my closet, not to be touched again until this summer... twenty years later.


The kids and I have hiked at least once a week since the onset of the pandemic and I've snuck in some longer hikes on my own. For me, it's like going home. As a kid, I was always sneaking off to play in the woods, collecting acorns, imaging tree fairies dancing in the winds, and collecting crawdads in the creek. Frogs and ladybugs were my friends.



As I walked through Eagle Creek last evening, I began to pay a little more attention to my feet, working to become a little more #embodied, and I realized that my toes weren't feeling so fabulous. In fact, they were pushed completely up against the top of my boots and were really pinched. I am not sure if this happened due to the natural swelling that happens in my feet and hands as I hike these longer trails, or if this is because my feet slide a bit as I climb up and down hills, but either way, the longer I walked, the more this hurt. Is this what I felt in Costa Rica? This was a familiar feeling. Was I just ignoring it every time I hiked in awe of the views? Disembodiment is a funny thing; although it really isn't so funny.


As I work towards recognizing and honoring my own needs, I chose to cut my hike short (five-and-a-half miles) and head back to my car with intent of finding a new pair of boots before my next adventure. Having done so much wrong and suffered the consequences on my first back-packing experience, I am trying to gather as much information as possible this time to limit my suffering, and maximize the beauty (and secretly because I am planning my hike thru the Appalachian trial within the next few years).


Hiking Boots or Trail Runners


When people talk about footwear for hikers, it is sort of a given that hiking boots are the preferred option. This is all I've known and for many reasons, I have appreciated having them. When I was first shopping, my only expectation was Gortex material so my feet would stay dry and wool socks. I was able to walk through streams and have perfectly dry feet and even hiking and sweating most of the day, my feet never broke down and my toes never blistered. Now that I am a bit older, I notice the ankle support and do feel a little secure, but admittedly, I also have some rubbing on my tendons and ankles which has me considering the possibility of trail runners.


Hikers are always talking about their footwear so opinions are abundant. I have no intention of running trails, ever, so had my mind fairly well committed to boots. Then I heard more and more talk about this ankle support being a myth and that boots were heavy; they were so grateful when they finally switched to trail runners. I've hiked miles in my sandals even and other than a little rubbing on my soles, was grateful to have my feet exposed. Boots are heavy to lug around, especially when they are covered in mud. They also take a while to dry if they do become really wet inside.


I am intrigued by the potential of carrying less weight as I back-pack and feeling more agile on my hikes, but the reality is that I am in my mid-forties and am very grateful not to have any pain or discomfort in my body thus far, so really want to maintain that - maybe I do need to ankle support? Here's what I learned with just a little research.


Ditch the Weight


Although back-packers will always say their priority is shelter, I really think it is weight and boots are heavy. Hiking miles every day, particularly on journeys as long as the Appalachian trial, requires a great deal of energy. It has been said that weight on your feet demands even more energy than weight on your back. Swapping boots out for trail runners can save three pounds, but if you consider the energy savings of that weight being taken away from your feet, this can lighten your load about eight to twelve pounds.


Avoid Hiking Blisters


One of the more popular discussions among hikers is prevention of blisters, or surviving them. I have had a blister or two on the sole of my foot after hiking, but didn't even realize it until I was on my yoga mat. My daughter has suffered a few blisters, which really kind of broke my heart. Friction is certainly a factor here and one of the most common recommendations I hear is to wear thin toe socks and then a pair of wool socks over those so minimize the friction, and to purchase your shoes at least a half-size larger than normal, maybe even a full size to compensate for swelling and sliding within your shoe. Wiggle your toes in the shoe box, but your feet should not slide or slip. Aim for a relaxed fit.


Rigid, hard-soled boots don't flex with your feet while hiking and they really don't allow for much air flow. This causes your feet to become softer and sweatier so if hiking long distances, they will start to break down even in a pair of really broken in boots. Keep your feet clean, free of dirt and debris to reduce chafing and opportunity for blisters. Seize opportunities to rinse your feet in the cool water and clean them at camp. Breaks for more than fifteen minutes during the day should mean shoes come off, toes get spread and maybe your feet are elevated on your pack. At night, your feet should be dry through to allow them to recuperate.


Most hikers will encourage you to carry at least two pair of hiking socks so you can swap them out as needed during the day and then rinse/dry another pair for later. Most packs will have a mess or strap portion on the outside so you can dry your clothes in here as you hike, some have clips for socks. If your feet feel moist while hiking, take the time to stop and swap your socks.


Let Loose a Little


My boots are especially snug which does make them feel secure, but yesterday I did have to take time to adjust my laces. This depends on your terrain too, but it is worth the pause to adjust and protect your feet. Remember that your feet are likely to swell as your hike so leaving your laces a little loos initially may be helpful. When descending though, you may want them more snug, particularly where your ankle meets your foot so your toes aren't sliding as much.


Did you know the more you hike the longer your feet will become? Some hikers report their shoe size growing by as much as two sizes before they finish their thru-hikes. When traveling on longer trails like the Appalachian trail, many anticipate having to purchase new shoes along the way specifically for this reason.


Water-Not-so-Proof


This might be another fairly misleading concept among hikers. My current boots have Gortex which helps keep water from seeping in when walking in shallow water. However, feet sweat and no amount of water-proofing can detour that. Waterproofing can protect from some rain, but if it pours, rain will run down your legs and into your boots. Walking in deep water will soak the inside of your shoes or boots. Over time, most all footwear will earn a slight hole or two, even if super small. Waterproofing also requires upkeep.


One thing I remember well from my Costa Rica trip: when boots get wet, they get heavy. Very heavy. They also take forever to dry out, so I am not sure the walks through the smaller streams are worth their overall weight for the rest of the hike or waiting a day for them to dry out.


What's Up with Ankle Support?


Do boots really offer more ankle support or are we just telling ourselves this? I would love to avoid an ankle injury which could happen easily enough on a trail, and I loathe the idea of rolling my ankle, particularly at my age. Never in my orthopedic days were providers recommending high top shoes for ankle support. Rather, we were recommending strength training and exercises specific for the ankles to build natural support. If we worked with clients who had either knee or ankle weakness, we recommended some level of bracing or therapy, but not boots. Might the heavier boots tire the ankles quicker, putting them at risk for injury? Might the stiffness of the boot limit the range of motion and weaken the ankle?


More on Socks


Quality socks are critical it seems for keeping your feet dry and cool and blister-free on the trail. Wool and synthetic fibers are best for wicking sweat away from your skin, and they dry quicker after crossing bodies of water. Cotton is not your friend here. Good hiking socks should fit snug without wrinkling to minimize friction and wearing thinner socks under another pair creates a double-layer system for those a little more prone to blisters. As I mentioned previously, toe socks are favored by many. Injinji have been the only toe socks I've ever seen mentioned, but have yet to try them myself. The most popular socks I've seen mentioned are Darn Tough. Damascus socks are also recommended for the long hike-thrus as they are especially durable. Smartwool PhD outdoor, light crew socks are highly breathable wool socks that still fit like athletic socks.


(I have to share that as I write this blog, my three-year-old is sitting beside me watching YouTube videos and I just realized she is watching hiking videos. She is so stinking cute.)


Final Recommendations


Recommendations on hiking footwear specifically for women seems to lean towards Keen by local hikers, but Salomon's X Ultra 3 Low GTX were recommended by two top bloggers. Oboz were recommended for rugged terrain and Merrell for wide feet folk. Choose a pair that are comfortable and fit properly, whether you need wide or narrow or extra arch support. No matter what you choose, you'll likely spend just over a hundred dollars for quality hiking shoes. Remember, lighter shoes saves energy. It also lessens muscle fatigue, less stumbling, and can help avoid knee and hip flexor pain. More so I feel calf strain from my heavy hiking boots. Merrell are among the lighter options, as are Altra Lone Peak and Saucony Peregrine, and Oboz are among the more heavy-duty. On occasion I hear hikers talk about their barefoot shoes, but these seems like a faithful sub-group of people so I don't have a ton of advice here. I am intrigued and would love to try them myself.


It's also a good idea to bump up half a shoe size, because of swelling. Running shoes do compress over time, but generally you can expect about 500 miles out of them. Consider then that you will need to purchase new shoes on the thru-trails. If you've tried any of these, have a recommendation, or hike at all, I'd love to hear from you! Please join so you can post directly on the blog.

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