We are going to talk about one of the most divisive subjects in the hill walking world. There is nothing that will make a walker over fill a kettle or fold the map the wrong way more than talking about the right kind of footwear. So at the risk of causing all out war here is my nugget of wisdom that cuts to the heart of the matter and sidesteps all the rubbish.
What kind of footwear depends on where you are walking.
I’ve examined the research that is sometimes called on and it is all inconclusive and does little to help anyone make a choice. I’ve listened to the self-styled experts and they haven’t got a clue either – it always comes down to opinion and the kind of footwear the ‘expert’ chooses to wear.
The truth is that just like there are a variety of shoes to wear in normal life so there are a variety of footwear for hill walking and just like we all choose different styles in normal life so we all choose different styles out on the hills.
However, some footwear is better suited to certain kinds of terrain than others. If you are going to walk with a very light pack along well paved footpaths in good weather then trail shoes will suit you very well. However, if you are going to cross open moor and will encounter very uneven ground, with the occasional bog, you will find leather walking boots are good.
A suggested process for deciding which footwear is best for you
Let’s say you can only afford one pair of walking footwear – how do you decide what to buy? I’m going to try and help you because I have worn most kinds of footwear out on the hills and through personal experience know what I prefer in certain conditions.
Step 1 – Decide what the worst kind of ground you are likely to cover is. Let me give you some suggestions:
1. Paved footpaths – these are common in many areas these days.
2. Rubble footpaths – these can be difficult to walk on when the stones are big and keep moving as you try to walk on them. This incidentally is my least favourite type of ground to have to cover. Sadly it is common in national parks where I guess finances forces quick fixes and dumping a lorry load of stones on a path is the easy option.
3. Footpaths across fields – these can be muddy and wet or have long grass which can make your feet very wet on occasions but generally the going is fairly easy and pleasant.
4. Moorland paths – I’m using this phrase to describe those tracks that have been worn by countless feet walking them. Often muddy in places but being a track the going is usually quite easy.
5. Open moorland type 1 – where you might cross a rock strewn valley, streams or maybe a boggy area. You may have to walk over some heather, etc. This is relatively easy but more demanding than walking a track.
6. Open moorland type 2 – this would be that tussocky stuff where you turn your ankle every few minutes and often up to your laces in mud and sometimes full blown bog. This kind of ground is really tough on you and Dartmoor is covered in it. You might also have to cross rocky areas.
Step 2 – Decide if you want boots or shoes. By boots I mean the kind of footwear that will cover your ankle – all the rest are shoes. There has been research to suggest that boots do not stop you turning your ankle. The research I heard about – done for the army – did not make any conclusions that are useful to hill walkers. However, ask any foot/ankle health professional and they will tell you that boots make a difference. Basketball has also done its research – which seemed inconclusive to me – but nearly all basketball players and netball players prefer some kind of ankle support and where shoes are worn (netball’s usual footwear is shoes I understand) it is common practice to add support to the ankle in some way (you can even buy specially made ankle supports which are worn by many professional athletes). My own personal experience is that boots have saved my ankles over the years. I have turned my ankle a few times in shoes – I can even manage to do it on a good pavement (side walk for any readers from the USA), it hurt and sometimes took days to recover but never so bad that it was a problem. On the hills every time I go off track my ankle will turn a little. I probably have strong ankles from all the walking (how to you strength test and ankle?) but I have blessed my well laced up boots on more than one occasion. If you are out on the hills alone and your life might depend on not turning an ankle I don’t see why you would take the risk. If, like me, you study the emergency call out statistics from time to time you will see the largest number of call outs is for lower leg injuries (that is a turned ankle to you and me). It should be noted that boots don’t make you immune but they will help. I’ve read claims that you are more careful in a shoe not to turn your ankle so it is better but there is no hard evidence that this is true (it is just opinion) and when you have an ankle injury they put you in a big boot to protect your ankle – why do this if you are more likely to protect it if you walked in shoes. However, if you just walk on type 1 ground (above) then you would probably be fine in just a pair of trail shoes – you are no more likely to turn your ankle than walking through a town or city. Of course, then there is the weight of the pack to consider and it would seem to make sense to say that a heavy pack may make an ankle turn a more serious injury, however, I don’t think you are more likely to turn an ankle with a heavy pack on unless being overbalanced (which seems to happen to me a lot) can add to your risk of injury. In the end it is your ankle and you must make your own choices but my advice would be to get boots.
Step 3 – Go to a good shop and get measured. You should do this every time you buy new footwear (assuming your footwear will last a year or two). I learnt the last time I went that as we get older (thanks) our feat grow in size a little (by older I mean going grey not moving up a class at school). My feet have gone from a size 10 boot to a size 11 boot which explains some of the blisters. The shop can advise you then on what is available but you will need to know what kind of footwear you are going for so read on. You must also take your socks with you (the ones you wear with your walking footwear of course) and any inserts (special footbeds, etc – if you have them you will know what they are) to the shop.
Step 4 – Decide what kind of water you are likely to encounter. If you will walk through countless bogs or through many streams you will want very waterproof boots. If you are unlikely to come up against many water hazards then you probably won’t be much bothered as long as they are reasonably water proof. I have seen it argued that this is not something to get bothered about because your feet will get wet whatever you do. This is utter nonsense. My own feet rarely get wet because of the type of footwear I choose. Wet feet can lead to blisters – you have been warned.
Step 6 – How far are you going to walk? The weight of your footwear will have an effect on your tiredness (there is good research on this). So being able to shave off a bit of weight might help you. In general (although this is not always true – it is best to check the weight of footwear) fabric boots will be lighter than leather. However, fabric boots are far less likely to keep out the wet – despite what the manufacturers tell you. I generally walk in leather boots (they are reasonably light weight ones but that does make them a little more expensive) because I have never found fabric boots that can stand up to the kind of abuse they get on my feet. Most of the young people I take walking have fabric boots and they very often have wet feet when mine are bone dry (my boots also breathe nicely).
Step 7 – How much weight are you carrying? Good walking footwear is designed to help you with the weight. The sole on a walking boot is usually fairly hard because a lot of compression in footwear is nice but it leads to instability. The more weight you carry the bigger an issue this becomes. If you are going to be carrying a lot of weight (e.g. you are walking lots of days and therefore carrying lots of food etc) then you need to get some serious footwear.
Different kind of footwear and what they are good for
So now we come to the bit you have all been looking forward too – what kind of footwear. This is my personal opinion – the only expert on what footwear you should wear is you.
If you are a slave to fashion this bit will probably be useless to you because you will just get the best looking footwear with the best label you can afford, good luck with that.
Sports trainers – no, no, no, no, no! These are designed for playing games not serious walking. Some people get away with it but they are foolhardy for risking it.
Trail shoes – they look good in town as you show everyone you are ready for the great outdoors at any moment. They are great on type 1 ground if you insist that you don’t like boots. I have never liked them for any other kind of ground, though, trying not to turn an ankle in shoes on a rubble path is very distracting on a walk and spoils it for me to say nothing of it making me more tired. Of course, you may be different.
Walking sandals – same as trail shoes but they have the added advantage of not having to wear socks. However, you will need something with a covered toe unless you like losing toe nails. The footbed if often designed so you can walk through water which is pretty cool (in more than one sense of the phrase). However, be prepared for irritating tiny stones. I have seen people wearing socks with sandals but what is the point of that? Surely you lose the benefits of the air flow that way.
Fabric boots – these will cope well on any kind of ground save for perhaps type 6. However, in my experience they are not waterproof (unless you get very expensive ones) and although they may be fine for a while they reach a point of failure when they finally let the water in. They have a weight advantage and often come in brighter colours.
Leather boots – my own preferred style of footwear. They will cope with anything. They keep your feet dry (unless the water gets in the top). They can cope with rocky ground where fabric takes too much of a bashing. They give you confidence in a bog. They also tend to last longer and can often be resoled. However, they can be heavy so choose wisely and check the weight. You also want to make sure that they are breathable (leather is by its nature but there is more to a boot that just the outer bit).
Mountain boots – you may be tempted to get the really big clumpy looking heavy boots that are required on mountains. This level of protection and stiffness of boot (they are really stiff – try some if you don’t believe me) is not required and is more likely to shred your feet walking on the hills. They look impressive but they are not for the likes of us who prefer deep mud to deep crevasses.
It is also of utmost importance that you look after your footwear. Peat is very corrosive of materials and most moorland has a fair bit of peat in the soil. Wash your footwear after every outing and regularly treat your footwear (waterproofing needs refreshing). We have a page all about it.
Here are some studies the suggest wearing boots (high tops) is safer for your ankles:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1323436/pdf/jathtrain00001-0040.pdf – note this is a pdf
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1319230/pdf/jathtrain00013-0023.pdf – note this is pdf
Medical advice on wearing boots not shoes to prevent injury
Of course you can find some studies that contradict these but at best it seems to me we ought to be cautious and stear towards what seems to me to be common sense. The idea that boots helps prevent ankle injury is not a myth as many seem to suggest. Of course there are other factors like the socks you wear, your own physical strength and the fit of a shoe/boot that are also very important in preventing injury.