"May you walk long, far,
through much Beauty with great pleasure..."
That's the Goal
Oh, my aching, bleeding feet...
Deciding on the style of Boot that suits your feet, your walking style, and your specific requirements within the terrain is vital for a lifetime of backpacking joy.
I have experienced foot problems. Plantar fasciitis, bunions, and structural problems with my foot bones and arches. I have also shattered a kneecap, lost a half-inch of one of the big piggies to frostbite, and broke a couple of ankle bones... I have recovered from all with rest, rehab, exercise, more rest, massage, therapy (careful work), more work, pain, rest, therapy again, work, and the proper footwear.
My point here is that plantar facitis or shin splints can drop us as quickly, or even more quickly, than a break.
Soft tissue problems in joints are more enduring than non-joint breaks. These problems require extensive and deep rest and recovery...
In every case of use or recovery we need proper footwear. What that is for you is unique. What I hope to do here is lay out the parameters various environments present, so you can figure out just what you need to properly confront yours.
Boots break down into three categories, being light, medium, and heavyweight. Each style is suited for a different use, and each is generally defined by its different use of a class of materials and approaches to construction style.
And different applications.
The sole touches the ground, our foot rests on the insole, and the upper is stitched and/or glued around our foot, to the sole.
Between the sole and the insole is a stabilizer plate, made of either metal or plastic, located to add rigidity. It is called the "shank."
Balance of Factors
The type of materials, weight of the materials, and the construction techniques tying your various boot parts together determine which weight category a particular boot or trail shoe fits into.
Every boot line is manufactured for a generic foot type or shape, independent of its weight or manner of construction.
Thus the finest boot from one particular manufacturer may just not fit you. Or they may fit you perfectly.
Your Bottom Line
Your job is to make sure the boot you finally select is shaped and geared up to properly fit and support your foot.
Your particular application, type of foot, walking style, terrain, the weight load you are bearing, and your history are the critical factors in determining the proper footwear for you.
Long or short. Heavy or light. Season.
Type of Foot
High or low arch. Wide or narrow foot.
Pro or super nator. Heavy walker (a tramper), a foot slapper, front or back biased.
Sharp rocks, unstable terrain, "average" trail, or well-groomed.
Average pack weight.
Previous foot problems.
Bottom Line II
The goal is to protect the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones of your feet from bearing the stress of carrying weight in normal hiking conditions, as well as the many many times your feet will get out of position in relation to your load.
Problems, Problems, Problems
If you have bad arches, weak feet, or other structural foot issues, or you just want to avoid the pain and disability of damaged feet, then you must select footwear with adequate structural stability to protect your feet..
Any footwear that does not provide proper foot support will eventually destroy your feet, and may fail to provide support when your really need support the most on the trail.
Boom! Down goes the backpacker...
For instance, when you roll your ankle over in a tight little drainage gully. This movement would normally be supported by a pair of medium-weight high top boots, but could possibly cause great pain and possibly even a sprained ankle in a pair of lightweight low-tops.
I cannot count the number of times I've rolled my ankle on the trail and been spared a sprain by proper boot support.
The long threat
It may take a hundred miles, a couple of seasons, or twenty years of continious hiking, but foot strain, pain, and damage is additive.
Don't expose your feet to the potential of long term damage or immediate injury by using inadequete footwear.
On the other hand, there is such a thing as overkill. If your pack is fairly light, you are crossing tame, well-groomed trails, and you do not have any particular previous foot problems there is no problem with light and low footwear, as long as it provides the necessary level of support.
The materials and construction used to build your footwear will determine how it will do on our stability and support flex tests.
Weights & Measures
Boot leather is measured by weight which translates into a thickness measurement.
Differences in thickness of one-piece leather uppers can distinguish between a medium and heavy weight boot.
But many light and medium weight boots do not use one piece uppers. Many light and medium boots have abandoned leather for fabric. They employ various pieces of both leather and fabric stitched together to form the upper.
Check these "composite" uppers carefully. Multi-piece uppers are inherently less stable than one-piece uppers. Many boots that appear to be medium-weight boots are actually light-weight boots, due to the lack of support provided by multi-piece fabric uppers.
Keep in mind that multi-piece leather uppers are less stable than one-piece uppers.
Independent of the weight of the leather upper is the stability and rigidity of the sole that the upper is attached to. This is determined by the shank, the piece of flat metal or plastic that adds rigidity to the sole.
I have had problems with plastic shanks splitting. A fine pair of ASOLO one-piece medium-weight boots suffered this fate. The sole itself split shortly after the shank split.
To add insult to injury, my apartment burned down, preventing me from returning the boots...
The combined support of the upper with the stability of the sole determines the true weight of the footwear, independent of the style of construction.
The only way to determine the support and stabiltiy level of trail footwear is to test it. See the next column for details of the flex tests.
But the range of "weights" of backpacking footwear is generally typified by a stlye of manufacturing.
Lightweights look like fancy heavy-duty tennis shoes, mediums look like light boots with multi-piece uppers, and heavyweight boots are your classic image of massive leather hiking boots.
"Light" boots and hiking shoes span from those tennis-shoe type trail-runner shoes that are so popular now, to ultra-light boots employing light-weight multi-piece uppers.
Right now we are seeing many hybrids mixing the elements of the trail-runner shoes with design elements employed by light boots.
Lightweights are very popular.
The medium weight range of boots has also become a "fuzzy" range of weights and styles.
Many "medium boots" now top classic hiking soles and mid soles with very light multi-piece leather and fabric uppers.
If you don't watch out you can get less stabiltiy and support from a supposed pair of "medium" weight "boots" than a pair of high quality tennis-shoe style trail runners.
Your classic waffle-stompers. Heavy one piece upper. High tops with lots of support. Thick shank to provide stabiltiy for snow shoes and crampons. Thick wide soles with aggressive tread.
The quality that divides
Light, Medium, and Heavyweight Boots
is their level of structural
There are two tests for structural support that I use to test all backpacking boots. Both tests require that you grasp the toe of the boot in one hand, and the heel of the boot in the other hand.
In the first flex test, you attempt to twist the boot's heel and toe in different directions. If the boot twists up like a pretzel, it is a pretzel, not a stable backpacking boot.
In the second flex test, you attempt to fold the heel and the toe of the boot towards each other. If the boot folds up like a lawn chair, it will make a better lawn chair than a backpacking boot.
When you are carrying a 50 lb pack and you are traversing a long, slanted slab you will be happy your boot passed test #1
When you are carrying a 50 lb pack and you wedge your foot between two rocks you will be really happy your boots passed test #2.
Multiply these stressful foot positions while carrying a heavy load by the number of out-of-balance or akward walking incidents you experience every day on the trail, multiplied by your number of days on the trail. Then multiply this number by the amount of years you plan on being on the trail.
This adds up to a lot of stress, and it does not even include the normal stresses that long distance backpacking puts on your feet.
Without adequate foot protection these stresses will build up cumulatively over the years, potentially causing both structural and soft tissue injuries.
Pick your boots for the long trail through life that your feet are already walking, not just the upcoming trip.
Note that I did not break down the boot's structural stability into the different types of construction that generally characterize different weight boots.
Typically, the tennis shoe style hiking shoe dominates the lightweight class. The medium weight class is characterized by the mixed material multipiece-upper boot, with or without fabric ventilation patches sewn in.
Boots designed with a thick one piece leather upper sitting on a rigid sole atop oversized tread are generally designated as heavyweight boots.
Classic medium weight boots with one piece uppers and rigid sole support are usually differentiated from heavyweight boots by the thickness of all parts. The mediums are constructed with lighter weight parts.
This means that the actual weights of the boots themselves rises significantly between classes.
It can be hard to choose between classes, as the classes have intermixed. The light and medium weight classes have become quite blurred in the last decade, both by mixing up the style elements as well as the levels of "flex" stability.
The result is that there are tennis shoe style trail runners that have excellent structural stability while at the same time there are medium weight boots that have very poor stability.
Brave New World
There is now a whole range of hybrid boot/trail shoes that are part trail runner, and part boot. Only careful testing and inspection will reveal the true weight class of the footwear.
We really do have to flex test every boot, and carefully examine its upper design to understand the level of rigidity and support it will provide.
Note the construction details. How thick is the thread? Is it single or double stitched? How thick or thin is the leather?
If you shop the sales like I do, you will wait until the style of boot you need, heavy or light, comes on sale. But if the boot does not have good stability and support when you give it the flex tests, or the support provided by the upper is insufficient for your application it is not a good deal at any price.
Fitting the Boot
I shop for my boots with the gear I am going to employ in the boots. I "gear-up" my boots to customize them for my feet.
My standard set-up is a set of high arched inserts sitting on gel pads. If I am buying Winter boots, I bring a heavy pair of wool socks. For Summer boots I bring a medium or light sock.
We should try on all potential boots with the same insert set-up and socks that we will use on the trail.
The type of use is the determining factor for selecting boot weight. The weight of the load, the nature of the terrain, and the needs of our feet and your walking style will all influence our decision.
My first consideration selecting boots is always foot protection. Many quality "lightweights" have excellent sole support and pass the stability tests above with flying colors.
Yet their lightweight and generally low-topped uppers can significantly reduce foot and ankle support and protection in many circumstances where we are really going to want the upper to provide support and protection. Many lighweights also have low-tops, which I avoid because of the protection a high top gives against sprained ankles and endless rocks getting inside the shoes.
Therefore I suggest that lightweight boot or trail shoes should only be used by backpackers carrying a very light load on high quality trails. I also suggest high-tops for the extra ankle support and protection. Rocks slash at us and try to get into our shoes.
If we do employ trail-hiker style tennis shoes for long distance heavyweight backpacking, make sure they provide excellent stability and rigdity in the flex tests. Don't carry more weight than these lightweights can support when us and our feet get out of position.
Most "medium" weight boots nowadays have multipiece uppers with fabric ventilation patches sewn in with the leather pieces. This style of construction reduces the support that the upper provides. This construction can bring what looks like a medium weight boot down to the level of a "lightweight" shoe.
The medium boots generally have more sole stability than a "lightweight," but that will only be determined by testing. I am constantly surprised by boots that present themselves as "medium" boots which have weak uppers and almost no sole rigidity.
A solid pair of medium weight boots is my standard selection for long distance backpacking carrying a very heavy pack. These boots will have a medium thickness one-piece leather upper.
Boot leather is measured by weight which translates into a thickness measurement. A medium leather is around 2 mm thick and weighs in at 5 to 5.5 oz.
I don't require a true heavyweight boot until Winter. An extra thick one-piece upper sitting on an ultra rigid sole easily handles the leverage of snow shoes and the concentration of stress directed by pointy crampons with reassuring, predictable stability.
A heavy leather is up to 2.4 mm thick and weighs in at 6 to 6.5 oz.
The advantage of most lightweights is that we can get excellent structural support from the sole and a low break-in period, all in a light weight package.
The disadvantages are that we may sacrifice sole and upper stability and support for a lighter weight.