Hiking Feet, Happy Feet (It's The Shoes)
(My favorite--Merrell Moab Edge Hiking Shoe $99)
It all starts at the bottom. Your feet, that is. Although we rarely give much thought to what we put on our feet in our everyday lives (other than some fashion sensibility or weather considerations), footwear makes a hiking experience positive or negative in a very direct and memorable way.
Wear the wrong shoes and you are in for a tough day. Wearing the right shoes is paramount to any positive journey in the woods, on a trail or up a mountain. Most exercise involves the use of your feet, certainly, and hiking is no exception. Climbing up mountains and traversing trails in the woods is a specific type of activity that subjects your feet and ankles to steady but unpredictable stress during the course of each outing. You know the impact is coming but you don't necessarily know from where or how. While you can get into a certain rhythm while hiking, it's not the same as going for a run on steady terrain or biking or anything else associated with high cardio activity. And much like you need specific footwear for running long distances, the same is true for hiking.
Hiking is undergoing an evolution of sorts with its footwear, namely with consumers upending the old standby rules of what to wear on the trails by ditching the old heavy boots for sleeker, lighter "trailrunners" designed to be worn right out of the box with little or no "breaking in" period. Those who prefer heavier boots or more traditional hiking footwear are seeing a vast array of options from big name companies and start ups alike, giving those venturing outside more options than ever before. As outdoor recreation expands its base, so have the choices for what people want to wear while doing it; footwear is tops on this list.
But while choices are usually a good thing, it can be overwhelming and expensive if you don't get it right the first time. The easy (but more mysterious) answer to the "what should I wear" question is simple: nothing is wrong if it feels right. You can't wear the wrong footwear if it feels good time each time you hit the trails. Some swear by the traditional heavy boots for the lightest of walks in the woods while others climb to the tops of mountains barefoot (I have seen this firsthand on more than one occasion). For many outdoor enthusiasts, the answer to the footwear question lies somewhere in between.
Here's a good place to start--how long are your sojourns outdoors usually and where do you go? If you are heading out for day long climbs in the mountains rather than nature trail walks this can make a difference. Nature walks (or even the increasingly popular "urban jungle" traverse in cities all over the world) can be done successfully in almost anything that's fairly durable and has good support. Most shoes these days check those two boxes so there's not much need to splurge for this level of activity. But anything more than that and you're likely deciding between hiking shoes versus trailrunners. Here's a quick comparison:
Hiking Shoes (Boots)
The good: durable, stable footing, ankle support, great traction and better able to fend off mud and water along the way. This goes double if hiking in the winter, where snow, ice and colder temperatures factor heavily into footwear.
The bad: heavier and require "breaking in" period.
The good: Lighter, versatile, multiple traction options, cooler in warmer weather, much more breathable.
The bad: You'll need to replace them more often and they offer significantly less support.
For some visual context, consider the terrain pictured below:
You will want good shoes for these surfaces.
There are other factors to consider, also. What body type do you have and even more critical, how are your feet and ankles? If you are heavier than average or have experienced some ankle and foot difficulty over the years (or both), wearing a hiking shoe may be your best bet. If not, then you can probably opt for either and pick your favorite. What season you head out is also a consideration. What time of year is it? Warm weather can allow for a lighter, mesh based shoe (some "splash-proofing" is nice but you could probably skip the entire water proof feature if you wanted). If you're planning winter treks, you may want to slip into a more sturdy, weatherproof shoe even though you'll sacrifice some lightness of weight. In colder, snow covered months, you will likely be using thicker socks on your feet and possibly micro spikes on your shoes so a more durable sole and shoe works better for these considerations. There are many "middle paths" with shoe shopping today and hiking shoes now come in hundreds of different styles, including low cut shoes with mesh uppers, resembling more of the traditional "cross trainer" shoe than hiking boot. Whatever notion you may have of "hiking boots" is probably outdated and you will likely be pleasantly surprised at just how many options are available today for just about any preference or need.
The first footwear purchase is best made in an actual store--not online. You need to really try shoes on first to get a feel for what feels comfortable. Once you find a brand or type of shoe you like consistently, you'll be able to shop online and be pretty confident you'll get what you want. For example, I prefer low-cut shoes that tie up very narrow. Merrell tends to match up with my preferences the best (Keen is also quite good for this profile, too, and has similar prices) so now I can usually just shop online and be pretty sure I'll get what I want. But I had worn other brands before getting to that point (including Nike, New Balance and some others). I wouldn't have known this unless I had "road tested" these pairs first. Also, skip the deep discount stores but check out the outlets. They have top brands in a variety of styles for much cheaper prices. Remember, this is not a shoe you want to go cheap on just to save money. You may pay a little more but it will be worth it if it's the right one, especially if you plan on being outside on the trails a lot.
The single most important part of this is how they feel on your feet. If you like them and they work, wear them. It's really that simple. Just understand what you're putting on because the above factors will affect this choice and its success. Hiking does wonders for the both the head and heart--but it starts at the feet. Take the time to pick the right footwear--it's the best money you'll spend to get outdoors.