Deciding if you need to buy hiking boots or Hiking shoes when you first start Hiking is always difficult, particularly given when you are starting out you don’t know how your interest will develop.
The first rule of thumb is to avoid using normal sports shoes as they are not suited to hiking and will definitely impair your experience, even potentially put you off hiking before you have started.
Instead, buy some cheap hiking shoes, which will at least allow you to stay up right and walk comfortably on well made hiking tracks.
If you then decide you want to get a bit more adventurous then you can look at hiking boots, then your hiking shoes will still be very useful.(*1)
Comparison of Footwear
In this post I will compare the different types of footwear, and outline the advantages and disadvantages of each that I understand.
The sole is very flexible, usually low-cut below the ankle, and with light weight /mesh uppers.
- Cheap, or you probably already have some.
- Enough flexibility to enjoy the well made hiking tracks, as well as around town.
- Perform well on dry relatively flat well made tracks(e.g.: Gravel, sand, grass, board walks.)
- Comfortable for a couple of hours.
- Staying on your feet can become a challenge on smooth sloping tracks, particularly in the rain.
- Your feet will be wet and cold in wet conditions.(decline in enjoyment)
- Sports shoes offer little to no protection to your feet and toes from slippery rocks, tree roots, and other rough surfaces.
- Keeping Sports shoes on your feet, in sticky mud will be difficult
- More than half a day on even well made hiking terrain can become uncomfortably due to the lack of protection to your feet.
Essentially hiking shoes are a cross over of between Light Hiking Boot and Sports Shoes, and made from combinations of leather and Synthetic materials.
- More rigid sole, better traction and greater protection to your feet and toes.
- Deeper tread patterns that holds better on smooth ground
- Priced equal or better than Light / Hiking boots depending on the brand.
- Many have waterproof uppers, so that’s dry feet in wet grass.
- Comfortable around town as well medium hiking tracks with light pack.
- Good for a couple of hours to a full day, under low pack weight.
Light Hiking Boots
Usually ankle height or higher, leather or leather and Synthetic materials combinations /linings for better waterproofing breath-ability characteristics.
- Higher cut offering superior ankle support, (*2) for carrying medium to heavy packs ( i.e:overnight trips)
- More rigid soles with total foot and toe protection than shoes.
- Can be roughly the same price to mid to high range hiking shoes in both Synthetic and Leather.(*3)
- Better than hiking shoes in bad weather, particularly if you get a waterproof breathable Light hiking boots(worth the extra price for dry feet)
- Compatible with Hiking Gaiters, particularly the waterproof breathable versions.
- Good for pretty much all hiking, particularly when starting out before you know what you like.
- Great for getting used to the weight off boots – you may stay with light hikers or you may step up to heavier/ serious boots in the future.
- Too long on hard Urban/ Suburban surfaces will be uncomfortable as sports shoes are on rocks. Hiking boots intended for softer more flexible surfaces.
Heavy Hiking Boots
While similar to light modern light hiking boots in look and perhaps design, this type of boot is usually;
- A little heavier in construction and overall weight
- Typically Leather or composite materials depending on the designed use
- Offers a higher level of ankle and foot protection
- Performing exceptionally on rough and wet terrain, muddy hiking tracks or routes off track.
Heavy boots are typically priced in the $500NZ Range, and favoured by experienced hikers, hunters and people working outdoors well away from the tracks.
For the purpose of this post, by the time you find your self considering spending this kind of money on hiking boots you will likely have already hiked 1000’s of Km and know exactly why they are your preference.
Hutt/ Camp Footwear
Most hiking huts require you to leave your muddy hiking footwear in the entrance way to help keep the floors clean. The wooden floors of a hut can soon lead to cold feet, particularly in the uninsulated huts or those with no heat source.
It’s worth carrying a super light pair of Jandels or sandals that you can wear inside the hiking hut (combined with an extra warm and dry Cabin sock) to keep your feet warm. This is also handy if you are camping, when you want to leave your tent with out soaking your cabin socks during the night.
Getting the Right Size Boots.
Your first pair of boots will not your last,(unless you stop hiking of course) and with ever new pair of boots you will have even more idea of what you like.
The most difficult part of choosing any pair of Hiking Boots, is getting the right size. To minimise the risk of buying (or trouble-shoot Hiking footwear problems) I always make sure I do the following;
- Visit a Podiatrist for a foot assessment,(only needed once) if they recommend custom-made correctional inner soles, take their advice – it will save you a lot of misery and cost later. (*4)
- Find a Shoe shop / or Outdoors shop that has a Brannock Device and get your feet properly measured.
- Always go Shoe or Boot shopping in the afternoon, after you have walked for at least 30 minutes. Your feet swell when walking and this is the best way to make sure your boots still fit when your warmed up.
- Wear high quality Moisture wicking Socks,and wear them when you are trying on your shoes or boots.(*5)
- Test the boot on your feet following this excellent sizing guide
- Walk around the shop wearing your boots for as long as you can.(particularly up and down stairs) Better outdoors stores will have a simulated outdoor terrain platform – use it.
- Try and wear new hiking footwear inside your house and on clean surfaces as much as possible before you take them outside. Most outdoor shops will not exchange footwear after you worn it outdoors.
- When you are comfortable there are no problems, wear them in a local park a few times before you go on a proper hike to get used to them and help soften the soles.
If you want your footwear to last, (particularly leather boots)then get in to the habit of washing it after every hike;(particularly important for all leather boots)
- Read the cleaning instructions for your footwear, but generally it will refer to using cool clean water, and then drying indoors away from direct sun or heat source.
- Stuff the insides with newspaper to help drying, changing as it becomes damp.
In New Zealand Island’s, you must thoroughly clean and Disinfected your boots tread, between hiking areas;
- Between visiting North Island Kauri Forests, to prevent the spread of Kauri Die Back Disease.
- The entire South Island is a Biosecurity controlled zone to prevent the spread of Didymo (Rock Snot) through inland lakes and waterways.
(*1) Many Hikers own both hiking shoes and hiking boots, for different types of track types. Hiking shoes also make great Urban shoes.
(*2) Hiking boots are either Low cut (below or at ankle level) or High cut.(boot extends above your ankle to lower shin) Personally I prefer the high cut boots for ankle protection, when carrying multi day load.( the support has saved my ankles so many times!)
(*3) Leather boots will generally last longer than modern synthetic boots, but they do require dedication to cleaning and conditioning the leather after each trip.
(*4) When your feet are not in landing or pushing off in the correct alignment, your entire skeleton is unbalanced and you will usually feel it. I used to get shin splints and foot pain after only 2 hours of walking, and all of my hiking boots always wore out fast on one side. After a chance Podatrist exam, corrective inner soles stopped all of this dead!
(*5) If you have to wear more than one pair of modern socks in today’s hiking boots to make them comfortable, it is more likely that you have the wrong size boot..