By Ann Sieben
It’s mostly about comfort…
Footwear for long-distance walking is paramount for comfort, endurance, and happiness. It generally is, and arguably should be, the most expensive part of a pilgrim’s kit. Get it right and the pilgrimage has a great chance of going smoothly; get it wrong and there’s hardly a moment when thoughts are not annoyingly focussed on aching and damaged feet. Poorly fitting footwear leads to blisters, the dread of all walkers. Because all feet are different, there is no single solution. There seems to be as much advice as there are pairs of hiking boots in the world. I won’t advise; I won’t prescribe. I will point out some factors for consideration.
Boots or Shoes?
Simply put, hiking shoes are suitable for level terrain, paved or graded surfaces, and warm temperatures. Hiking boots are more suitable for rugged terrain where ankle support is a benefit, for cold, wet climates, and for attachments like snowshoes or skis. That said, even on level terrain, some people would walk with greater confidence if they’ve got the ankle support that boots provide.
Boots are typically heavier than shoes, and therefore require more leg strength, which may, at first, lead to greater fatigue. However, once legs are accustomed to the swinging weight of the boots, that weight adds momentum to each step, reducing the muscle energy required. It’s a personal choice.
Boots often, not always, have more eyelets and eyelet hooks for lacing. Having a number of eyelets and hooks allows for control on customized fitting. They can be laced snuggly, though not too tightly, independently near the (1) toe box (2) instep (3) heal (4) achilles and (5) ankle. At each interval, the laces can be twisted to secure them in place until they’re eventually unlaced. Such customization is advantageous in preventing blisters and adjusting to account for hotspots before they become blisters.
There are midrange options between a low shoe and a high collar boot. The objective is to protect the feet in a safe and comfortable manner. Shouldn’t we pilgrims put function over fashion?
Composition & Waterproofness
Generally, there are two directions to go on composition: leather and fabric. Leather takes time to break in, and once broken in, conforms in a very personal way. It’s durable, insulating, breathable, cleanable, supportive and naturally water-resistant. Fabric, most often nylon with additions of suede, mesh, and webbing, needs little breaking in, but can become stretched out with use decreasing its support and protection. It’s generally very lightweight and comfortable as well as quite breathable, but holds on to mud and dirt, and seems to attract burrs and cactus thorns.
Both leather and fabric composition can be lined with GoreTex or other breathable, water-resistant material. For short-term use, this is not bad, but such material is only useful when it is intact. Interior wear will eventually lead to holes, abrasions and tears through this layer, at which point, the water-resistance is irreversibly compromised.
Note that GoreTex or similar material lining make the interior very warm. Hot feet become swollen and sweaty, and are prone to blisters.
Independent of the height of the shoe and the composition of the upper is the composition of the outer sole. A soft flexible sole is cushioning and pretty comfortable – easy to wear all day, yet, it absorbs a lot of the energy of each step. A stiff, inflexible sole, on the other hand, transfers the energy of each step toward forward motion. In my experience, I walk 12% faster in hard-soled boots compared to soft-soled hiking shoes because of the energy lost into the soft sole squishiness. Consider holding a shoe at the toe in one hand and at the heel in the other and twisting – the easier it is to twist, and the further it can be twisted, corresponds to the energy the sole will absorb rather than convert to forward thrust. A hard-soled shoe will hardly twist at all. Some performance marathon running shoes are extremely lightweight yet have a thin but extremely stiff sole.
Hard soles also protect the feet from the path surface. Little pebbles, unnoticeable under hard soles, are individual barbed assaults on tender foot-bottoms in soft-soled shoes. Over the course of hours, feet just can’t take any more little jabs. Walking a lot barefooted in the pre-pilgrimage training period really helps toughen feet up so that the impact of the surface felt through the sole is reduced. Try on a pair of shoes and step on a penny – if you can feel it through the sole, imagine how a path of pea gravel will feel.
In general, too, the stiffer and more durable the outer sole is, the longer it will last. In my experience, the soles of a pair of soft-soled hiking shoes were worn smooth in about 350 miles of mixed paved road and rocky path; I routinely get 3,000 to 4,000 miles out of the soles of a pair of rigid-soled hiking boots (depending on how much pavement versus snow packed surfaces I’m on).
Hiking shoes and boots of any value are constructed with removable footbeds. They are sold with blanks that are intended to be removed and used as cutting templates for separately-purchased insoles. Insoles are paramount to comfort. Everyone’s feet have a slightly different structural geometry that defines how body weight is borne and distributed. Insoles can be custom made for a few hundred dollars; alternatively, most feet fit into general categories for both arch height and metatarsal support. Insoles come off-the-rack for flat feet, medium arch and high arch, with or without metatarsal support in size groupings (M/W XS/S/M/L/XL). They also come in a variety of materials for different uses. Insoles for long distance walking, like running, are designed with cushioning material to absorb some of the impact of each step. The insoles can be cut with regular scissors to the size of the blank and inserted into the shoes. Importantly, they can be removed at the end of the day to air out and be cleaned. Comfortable footbeds make the difference and should never be overlooked. They typically cost between $40 and $70. They eventually wear out – my experience (high arch, metatarsal support) is that they’re good for a few thousand miles before needing to be replaced because they become squishy and no longer provide sufficient support. Many footwear shops (REI, The Walking Company, Dardanos, here in Denver to name a few) have testing platforms with sensors to determine the optimal fit. Or just pull some out of the boxes and experience the feel. There’s not much sense in having well-fitting shoes without appropriate insoles.
Size and Socks
Hot feet tend toward blisters. At any age, feet tend to swell up over the course of a few hours of walking, even more so on hot days. If swollen feet have no place in which to expand, they ache terribly all over. Hot swollen feet also sweat, trying to let the heat escape. Even socks meant to swaddle, cushion, and protect the feet become constrictive. All this leads toward blisters and discomfort, which dampens the pilgrim experience. Whatever footwear – shoes or boots, leather or fabric – make sure they’re sufficiently large that they can accommodate sweaty swollen feet. I have two sets of boots – ‘winter’ boots that are normal size and ‘summer’ boots that are a size larger. One way to determine the right size is to try them on at the end of a hot day when feet really are swollen and sweaty and in hiking socks.
Anytime a foot goes into a boot, the experience should evoke the same comforting ‘ahhhhh’ as dipping into hot springs in winter, never an ‘owwww, grunt, grunt, ewwww’, no matter how attractive or inexpensive they are.
To open a discussion of socks is to open a can of opinionated worms – with or without liners, toe-socks, sandal-socks, synthetic, wool, bamboo… Socks alone will neither cause nor prevent blisters; the fit and material of a pair of socks on sweaty feet inside a constricted environment walking for several hours are one factor that influence a foot’s response to unaccustomed abuse. Socks should conform to the shape of the foot, not bunch up anywhere, and have smooth seams. Socks should be considered when selecting the size of the shoes or boots… if preferred socks have thickly cushioned toes or heels, the shoe needs to be able to accommodate them.
Of course, during the course of a long walk, especially in hot weather, boot-off breaks are highly recommended. Take the shoes and socks off, lie down and elevate feet on the backpack for at least 10 minutes or so, or soak them in a cool stream… cooled and reduced back to normal size, all is remarkably refreshed and you’re ready for many more miles.
Anticipating the Questions…
What do I wear? I have had great success with durable leather medium height boots made by Limmer Boots in New Hampshire. My feet fit comfortably into their ‘Lightweight Stock Boots’ for about $300. They are quite waterproof on their own, and I maintain them with Limmer’s boot conditioner as frequently as I can – weekly or more – or with anything I can find along the pilgrim trail – Murphy’s Oil Soap, olive oil, furniture polish, etc. I get 3,000 to 4,000 miles on the soles and 10,000 miles on the leather upper. After a long day on rugged terrain, my feet feel like they’ve been in ski boots all day, but my feet are decidedly well protected. They are perhaps too much boot for flat, groomed paths in summer, but I spend most of my year in terrain where they are ideal, and they’re great with snowshoes and ice cleats (crampons). Even in summer, my feet are protected and I can walk fast and efficiently, which allows me time to take long boot-off breaks to rest my feet. Limmer has a program of refurbishing boots with new interior lining and new outer soles that greatly reduces the replacement costs when they do wear out.
For hiking socks, I’m an absolute devotee of Darn Tough in Vermont, and haven’t worn anything but their Micro Crew Midweight Merino Wool Hiking socks since I discovered them just a few years into pilgriming. I wear them in both winter and summer, hand washing them every evening, generally they’re dry by morning, if not they dry on the backpack during the day. Darn Tough has a spectacular policy of replacing them free of charge anytime they wear out, which for me works out to two pairs, worn on alternating days, needing replacement after about 3,000 miles – they start poking through at the big toe and get a bit too threadbare in the arch and achilles. I haven’t paid for a new pair of socks in over a decade.