Why You Don’t Always Need Hiking Boots

If you looked at backpackers of 20 years ago and compared them and their gear to those we see on the trail today, you will notice some differences.

  • Packs used to have a rigid frame to support the weight of all your gear (tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, cooking supplies, clothes, food, etc.) and had to be big enough to fit said gear.
  • Hiking boots followed a similar design, putting a rigid platform under your foot for protection against trail irregularities. The taller ankle of the boot would seemingly provide some additional ankle support, as well as keep twigs and other debris from falling into your boots. The part of the conversation that seems to have gotten lost in translation is that the support came from the fact that the sole was rigid, not the height of the boot.

Picture this: a ski boot upper attached to a flip-flop sole… is the hard plastic ski boot actually still providing ankle support? The answer is no; you are putting more stress on the ankle. Your ankle needs the ability to move laterally to handle the rocky terrain.

Though having some ankle support while hiking with weight can be beneficial, the best option is to allow your ankles room to stretch.  Over time, they will strengthen. This will then allow you to wear a more minimal hiking shoe without the risk of injuries.

If you’re worried about ankle support and balance, let’s talk about trekking poles rather than boots. We’ll revisit trekking poles in a later article.

Another idea prominent for hiking in the past was that a thicker soled shoe is better for you. It’s important to remember your feet have an intricate nervous system, and the more distance between your feet and the ground, the slower your feet can react. This means you may feel more off balance with these thick shoes than if you chose a shoe with a little more flexibility. Shoes with thick soles also promote excessive heel striking, which over time can lead to injuries in your feet, legs and lower back.

The stiffness of the upper part of the shoe can be detrimental to your foot health, too. Your feet will spread out when under weight and after prolonged hiking, so make sure you have enough space in the shoe to allow this expansion.

Waterproofing is another issue that has changed in the past 20 years. In the past, heavy, waterproof boots were the norm for many people getting into hiking. Unless you are using the shoes during the winter, there isn’t a huge need for fully waterproof boots. Although you keep most water out with a waterproof liner or wax used with a shoe, you are also keeping in more of the sweat. In the likely event that some water makes it into your shoe, there is little you can do to get it out. This is why waterproof boots can take so long to dry and one of the reasons you get blisters. Shoes with breathable mesh uppers allow water to escape through the fabric pores and will dry faster.

It also is important to look at breathable socks to make your hiking experience more pleasant. One important distinction needs to be made though… wicking versus breathable. Wicking refers to the ability of a fabric or fiber to transport moisture in liquid form. Both synthetic and natural fibers can do this. Breathable refers to the ability of moisture to pass through a fabric or fiber while still in vapor form. Breathable socks allow more water vapors to escape and keep your foot as dry as possible. Wicking socks will transport moisture too, but only if your foot is warm. Wicking requires there to be a temperature difference between where the water is and where it is going. Water moves from where it’s warm to where it is cooler.