I was recently contacted by someone new to hiking and they asked a very common question. "What is the
right kind of footwear for me?" While this is a very personal decision with a lot of factors to consider, there are two rules that apply to everyone.
I buy shoes that are a half size bigger than my casual shoes. This will allow for swelling that occurs when I'm walking more and carrying a loaded backpack.
I find the lightest shoe possible that will provide the right amount of support and protection. One pound of weight on my feet is equivalent to five pounds in my backpack.
There are a lot of other factors to consider when selecting the right shoe for my next hike.
First, I consider the conditions in which I will be hiking. Am I going to Canada in December or Louisiana in August? If it's going to be cold, wet conditions then I'll need something waterproof to keep the wet out and the warmth in. Waterproof shoes are great for keeping moisture out, but they also keep moisture in when feet sweat. Keeping feet clean and dry is a big part of preventing blisters, so look for shoes with the new Gore-Tex lining that have a breathable membrane that helps with keeping feet dry. If I will be hiking in a warmer climate (like, most of the time!) then I will want a shoe that has good ventilation, even if expecting wet conditions. If my shoes get wet, having more ventilation means they will naturally dry more quickly. Hiking in Louisiana and wearing waterproof shoes in August, means my feet will be soaked with sweat and they will take forever to dry, even with a breathable membrane.
Second, I need to know the landscape and topography of where I plan to hike. Will there be a lot of scree and exposed roots, or will it be a flat smooth surface?
Generally, most of us can use trail runners to hike trails
Louisiana. Trail runners look like sneakers but have more protection for walking on rocky surfaces, and toe protection for exposed roots. They also have beefed up treads that can handle loose dirt and gain traction in mud. They have waterproof versions of trail runners, for the few days of cold wet condition we see each year.
If I plan to hike somewhere with drastic elevation changes and scree, I will consider more ankle protection like a traditional hiking boot offers. I found a lightweight version with good ventilation and they have a waterproof version as well.
Third, I consider whether I need to change out the insole. There are plenty of aftermarket options with Superfeet being the most popular. If you suffer from any foot or knee problems then check with your doctor on possible orthotic insole options. Even the most expensive shoe manufacturers use cheap insoles so it's worth getting fitted for shoes and insoles at a local athletic shoe store.
Fourth, and probably the most complicated, is heel-to-toe drop. That’s the difference in the combined height of the heel and the forefoot in the shoe. So if the heel is 25 mm thick and the forefoot is 15 mm thick, then the overall "drop" is 10 mm. This is important because you could avoid potential injury by having the right amount of "drop" in your shoes. Again, getting fitted for shoes is the best way to know what works for you!
Finally, about socks. This is almost as important as choosing the right shoe but really there is only one
choice...wool. Wool socks are the best at wicking moisture away from feet to keep them dry and will insulate even when wet. My personal favorite socks are made by Darn Tough. They come with lifetime replacement so they are literally the last pair of socks you'll need to buy. I have also heard good things about Wigwam socks so try them both.
That's about it, just listen to your feet and lower body about how they are reacting to different footwear. Don't try to use something just because you heard someone else uses it.