When you're first beginning to get into hiking the gear choices and requirements can really be overwhelming! While in the beginning you don't need much more than some athletic clothes and gym shoes, once you start hiking more frequently and increasing your mileage your gear needs definitely begin to add up. While there are many very important pieces of gear you'll be acquiring, I'm here to talk about the most important purchase you'll make as a hiker - your footwear. As a hiking guide I see a lot of footwear choices every single time I hit the trail and some of them are terrible! Sometimes shoes are so old they're nearly dry rotted or completely inappropriate for terrain (read - flip flops for a 4-mile round trip hike). There is so much information out there about how to chose footwear, but I'm here to give you good advice from someone who has gone through many, many pairs of trail shoes.
Get Your Feet Fitted
I mean actually go to an outfitter or a running store and have someone measure your foot! This is important for a lot of reasons, but the single most important reason is that our feet change! Many people are under the impression that once you're an adult you know your shoe size and that it won't change. When I first started hiking in 2008 I wore between a 5.5 and 6 shoe. My newest pair of shoes is now a size 7.5. It is very common for people who do a lot of hiking and running to need larger shoes after a long season. I know many people who have had a change in shoe size from year to year. Also, all brands fit differently these days. Knowing the exact measurement from a qualified specialist will help you narrow down brands that will fit your feet better.
Buy Based on Fit, Not Color
Let's face it - hikers aren't winning any fashion shows any time soon. When it comes to a pair of footwear for hiking, you need a shoe that will perform and fit the way you need it to. Sometimes color and style will have to take the backseat on this one! When I find a pair of shoes I like that fit me well, I will often stock up on Amazon at the end of the season, buying the colors that didn't sell and are discontinued. Not only will you end up with more shoes for your adventures, you'll end up getting substantial discounts of up to 75% off in many cases!
Buy Your Actual Size - No Bigger!
The single worst piece of advice I see when it comes to getting hiking shoes or boots is when people will recommend you buy a shoe half a size larger than the one you "normally" wear. Instead of me buying a size 7.5, I should buy an 8. This is TERRIBLE advice! The reason people will tell you to do this is because your feet will swell throughout a long day and you'll need the extra space. This is absolutely not true! First of all, now you know to get fitted by a professional, so you'll know what size shoe you need. Second, if you buy a shoe too big you're opening yourself up to all kinds of problems! If your footwear is too big, you risk getting blisters and blackened toenails - the exact same problems you'll run into if you buy shoes that are too small! If your foot has room to flop around inside your shoe you risk not only friction problems like I mentioned above, but also you may find yourself falling down a lot on trail. If your shoes are too big, you're basically walking in clown shoes and your balance and posture will suffer.
Learn to Lace Them Properly
I am currently wearing an Altra Lone Peak. I love these shoes because of the wide toe box that allows my toes to spread out, therefore letting my foot splay naturally inside the shoe for a better all around experience for me. Since my heels are more on the narrow side, this means my heels will be slipping in the shoe, right? Actually, they don't have to do that! By learning some new techniques for lacing my shoes, I have no problems with heel slippage and I still have a properly fitted shoe. NoKey has incredibly wide feet - a 4E width. He can also wear a normal width shoe if he laces it properly - as he did on our AT thru hike. He and I both wore the same model of shoe (Montrail AT Plus) even though his feet were extra wide and mine were narrow. Lacing is KEY. Here is a handy chart to help you decide which lacing technique is right for you:
If At First You Don't Succeed...
You may have to go to more than one store for a shoe! Do not get discouraged if you don't feel something you like. When I was first starting out as a hiker, I was told at the store I needed heavy boots. The boots didn't feel good, so they told me I needed Superfeet. After a knee injury and several bouts of shin splints later, I had learned an expensive lesson! If they don't feel good to you, don't buy them! As someone who is a total convert to trail shoes, I highly recommend going to a running store instead of a hiking outfitter to get a proper fit. If you're leaning more toward trail shoes, I find going to a store dealing with runners will give you not only more attention, but also more insight into your gait and posture as well. While boots are still an option, trail shoes have come a long way in the past several years and if you haven't tried them yet, I highly recommend you do!
Proper Care and Replacement
When you finish any hike, you should be taking proper care of your footwear. This means rinsing off excess mud and debris and letting them dry completely without direct heat if possible. This will allow for a longer shoe life, as well as keep the materials in good shape. When your sole begins to wear down, which with any good shoe these days should be between 400-600 miles, you should always go back to a store and be fitted properly again. After that many miles, you'd be amazed at how different your feet can be, especially if you're doing all those miles in a single season!
As someone who has nearly 6,000 miles of hiking under my feet I've seen a lot of foot problems - from blisters covering the entire foot to black and missing toenails to shoes that need parts of them cut off because they don't fit properly. I can tell you that if your feet aren't happy during a hike, the rest of your body will soon follow! Keeping your feet happy and healthy while hiking is incredibly important and I hope this post has helped you learn a little more about proper footwear.
Do you have any hiking shoe horror stories? What's the worst foot problem you've ever dealt with on trail? Leave me a comment or find me over on Facebook to get the conversation started!