Feet first

Posted by Stuart Ingram on 03/09/2002
Photo: Ian Parnell.

An introduction to hiking boots by Stuart Ingram and Berghaus.

Hiking boots. Big clumpy thick leather boots with bits of steel in the bottom for stiffness and red laces to match your socks. Unforgiving, painful things that can be immersed in a Pennine bog, scraped up rocky scree slopes and give you blisters the size of a golf ball whilst themselves remaining stubbornly unscathed.

Yes, we all know about hiking boots. Well, maybe this was the situation twenty years ago but nowadays there’s a bewildering array of footwear to choose from for getting active in the outdoors. From sports sandals through to plastic boots; they all have their place and ideal use, but what should you look for in your first pair?

End use
The first factor in choosing boots is to decide the main end use. Be honest with yourself here. Although you may have Himalayan dreams, do you really need top of the range stiffened boots for your Lakeland rambles? There’s an old adage that “a pound on the feet equals ten on the back”, and heavy boots tire you out and needlessly erode mountain paths. But equally don’t underestimate what you can get away with. Mountain rescue statistics show that year-in, year-out the most common incident requiring a rescue is a slip, trip or stumble – scenarios that may well have been preventable with a careful choice of footwear.

Boots are generally aimed at a specific type of walking. The main difference is in height at the ankle and stiffness in the insole, which will determine the flex of the boot - the more serious the walking, the higher and stiffer the boot required. If the end use will vary, then buy for the more serious activity, and consider a second set of footwear for lower level walking. Boot are broadly categorised into four groups, with most manufacturers adopting the ratings system shown overleaf. This shows the suitability of each type for various activities, together with their compatibility with crampons.

Comfort
Once you have identified the right category for you, it’s time to get personal - a good fit is crucial for comfort. Specialist retailers will recognise the importance of this and provide a professional boot fitting service going way beyond those clunky Clarke’s foot measurers from your school shoe days. Basically, you need a fit (both in terms of length and width) so that there is no movement inside to cause blisters, but sufficient room in the toe area to prevent bruising on downhill slopes.

Other considerations will be the height of the ankle (can cause painful pressure) and the shape of the insoles. Some people may require specially shaped insoles such as Superfeet to correct the posture of the foot during walking and avoid excessive stress to the foot, ankle, knees and lower back. This is most often caused by over pronation or supination – an exaggeration of the foot’s natural rotation during walking – and can be identified by your retailer. If your shoes wear excessively to either side at the heel it’s likely that you suffer from this.

Buying advice
It’s worth shopping around for different brands and taking your time over this decision – it will affect you every time you go out walking! Different manufacturers will suit different types of feet. Spend a lot of time getting advice from different places and compare what they are saying with articles in the outdoor press, instructional manuals or manufacturers catalogues.

Try boots on in the afternoon or evening, as your feet naturally expand slightly over the course of a day. When you have decided on a pair, take them home and wear them around in the house for a few days before using them outside. This should identify any discomfort which may develop into a real problem on a long hike. Most retailers will allow you to return the boots over this test period as long as they haven’t been used outside.

Fabric or leather?
There are a number of factors you should consider before deciding whether you want boots made out of leather or fabric. You may be limited by your range of activity. For example, if you are walking in winter, requiring crampon compatibility or do a lot of rocky scrambling, then fabric boots are eminently unsuitable.

Generally, leather boots are tougher and more durable whilst fabric boots are more breathable (cooler & lighter) and more comfortable. Leather is not actually waterproof but it is very water resistant and thick leather with a good tanning treatment will keep out water all day long.

Fabric boots often incorporate a fully waterproof and breathable lining, but care must be taken in use to avoid damaging this (a stone in your shoe, if left may puncture a lining). If visiting a hot climate it may be worth considering an unlined fabric boot for maximum breathability.

Other options
These days the traditional boot is not the only option for hiking, although we would always recommend boots from a safety point of view. Other types of footwear simply don’t provide the support, protection and durability of a boot, but can have their uses in certain situations.

Approach shoes – basically beefy trainers, these can be used for lighter hiking on graded paths, but beware of the lack of ankle support and be prepared for them to wear out fairly quickly!

X-training shoes – this includes all types of trail running, multi activity and “event” footwear. Usually very lightweight and fast drying, they are more aimed at fell runners and mountain marathoners than hikers, but lightweight enthusiasts may want to consider them

Sports sandals – Not really recommended for any kind of hiking, but can be very useful in hot climates.

Boots and crampons
Crampons are a set of metal spikes that can be fitted to boots, giving greater security when walking over snow and ice. To be suitable for use with crampons, hiking boots need to have a semi-stiffened midsole (allowing just a slight flex), a thick leather upper and a high ankle for support against increased leverage – crampons can add about an inch to your height. This type of boot is described by the B1 category, are is the absolute minimum you must consider for use with crampons. More advanced models will include fully stiffened soles, welts for clip-on crampon bindings and higher ankle profiles. At the top of the spectrum are fully rigid technical climbing boots. These are designed specifically for hard mixed or ice climbing but can be uncomfortable and difficult to fit.

Socks
Socks are a very important part of the modern footwear system. If chosen wrongly, they can cause blisters and discomfort just as well as ill-fitting boots! Avoid cotton fabric, as this will retain moisture from sweat causing your skin to become clammy and susceptible to rubbing from the boot. Most manufacturers make a variety of socks in modern “wicking” fabrics to help prevent this, although if you anticipate cold conditions, good quality wool socks are warmer and can still be best, especially if worn with a thin wicking liner sock.

Care and repair

Make sure the sock fits snugly (consider buying a size or two down from usual) to prevent creasing of the material causing painful ridges and pressure points that may rub the skin. Wear freshly laundered, dry socks whenever possible – take a spare pair and use them towards the end of the day – your feet will appreciate the difference this makes no end!

Never store the boots wet – this can lead to rotting. Equally important, never force-dry your boots (e.g. in front of a fire) as this will ruin the conditioning of the boot uppers and cause it to become dry, brittle and rock hard. Instead, stuff them with newspaper and allow to dry naturally at room temperature.

With leather boots clean and wax after every couple of uses, or if storing long term. Use a recognised product specifically for hiking boots – your retailer will be able to advise.

With fabric boots, clean and reproof with a proprietary spray after every use. It is important to keep the exterior suede/cordura highly water repellent to allow the breathable liner (if present) to do its job.

Consider a pair of waterproof gaiters. Not only will they keep your feet drier, they will also absorb some of the abrasion that occurs, increasing the lifetime of your boots.

Re-soling of boots once the rubber has worn out is now possible with most models, and is considerably cheaper than buying a brand new pair. Most retailers can recommend a good company.
 

BOOTS & CRAMPONS

B0
Unsuitable for crampons. Most walking boots are designed to flex for comfort and do not have sufficient lateral and longitudinal rigidity in their midsole. Additionally the upper is often made of soft calf leather or a combination of suede/fabric which compresses easily under crampon straps causing discomfort and cold feet.

B1 Suitable for the easiest snow and ice conditions found when hill walking, using crampons more for emergency or for crossing a short patch of snow or ice, rather than setting initially fitted for a full day's walk. They have a reasonably stiff flexing sole and the uppers provide enough ankle and foot support for traversing relatively steep slopes.

B2 A stiff flex boot with the equivalent of a three quarter or full shank midsole and a supportive upper made from high quality leather (probably over 3mm thick). These boots designed for four season mountaineering, can be used all day with crampons, whilst easy alpine terrain and easy Scottish snow and ice climbs can also be covered.

B3 A technical boot regarded as “rigid” both in midsole and upper. Used for mountaineering and ice climbing.


CRAMPONS

C1 A flexible walking crampon attached with straps, with or without front points.

C2 Articulated multi-purpose crampons with front points. Attached with straps all round or straps at the front (ideally with a French ring system) and clip-on heel.

C3 Articulated climbing or fully rigid technical crampon attached by full clip-on system of toe bar and heel clip.

Boots in the B3 category are ideal for C3 crampons and will also take C2 and C1. At the other end of the spectrum a Bl boot could only be recommended with a C1 crampon.

It should be stressed that this is only a guide and should be used as a supplement for good advice from experienced shop staff, experienced mountaineers or mountain guides.



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