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Choosing Lightweight Hiking Footwear

Apr 05, 2022

About the author: I’m not a foot specialist or medical practitioner, but I have walked thousands of miles on some of the best hiking trails in the world, I know what works for me but we are all different – the aim of this article is to outline the choices you will be faced with when choosing your next hiking footwear, choices which you should make for yourself rather than accept what I do.

About Weight – should you choose lightweight footwear?
We are Ultralight Outdoor Gear and we are dedicated to reducing backpacking loads by selecting equipment that’s the lightest in class, we know that a massive load on your back can ruin your wilderness backpacking trip as surely as anything else.

We also know that 500grams extra weight on your feet is worth 2.5kg on your back – but what does that actually mean – according to the US Army Research Institute it takes 4.7 to 6.4 times as much energy to move at a given pace when weight is carried on the shoe versus on the torso. In practical terms, this means you could carry half a gallon more of water (a little over 4 pounds) if you buy boots that are a pound lighter, which isn’t hard to do; and that’s a lot of water.

Now imagine the energy savings of backpacking in light trail running shoes rather than heavy, leather backpacking boots over the course of a 7-day backpacking trip.

We think that the overall weight of your next hiking shoes should be an important consideration.
We’re not advocating a race to the bottom though, your footwear still needs to do the job you need it to do. Luckily, companies who have been making trail running footwear have realised that there’s a market for lightweight hikers and have developed products specifically for this market, its why we tend to stock only lightweight footwear on our website.

Traditional stiff and heavy hiking boots versus trail running cross overs

A few simple questions should flesh out whether lightweight boots are going to be suitable for you;

1.When are you going to use them? – If you are hiking during Summer, into Autumn or during Spring then it’s likely a lighter weight boot or shoe will do the job. If you’re going to be mountain walking in winter then a more traditional boot will be warmer, and if you need crampons it will be essential.

2.What’s the trail like? – a good path, even a rugged one, can be easily walked with lightweight footwear, whereas if you are going across country, perhaps over very rocky terrain then a stiffer soled, more traditional boot will provide more protection for your feet and will stop your feet flexing excessively thus becoming tired and expending more energy. Balance this with the time you’ll be spending on easier trails – it’s not a clear cut choice between running shoes and full leather boots – there are lots in between, match the stiffness to your needs.

3.How much will you be carrying? – There’s an assumption that if you are selecting lightweight hiking footwear then you are also paying attention to the total weight you will have on your back. If you haven’t done this and you have a heavier backpacking load such asabove 40lbs this will take its toll on your feet (as well as other parts of your body), heavier footwear maybe more appropriate as the sole cushioning may be better, and the boots stiffness will help you maintain balance when trying to move briskly along the trail with a heavy load.

If you’re overall load is light – perhaps you are doing a hut to hut trip in the Alps - then lightweight footwear will give you the support you need as well as that 1to5 benefit in terms of the weight on your back.

Hiking Shoes versus ‘Mid-cut’ Boots
‘Mids’ are boots that cover your ankles with a lacing system that keeps the cushioned top of the boot securely around your ankles, whereas a hiking shoe leaves your ankles exposed.

Which should you get?
Hiking shoes are lighter than a pair of ‘Mids’, they tend to be more breathable and more flexible too, they allow your feet to move more freely when hiking, this will be more efficient than a supported foot and you should be able to cover more distance with the same amount of energy.

There are times though when a Mid will be preferable over a shoe – your feet will benefit from the extra support of a Mid-boot on rough terrain, especially rocks and boulders where your foot will be pressed into different angles and attitudes, the relative stiffness of the Mid-boot reduces this flexing thus protecting your feet and saving energy.

When backpacking with heavier loads the extra support coupled with a generally better and more protective midsole (shock absorbing layer) will be of benefit over time spent on a long trail.

Your ankles will also have more protection while wearing a Mid against being knocked by rocks or stray branches along the trail.

Finally it will be easier to keep your feet dry during wet weather in a Mid rather than a shoe, more about that next….

Waterproof versus Non-waterproof
The vast majority of the hiking footwear that we sell are waterproof – but it this rational?

Most trail running footwear is non-waterproof, this is because breathability is important if you are moving fast and generating heat, but also a ‘shoe’ is open to the elements and whether its puddles, river crossings or simply heavy rain, your feet are going to get wet whether the fabric of your shoes is waterproof or not.

If your backpacking trail is wet and muddy, and you’re choosing shoes as your hiking footwear then why bother with a waterproof membrane?

The opposite weather would be hot and dry, hiking in high summer where there is very little water (think GR20 on Corsica) demands footwear that is highly breathable and there’s no need for waterproofing – non-waterproof footwear is ideal for this type of trail.

I’d think twice about buying waterproof hiking footwear if I was choosing shoes and/or going into a hot environment.

Other features to look out for…

Sole
The ‘lugs’ on the outer sole of the boot are there to help the boots grip, the wider and deeper the lugs the more grip the boots will provide. Look at the heel, a pronounced heel section will reduce your chance of sliding on steep descents.

Some manufacturers have innovations that improve sole grip – sticky rubber is one, though there is a trade-off here with durability. Inov-8 have introduced Graphene into the sole composite and claim that it increases grip without necessarily sacrificing durability.

Toe Rand
Many designs have a rubber rand running round the toe section and often farther round the sides of the boots or shoes. This feature improves durability as well as providing better protection against water ingress.

Heel to toe drop
Traditionally footwear has a drop between the heel and toe area (the ball of the foot), typically this can be 6mm or even more. Our feet have got used to having this drop but some years ago it was realised that it isn’t natural, the natural drop is zero and some groups said that this was the best walking state for our feet.

Some running footwear have zero drop, others 2mm, 3mm etc.. Perceived wisdom is that you shouldn’t go straight from a 6mm drop (say) to a zero drop as your feet will struggle to adapt to the change and there may be problems.

When considering your next footwear look at the drop in your current boots, make sure you are not making a huge change to the drop size.

Leather vs Synthetic Upper
Polyester and nylon fabrics for the uppers in boots and shoes are generally lighter than leather, they dry faster and require less breaking in than leather footwear.

Leathers, such as suede and Nubuck leather are generally more durable than synthetics as well as being stiffer, so they provide slightly more support to the foot – good on rough terrain but perhaps not such a natural gait when moving fast on easy terrain.

Midsole
The midsole is the part of the footwear that provides cushioning to the footbed, in lighter weight footwear it’s made from EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) and can be deployed in varying densities to provide more support and protection in key areas.

How to buy hiking footwear on-line
In many instances the starting point will be your usual shoe size, however once you receive your order from the on-line shop you should assess carefully whether they fit properly.

  • Try them on at the end of the day when your feet have swollen.
  • Wear the socks you will be wearing on the trail.
  • Wear them in the house for an hour or two, walking upstairs and down.
  • Try them again the next day – are they still comfortable