The choice of a pair of shoes for hiking / mountaineering is difficult. In reality, there is not, unfortunately, a shoe for every foot. Therefore, it will be necessary to find the best compromise of fitting, size and type of shoes for an activity where the feet will always play the main role. Here are some explanations and simple tricks to avoid making mistaken.
- The shoes: 1st safety element in mountain
- Mountain shoes: safety criteria for the selection of your future shoes:
- Essential components of your hiking shoes:
- The 5 types of mountain shoes
- What shoes for what terrain?
- The choice of the right stiffness on your hiking boots
- The choice of the right size and good fit of your mountain boots
- Waterproofing and waterproof membrane of your mountain shoes
- Thermal protection of your mountain shoes
- Shoes and choice of crampons
- Feminine sensitivity
The shoes: 1st safety element in mountain
The statistics of the climbing accidents show that most of them take place in terrains not classified as “mountaineering”. They are losses of balance or falls on slopes of average altitude where the exposure is sometimes more severe than it appears to. In this type of terrain the shoes play a central role. The quality of the outsole’s grip and an adapted rigidity make it possible to control the slopes, the slippery supports like the grass slopes, the wet grounds and the snow.
Mountain shoes: safety criteria for the selection of your future shoes:
- Rigidity: is essential for the behavior of the foot and the grip on mountainous terrain.
- The support: a good support is the result of a shoe adapted to your foot, with a high stem, which will support the articulation of the ankle and the bottom of the tibia.
- Outsole’s grip: the grip of the outsoles depends on the quality of the material used and its notching. In general, tender rubbers have the best grip on rocks but they wear quickly, which is penalizing because a soling is rather expensive and does not always provide satisfactory resulsts. The hard rubbers will be more resistant. Thus we are seeking the good compromise according to the terrain used (softer for rock climbing, harder for high road and the traditional hiking) but nowadays we can find good soleplates combining longevity and with a satisfactory rock grip.
- Protection / Waterproofing: Stone-guard, lateral reinforcements and type of material used will ensure a longevity of the shoes and will protect you from the outside elements (stone, rocks, branches).
Essential components of your hiking shoes:
- Self-locking hooks: In general located on top or in the middle of the shoe. They make it possible to block the totality or the low part of the tightening for more precise adjustments and a locking of the behavior of the shoe during the effort. In general one tightens more during the descent than during the climb to better support the foot.
- Air cushion or midsole: Very important to absorb the shocks and thus to relieve the joints of the hiker and his lumbar. On the technical models it is in general more important on the heel than in front of the shoe where we are seeking more precision and “feeling” of the terrain. For hikes of long distances, rough grounds, and with backpacking, the quality of the cushioning is vital.
- Cut: Can be low, mid or high. Could be mesh, synthetic, split leather, nubuck leather, full grain leather…
- Stone-guard: Rigid part on the front of the shoe which avoids the shocks with blocks of stone. Limits also the scratching of the front part of the shoes.
The 5 types of mountain shoes
>> 1. The mountaineering boots which can be broken down into several categories:
- Winter mountaineering and expeditions: shoes intended for the lower than -20°C temperatures. Often equipped with outer gaiter, and are more or less technical according to the models, they are composed for most of them of an inner liner which fits in the shoe. They accept crampons with automatic fastening (or step-in) thanks to their front and rear welts (see paragraph on the crampons).
- Technical mountaineering for difficult routes: rigid footwear to stand without too much effort on supports that are located on vertical environments. Their rigidity enables the use of crampons to automatic fastening (front and rear welts).
- High mountaineering route and "easy" Mountaineering: shoes adapted to altitude, to paths sometimes off-trail, with sections in snow and even on ice. Multipurpose and ideal for snow routes from E to M grade (Easy to Moderate) with slopes up to 45°, they are mountaineering boots of high cut and with semi-rigid soleplates, they can receive hybrid (or semi-step-in) crampons (heel welt).
>> 2. The shoes for long hiking trail
Hiking shoes of high cut with soleplate quite rigid and with substantial cushion for strong slopes and significant loads. They are high cut trekking shoes and with semi-rigid soleplates. In theory they are not planned for evolving on steep snow slopes but strap-on crampons can be adapted (some crampons now have the faculty to fit on soleplates flexible enough ex: Petzl Vasak)
>> 4. The approach shoes
Since a decade manufacturers offer low cut mountain shoes with sufficient cushion to carry a load, with a rigidity and a quality of soleplate quite adapted to difficult terrain.
Originally designed to reach the foot of the climbing walls, where they are replaced by climbing shoes, they are now used as hiking shoes and even mountaineering for certain routes. These shoes are therefore interesting but still lower than the "mid" cuts therefore reserved for experienced hikers and I highly recommend the use of hiking poles.
>> 5. The trail running shoes
Light and cushioning, but specific to running in "mountainous" terrain.
They offer little protection.
What shoes for what terrain?
First you have to choose a shoe that corresponds to your foot. Find the good fit is the first thing to do. In general the brands are typed (Scarpa fits wide, just as Meindl and Lowa. La Sportiva tries to fit “medium” but at the origin was typed “slim feet”, same with Asolo. Kayland has quite a slim fit with enough space on the front, Merrell fits narrow enough at the heel and wider in front, etc.)
Then, take a shoe that makes you happy, which corresponds to your nature of the mountaineer: all leather or lighter materials with membrane GTX, very high cuts or light…
Some models are very versatile and can do everything, from hiking paths to the Mont Blanc and the slopes of 45°. For most of the mountain enthusiasts, it may be interesting and enough to have two pairs: one for short hikes in mid height mountains (possibly mid cuts), and a pair of high “easy” mountaineering route with hybrid crampons (see paragraph on the crampons). Then there are the more “technical” shoes that are of interest to those who want to go for the tough and the cold.
Choose also as a function of the visited massifs and your level of training. The less you are trained; the more protective your shoes have to be. The lightness, always double-edged, will always be more suited to good fitness level and “dry” mountain conditions.
The choice of the right stiffness on your hiking boots
The rigidity is primarily due to the soleplate and is tested by trying to bend the shoe. If it twists like a sponge, it is considered as very flexible. At the other extreme, if you cannot “fold” it, it is considered very rigid. The rigidity may be quasi-total on technical mountaineering shoes, it is to say that they practically cannot bend, and low for footwear for minimalist hiking.
At first sight, in the store, the rigidity of a shoe may seem unpleasant. But on a long journey it will support the bottom of the leg and relieve the efforts of the foot in steep terrain (for as far as the foot is also adapted to the fitting of the model used).
In the mountains, a lack of rigidity on the part of the shoe will be, in the long run, synonymous with lack of stability for the foot which will seek instinctively to compensate with a muscular effort. So please do not hesitate to choose shoes rigid enough if you want to explore the ground. With a suitable fitting to your foot, you will not suffer from rigid footwear and you can check, for hours, that the rigidity will offer you comfort and security.
Many of the falls are unfortunately falls due to “fatigue” that occur when the hiker is at the end of its muscle resources of the tibia / ankle area. This area, highly sought, when not quite supported by a rigid and high enough shoe, will suffer the efforts required by the terrain, a little like a car in abrupt turns with outdated suspensions. In the case of a hiker with little training, this fatigue can occur quickly and have important effects.
The ongoing effort of the foot/ankle/calf area, can become a point of suffering that solicits the mental resources as well as our own resources. The mental becoming in turn vulnerable, the hiker will be less lucid and more sensitive to the difficulties of the terrain. The risk factor will therefore increase significantly.
The choice of the right size and good fit of your mountain boots
I must say at first glance: it is difficult! The errors of assessment on the sizes or the fitting are frequent.
A good seller must ask you to see your foot, before to orient you towards models to try. If he does not request it, do it yourself. Before flashing on a model, look first if its footwear is compatible with the shape of your foot.
1- The shoe size:
Brick and mortar shops still have beautiful days ahead. Buy shoes online without trying them is confined to playing the roulette. The sizes are not similar on a brand between different models. And even for a same model, you can have incredible offsets after a few months. It is to ask if the manufacturers do it on purpose.
Test of the shoe size
To choose your size, I class the hiking shoes in two categories:
- Rigid shoes (long trekking and mountaineering); you need, in general, a size bigger than the size of your stronger foot. Complete the following steps: stand on your feet, OPEN shoe and with a pair of average socks. Push your foot to touch the end of the shoe with the toes. In this position there must be space for a finger (rather small, say about 1cm) behind the heel. Lace the shoe and verify that the heel does not raise completely during walking.
- Thinner shoes, less rigid, “mid” or “low” cut types may have 1/2 shoe size less, in general, that the “thick” ones, or even more. For this type of shoes, the foot must have a little space but not too much. We will not look for a real space at the heel, but a concept of comfort and non-compression of the toes.
Few shoes really loosen up, but the internal cushions are going to constrain a little and slightly be compacted in the long run (I do not know if this is equivalent to 1/4 of shoe size), let’s say that it is the margin for a thick pair of socks.
2- The footwear (or fit) (Thin foot, wide foot, sensitivity of the tibia …)
A good fit must, ideally, accommodate your foot and maintain it in the movements of walking. Brands were quite typed in the past. They are trying today to design footwear with more of “catch-all” fit which are suitable to the greatest number of foot shapes possible. In general, the Italian brands offer a narrower fit than the German marks by offering metatarsus widths of 96 to 102 compare to 100 to 106 (some models are proposed in two widths among Meindl and Lowa for very wide feet).
Test of the fit
First check that you have the right size, otherwise it is of no use. Moderately tighten the shoe with a pair of average socks.
The space for the toes must allow the toes to move and to “breathe”. The front of the foot must not have a linear motion to the right or to the left with banked steps. Attention not to compress the front of the foot to try to win in precision. This type of compression will have to be paid over time and the bill arrives past forties with a Morton’s syndrome that women with narrow and compressing shoes know unfortunately well and which can become more than a handicap.
The heel should barely raise in the roll of the foot. New shoes will soften slightly with time, but the heel should not lift off in full from the sole on pain of overheating, blisters and fast suffering.
The impression of general comfort of the foot must be good, but beware! It is during the first hike that you will know for sure, after one or two hours of walking, and if possible with a backpack and across a slope.
Waterproofing and waterproof membrane of your mountain shoes
It is a fundamental point for active mountain activities. But do not think that because the manufacturers speak of impermeability that your shoes are totally waterproof (I do not know any that are apart from rubber boots).
The low cut shoes, called approach shoes, are very sensitive to water because of their opening. Of this fact the manufacturers do not seek to add a membrane (which is a wrong according to me, because a walk of 3 minutes in wet grass you will return to home all sheepishly). Let us therefore forget this type of footwear when one speaks of impermeability and let us focus on the high cut shoes.
In the classification of the manufacturers, we will read: good water resistant qualities, very good water resistant qualities, waterproofed. This means that some models are more or less sensitive to water, and, especially, to wet snow. There are very few mountain boots which watertightness can really resist to 10 hours in wet snow or maybe plastic shells, the extreme mountaineering boots with overboots.
The essential point remains in the complex sealing/breathability. Indeed, some plastic shells are of the most waterproofed, but quite bad in breathability. Of this fact we can experience frostbites by excess of condensation. The foot sweats during the effort and it needs a shoe both protective of the wet elements and breathable to evacuate its own moisture.
My use of mountaineering shoes since a few decades leads me to think that the membrane is a very positive element against wet feet. It is at the same time waterproof and breathable and that is what we are seeking. In practice, I see that my Asolo Titan GTX, after 10 years of mountaineering are well torn but the GTX membrane continues to do its work in a satisfactory manner. However, the leathers “hydrophobic treated” that I have used (Trapper TD+ and Nepal Trek) are getting my feet wet regularly in wet snow.
The membrane however does not do all the work, it can be proved defective according to its quality and certain conditions. Because membranes are not all created equal, we will find details on their coating performance in Schmerber, the waterproof rating unit of a fabric, and especially on their breathability.
These include the membranes Novadry, Gore-tex, MP+. Gore-tex remains the inventor and the reference in the impermeability of the footwear, and just produced a new generation of membrane (Gore-Tex pro) which will maybe equip the new models in the near future. MP+ is for me the best in term of breathability but it can be found on clothing, not on shoes. There is also Novadry, Sympatex… in fact, each manufacturer may develop its own membrane, so we cannot mention them all.
Thermal protection of your mountain shoes
Almost all of the traditional mountaineering and high alpine shoes, even the light ones, can resist to temperatures in the range of -10°C in movement, and provided we don’t tight them too much.
Then we can find many models with enough thickness of leather or of lightweight materials and insulating layers of Thinsulate type, which can resist to -20°C. Below this temperature, attention, specific shoes studied for the extreme winter conditions are needed. The soleplate plays an important role in the thermal protection.
First degree’s frostbites often enough occur on the toes and the foot arch, when the soleplate is insufficient. We can therefore increase its thermal protection by replacing the insole by a more insulating sole.
I am currently trying sufficiently thermal shoes, but where we can juggle with the sole for summer conditions, because shoes too hot are unpleasant in summer conditions, especially on rocks. I therefore use an insole for the summer and another for the winter.
Shoes and choice of crampons
Crampons are “crabs of steel” that is fixed on the footwear for progressing on snow or ice. Some are in lighter alloy for more easy terrains and to limit the weight to be carried (in ski touring in particular).
In my opinion we should not avoid this question even if we don’t have the soul of a climber. The snow in the mountains is a big security matter and some small valleys crossing “easy” passes may be snow-capped throughout the summer. Therefore, you will certainly regret not to be able to fit crampons on your boots, the day where you will be proposed an attractive route with passages in snow.
So choose your model of footwear in function of the type of crampons. The different types of fastening of crampons correspond to degrees of rigidity of the shoe. The rigidity determines the use of fast clips because these require that the shoe constantly keeps the same dimension, even in flexion.
If the distance between the front and the back of the shoe decreases, step-in and hybrid bindings will not hold.
A priori the strap-on crampons (polyamide and neoprene) will go on all types of footwear. But we will be able to use them with efficiency only if the shoes have a minimum of handling, yet as I said previously some crampons fit now to soleplates flexible enough, for reasonable durations.
But be aware, adapt crampons to flexible and light shoes can be a game which can sometimes be dangerous. In addition to the fact of the low level of binding of the crampon, we can twist our ankle more easily, and the straps may have a tendency to shear the foot and cut blood circulation.
The hybrid crampons, also called mixed or semi-step, have a fast clip heel lever. They are more easy to install, especially in difficult terrain, and also more stable and therefore indicated for mountaineering. They are usable with shoes that have a heel welt and sufficient rigidity.
The step-in crampons (automatic ones) are reserved to the mountaineering boots really rigid who have a toe and heel welt.
If choose hiking shoes is difficult in general, for women it is particularly complicated. It must be said that women feet are more sensitive, and morphologically different from those of men. The irritation caused by rubbing the tibia for example, affect nearly 50% of users.
Manufacturers develop models especially for women, and this is not for nothing. In the majority of cases these models are the answers to the constraints of the footwear for ladies. I will mention here shoes especially comfortable, the Mauria GTX of Lowa. This shoe is an illustration of the efforts that are made by the manufacturers to equip women with difficult fit.