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The choice of a pair of shoes for hiking/mountaineering can be difficult. In reality, there is unfortunately not a shoe for every foot. Therefore, it will be necessary to find the best compromise between fit, 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 a mistake when choosing a hiking shoe.
The shoes: First safety element in mountaineering
Statistics of 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 be. 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 movement on slopes, and good support is necessary for slippery areas like grassy slopes, wet ground, and 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.
- Support: good support is the result of a shoe that is well 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, softer rubber has the best grip on rocks but it will wear quickly, which is penalizing because a resoling is rather expensive and does not always provide satisfactory results. Hard rubber will be more resistant to wear. Thus we are seeking a good compromise according to the terrain used (softer for rock climbing, harder for the high road and traditional hiking) but nowadays we can find good soleplates combining longevity and satisfactory rock grip.
- Protection / Waterproofing: Stone-guard, lateral reinforcements, and type of material used will ensure the 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 the top or in the middle of the shoe. These features make it possible to block the totality or the low part of the tightening for more precise adjustments and locking of the behavior of the shoe during the effort. In general, you should tighten the shoe more during the descent than during the climb to better support the foot.
- Air cushion or midsole: This feature is 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 ground, and backpacking, the quality of the cushioning is vital.
- Cut: Can be low, mid, or high. It could be mesh, synthetic, split leather, nubuck leather, full-grain leather…
- Stone-guard: Rigid part on the front of the shoe which minimizes the shock from hitting a rock. It also limits the scratching of the front part of the shoes.
The 5 types of mountain shoes
>> 1. Mountaineering boots can be broken down into several categories:
- For winter mountaineering and expeditions: shoes intended for temperatures lower than -20°C (-4°F). These are often equipped with an outer gaiter and are more or less technical depending on the model. Most of these are composed of an inner liner that fits inside the shoe. They can accept crampons with automatic fastening (step-in) thanks to their front and rear welts (see paragraph on crampons).
- For technical mountaineering with difficult routes: This rigid footwear allows you to stand without too much effort on supports that are located in vertical environments. Its rigidity enables the use of crampons with automatic fastening (front and rear welts).
- For high mountaineering and “easy” mountaineering routes: These shoes are adapted to the 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 with semi-rigid soleplates. They can receive hybrid (or semi-step-in) crampons (heel welt).
>> 2. Shoes for long hiking trails
These hiking/trekking shoes have a high cut with a semi-rigid soleplate and substantial cushion for steep slopes and significant loads. In theory, they are not designed for use on steep snow slopes, however, strap-on crampons can be added (some crampons now have the ability to fit on soleplates flexible enough, eg: Petzl Vasak)
>> 4. Approach shoes
For a decade, manufacturers have been offering low cut mountain shoes with sufficient cushion to carry a load, with rigidity and quality of soleplate that is well-adapted to difficult terrain.
Originally designed for reaching the foot of climbing walls, where they would be 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 so should be reserved for experienced hikers. I highly recommend the use of hiking poles when wearing approach shoes.
>> 5. Trail running shoes
Light and cushioning, but specific to running in “mountainous” terrain.
They offer little protection.
Which shoes for which terrain?
First, you have to choose a shoe that corresponds to your foot. Finding the best fit is the first thing to consider. In general, the brands are typed (Scarpa fits wide feet, as well as Meindl and Lowa. La Sportiva tends to fit “medium” originally typed “slim feet”, same with Asolo. Kayland has quite a slim fit with enough space on the front, Merrell fits narrow at the heel and wider in front, etc.)
Next, find a shoe that makes you happy, that corresponds to your nature as a mountaineer, eg. all leather or lighter materials with membrane GTX, very high cuts or lightweight…
Some models are very versatile and can do everything, from hiking paths to the Mont Blanc and slopes of 45°. For most mountain enthusiasts, it may be sufficient to have two pairs: one for short hikes in mid-height mountains (possibly mid cuts), and a pair for high “easy” mountaineering routes with hybrid crampons (see paragraph on 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 based on 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, that is to say, that they practically cannot bend, while rigidity is low in footwear made 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 strain on the foot in steep terrain (so far as the foot is also adapted to the fit of the model worn).
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 more muscular effort. So please do not hesitate to choose shoes rigid enough if you want to explore the ground. With a suitable fit to your foot, you will not suffer while wearing rigid footwear and you will find that, for hours, the rigidity will offer you comfort and security.
Many of the falls on the trail are unfortunately due to “fatigue” that occurs when the hiker is at the end of the muscle resources of the tibia/ankle area. This area, 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 negative effects.
The ongoing strain on the foot/ankle/calf area can become a point of suffering that depletes the mental resources as well as the physical. The mental state 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 for your mountain boots
I must say at first glance: the fitting 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 offering you models to try. If he does not request it, do it yourself. Before trying on a model, look first if the footwear is compatible with the shape of your foot. Here are some guidelines:
1- The shoe size:
Brick and mortar sporting goods shops still have beautiful days ahead. Buying shoes online without trying them on is a bit like playing roulette. The sizes are not necessarily the same from brand to brand, or even between different models of the same brand. And even for the same model, you can have incredible offsets after a few months. It makes you wonder if the manufacturers do it on purpose.
Test of the shoe size
To choose your size, I class hiking shoes into two categories:
- Rigid shoes (long trekking and mountaineering): you need, in general, a size bigger than the size of your dominant foot. Complete the following steps: stand in the unlaced, OPEN shoes while wearing a pair of average socks. Push your foot till it touches 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 compress a little and become slightly 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, the 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 “catch-all” fits that are suitable to the greatest number of foot shapes possible. In general, the Italian brands offer a narrower fit than the German ones by offering metatarsus widths of 96 to 102 compared to 100 to 106 (some models are offered 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 while wearing 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. Pay attention not to compress the front of the foot to try to gain precision. This type of compression will have to be paid for overtime and the bill arrives in your forties with problems like Morton’s syndrome that women with narrow, compressing shoes know unfortunately well that can become more than a handicap.
The heel should barely rise in the roll of the foot. New shoes will soften slightly with time, but the heel should not lift completely off the sole on pain of overheating, blisters, and early suffering.
The impression of the 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 ideally 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. Due to this fact, manufacturers do not seek to add a membrane (which I believe is wrong, because a walk of 3 minutes in wet grass will have you sheepishly returning home). Let us, therefore, forget this type of footwear when one speaks of impermeability and let us focus on the high cut shoes.
In the classifications 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 with watertightness that can really resist up to 10 hours in wet snow, except 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 for breathability. Due to this fact, one can experience frostbite from excess condensation. The foot sweats with effort and it needs a shoe that is both protective from the wet elements and breathable to eliminate moisture.
My use of mountaineering shoes for a few decades leads me to think that a 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 worn but the GTX membrane continues to do its work in a satisfactory manner. However, the “hydrophobic treated” leathers 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 fabric, and especially on their breathability.
These include the membranes Novadry, Gore-tex, and MP+. Gore-tex remains the inventor and the reference standard in the impermeability of the footwear. They have just produced a new generation of a membrane (Gore-Tex pro) which might be featured in new models in the near future. MP+ is, for me, the best in terms 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 withstand temperatures in the range of -10°C (14°F) during movement, provided we don’t tighten 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 -20°C (-4°F). Below this temperature, special attention and research on specific shoes for the extreme winter conditions are needed. The soleplate plays an important role in thermal protection.
The first-degree frostbite often enough occurs on the toes and the foot arch, when the soleplate is insufficient. We can, therefore, increase its thermal protection by replacing the insole with a more insulating sole.
I am currently trying sufficiently thermal shoes, but where we can juggle with the sole for summer conditions, because shoes that are too hot are unpleasant in summer conditions, especially on rocks. I, therefore, use one insole for the summer and another for the winter.
Shoes and choice of crampons
Crampons are “crabs of steel” that are fixed on the footwear for progressing on snow or ice. Some are composed of a lighter alloy for more easy terrains and when limited weight is 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 being able to fit crampons on your boots, on the day you are offered an attractive route with passages in snow.
So choose your model of footwear based on the type of crampons it will accept. The different types of fastening of crampons correspond to degrees of the 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.
Naturally, the strap-on crampons (polyamide and neoprene) will go on all types of footwear. But we will be able to use them efficiently only if the shoes have a minimum of handling, yet as I said previously some crampons fit now to reasonably flexible soleplates, for reasonable periods of time.
But beware, adapting crampons to flexible and light shoes can be a game that 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 easier 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 for the most rigid mountaineering boots that have both a toe and a heel welt.
If choose hiking shoes is difficult in general, for women it is particularly complicated. It must be said that women’s feet are more sensitive and morphologically different from those of men. The irritation caused by rubbing the tibia, for example, affects 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 some especially comfortable shoes, the Mauria GTX of Lowa. This shoe is an illustration of the efforts that are made by the manufacturers to equip women with a difficult fit.