I started a series last week on equipment and my general approach to buying and using walking/camping gear and I said I would follow it up with some more specific posts. So this is The Dorset Rambler approach to footwear 🙂 !
Arguably, footwear is the single most important item of equipment for the walker, and I include socks as well as shoes/boots. It is after all going to carry you and your kit for hopefully many miles. As I said in my first post, your requirements will vary depending how many miles you intend to walk so this post is really aimed at those who are perhaps more serious walkers rather than those who walk in the local park. There are many different styles and types of footwear but for this article, I am going to break it down into three categories, leather boots, fabric boots and trail shoes or approach shoes.
I have a pair of Zamberlain leather boots that I have been using for around 15 years now, and they are still going strong. Having said that, I don’t use them very often, in fact, only in winter when the weather and conditions under foot are really bad. This is simply because I prefer to walk in trail shoes. Leather boots provide great support for the ankles and are probably more waterproof than either of my other categories……provided of course that you take care of them by cleaning and waxing them regularly to maintain the leather. But they are usually heavier and less forgiving. There is a maxim that goes, ‘a pound on the feet is worth ten on the back’, and there is a lot of truth in this. Walking in heavy boots can be tiring. They also usually need more ‘breaking in’.
There are those who will say that if you are going up into the mountains, you must have leather boots to give support and cope with the rocky terrain, but I have gone into the mountains of Scotland, Wales, and the north of England numerous times wearing fabric boots and trail shoes and I have never had any issues. In fact, I backpacked both the Wainwright Coast to Coast and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in fabric rather than leather. These trips were in wintry conditions too, although not in deep snow or widespread ice, which is another issue altogether. Obviously, extreme care and equipment is needed in those conditions and that is outside the scope of this article.
For me, these are a half way house between trail shoes and leather boots, and again, I have a pair of these which I use in winter if conditions are poor or it is very wet under foot. They are lighter and more flexible than leather, but are higher around the ankles than trail shoes which helps keep out ground water and perhaps provides a little support. They are also good because they are more ‘instantly comfortable’ requiring no breaking in.
One of the downsides to fabric footwear from my experience is that although it might have a waterproof membrane when you buy it, that will break down, which will mean wet feet. I know I walk a lot of miles but I am not sure how long fabric stays waterproof – it doesn’t seem to be that long, certainly not when compared to my leather boots which 15 years later are still letting in no water.
Effectively, trainers for walkers, these are the footwear I use most, probably 90% of the time. For me, they are by far the most comfortable and easiest to walk in, even in the mountains. Having said that, I have never had a pair that has lasted 15 years – fabric will probably never be as enduring as well cared for leather but that is a trade off I am happy to take. Also, there are the waterproof issues mentioned above.
I actually came up with a theory about fabric shoes once. They can be really expensive and I wondered if you just pay, partly at least, for the name. So I decided to buy cheap ones and see how long they would last. They didn’t! Half way through a backpacking trip, they split. So now I think it is preferable to buy a better quality make.
As mentioned above, I walk predominantly in trail shoes but I never pay full price. I know that I will always need these so I make use of sales to pick new ones up more cheaply, often up to half the normal price. I currently have three pairs in various stages of disrepair. The oldest is splitting so I only use those in dry weather. They will of course be thrown out eventually but I do like to get my money’s worth so I intend to continue to use them until they start causing my feet problems. In any event, it is useful to have more than one pair if you walk often because you have always got a dry pair to put on if others are wet from a previous walk. And, by the way, do make sure that you always dry footwear at natural temperatures and not on a radiator or whatever.
Regarding makes, I don’t really favour any particular one, whatever fits comfortably and is in the sale, providing it is a good quality make. I have used Brasher, Salomon, Meindl, North Face, Merrell, and others over the years. In many ways, I wish manufacturers wouldn’t keep changing their designs because then if you found a pair that worked well with your feet, you could just buy the same again. Sometimes it also seems to me that they make the designs too complex in an effort to look ‘trendy’ and at the end of the day, I’d rather have functionality than frills. But then, I’ve never tried to make a pair of shoes so I might be wrong on this.
I should just include a word about socks because these are also important. My preferred way is to wear a pair of thin liner socks with thicker socks over the top but this depends on the make of shoe. Some are narrower than others in which case I might just wear one pair rather than two. Since backpacking usually involves wearing the same socks for numerous days, I prefer to buy merino wool which doesn’t smell – not that it affects me since I have no sense of smell, but it might affect others around me 🙂 !
We should not forget insoles as these cushion and hold your feet in the shoe. Boots and shoes will always come with a pair of course but sometimes these are not the best. Bespoke makes are available and can actually cost almost as much as the shoes/boots. It is always worth remembering that if your footwear is causing problems, it might just be the insoles that need replacing since they do flatten after many miles of use.
The type of footwear you use will depend entirely on your personal preference and all I have done here is to outline what works for me. Everyones feet are different and need to be treated differently – in fact, in most cases one foot is different to the other. My left foot for instance is half a size bigger than my right. Whilst I was on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, I got chatting to a man from Holland and he was walking in bare feet, even though we were on rocky terrain. His preference was for no shoes at all.
As mentioned at the start, your requirements will vary with the amount of walking, the distances being covered in a day, the terrain, the conditions, and of course how much weight you will be carrying, so your situation will not be the same as mine. I hope though that this might have provided some food for thought to help you enjoy your walking more – and that after all is what it is all about!
I have tried to keep this brief and I am aware that I have not covered the subject fully so if you have any specific questions, please do feel free to contact me.
Thanks for visiting.
Until next time,
The Dorset Rambler
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