Fabrics and features
Of all the paths you take in life,
make sure a few of them are dirt. John Muir
Finding the right footwear can take a long time, and there’s a lot to consider. But taking the time to understand key features can make it easier to get a good fit. Below are some core features to consider.
Comfort What makes for comfortable bushwalking shoes
Here are a few key things to look at to make sure the shoe provides the most stability and cushioning.
- Comfortable upper
Made of leather, mesh or synthetic material. Holds foot in place. Mesh allows for breathing and comfort.
- Achilles notch
Takes pressure off the Achilles tendon to improve comfort. Includes ankle collar, which wraps around ankle to provide cushioned support the foot directly and aid shock absorption.
- Comfortable insole
The insole supports and cushions the arch. Insoles can be replaced with different or new insoles. Useful when trying to dry shoes out after a day of walking or to increase cushioning.
Materials Key materials used in bushwalking shoes, their price and durability
The type of materials used to make a shoe or boot determine the weight of the footwear. The lighter the footwear, the less energy it takes per step. Unfortunately, lightweight materials tend to wear out quickly. So there’s a trade-off between more durable and heavier materials that last longer and lighter materials with a shorter life.
- Upper fabrics
The upper part of shoes are typically made from leather, mesh or synthetic material. When well looked after, leather is the most durable, but the heaviest and most expensive. Synthetic materials are also strong, and lighter, but nowhere not as breathable as mesh fabric, which is the lightest, but least durable upper shoe option.
Most footwear has rubber soles with various types of grip. Sometimes additives such as carbon are used to increase the hardness of the sole, such as in mountaineering boots. In general, the harder and sturdier the sole, the more expensive the boot is, but the longer it will last.
Modern laces are made from synthetic fibres, such as nylon, textured polyester, spun polyester and polypropylene. These are inexpensive and lightweight, but tend to be more slippery and hence more likely to come undone than traditional materials such as hemp, jute and cotton.
- Punched eyelets
Holes that are punched directly into the material and reinforced with metal grommets. Effective and inexpensive, but may tend to rip out.
As with punched eyelets, also tend to wear out quickly.
Durable metal loops that allow laces to be easily done up but can irritate some users due to the increased pressure on the foot at these locations.
Open metal hooks, often in the top 3 or 4 fastener locations. Effective for tightening boots and rare in other shoe types.
Waterproof-ness How waterproof can hiking boots really be?
Waterproof boots are only waterproof until the walker steps in a creek, river, or puddle higher than the height of the boot. In these cases the boot fills with water, becoming heavy and uncomfortable. Hence, the boot may need emptying before continuing.
Except gum boots, most footwear is not waterproof. Precipitation and water on the ground will eventually lead to water inside the footwear.
Footwear that allows water to easily enter and leave is advantageous when crossing rivers. However, in cold and wet environments such as alpine regions, such footwear fails to keep feet warm. In these conditions, more substantial boots are preferable to running shoes.
Leather is naturally water-resistant. If kept in good condition and treated well to avoid cracks and drying out, leather can be effective for a long time. A wax maximises waterproofness. Treatments for Nubuck and suede are available, although different re-proofing products must be used. Fabric boots can be made more water-resistant by regularly applying the correct product, although due to mud and dirt getting into the material they tend to degrade faster than leather boots.
Heavier leather or fabric boots last longer than non-waterproof sandshoes, Volleys or Vibram shoes. These are ideal for creek walks where it’s likely the track will weave back and forth across the river, and it’s impossible to keep feet completely dry.
Ankle and arch support Do some shoes promote ankle and arch support better than others?
Compared to high-ankle footwear users, low-ankle footwear users not only have no difference in ankle injury, but also are generally able to select footwear that’s lighter, more comfortable and less expensive. Evidence suggests that comfort is the key and doing ankle strengthening/stretching exercises are a more sustainable way of ensuring fewer ankle injuries rather than high-ankle support shoes alone.
Another argument that people give for high-ankle footwear is that they provide extra protection against snake bites. However, snakes are capable of attacking much higher than ankle height, and snake handlers don’t rely on their boots only. Instead, they use snake gaiters that are specially tested to be effective against snake bite, something that most shoe companies would not test. That said, footwear that’s higher at the ankles provides a good overlap for gaiters and another layer that snake needs to penetrate. Bushwalking gaiters are not snake-proof. Instead, they are snake-resistant, and not even that for bigger more aggressive species. Heavier fabric and knee-length will give the most protection. While it’s rare to be bitten by a snake, always be careful and give snakes room to escape.
Proprioception is the unconscious perception of movement and location of ankle joints. Accurate proprioception can be lost after sprain injuries. Taping or bracing the joint has been suggested as a mechanism to enable a walker to detect movement through other feedback nerves further up the leg. More than 30 studies have tested this, and an overall synthesis of this literature suggests that ankle taping or bracing does not alter proprioception1. There is, however, some evidence to suggest that ankle taping or bracing reduces the risk of re-spraining the ankle2, but Raymond, Jacqueline, et al. 2012 suggest that this is from restricting joint motion and mechanical instability, and improving confidence during physical activities. Thus, there is currently no clear scientific evidence to support the need for high ankle support in people without previous sprain injuries.
The alignment of foot muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments form lengthwise and side-to-side arches. These arches help distribute body weight evenly across the feet when walking across uneven surfaces. Some feet require more arch support than others, based on the shape of the foot and how well it can support the weight of the body.
It’s possible to identify high and low arches using a simple test. Dip your feet in water and rest them on cardboard. If the whole foot is visible, then the foot is low arched. If only the front and back are visible, the foot is high arched.
Here’s what footwear to look for depending on arch type:
Feet may not absorb shock well. Select extra cushioning to compensate for lower natural shock absorption.
Feet are neither overly or underly arched. Select firm midsoles.
Commonly referred to as ‘flat feet’. Feet may have additional joint or muscle stress. Select footwear that best stabilises the foot.
People use foot orthotics (also known as ortheses) to correct and support the foot, and have their footwear fitted with the correct insoles. If this is a concern, see a professional before selecting footwear and insoles.
Grip What makes some types of footwear grip better than others
Footwear grip depends on the tread and materials. Rubber is used on most walking footwear as it gives good grip and is easy to mould. Some specialist footwear such as mountaineering boots has additives like carbon to increase the hardness of the sole.
Lugs are the traction-giving bumps on the sole of the footwear, and how they are arranged can change the effectiveness of the grip. Deeper thick lugs improve grip, and wider spaced lugs shed mud easily and gives good traction. Good heel grip is necessary to reduce the chance of sliding on steep sections. Open grooves at the edge of the sole allow for self-cleaning grooves that work out mud and dirt while walking.
Crampons are metal spikes attached to boots giving grip on ice. They’re most commonly used by ice climbers, but also by walkers crossing snowfields or glaciers. Ice climbing crampons are rigid and big, usually 12 spikes. Crampons used for less serious conditions are often smaller, usually four spikes, and can sustain some flexing. Snowshoes are an alternative footwear for crossing snow and work by distributing the weight of the user across a larger area and hence prevent the person from sinking into the snow.
Ethics The ethics behind footwear production
It’s easy to consider bushwalking as a low-impact pastime, especially when following Leave No Trace principles, but in an increasingly global economy, it’s common for bushwalking gear to be produced in other countries. Often gear travels half-way around the world before it is sold. Hence, the environmental and social impacts of where and how gear is produced must be included when calculating the true implications of a pastime such as bushwalking.
In the last 20 years, more and more major footwear companies have been accused of exploiting workers in third world countries. Some companies exploit workers in developing countries with unfair pay and working conditions. Companies have also been accused of using materials that are damaging to human health and the environment.
The Ethical Company Organisation evaluated the performance of top players in footwear production on human rights, environmental and animal rights. They found that Po-Zu, Cheatah and Birkenstock performed the best, whereas Reebok, Shelleys, Umbro were the least ethical shoe making companies.
Although campaigning has forced major companies to re-evaluate working conditions, there is still much room for improvement. Take a moment to consider a company’s ethics before buying footwear, or indeed any other product, from them.
- Raymond, Jacqueline, et al. “The effect of ankle taping or bracing on proprioception in functional ankle instability: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 15.5 (2012): 386-392.
- Verhagen, Evert ALM, Willem van Mechelen, and Wieke de Vente. “The effect of preventive measures on the incidence of ankle sprains.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 10.4 (2000): 291-296