Footwear options for bushwalking
Good shoes take you good places. Unknown
The choice of footwear can make or break a trip. Ultimately the type of footwear a bushwalker selects is a very personal choice, but the most important things to consider are:
(i) are they comfortable; and
(ii) are they suited to the terrain and weather conditions?
For instance, a snowy alpine trek will expose feet to very different conditions to a creek bash in the tropics. New bushwalkers don’t need to start out with expensive bushwalking footwear. It’s much better to begin using a simple pair of sports shoes or similar – basically something very familiar and comfortable – and then do some more reading and research (and talk to people) before buying. Many bushwalkers swear by Vollies and KT 26s, even for tackling fairly difficult terrain such as South West Tasmania. Once familiar with the pros and cons of each footwear type, and how to ensure a good fit, the selection process becomes easier.
Leather boots Pros and cons of leather boots
Hiking boots are common in Europe and America, where many tracks climb exposed mountain ranges with extreme weather conditions. In Australia, there are fewer tracks that require hiking boots.
A common reason to select ‘high-top’ or high-ankle boots is to provide ankle support, however, there is little to no scientific evidence to support this. In fact, people who wear footwear with a low-cut ankle not only show no difference in ankle injury, but also have footwear that is lighter, more comfortable and less expensive. Heavy boots make it hard to feel the terrain underfoot and judge what’s slippery or uneven, arguably leaving the user more prone to injury than user wearing a lightweight pair of comfortable sports shoes.
Although the ankle support reason for wearing boots appears to be a myth, boots have merits that should be considered.
- Rigid sole
Boots generally have a thick, rigid sole that spreads the pressure on steep or spiky terrain where a lot of weight gets put on a small part of the foot. Because feet are not accustomed to carrying the additional weight of a heavy backpack, a rigid sole also provides foot support.
The thicker material and longer ankle parts of boots keep feet warmer in cool climates.
- Effective at keeping feet dry
If boots are treated and maintained well, the material is reliably water resistant, providing water doesn’t enter through the top such as during a creek crossing or in rain.
- Foot protection
Thick toe and heel material provides protection from sharp rocks, snow and rough terrain.
- Stops unwanted items entering the boot
The higher ankles work with gaiters to prevent dirt and rocks from entering.
If leather boots are well maintained they can last a long time, a lot longer than running shoes.
Leather boots are heavy, requiring more energy per step. It’s harder to ‘feel’ the track, making users more likely to misjudge the track conditions, slip or injure themselves.
Less breathable than synthetic materials, increasing the chance of blisters.
- Breaking in
Leather boots need to be broken in before the leather is a comfortable stiffness. This can mean that the first 4-6 walks in the boots are uncomfortable.
Leather boots are generally at the high end of the price range, and a decent pair can be very expensive, perhaps $250-450. However, ten pairs of $25 runners may last as long as one pair of $250 boots. Price and durability must be considered together.
Boots can take a long time to dry out. Wet leather boots are often heavy and uncomfortable.
If not used in sharp, rough terrain with extreme weather, the disadvantages of using heavy boots usually outweigh the advantages. For easier conditions, it is suggested that you select something more comfortable.
Synthetic boots Pros and cons of synthetic boots
Synthetic boots have much the same advantages and disadvantages as leather boots but are generally a little lighter and more comfortable.
- See leather boots.
While lighter than leather boots, synthetic boots are still heavier than most other shoe types. Again, heavier boots require more energy per step. Cumbersome boots also make it harder to ‘feel’ the track, making users more likely to misjudge the track conditions, slip or sustain an injury.
Synthetic boots are generally more breathable than leather boots
Generally more affordable than leather boots but still not cheap.
Once wet, large heavy boots can take a long time to dry out.
Although a little less expensive, more comfortable and affordable than leather boots, synthetic boots are still only needed when heading over particularly steep and sharp terrain and in cold weather conditions. For most NSW walking areas this type of boot is unnecessary.
Low-cut walking boots, running shoes, sand shoes Pros and cons of low-cut walking boots, running shoes, sand shoes
Low-cut walking boots are half-way between a hiking boot and a running shoe. Low-cut walking boots are generally made with the same type of synthetic boots, the sole is thicker and more rigid than a sports shoe, but the ankle is still low. Sand shoes are generally made from lightweight, thin materials, and because of the rubber sole, Dunlop Volleys are very good for creek walking and canyoning. However, new Volleys don’t tend to last as long as they used to.
Very comfortable. As the weight and design is similar to shoes used in everyday life, feet are generally accustomed to using this shoe style.
Much more affordable than boots ($50-250), however, may need 10 pairs to last as long as a pair of boots.
Sports shoes tend to wear out a lot quicker than boots. For example, ten pairs of runners at $25 each may last as long as one pair of $250 heavy boots).
- Effective at keeping feet dry
Not water-resistant, but tend to dry fairly quickly and not get too heavy when wet.
Low-cut ankles allow detritus to build up inside.
Because they’re comfortable and affordable, sports shoes are great when starting bushwalking. Low-cut walking boots are more durable, suitable for most terrains and conditions. Consider upgrading to something heavier if planning to walk particularly rough terrain or in cold conditions such as alpine walking.
Barefoot style shoes Pros and cons of barefoot style shoes
There is still debate whether minimalist shoes such as the barefoot Vibram five finger running shoes lead to less injury than running with traditional running shoes, and more research needs to be done to determine if there are disadvantages to using minimalist shoes. Research on the biomechanics of foot impact while running suggests that landing on the forefoot has less impact than landing on the heel. This style of running is encouraged by barefoot style shoes, however, traditional running shoes promote heel landing.
While, some bushwalkers like using Vibram five finger running shoes, others find them extremely uncomfortable. If considering using them on a bushwalk, try them out thoroughly around home first before committing to them on a bushwalk.
Lightweight: feels almost like being barefoot.
Quick to dry out.
At $100-150, relatively expensive for what you buy.
Easily ripped on sharp objects or terrain.
Don’t keep feet warm.
Become smelly quickly, and require daily washing to prevent it.
Barefoot style shoes work extremely well for some people while others hate them. Test them out thoroughly at home before committing to using them on a bushwalk, and consult a professional if unsure about their suitability.
Sandals, thongs Pros and cons of Sandals
Sandals are comfortable to wear around the city and beach, but due to the thin heel, straps and the stabbing of sticks, many people find them uncomfortable over long distances. Sandals may be an alternative to shoes at camp to air feet out or for short creek crossings. Crocs are an Aussie favourite.
Varies from very low cost ($10) to that of a medium quality boot ($40-80).
Quick to dry out.
Little protection against very hot or cold conditions. Little protection against rough, spiked or sharp terrain. Little protection from insect bites or scratchy vegetation.
Straps can cut into the feet, making walking long distances uncomfortable. Sandal straps tend to rub, and thongs easily slip off the feet.
Sandals are not ideal for walking, but may be handy in camp to air feet out at the end of the day. Although some people find them comfortable to walk in over long distances, sandals provide less protection than enclosed footwear, and most people would not find them providing enough support or grip in rough terrain.
Barefoot Pros and cons of barefoot
Dot Butler is famous for her barefoot explorations of the bush around Sydney. Walking barefoot brings an amazingly close connection to the track, the terrain and the wildlife where the track goes, but does leave the walker vulnerable to injury (e.g. sticks, sharp rocks. Walking barefoot is generally inadvisable, but is done by some experienced people that know their body and the terrain well.
No protection against very hot or cold conditions. No protection against rough, spiked or sharp terrain. No protection from insect bites or scratchy vegetation. Toes easily stubbed.
Takes time to wear in feet. People walking barefoot must know their body and the terrain well. People generally find it harder to walk fast and/or carry a heavy backpack barefoot
Less capacity to deal with emergencies.
Walking barefoot is a fantastic way of connecting with the natural landscape. However, it’s something that requires a slow build up by training the feet and getting to know the terrain well. For most bushwalkers, a lightweight shoe protects their feet enough to give them the confidence to walk through the bush without worrying about their feet getting injured.