Updated: Feb 28
Backpacking is a road-trip of the purest kind. You set out to travel many miles, not just for the sole purpose of reaching your destination, but to enjoy the experience along the way. Your legs are the vehicle that takes you on this journey, with your muscles burning and using fuel more efficiently than any automobile.
You carry with you many pieces of important gear, but arguably, the most vital equipment you have is what is on your feet. Like the tires of a car, your footwear makes the critical connection between you and the terrain.
Your backpacking trip can be painful or even cut short with the wrong footwear. Conversely, it could be the time of your life with the correct gear on your feet. Choosing the right footwear for backpacking is about fitting them to your feet, knowing the terrain you will be covering, and considering the best materials for your needs.
"Choosing the right footwear for backpacking is about fitting them to your feet, knowing the terrain you will be covering, and considering the best materials for your needs."
Know Your Toes...
The first and most important part of choosing the right footwear is finding something that fits your foot. There is a massive array of shoes and boots to choose from, so much so that it is impossible to recommend the “best” ones. However, it is guaranteed that the best shoe for you will be the one that fits you well.
Your foot is a unique piece of highly advances machinery. In your foot and ankle alone, there are 26 bones and more than 100 tendons and ligaments that work together to let you walk, run, jump, balance, and much more. This complex network is incredibly strong and capable, but also susceptible to injury because of its many parts. While everyone has the same basic foot structure, many people have distinct differences in shape, size, and other aspects. These unique “feetures” (sorry, that was too tempting) require different shoes that cater to the different foot needs.
Let’s start with the arch, which is the section between the ball of the foot and the heel. Some people may have a naturally high arch, while others have virtually no arch; their feet are almost completely flat.
If you have a high arch you may want to search for footwear with arch support, or consider a slightly longer size, as the foot’s length will extend when you step and the arch is compressed.
Low or no arched feet will also want a shoe with a slight arch in it, to help give support to the foot. Flat footed people also typically over-pronate, or roll their feet inwards when they step. This can be supported by shoes that are designed as stability shoes. Stability shoes fight the inward rolling motion by placing extra dense foam on the inside of the shoe’s midsole.
Finding Your Arch
If you are unsure about your foot’s arch, then perform this simple test. First, get your foot wet and then take a natural step on a surface like concrete. Your footprint of water will reveal the size of your arch. Some shoe stores have technology that will record you while you walk on a treadmill and then show you how your feet step and move, revealing your unique structure’s needs.
The second foot factor to consider is width. Foot width refers to widest part, which is usually the ball of the foot, right before the toes. Some people have very narrow feet and others, very wide. Shoes can be purchased in different widths to accommodate the various needs of people.
A new trend in footwear is emerging that also focuses on providing extra space for the toes as well. These types of shoes have larger, roomier, “toe-boxes” at the front of the shoe that allow the toes to spread out and move naturally when walking or running. There is quite a bit of research emerging about this being a positive upgrade for footwear, and it may be worth a try regardless of if you have wide or narrow feet.
Leave A Little Room
Lastly, when choosing a shoe or boot that fits you well, keep in mind that your feet change size. Even if you are an adult and done growing, your feet will swell with hot temperatures as well as with physical activity.
When backpacking, your feet may swell a small amount, which could be problematic if you shoes are already extremely snug. To avoid this, make sure you have a tiny bit of room between your longest toe and the end of the shoe.
Also keep in mind that some footwear, such as full leather shoes, may stretch in size over time, I discuss this concept in further detail below.
Know Where You're Headed...
Before you even begin the process of trying to find the perfect fit, you can narrow down your possible choices by knowing where you will be doing your backpacking. The terrain and typical climate will dictate what will be the best footwear for your backpacking trip.
If your excursion will be largely on uneven and rocky paths, mid or high ankle boots are good options for support and protecting your ankles from rolling. If the trails will be fairly groomed, or if you are looking for a lightweight option, hiking shoes or even trail-running shoes are a great choice.
Some podiatrists argue that the best way to safely support your ankles is through regular exercises designed to specifically strengthen your ankle and foot muscles. Strong muscles can purportedly reduce ankle roll injuries caused by missteps or uneven terrain.
Weather is another factor to consider when choosing the best footwear for you. If your backpacking trip is headed toward wet areas or in a climate with a lot of rain, then look for options that are tagged as “water-proof”.
If you will be in a hot and dry climate, say, a desert, then look for well ventilated footwear. Mesh or breathable materials will be key for expeditions in hot arid conditions.
Does your backpacking trip take you through snowy or alpine trails? If so, then consider warmer boots that are designed for snow and ice. Also make sure that they are compatible with strap on crampons, which are attachable metal spikes that protrude downwards, and help grip in icy conditions.
Lastly, consider the tread (the pattern of rubber on the bottom of the shoe) when choosing footwear. If you will be ascending steep trails, then look for large tread that will grip well and keep you from sliding.
Once you know where you will be backpacking, you can look for footwear with features that will best support you.
It's a Material World...
The last thing to consider when choosing the best footwear for your backpacking adventure is the material that they are made of. Most shoes and boots are made of either leather or a synthetic material, both of which have their advantages and disadvantages.
Leather is a popular option, and a timeless standby. Early hiking footwear was made almost exclusively of leather, and continues to be used by many manufacturers today. Leather is durable and protects the foot well. Not only does it last a long time, but it naturally shapes itself to your foot over time.
When you purchase leather shoes or boots, they will likely be stiff, and will need a break in period. This time can vary depending on the shoe, but plan to wear and break in your shoes well before your backpacking trip.
A surefire way to ruin your adventure is to have blisters and sores from rigid shoes that have not yet been broken in. Also, keep in mind that the “breaking-in” of leather means that it is stretching slightly, and may slightly increase in overall size. If the new shoes are already a bit big, they will likely become larger than desired after they stretch.
Leather is also a great material for footwear because it can be treated to become water resistant or water proof. Some will be sold like this, and some will require you to purchase water-proof sprays and apply it yourself.
Disadvantages of leather include heat, weight, and price. Compared to synthetic footwear, leather can create a hot environment for the foot. This can be detrimental if your adventures take you to a very warm climate. They also tend to weigh more than synthetic shoes, and typically cost a bit more as well.
Synthetic materials in footwear offer an alternative to leather, and bring several advantages to the table. They can be crafted to fit many needs; a highly breathable mesh for hot weather shoes, or liquid impermeable layers for a waterproof boot.
Typically synthetics are more lightweight than leather, but can also be less durable. Compared to their alternative, they are more susceptible to tears and rips. Waterproof synthetic material can also make the foot sweat, even if they are billed as “breathable”. Prepare for lower prices and more color options when selecting synthetic footwear.
Off the Beaten Path
When exploring what footwear is right for your backpacking adventures, do not be afraid to try on a less than conventional design. In recent years some unique and seemingly-strange options have entered the market.
These unconventional options include toe shoes, hiking sandals, and minimalist designs. The popularity of these innovations has risen quite a bit, and many people have come to swear by their new found footwear that favors function over tradition.
Hey, you just may find the perfect shoe or even sandal for your backpacking needs from a totally unique type of footwear. You will never know until you try them on and take some laps around the store. In fact, some of these companies will offer trial periods for you to experiment and return if necessary, which is a great opportunity to try something new.
Your feet are very unique. To protect them and yourself you need a shoe that fits them well. Fortunately, there are great options out there.
The best thing you can do to get a perfect fit is to try on as many as you can. Tinker with ½ sizes above or below your normal for each model and don’t forget to try wide sizes. If a store does not have the wide size in stock, order the shoe online, and return if necessary.
It is very important to take the time to find footwear that fits well, so start the process of trying them on and breaking them in long before your planned expedition. Happy hiking!