One of the most unpleasant parts of backpacking, especially over long distances, is the wear and tear on your feet. Fortunately, this issue can be mitigated with proper footwear.
Think about it: you are earning a heavy load on your back which is evenly distributed across your upper body. Unfortunately, your feet still have to carry all that weight over varying terrain. Footwear not designed to provide comfort and support while hiking can quickly lead to blisters, infection and overall discomfort on the trail.
The footwear you select should also take into account the weather likely to be encountered during the trip. I know plenty of backpackers perfectly content hiking in sandals during the summer, but this choice obviously wouldn’t be appropriate while trudging through a snow-covered trail in winter.
We just got finished talking about weight but there is something else you should consider specifically when shopping for footwear. Studies have proven that one pound of weight on your foot is equal to five pounds of weight on your back. Think about that for a moment…
And since you are just getting into backpacking as a hobby, let’s take the brutal winter hikes off the table for the time being. There will be plenty of time to strap snowshoes, crampons and an ice axe to your pack in the future. For now, let’s focus on mild weather backpacking.
That means you do not need heavy hiking boots with insulation, waterproof membranes and everything else. In fact, you don’t need boots at all.
Ankle support is a myth
Most of us have heard that wearing footwear with a high cut is good for ankle support. You may be thinking this is especially important when backpacking since you will have extra weight on your back while traveling over rough terrain.
I’m telling you right now that a hiking boot does not provide ankle support anymore than a good pair of running shoes does. The thin layer of leather or synthetic fabric isn’t going to support anything.
What does provide ankle support? The heel cup of the shoe or boot. That is why many hikers choose lightweight hiking shoes or sandals when trekking in mild weather. They provide adequate support while still allowing your feet to breathe and move naturally. That is the type of footwear you need to avoid injury and uncomfortably sweaty feet.
In mild weather, my footwear of choice is either a pair of hiking sneakers (basically lightweight running shoes with improved grip on the bottom of the sole) or hiking sandals. Either choice is good because they provide support for the foot while protecting it from sharp objects on the trail without being heavy or hot.
Lightweight hiking boots are also a good choice – especially the three-season models commonly available – because they provide a lightweight option that is good even when the weather is less than ideal.
Make like cinderella and try on the shoe!
Although I am usually a proponent of shopping online for good deals, the shoes or boots you use while hiking should NEVER be purchased online. You cannot possibly ensure a proper fit when browsing through images on the Internet.
You need to spend some time (a few hours if necessary) to find the shoes or boots that fit your feet properly. Any slippage, pressure points or parts of the shoe that aren’t completely comfortable will be exponentially worse on the trail. Many a backpacking trip has been outright ruined simply because someone didn’t take the time to select appropriate footwear.
The best way to do this is to shop at a store specializing in outdoor gear. The staff are usually very knowledgeable and often these locations have special equipment available that allows you to test the fit of a particular shoe at an incline to see how it feels. Trust your own judgment when it comes to finding what works and what doesn’t but the employees at these stores are typically invaluable when it comes to selecting footwear and other essential gear.
And don’t forget to keep the weight of the shoe in mind at all times! The lighter, the better.
Socks aren’t an afterthought
The shoes you choose for backpacking are important. Almost as important are the socks you choose to go inside these shoes. A good sock should provide cushioning, protect your feet from abrasions, wick away moisture effectively and maintain an ideal temperature.
Cotton socks do not do this. In fact, cotton is a bad choice for anything in your pack because when it absorbs moisture it loses its ability to maintain a consistent temperature, loses its shape and becomes wrinkled (which often leads to blisters). Cotton also takes forever to dry compared to other materials.
The best choice for hiking socks is wool. Wool is light, fluffy and capable of maintaining a consistent temperature even when wet. This is especially important for cold weather hiking or times when you may have to cross streams, creeks or small rivers during your walk.
Specifically, the best socks are made from Merino wool. This material is more expensive than even many of the newer synthetic options, but it is well worth the cost.
It may seem like an inconsequential accessory but I assure you that skimping on your socks is not a good idea. After all, at best you will have two pairs (the one on your feet and one extra). Get something comfortable that can be rejuvenated with a quick dip in some cold water along the trail when they need a quick freshening up. Merino is also less smelly after a few days on the trail compared to other wool blends — something you and your hiking companions will definitely appreciate during the trip.
Some of the wool/synthetic hybrid socks work extremely well too. Synthetic fibers tend to be more durable and are usually found in the toe and heel areas and can greatly increase the longevity of your socks.
Regardless of which material you choose, make sure to keep dry socks on your feet. Wet socks make your feet soft and prone to blistering. A blister on the trail is not a fun experience. Either switch out the socks or take a break to let them dry whenever they become waterlogged or excessively wet from sweat.
One final note about socks: choose socks based on the conditions you expect. Heavy wool socks have no place in your bag for a summer weekend excursion but the dangers of frostbite are quickly realized when too thin of a sock is chosen for cold weather hikes.
Kicking it at camp
Another footwear consideration is comfort shoes when in camp. The best option is a pair of cheap flip-flops. Made of thin foam and plastic, these type of shoes only weigh about three ounces and allow your feet to breathe after a day on the trail while protecting your feet from sharp objects around camp.
Although we aren’t focusing on cold weather backpacking, you could easily switch out flip-flops for a pair of insulated booties for wandering around camp in the cold.
Either option takes up very little space and is a welcome treat after a long day. Believe me when I tell you that your feet will appreciate it.