This article will take a look at hiking boots and discuss some of the most common misconceptions about this style of footwear. We’ll debunk the biggest hiking boot myths and examine why conventional hiking boots cause foot problems in so many people. We'll also put forward our own definition of what constitutes foot-healthy hiking footwear and highlight several models that have worked great for us and others out on the trail.
Three Big Myths About Hiking Boots
The three BIG myths about hiking boots are the following:
1. That they absolutely must possess a rigid upper with brace-like ankle support to help prevent ankle sprains
2. That they absolutely must possess a thick, rigid, heavily lugged sole to protect the foot from trail features and debris
3. That they absolutely must be heavy-duty (i.e., clunky) to be durable and effective
Addressing the Myths
The hiking boot myths noted above are deeply rooted in our collective consciousness. Let's tackle these misconceptions one by one to gain a better understanding of where they came from and why the logic behind them is faulty.
Myth #1: Rigid Uppers Prevent Ankle Sprains
Many people believe that hiking boots need to have a rigid upper that braces the ankle to protect against inversion sprains (i.e., a forceful rolling of the ankle that damages ligaments on the outside of the ankle). The truth is, what protects the ankle from inversion sprains is not stiff material surrounding the ankle, but rather strong and healthy tendons and ligaments crossing the ankle joint. No amount or type of upper material can actually immobilize the ankle joint, and even if it were possible to do so, this is not, in any way, a desirable or favorable action. The foot and lower leg need to be able to function as nature intended.
The best way to prevent ankle sprains is to develop foot and lower leg strength through the act of wearing footwear that allows your feet to become strong and resilient on their own. Footwear that puts your entire foot on a level plane and close to the ground and that allows your toes to splay naturally creates a much more stable base of support that can help prevent ankle rolls. Also, footwear with only a minimum amount of material between the foot and the ground (for basic protection of the sole) lowers your foot's center of gravity, which has the beneficial effect of reducing the likelihood of an ankle sprain. A thinner and more flexible outsole also enables the foot to feel the ground better, and this feedback to the brain enables the foot to make appropriate micro adjustments that ultimately minimize injury.
Myth #2: Heavily Lugged Soles are an Absolute Necessity
The idea that hiking boots must possess thick, rigid, heavily lugged soles in order to protect the foot and improve foot function is deeply ingrained in our culture. This myth stems from the notion—often put forward by healthcare practitioners and the footwear industry—that our feet are inherently weak and flawed and must be supported in thick-soled footwear in order to avoid injury and perform at their best. Thick soles, it's reasoned, offer greater protection and comfort.
The biggest problem with rigid, inflexible soles is that they hold your foot in a compromised and deformed position, both during activity and at rest. Stiff soles, when combined with other problematic shoe design elements, effectively immobilize your foot in an abnormal configuration and prevent your foot structures from performing the way nature intended.
Stiff-soled shoes are also an impediment to mindful walking. Footwear with thinner, more flexible soles improves your ability to sense and feel the ground, which allows you to adjust your foot position “on the fly” to help prevent an inappropriate or injurious foot placement. In truth, very little material is needed between the foot and the ground for adequate protection of the foot's sole.
The idea that heavily lugged soles are superior to other, less aggressive tread patterns is another myth perpetuated by the footwear industry. It seems intuitive on some level that big lugs would be helpful in navigating a variety of terrain, but the truth is that the kind of terrain most hikers encounter can be successfully traversed in footwear that possesses only minimal lugs or no lugs at all.
What creates optimal traction and stability is not lugs on the sole of your hiking boot, but rather a stable and healthy foot configuration inside a boot (or other type of footwear) that allows you to feel the ground. This configuration involves placing the foot on a completely flat surface and allowing the toes to spread out so that your feet can fully participate in the gait cycle and be the optimal support platform that your body needs.
Myth #3: Hiking Boots Must be Heavy-Duty
Somehow we've been conditioned to believe that hiking footwear must encase the foot and never let it see the light of day. The bulkier and more built up the boot, the better. What's truly amazing is to witness mountain porters in the High Himalayas transporting heavy building materials or even home appliances (such as refrigerators!) on their backs while wearing nothing more than a thin sandal on their feet (or, in some cases, no sandal at all). Or consider the Tarahumara, a Native American people of northwestern Mexico, who run ultramarathon distances in thin huaraches sandals.
In many parts of the world, people successfully travel long distances on foot, over varied terrain, using very simple footwear that lets the foot fully participate in the trekking experience. These unshod or minimally shod individuals experience few of the foot problems that plague individuals in shod societies. The truth is, there is a wide range of footwear options that can be appropriate for hiking, and hiking footwear can be exceptionally lightweight and minimalist. We'll explore a few of these options in a section below.
Problematic Elements in Conventional Hiking Boots
Having looked at some of the most common myths about hiking boots, let’s now briefly discuss the characteristics of conventional hiking boots that may lead to foot problems in trekkers. Most conventional hiking boots possess the injurious design features of heel elevation, toe spring, tapering toe boxes, and rigid, inflexible soles. These design features are common in most conventional footwear, though they are particularly problematic in hiking shoes, where the forces acting on the feet are significantly greater than at rest.
Conventional hiking boots force your toes into a wedge position and encourage the repetitive jamming of your toes into the end of the toe box, which can lead to sore feet and toes and excessive strain on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments acting on or supporting your feet, knees, and ankles (not to mention toe deformities, over time). Blisters and toenail issues (e.g., infections, bruising, nail loss, etc.) are additional problems that are commonly caused by conventional hiking boots.
Before we (Drs. Marty and Robyn Hughes) began wearing hiking footwear that accommodates natural toe splay, we both suffered from terrible lateral knee pain on long hikes, especially during the descents. Once we switched to zero drop (i.e., completely flat) footwear and repositioned our toes in the way nature intended, we experienced no further knee pain or discomfort while hiking or running. We also experienced no more ankle sprains, shin splints, or toenail issues, and our feet felt significantly better at the end of long hikes.
Please check out our article entitled Benefits of Wide Toe Boxes for Hiking for more info on this topic.
Definition of a Foot-Healthy Hiking Boot
Here is our definition of what constitutes a great hiking boot:
A great hiking boot is a boot that protects your feet from the elements while helping them become stronger and more resilient. A great hiking boot stays out of the way of your feet and toes and allows you to walk for many, many miles without developing common foot problems. A great hiking boot allows you to feel and sense the varied terrain that you trek upon and can be used in a variety of climatic conditions. A great hiking boot should, at the end of a long hike, leave your feet and toes in equal or better shape than before you set out. A great hiking boot may not, in some cases, be a boot at all, but rather an athletic shoe or sandal that’s designed with natural foot health in mind.
So, What Are Examples of Great Hiking Footwear?
Here is a selection of footwear that we have found, in our experience, to work well out on the trail:
Lems Boulder Boots
Hikers and trail walkers are raving about the Lems Boulder Boot, a comfortable, foot-healthy, ultralight, and flexible minimalist boot that works well in combination with Correct Toes and other natural footgear. This boot can be used for day hikes or multi-day treks. View men's and women's options.
Topo Athletic Shoes
A lot of hikers, both male and female, have found Topo Athletic Shoes to be a comfortable and versatile footwear option for the trail. These lightweight athletic shoes are excellent for a wide range of athletic activities, including hiking, trail running, and gym workouts. View men's and women's options.
Be Real Shoes
Be Real shoes are lightweight minimalist shoes that work well for a variety of outdoor and indoor activities. These shoes also work well on a variety of terrain, including on the trail and in the water, and they can make for excellent hiking footwear. View men's and women's options.
Luna Mono Sandals
Though most people don't immediately think of a sandal for hiking, in warmer temperatures, sports sandals can indeed be an excellent option. The Luna Mono is a foot-healthy sports sandal that can be used for a wide range of athletic activities, from hiking to trail running to water sports. Using lightweight, open-toe footwear for outdoor activities can add a fun new element to your regular workouts. View men's and women's options.