A short paper questioning the need for hiking boots. During my time at Lakehead I have come to realize that most people in the recreation industry, in the name of safety and professionalism, tend to wear rigid hiking boots with soles that could swipe the face off mother earth with just one hike. The arguments for using hiking boots may include issues such as support, protection, dryness and comfort, but let’s re-think these claims. I would like to share a different philosophy on outdoor footwear because I do not believe that many people have given much serious thought or question to the ‘norms’ of the industry on such an important issue. I have used hiking boots myself but have for several years now have been using sneakers, moccasins or preferably just bare-feet. Lend me your eye good people and allow me to explain the reasons for my deviant behaviour.
First, consider what hiking boots are and what they do. How much erosion is caused by the viciously lugged soles of hiking boots? Have you ever questioned why we have raised heels under our feet? Some authorities recommend high heels, others do not. I’ve discussed this topic with the sales people at various shoe stores (which did not carry any flat soled footwear). I was told we really needed high heels to absorb impact. I of course contemplated aloud this claim and then left, leaving us both to ponder the others saneness. Are our ankle joints and feet muscles so helpless that armoured ankle support and stiff soles have become necessary? Has the thousands of years of evolution let us down with respect to our feet and gait, so much so, that we need a heel raised, padded, stiff soled, nobby treaded, ankle supporting devices to walk safely in the woods? If our feet and ankles need extra support, then would it not be nice to go all the way up to our knees and brace them also? O.K. I’m being silly, but: “Look at the shit we wear on our feet”, as stated by Tom Brown Jr., well known tracker and author of various wilderness guide books, and founder of the popular outdoor wilderness school ( Tom Brown Jr., personal communication 1992). Brown states that people have become clumsy in their walking gait and too accused to walking heavily on their heels which is compensated for by wearing thick heel pads under-foot. It is no small wander that we have become clumsy in the woods after spending so much time in the flat paved jungles of our urban centres. and a growing number of others prefer flat, soft soled shoes for many reasons.
By landing heavily on our heels we send jolts directly up our spine to our head (landing heavily on heels, bare foot on a hardwood floor is a good way to feel the jolting). Did you know that headaches are sometimes caused by this type of walking? Some martial arts, back specialists and a small sect of outdoor enthusiasts actually spend a great deal of time practising a smooth, quiet and skilful walk or gait. Gait or walking patterns can be developed a great deal and can waiver any need to compensate a clumsy walk with IMPACT absorbing heels. What about glass and sharp stones? There is a gait, or a skilful way to walk which when practised and developed, allows the feet to feel the ground for obstructions. This type of walk is a philosophy in itself but in 26 words or less: with erect posture and prior to committing weight, land slightly on the outside of the foot, then roll inwards thereby feeling the ground, then apply weight. I personally have stepped on glass in deep grass (unintentionally of course), in bare feet with no injury due to this type of walking gait.
Are hiking boots nothing more than “something worn by people in urban infrastructures in an attempt to appear more ecologically conscious thereby riding some kind of environmental wave” (Yee, D, personal communication 1995)? “Raised footwear, such as hiking boots, increase your chances of twisting an ankle or injury, flat soled runners are more appropriate for hiking” (Martin, T., RN, personal communication 1995). It seems obvious to me that stiff, heavy, elevated footwear can be nothing more than clumsy and awkward. Hiking boots tend to catch rocks, roots and other obstructions far more frequently than flat soled runners, moccasins or bare feet. With respect to twisting an ankle, picture yourself walking across the side of a steep incline. It is natural for your ankles to absorb, to some extent, the extra twist put on them by the slope. If the ankles were supported to the extent that limits this capability, we would have to absorb the added stress in other joints like our knees or hips. Also, by limiting the full movement of our feet and ankles, we would actually be more prone to tumbling from lost flexibility, thereby relying too much on a tread to hold our grip. Of course, a clumsy gait and/or underdeveloped feet and ankle muscles (caused partly by cast-like footwear), is a concern for safety.
Lightweight shoes or moccasins allow one to feel the ground and offer free movement for a more natural walk. Our feet muscles need exercise and when encased in supportive footwear, the muscles are not being used to the same extent. Like wearing a cast, the muscles become weak from under use, and that is a real shame. Consider this parable: in the game of hockey, players with plastic moulded skates have considerable support and protection but, when compared to canvass skates, which have much less protection and support, are sadly outperformed. There are other comparisons that can be used, such as the game of squash or volleyball. These sports demand quick sudden turns and twists but the footwear used is flat, soft soled and lightweight with no ankle support.
Well then, is it appropriate for outdoor recreational users in terms of backpacking or hiking to wear hiking boots? Or are they just an aesthetic feature of the outdoor experience, conjured up by various footwear factions, hoping to convince people to buy something other than what is necessary (like so many other trivial gadgets and gear that are supposed offer enhanced technique but all to often simply replace traditional skill).
The Quabaug rubber company of Massachusetts are the American manufacturers of Vibram soles (the most widely used lug sole). Quabaug co. was concerned enough about the erosion caused by hiking boots that they developed alternative soles which would be less damaging. The companies president, Herbert Varnum, did not believe these alternative soles would do well because they did not have the ‘climbing look’ (Watterman 1982). One point for fashion.
The Vermont Green Mountain Club has urged people not to hike in the early spring when trails are wet because of the damage done by hiking boots and went on to say “Take off your Vibram soled shoes as soon as you can” and “sneakers, moccasins, or even bare feet, have far less impact on the ground cover” (Watterman 1982).
In an article in Backpacker Magazine, knowledgeable New England hiker Nicholas Howe, stated that during the second world war the army calculated the fatigue difference that heavy footwear caused. The army found that the extra weight of a little sand in the foot-soldiers shoes (in the desert) accounted for the consumption of an extra 250 lbs of rations / person / 6 months. Watterman (1982), stated that if a sneaker weighs .75 lbs (for example) , then over a mile (2 000 steps) the totalled weight lifted would be 1400 lbs. A hiking boot (even light weight ones) are at least twice or more like 4-5 times the weight of a sneaker, and many times the weight of a moccasin, so the weight lifted over a mile would be considerably more.
In another article in Backpacker Magazine, a hiker named William Harlow stated that every hiking-boot track [in the right soil conditions] often raises or loosens 1 ounce of dirt. Over the distance of 1 mile (at 2 ½’ stride), 120 pounds of dirt will have been displaced and will wash away at the next rainfall. So a group of 4 hikers (wearing hiking boots), walking 5 miles could be accountable for 1 ton of dirt being washed away. Harlow pleaded readers to wear smooth, soft soled footwear to avoid this (Watterman 1982).
Can we really get away from the hiking boot and all it offers? Hiking can be very strenuous. Should we take the chance and wear footwear that is not as tough and durable as our modern hiking boot? Gatewood, a grandmother, hiked 2000 miles on the Appalachian trail , 3 times, the first time at age 67 with sneakers (Watterman 1982). Trudy Healy another grandmother, did all 46 of the 4000 ft. mountains in the Adirondacks, 6 times in sneakers (so did her children) and went on to write the first guide to rock climbing in that region (Watterman 1982). It seems clear to me that an average person can get by without hiking boots, yay and verily perhaps even better off without them.
In summary and comparison: hiking boots are comfortable, but not as comfortable as sneakers or moccasins. Hiking boots are lighter now days and so are sneakers. Hiking boots offer more support than any other footwear but simulate casts. Do hiking boots have the treads needed for hiking? For the most rigorous adventures maybe, but sneakers work fine with less ill effect. Do hiking boots keep feet dry? Expensive ones, some of the time, but sneakers can be treated or have overshoes put on and they dry out more quickly. Hiking boots will keep the feet warmer but so does an extra pair of socks not to mention a nice lined mukluk. Hiking boots last longer but one could buy 2 pairs of shoes for the same price. Sneakers do require stronger feet muscles along a little bit of attention to gait pattern and footing, should that be a problem!?!
(To the beat of Carrot Juice is Murder by The Arrogant Worms who used the beat of the piano man by ‘whats his name’)
1. Hiking boots are casts worn by people, who don’t seem to care for their feet. Don’t think that feet don’t have feelings, just because boots mask their screams. Boots kill vegetation, clawing and thrashing the trail, hiking would be so easy, if we would just let our feet be. “Chorus”
I heard the screams from the vegetation, watching as boots tear up the trails, degraded and eroded with no mercy, how do you think that it feels (that it hurts really bad). Hiking boots constitutes weak feet, by not allowing our feet to move, your feet really want to support you, but right now they can’t seem to move. Most feet live in oppression, trapped in overpriced Serrels, Its time to stop all this madness, yes even if its ½ price on sale.
2. How low as people do we dare to stoop, Making young people sport hiking boots. Sneakers are cheap, moccasins are better don’t wear hiking boots just to look better. Untie your feet, unleash those laces, let all feet be free, for the next generation. (chorus)
, T (1983) Field Guide to Wilderness Survival Berkley Publishing Co.
Watterman, G (1982) Backwoods Ethics Stone Wall Press Inc.
By Chad Clifford