Your choice of trekking shoes can make your trek a blissful or blister-full experience based on how well it fits you. A good pair of trekking shoes is the most essential piece of equipment you will use while hiking.
Given the variety and multitudes of choices we have in the market these days, we asked Sarthak, our Exploration Leader (former) to guide us on how to go about choosing one. In this article he answers with winsome detail all the questions we had on how to choose the perfect pair of trekking shoes.
So, where does one begin when it comes to choosing trekking shoes?
As you already know there are a variety of shoes in the market these days. So, when it comes to choosing trekking shoes, you don’t begin with the shoes first. Instead, you focus on the nature of the trek/hike for which you are buying your shoes.
What is the terrain like?
Is it a 1 day hike or a multiple day trek?
How much load are you likely to be carrying?
Are there river crossings to negotiate?
Which season will you be trekking in?
And so on and so forth…
Could you explain how we study the nature of a trek with some examples?
Sure, let’s pick some from our portfolio itself.
Simple treks like Nag Tibba or Dayara Bugyal have well-paved trails. Since they are 3-4 days long at most, you will only need to carry a lightweight backpack.
When we go a little higher up on our Rating Scale, we have weeklong treks like Rupin Pass, Kashmir Great Lakes and Goechala. The terrain is wilder and rougher, the duration is longer and backpacks are considerably heavier. The shoes may also need to be built for negotiating boulders, snow and river crossings.
And at the end of the spectrum, we have our full-stride mountaineering expeditions. The duration is the longest, backpacks are at their heaviest and there are all sorts of terrain to negotiate. Glaciers, wide open crevasses, scree, moraine, you name it and you have it.
If you think about it, our trekking shoes are the one equipment we spend the most time in while on a hike. So, the nature and rigour of the trek and the load you will be carrying, which ultimately falls on your shoes, are crucial factors to keep in mind while buying one.
Thank you, that was quite insightful. Now, say we have narrowed in on the nature of the trek, what do we do next?
According to your need, there are different types of trekking shoes available in the market. Broadly speaking, we have three kinds.
- Hiking shoes: They are low-cut models with flexible rubber soles. These are lightweight and offer only minimal support to the ankle. So they are perfect for easy hikes (1-4 days long) with well paved trails.
They are easily available in the range of INR 2000 to 3500 from regular brands like Woodland, Wildcraft, Himgear, and Quechua. Other brands like Columbia, etc. are costlier but have different useful features.
- Trekking Shoes: Trekking Shoes are higher cut versions of hiking shoes. This is the category you require for the Himalayan treks. They are water-resistant, mid-rise ankle trekking boots that are made with stiffer construction to provide you with more ankle support and protection on rougher terrains.
This is the category needed for most of the Himalayan treks. The shoe is available in the range of INR 3500 to INR 6500 from regular brands like Wildcraft, Himgear, and Quechua. Other brands like Columbia, etc. are costlier but have additional useful features.
- Mountaineering boots: Mountaineering boots are big, burly, and stiff to withstand any gnarly terrain or weather. The high-rise ankle is more robust and suitable for challenging mountaineering expeditions which require technical climbing and negotiation over crevasse ridden glaciers, vertical ice walls, narrow ridgelines in extreme weather conditions. The high rise support prevents twisting and spraining of ankles. They also have an extra layer of insulation to protect your feet from frigid temperatures.
These are technical boots and should be purchased only by professionals. These may be required on some of our challenging mountaineering expeditions like Mt. Nun and Mt Satopanth but these are available on rent for occasional use.
Once you have identified the type of trekking shoes you need, we get down to the finer details of the shoe itself.
What are these?
Okay, let's begin with the construction of the trekking shoe.
The trekking shoe has three main components to its construction and aesthetic which determine its durability, comfort and the grip it offers on different terrain.
- The Upper:
The upper part of the shoe impacts the weight, durability, breathability and the water-resistance of the shoe.
So the first thing one needs to study is the material used to construct the upper part of the shoes. The two main materials that are generally used in the market are leather and synthetic leather.
Leather shoes are the best option for ensuring durability, protection, and comfort. The grade of leather used affects aesthetics and their waterproofing capacity. Full-grain,top-grain and split leather are a few available options in the market.
Note: Leathers are naturally water-resistant to a degree. However, they are not water-proof. They need extra conditioning/treatment to make them water-proof.
Of these, full grain leather sits at the top of the chain offering the best quality and aesthetics. The term “full” in full grain leather means that it has been used wholly without undergoing any kind of buffing or sanding to remove imperfections. This makes the leather the most water-resistant, abrasion-resistant and most appealing to the eye. Since only certain parts of the animal hide are suitable to make full-grain leather, it is more expensive than the other leathers available in the market.
Top grain leather, unlike full-grain leather, undergoes light sanding of up to a few millimetres. This makes the leather thinner and more uniform than full grain. This means shoes made of this material are less durable, water-resistant and abrasion resistant when compared to their full-grain counterparts.
Split-leather, lies at the lower end of the spectrum. It offers the least durability and resistance to water and abrasion.
If you are looking for a vegan option for your shoes, you can go with synthetic leather with the same functionality as leather.
- Most hiking and trekking shoes (refer to Types of Trekking shoes) have Synthetic uppers made of polyester or nylon. They are light, dry quickly, cost less and do not require long break-in periods. However, they are not very durable or water resistant.
- Some synthetic uppers have a DWR (durable water repellent) membrane that improves water resistance, but compromises on breathability.
- Understanding the grade of leather used is especially crucial when choosing boots for mountaineering expeditions. Leather uppers are not as breathable or light as synthetic uppers. They also require a significant break in period, but are excellent for carrying heavy loads, and are very durable.
- Most modern trekking boots use a combination of split grain leather and nylon mesh for making their uppers.
The sole is where the comfort and stability of a shoe live.
It provides stiffness to the shoes and cushioning to your feet. Therefore, the sole of your shoe should be solid enough to protect you from any abrasive shock while walking on long, rocky terrains.
The most commonly used materials for constructing the sole are EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) and Polyurethane.
The lug patterns at the bottom of your shoes define the grip a shoe offers while trekking in the mountains. It eases your walk through dirt, trail, or ground.
The deeper and thicker the lug pattern is, the more traction it ensures to your feet.
The raised heel zone at the bottom of your shoe, also known as the ‘heel brake’, reduces your chances of slipping during steep descents.
Note: The construction of most trekking shoes is crampon compatible. Nevertheless, check if your shoes are compatible with crampons and mid-spikes before buying them.
After you study the construction of the shoe and pick out a brand that suits you and your needs, you finally need to try out the shoe to check how well it fits.
A tight fitting trekking shoe can give you blisters. The right fit, bliss!
A trekking shoe must be large enough to have room to wiggle. Your toes should not touch the front of the shoebox when laced up.
When you try on your shoes, ensure you are wearing socks that you would use while trekking. This will help you zero in on the right size as socks sometimes require more space.
Note: Foot structures could differ between men and women. So, manufacturers have started designing slimmer shoes keeping in mind the foot structure of women for the same these days. You can look out for these as well while in the shop.
Next, try out the different lacing techniques (toe-relief lacing, window lacing, etc) on your trekking shoes to see if they lift the pressure off of specific areas of your feet. This feature is especially handy on long treks.
Please refer to the following article to find out what these techniques are and the purposes they serve:
And lastly, ensure you break into your new shoes before heading out on your first trek/mountaineering expedition
Heading out to buy trekking shoes for yourself? Go easy on your feet and follow the above simple steps before you complete your packing list.
And here is a bonus read for which you can thank us later: How to avoid and treat blisters on the Trek.