Selecting the Perfect Hiking Shoes

If you're new to hiking, choosing the right pair of hiking shoes can seem a daunting task. Here are some issues to consider before you buy.

As an avid hiker of trails rated up to intermediate/difficult in mountainous western Pennsylvania, I went through quite a lot of shoes before finding the perfect hiking pair. Many hikers swear by boots specifically designed just for hiking. Others are loyal to certain brands of athletic shoes. By considering your hiking style, your normal shoe preferences, and your fitness level, you can find the perfect hiking shoe for you.

Your Hiking Style

Will you be hiking on flat surfaces such as a bike trail, or up and down hills? On flat ground, your heel strikes first. You'll want good heel cushioning and the flexibility of the arch may not matter so much. If you're tackling steep hills, however, an inflexible sole will quickly exhaust your arches, calves and ankles as you forge uphill. Coming downhill, you'll want the flexibility to rotate your ankles to allow you to brake yourself or avoid obstacles. To test the sole flexibility, don't be afraid to bend the shoes in the store. If you can't bend it with your hands, your poor arches will have a tough time doing it for hours.

Also, consider whether or not there is any possibility of stepping in mud or water. Thick, heavy hiking boots can take days to dry out, whereas a lighter athletic shoe can be tossed in the dryer. However, be aware that if you select athletic shoes, you will need to carry extra socks in your pack. Nothing is more uncomfortable than continuing to hike if your socks have soaked through due to a misstep. Be sure to check shoes for laundering and care instructions before you buy.

Your Normal Shoe Preferences

If you have worn low-top shoes your entire adult life, don't hold out much hope that high-top hiking boots are going to be comfortable. Many hiking purists insist you need high-topped boots to protect you from turning your ankles. This is not true. No high-top boot will stop your ankle from turning poorly, only strength can do that. Strength is built up over time. Choose a shoe that is similar to most of what you already own in terms of style and top height.

For women who wear high heels frequently, consider hiking shoes with a built-in rise in the heel. Or, consider heel inserts. Your calf muscles can shorten over years of heel-wearing, making hours in a flat stance painful. As your calves lengthen and become accustomed to hiking, you can then remove the inserts or get new, flatter shoes. Remember to keep the original pair, in case your calves contract again over a hiking hiatus.

Your Fitness Level

For beginners making the transition from couch potato to hiker, a light athletic shoe is best. Hold the shoes in your hand at the store. If they feel even the slightest bit heavy, they will feel like lead weights after a few hours on the trail. Make sure the shoes feel extra-soft and have a thick layer of cushioning inside. Don't be afraid to buy inserts to beef up the padding. Your feet are going to be sore at first, there is no way around it. You can lessen the pain by choosing a light, cushy hiking shoe.

For those who are already in decent shape, hit the trails in your gym shoes first. You may decide they are perfect as-is. If not, you'll know within a few hours what would feel better, and that will help guide you in your hiking shoe purchase.

In summation, hiking shoe needs are as individual as the hiker. By keeping in mind your hiking terrain, what you normally wear, and your fitness level, you can select the perfect hiking shoes for your needs. Happy trails!