After being in this business a long time, I can tell you the one common denominator in nearly every outdoor pursuit is the need for the right footgear. Experienced hikers don't hike or backpack in cheap, flimsy sneakers. Avid mountain bikers don't pedal backcountry trails in sport sandals. And climbers don't climb in backpacking boots. Of course, you're welcome to give any of these a go on your next big trip if you need convincing—just pre-register your insurance info with the ER to save time and get to those pain meds faster.
Each different outdoor sport has its own specialized footgear designed to aid in performance and protection; hence, each different kind of footgear has its own specialized fit and features to accomplish those two things. A climbing shoe, for example, is not made for the trail, period. It is made to grip the small ledges and other natural protrusions on hard vertical surfaces, mostly by the outer edges of its sole and its toe area. The bottom of this shoe is dead flat, with no tread whatsoever. And comfort is a very relative term; as knowledgeable climbers will tell you, "if they ain't tight, they ain't right."
So, it's really important to spend a little time picking the brains of a few legitimate experts before getting into a new sport and dropping a couple hundred bucks on footgear (or any other gear for that matter). Since I can't cover all the different kinds here, I'll offer some tried and true tips on the one kind almost all outdoor enthusiasts use, which is hiking footwear. Aside from being an outdoor pursuit in its own right, hiking is something we often do to get us to the places where we do other stuff, such as climb, fish, paddle, hunt, etc.
When choosing hiking shoes, FORGET THE NUMBERS. The numerical size of a shoe is nothing more than a starting point toward finding the correct fit. Shoes can vary by as much as two full sizes from one brand or style to another. Following is a simple guide for scoring a hiking shoe that provides the level of comfort, performance and protection you need for the kind of hiking you do:
1. Shop for shoes at the end of the day when your feet are slightly swollen.
2. Try on shoes with the same high quality hiking socks you plan to wear.
3. Pick a quality, name brand made specifically for hiking; don't buy online.
4. Pick a style made for the kind of hiking you do, i.e., easy vs long, tough day
hikes; short, light overnights vs heavier multi-day trips; waterproof vs
non-waterproof; all leather vs fabric and leather.
5. Try on at least two sizes in each different style you're considering.
6. For proper length: pull out the insole and stand on it with your heel even
with the back edge; there should be about a finger's width now between
the end of your longest toe and the front edge of the insole.
7. For proper width: notice if the sides of your forefoot push out against the
sides of the shoe and if your toes feel confined—the shoe is likely too
narrow; if there is extra leather or fabric when you pinch the front sides
of the shoe and your foot can move easily from side to side, the shoe is
8. Make sure the heel is snug in the heel cup.
9. Consider a quality, high-support insole. Factory insoles are flimsy and
pretty much useless.
10. Your shoes/boots should fit snugly all over without feeling tight and have
wiggle room in the toe box. Allow for break-in time before the first trip.
A great pair of hiking shoes or boots is core gear for almost any outdoor enthusiast. But they shouldn't be used as all-purpose footwear when another activity calls for something else. Always use the right outdoor gear for the sport you're doing. You'll enjoy it a whole lot more and get to do it longer, safer and better.
David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at Mahoney's in Johnson City and online at www.ramseyphotos.com