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Hiking Shoes: The Good and the Bad

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There is a plethora of footwear on the market today, and while fashion is a substantial factor in people’s footwear selections, the function of footwear must also be taken into consideration. As a pedorthist, I often see patients who are in pain because they have focused on footwear fashion rather than function during busy days at work and recreational activities. For example, one of the most frequent problems I see in my patients are people wearing a slip-on casual shoe for their after-work walks. Any form of prolonged walking requires functional footwear.

Hiking has become a growing hobby during this pandemic, leading to more Canadians exploring this beautiful country and its infinite hiking trails. During my own hikes, I can often tell who is a seasoned hiker and who is a beginner based on their footwear. The major difference: hiking shoes. But are they really necessary? This article will dive into the good and the bad of hiking shoes.

High-end footwear companies invest heavily in research and testing their footwear to ensure that they are effective for the activity they are marketed to. For this reason, it is important to consider building a footwear wardrobe that features both fashionable footwear for when we want to look our best as well as functional footwear for when we need our body to perform. One or two shoe types are not appropriate for all activities. I too often see patients that have injuries, aches and pains because they took their casual shoe or sneaker out for a hike. Trust me, your sneakers prefer the sidewalk and the backyard, leave them at home! For hiking, you need a proper hiking shoe or at the very least a sturdy walking/running shoe. It really comes down to what type of trail you are challenging!

Hiking Shoes: The Good

Hiking shoes are designed and engineered for protection from the elements. They feature a stiff rugged outsole (the rubber on the bottom of the shoe) that is designed for gripping various surfaces including dirt, rocks, mud and water and protecting your foot from stepping on sharp rocks. If you’ve ever walked a rugged trail in a typical pair of sneakers you know too well what it feels like to step on a sharp rock!

Another key feature in hiking footwear is that they have increased ankle support. The difference between a hiking shoe and a hiking boot is that typically the boot will have more ankle support. Hiking boots go above the ankle while hiking shoes stay below the ankle (similar to your sneakers). Choosing between these two types of hiking footwear depends on the terrain you are hiking on and your personal injury history. When hiking on uneven surfaces it is common to have quick twists and rotations of the ankle. The higher the boot goes above the ankle the more protection it provides from twisting or spraining an ankle. But don’t be fooled, this extra support is not going to prevent injury 100% of the time.

Hiking Shoes: The Bad

Remember that rigid outsole that is protecting you from sharp rocks? Well, the trade-off for this is that because of the thick rigid outsole, your feet (and your brain) cannot feel the ground as well as when you are barefoot. This means your brain is getting fewer signals from the feet to help try and figure out if you stepped on a flat surface, angled surface, or a sharp rock. Your brain (and therefore the muscles in your foot and ankle) has to react to the forces interacting between the hiking boot and your foot, rather than between your foot and the ground. This causes a very brief delay in your brain’s response (and therefore the contraction of muscles) which means your muscles have to contract faster to compensate for this lost time. This can increase the chance of a twisted ankle if your brain doesn’t have enough time to react to the uneven surface.

Twisted ankles happen to me frequently on hikes. For me it usually occurs when I am distracted by a view, an animal, or a conversation with a friend (and my history of ankle sprains does not do me any favours!). It is also very common for them to occur later in a hike when your brain (not your muscles) is tired. Yes, you can exhaust your nervous system! That is why you probably tuned out somewhere in the last paragraph! Have you ever noticed that when you are hiking on rugged terrain, you are constantly scanning and analyzing the terrain ahead of you with your eyes? This is your brain’s strategy to mitigate risk and find the easiest route. Now imagine walking that same terrain with your eyes closed. I would rather walk rugged terrain with my eyes closed in my bare feet than in my hiking boots because my brain will get more sensory information and I am less likely to twist my ankle.

In Conclusion

So, should everyone stop wearing hiking boots when hiking? Of course not, or, maybe. It depends on the type of trail you are challenging, your personal biomechanics, your personal injury history and how many sharp rocks are on the trail! Personally, I have a history of ankle sprains and I need all the ankle support I can get. I prefer a hiking boot with a highly supportive ankle and an outsole that protects me from sharp rocks but also allows me to feel the ground a bit, and yes, feel the odd really sharp rock. If you are challenging a fairly flat terrain with a well laid out path, you likely need a hiking shoe with a less rigid outsole and could probably get away with wearing a sturdy walking shoe. If you are hiking a serious trail with elevation, rocks, and water, you likely want a hiking boot with the increased protection of a rugged outsole; but remember the trade-off, you need to be mindful of your terrain and use your eyes to give your brain extra information about the trail ahead. Visually scanning your route ahead is more important than stressing about what exact level of rigid outsole and ankle support your hiking shoe features. Your eyes are going to protect you from ankle sprains far better than your hiking shoes.

Be mindful, and enjoy the trails!

by Brandon Nethercott, R. Kin, C. Ped (C)

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