I've always used any old shoes for hiking. Are there any real benefits to using specially made boots?
You are using your old used sneaker-like city-shoes, sport-shoes or jogging-shoes to go hiking? Well, those are made for really flat paths without lots of surface irregularities and they aren't designed for rough conditions (wet and/or cold, difficult terrain, bigger loose stones and so on). Saying that, hiking shoes/boots are better for those conditions, because:
- they offer more stability in the shaft so you aren't that likely to roll your ankle
- they have a special lacing which allows for more adaption
- they are often designed to be highly water-resistant (including membranes)
- they have a coarse structured sole which is anti-skidding
- they can have a thicker lining for colder conditions
- they are robust and aren't likely to break while on a longer trek
There are many who nowadays shun boots and prefer to have lightweight footwear in all terrains and most weather conditions.
It's worth having a look at Chris Townsend's website.
He has hiked many long distance trails, including some in the US and has put together an article on his blog about the topic of Lightweight Footwear.
It would be worth reading this article for the argument against hiking boots in most cases.
My ankles sprain easily. I have good quality walking boots that give good ankle support, because I need them. You may not. Everyone’s different. Yes, they’re heavier than runners, significantly heavier, in fact, but for my situation, they’re worth it. When I’m on rough terrain, and especially if I’m also carrying a heavy backpack, I can sprain my ankles very easily. I never have done wearing my walking boots.
Also, of course, there’s the fact that I do most of my walking here in Ireland, where conditions underfoot are often damp. Gore-Tex lining is awesome stuff.
Big, heavy "waffle stomper" boots are mainly a relic of the past, along with wool knickers and steel canteens. For most conditions, modern running shoes work far better. Any weight on your feet cuts down on your efficiency much more than a similar amount of weight on your back. Also, the heavier your boots get, the harder it is to keep from getting blisters, regardless of how hard you try to get the right fit. If you find it a nuisance to have pebbles always getting inside your low-cut running shoes, there are lightweight trail gaiters these days that you attach using velcro and a hook. (I buy them from dirtygirlgaiters.com.) For people like me who have wide feet, it tends to be easier to find running shoes that fit properly; in particular, nobody seems to make crampon-compatible boots in wide sizes.
Boots are better in certain specific conditions:
You know you have to walk through mud or cross a large number of shallow streams.
You'll be in snow all day.
You need something crampon-compatible.
You need to do a lot of bushwhacking through chaparral that includes cactus.
One of the justifications traditionally offered for heavy boots is that they gave ankle support, and some people felt that they needed the ankle support when carrying a heavy pack or on particularly rough terrain such as talus. Many people, however, do just fine in these conditions with running shoes. It's true that when crossing talus, boots will make you less vulnerable to an injury from a heavy rock that hits your ankle from the side or that falls on your toe.
The simple answer for me is that my feet hurt less. There are two factors that cause foot pain with regular shoes. The first is that rocks poke your feet through the soles. The second is that without good ankle support, you use more muscles in your feet to balance on uneven terrain.
Personally, I didn't realize how much pain was caused by my shoes until I tried proper hiking boots. I just thought that was an unavoidable part of hiking. I recommend trying a pair out and see what difference it makes in the kind of hiking you usually do. It's hard to explain the benefits without experiencing it for yourself.
The other benefit I haven't seen mentioned is snake bite protection. Rattlesnakes have pretty good camouflage, and I've had them strike my boot when I get too close without seeing them.
As someone who's done a decent amount of hiking both with proper boots and a standby I used for years, hightop skateboarding shoes, here's the three major differences I've noticed:
The boots definitely win in the waterproofness department. I would not do an extremely muddy trail in shoes.
The boots have better traction but the significance of this is less than it might seem. Skateboarding shoes, which have an almost completely smooth, flat sole, only have significant traction on dry, smooth rock -- but the sole is also very supple and flexible, making it easier to feel the ground, twist and torque from the ball and maintain your balance if you have strong ankles. I started out using them on weekend trips into the Hudson Highlands from NYC, and eventually did the Appalachian Trail through the whole state one week with them, including a fair bit of up and down with a 40 lb. pack, and never felt a lack of confidence in my shoes. I was way more impressed than I would have predicted this way.
Although I guess it depends on the individual article, the shoes are likely to be more comfortable and cooler than boots, probably because they don't have any rigidity, support, or padding in them.
I was also very surprised doing the Appalachian Trail the number of people I ran into wearing even less substantial things -- such as tennis shoes -- who claimed to be in the middle of doing months worth of the trail. Perhaps I'd just never noticed this before because I am someone who had always worn boots.
I've got a nice pair of light boots now that are great, but in a pinch I'd say if all you have are running shoes, etc., don't worry about it -- if you're like me, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
I have a friend I've done overnights with who swears by trail type sandles also. The thing that makes me most trepidatious about that is all the exposed skin, although I've never seen him suffer any because of it.
One advantage I'm missing so far is that hiking boots also protect the ankles against the outside (not only against sprainng): from getting scratched by or hitting stones, wooden branches sticking up, or stuff like blackberry twines (which I find very bad as they scratch heavily over the front part of the ankle, particularly where that tendon is).
Of course it is possible to hike safely on bare feet in these conditions, but it is going to be extremely slow compared to having a kind of boots that allows you to just forget these nuisances.
(For the rest of the legs I find the scratching far less annoying)
The simplest answer is this. Hiking boots, with their higher top, prevent material such as stones, mud, snow, and water from easily getting into the shoe.
If I hike on a graveled trail for example, I must empty my walking shoes of small stones about every 5 miles. In rougher conditions, it is easy to step into a puddle, or snow drift, that is more than ankle deep, so wearing a high top boot is quite important.
Good hiking boots also provide good arch and foot support. Even without the extra weight of a pack the constant stress on ones arches can be very fatiguing if not even damaging.
Although humans were originally designed to go without footwear, most people today do not have feet that can go miles and miles without proper arch, toe and foot support.
So, if one is going to be walking for miles, it is wise to provide the additional support the feet need to make the trek. Soft soled shoes typically do not provide that support.
A steel shank may also be of benefit to most people, as well, because it provides additional support for the arch.
I find that hiking boots help protect my ankles and feet from twigs and things that can scratch or hit against them, help prevent rain from getting in (I can wear long pants with sneakers but still water will get inside), and protect my toes from stubbing them against rocks and boulders. Also the soles of the hiking boot offer more traction than the typical sneaker. For these reasons, I always use hiking boots when I'm backpacking or even just doing day hikes.
I only wear hiking boots if there is significant off trail or heavy scree.
The last dozen or so expeditions (1 week + trips ~50 lb pack) I did I mostly wore MEC reef boots, or divers boots, sized to allow medium weight work socks.
The routes we did were mostly horse trails in Willmore Wilderness or in Rocky Clearwater Recreation Area (Alberta). With this combination, my feet were wet all day, but were warm. At camp I would change into dry socks and a pair of runners
It was rare that we didn't have a stream crossing per hour. Waterproof boots do no good in knee deep water. The first few crossings, we'd wait while a few would take off their boots and socks, walk over barefoot, get their socks wet putting them on wet feet... Then they came to their senses, realized that the socks were getting wet anyway, and would charge on through.
This combination doesn't work in snow. Feet get cold.
It doesn't work if there is a lot of shale or slate on the trails. Boots get cut up.
It's fine for rounded rock.
It's not a good solution if you have weak ankles, but I find that wearing this sort of footwear trains a new set of reflexes. You are far more aware of your foot placement, and you just don't turn them as often.
You walk very differently, with very little heal strike. You will feel every stone, every root on the trail. If you like going barefoot generally, you'll like this. Not recommended for city feet that have spent the month before the trip in city shoes.
In passing I tried sandals. Bad idea. Stones, twigs, etc come in and park.
The extra weight gives you more of a workout?
I personally only use hiking boots when backpacking - due to the need for good stability. I have done Whitney 2x, half dome/cloud's rest 10x, other 14'ers, both climbing rapidly and running down in sneakers.
You can also put on thin/lightweight elastic foot/ankle wraps and/or cotton ankle braces and those will go far for helping avoid rolled ankles while still retaining a much lighter total footwear.