Foot Smart

Redwood National Park_credit Redwood Coast

Happier Hiking

Say good-bye to blisters

Whether you like to climb mountains or simply spend time outdoors, you probably have at least one pair of hiking shoes. They’ve become ubiquitous for tasks from raking leaves and walking the dog to outdoor pursuits including hunting and heading to your favorite fishing spot. However, not all hiking shoes are appropriate for hiking, though many look the part. If you head into the woods wearing these everyday boots, you’re more likely to have blisters, sore feet, squished toes, and other foot issues, particularly on tough topography.

“The rougher the terrain, the heavier your pack, and the wetter the weather, the more boot you need,” says Peter Sachs, general manager of LOWA Boots LLC, the U.S. branch of a German outdoor footwear company. Sachs has been involved with hiking boot research and development for more than 25 years. “Low-cut shoes are great on-trail for a day hike,” he says. “They’re cooler in hot weather and more flexible, but they don’t give enough protection or stability in more rugged situations.”

However, a boot that covers the ankle does not necessarily give you enough support for backpacking. If you’re carrying more than 30 pounds, especially on rocky terrain, your feet will feel happier — and you’ll feel more balanced overall — in a boot with a stiffer shank under foot, a rubber band around the toes and ankle, and a lacing system that snugs the boot over the ankle, providing lateral stability.

To tell whether your footwear is the real deal for hiking, backpacking, and other backcountry uses or just a lifestyle look-alike, Sachs recommends checking the bottom of the boot. “The boot should have a heel brake — a small ledge — at the front of the heel,” says Sachs. “If it has a flat bottom, you’re more apt to fall when you’re going downhill on loose gravel or on slippery surfaces.”

The materials in the upper boot matter too. Sachs favors leather constructions for several reasons: It’s a natural material, it moves like your foot, it molds to your foot’s protrusions, and it protects better when your foot bangs against rocks.

“If you’ve had an extra Big Mac or two in your life, leather supports the ankle area better, especially if you get off balance,” jokes Sachs when discussing the benefits of leather boots. “Synthetics don’t hold the shape of your foot like leather. Man-made materials are okay in ‘light hikers’ (shoes designed to be worn around town and on easy day hikes) and they can be waterproof, but they tend to offer less stability.”

According to Sachs, one of the biggest mistakes people make when shopping for footwear is not taking enough time to try on new boots. The odds of getting a comfortable pair are much higher if you wear them in the store with your favorite hiking socks. He also advises that you go boot shopping in the afternoon when your feet are largest. (Many people experience foot swelling during the course of the day.)

“Wiggle your toes,” says Sachs. “You should know where the front of the boot is without touching it. That’s really key. Going uphill, people take more care with their foot placement, and they go slower. Going downhill is far more abusive. You take longer, bigger, more carefree steps, and the legs drop instead of lift. If your toes are touching on the way up, you’ll lose toenails on the way down.”

Sachs also warns hikers to cut their toenails. “One of the biggest warranty complaints we get is that a hiking boot leaks around the toes,” says Sachs. “When we cut the boot apart, we inevitably see fine cuts in the GORE-TEX® from toenails that are too long.”

Wading Wisely

Get better traction while fishing

If you’re an angler who wades for your fish, the decision to switch to rubber-soled wading shoes looms large, and in some places, it’s the law. From a conservation point of view, rubber is less likely to transport invasive species from one body of water to another, yet felt-soled waders — which can harbor spores and larvae of non-native plants and animals — are well known for helping people stay upright on slippery rocks. In April 2011, Maryland became the first state in the nation to ban felt-soled wading shoes. Since then, Missouri, Alaska, and Vermont have followed suit.

“Rubber is not as good as felt, period,” says Tom Rosenbauer, marketing director for Orvis Rod and Tackle. An avid fly caster for 35 years, Rosenbauer has been intimately involved with the development of Orvis’ rubber-soled wading shoes. “We tried to make a rubber sole that works well, but the rubber was too soft and didn’t hold up,” explains Rosenbauer. “What’s out there now must be studded if you’re fishing on slippery rocks. Rubber is fine on gravel and clay bottoms and can be better on ice and snow and walking to and from a stream, but not on rocks.”

If your wading shoes have rubber soles, Rosenbauer offers these tips to help you stay upright:

1. Use studs and make sure the studs are not worn down.

2. Use a wading staff, hiking pole, ski pole, or nearby stick, no matter how young and active you are.

3. Link arms with a buddy, preferably someone bigger and stronger than you are, in lieu of a wading staff.

4. Keep your weight over your feet all times.

5. Take smaller steps or shuffle rather than big steps.

6. Look for patches of gravel, which always provide better, firmer footing than rocks.

7. Cross at the tail of a pool, the wide spot in a stream, or at a riffle, which tend to be shallower than the middle or head of a pool.

8. Angle upstream, not downstream, if you need to cross heavy current, to better counter the forces of the current.

Rosenbauer warns that if the water is too dirty to see into, you probably shouldn’t wade out far, especially if you can’t see how deep it is or what you’re going to step on. And if you do fall in, wearing a tightly cinched wading belt could save your life.

“Pragmatically, if you’re wearing a wading belt, you might escape getting wet if it’s a quick dip,” says Rosenbauer. “At least you’ll have some buoyancy. Waders hold air down your legs. It’s an old wives’ tail that you’ll flip upside down, but if the current catches open waders, they act like an anchor, pulling you under.”

If the current carries you, Rosenbauer advises putting your feet in front of you to avoid banging your head on a rock. “Don’t struggle,” he adds. “Try to get your feet under you or get to shore if you can. As a rule, the faster the current, the shallower you should wade to lessen the chance of falling in.”

And even if you wear wading shoes with rubber soles, Rosenbauer reminds anglers to clean, inspect, and dry their shoes before wading another stream. Rubber-soled waders can trap invasive species too.

An award-winning outdoor photographer and writer based in Red Lodge, Montana, Lisa Densmore Ballard spends much of the year in hiking boots and waders. She is the author of five hiking guidebooks and travels regularly throughout North America seeking out fish for her many articles on angling. (