Ladies, have you ever tried jogging in heels? Any fellas out there playing hoops in steel-toed work boots? Or how about a game of soccer in cowboy boots?
Yes, ridiculous examples of things that no one in their right mind would do, unless it was some strange YouTube stunt. But people make similarly silly decisions when it comes to wearing the right footwear on the trail.
People like to be comfortable. And look good. It’s human nature. But the sensibilities of civilization don’t always translate in the wild.
A good example: On Wheeler Peak two years ago, one person in my party was wearing a pair of boots that looked up for the job, but were in fact more geared toward looking good in the ski lodge than being fuctional on the trail. The result? A blister on the back side of her ankle two miles into a 16-mile trek. By the time it was over, her achilles was so chewed up it brought her to tears and took weeks to heal.
Other times, it could be more detrimental. Turned ankles, injured or frozen feet, and a myriad of other complications caused by a simple decision of what you wear in the backcountry could mean the difference between relishing your trip with your buddies and seeking an emergency evacuation. A bad enough injury might mean you don’t come back at all.
Let me go through some types of footwear, with some pros and cons:
Sneakers: Pros are that they’re light, comfortable and breathable. Cons are that they’re not very rugged, can get soaked (hypothermia risk) and are easily penetrated by sharp sticks and cactus thorns (a concern if you’re down in the Wichitas or Quartz Mountains). Most low-top sneakers offer no ankle support, leaving you vulnerable to sprains, which is very serious business if you’re in the backcountry. Trail runners are a good compromise, but they’re still vulnerable to a lot of the things listed above. Be cautious here, and leave the sneaks at home if you’re headed into a wilderness area.
Work boots: Pros are that they’re tough as nails and can kick through stubborn brush or small rocks. Cons are that they’re heavy — really heavy — and can be fatiguing on long jaunts. Many steel-toed boots also can crimp toes on steep grades, causing toe blisters. Leave ‘em at home.
Cowboy boots: Pros are they’re tough, just like the work boots. Cons are they offer minimal traction and are downright dangerous on rocky surfaces, even worse on wet surfaces. Great for horseback, but otherwise, not a good choice.
Sandals: Pros are that they’re comfortable and if you’re walking through wet areas, you don’t have to worry about ruining your shoes or wearing soggy socks. Cons are just about everything else. No arch support, no ankle support, and your feet are exposed to thorns, sticks, bugs, snakes, cold and everything else. Flip-flops are about the worst things you could wear on a hike. Take a pair with you for puttering around camp if you like, but otherwise, don’t waste your time.
What I’d advise is a good, light and waterproofed pair of hiking boots. You can spend a lot of money on these, and they’ll last forever. I’ve got a cheaper pair that is about due for replacement after 5 years of use, but they’ve been solid. I’d also recommend wool or synthetic fiber socks and no cotton. If you’re rock climbing, specialized climbing shoes are advised. So trek in with your boots and pack your climbing shoes with you if you’re going up any vertical rock faces requiring technical skills.
Remember, trekking in to your desired destination is optional. Getting back out is mandatory.