My feet are one of those weird things that are part anomaly, part something that too many people sympathize with while still being a quiet minority – my feet are wide, very wide. My feet are 2E wide; but they are also strong with high arches that don’t collapse. These funny-yet-strong “duck feet” are an amazing tool – they provide a wide base of support, are bouncy, agile and the perfect walking and running tools – until you need to fit them into shoes, especially hiking shoes (or boots).
It seems that footwear manufacturers choose to make shoes for an average person that does not exist: shoes in C-D width, mid volume with weak arches (so smack some support into it) – they are mostly over-built, heavy and clunky. Buying shoes is just not fun for anyone, even for those 3 people who actually fit into the regular shoes that are offered.
My outdoor and hiking footwear journey started as a child, but since it wasn’t really in my hands I’ll jump to my days as a young man, when I was 16-17 and started to buy my own shoes and have all the say in the world. By the time I was a teenager I had moved to using only hiking boots: heavy, robust hiking boots. What is still an unknown to me today, is why did I choose hiking boots in a country that is mostly desert and a cold winter features a low of 15°c, but I did. My guess is that I was a victim to my own view of myself as an outdoors guy while not being remotely athletic, so trainers were out of the picture.
So, back to our story. For a few years while being a guide, team councilor, team leader and spending lots of time outdoors I was thoroughly into hiking boots, mostly happy with them as they were not only functional but I also found them “cool.” When I turned 19 I began my compulsory 3 years in the Israeli army, which meant 3 years in heavy, suffocating army boots. When I left the army I went back to hiking boots, opting for the lighter versions that offer textile mesh uppers for my time spent traveling and hiking. After a couple of years and starting my career in the outdoors industry, I finally had a big enough range on offer and understanding to try and find boots that would satisfy my needs. Another “side effect” of my newly acquired knowledge was the understanding that until that point, all the footwear I had worn was too narrow. I learned that squashed toes and blisters are not the natural state of the foot – boots and shoes should have enough rooms for the toes.
Armed with the knowledge about width and the need for space, I embarked on my new journey to find the perfect hiking footwear for my awkward feet. My first step was to get solid hiking boots (stiff sole, full leather) for my upcoming 8 months trip along the Andes. I tried and played with nearly all of the options that were available in Israel (not many), seeking a wide enough shoe. After many disappointing tries I reached Vasque – at the time Vasque offered what they called the R100 footwear range that offered a rounder, wider toe box that was also a little more square. It was not exactly a classic wide boot, but as close as I could find. I opted for the Vasque Summit Sundowner boots.
The Summit Sundowner served me well, but still required breaking in. I hiked hundreds (if not thousands) of kilometers in them and they stayed with me for roughly 5 years. During that time I managed to really ruin them and on the last trip I used them on, when hiking the Offa’s Dyke trail with Mika in the summer of 2011, my feet and my knees suffered badly. The sole had collapsed, the leather was breaking and they were pinching part of my foot. During the time with those boots I hadn’t managed to hike very fast, but I managed long days that at some point resulted in injured knees (exacerbating an old injury).
Around the time those boots reached their end I got introduced to the concept of minimalist footwear – aiming to have the least shoe possible in order to utilize your feet’s natural ability. As someone with old knee injuries, that idea was immediately appealing, so my long and painful transition into minimalist footwear started. If you somehow missed the minimalist footwear idea, here are some principles:
- The sole must be very flexible
- The shoe needs to be zero drop (the difference between the heel’s height to the fore foot) or very close to it
- Usually the shoes are not waterproof
With those concepts I have moved into minimalist and ultimately barefoot running, but it was a long and hard transition, especially when starting from traditional hiking boots.
While introducing my body to minimalist running, I added two pairs of shoes to my hiking footwear arsenal:
- Asolo Fugitive GTX Wide – These are my replacements for my Vasque hiking boots: fairly light, stiff, waterproof and come in a wide fit!
Sadly though, they were only available in the USA (and still are, why not in the UK??) and needed a personal import and a change of size – a costly and cumbersome process but the result was good. With the Fugitive I had very little width related hot spots and they are still in my cupboard for when I need stiff boots for scrambling or crampon use (they are only B1, but that is enough for walking).
- Inov-8 Terroc 330 – Trail running shoes that are more like a sturdy walking shoe became my day hike footwear. This was my first step into going outdoors in light trainers and I’ve learned a lot since.
After a couple of years of using my Fugitive and Inov-8s (I replaced them a couple of times with different versions), I was going through a big change in my gear and philosophy using the guide by Backpacking North. In the guide, Mark talks about using trail running shoes for backpacking and that was my final push to use minimalist footwear for all my outdoors adventures. I stored my boots and went on a search for good, solid, wide trail shoes that would be minimalist yet robust. After some time of searching and too much researching, I opted for the Inov-8 Trailroc 235.
My time with the Inov-8s was great and I have learned a lot about hiking and using trail shoes as my hiking footwear. My feet and my legs got stronger, I move faster and for longer, my knees no longer suffer on long days (they do on descents though) and all together hiking is easier. Moving to trail running shoes for my hiking was the best thing I’ve done for my outdoors enjoyment in a long time. That said, trail shoes suffer from a major durability issue: you can expect a trail shoe that is used regularly to last a year or a year and a half, that’s it. Also, if you don’t get the shoes right, it can be a real disaster, as I learned on my Cape Wrath Trail trip. After 5 days of constant long distance in rough terrain, my feet were disintegrating in my shoes. That experience has sent me on another quest:
- Find a minimalist (or as close as possible) boot for longer trips in rough terrain.
- Find a replacement for the Trailroc 235s, as they are just a little too minimalist and too narrow for me. I might still get them again for trail running, but for day hikes or weekend trips I’m after something else.
The first problem is already solved, I think – with the Bellevile Mini-Mil boots. These boots are light, have only a 2mm drop with very little midsole, are flexible and wide, very wide. I ordered a pair from the USA (nothing in Europe) and I have been trying them over the last couple of days in preparation for a weekend in Snowdonia that is coming up soon. So far I’m impressed – this is the first time I’ve put any footwear on that didn’t give me some hot spots on my little toes, especially when they are my size. The boots are light, fairly flexible and seem to allow nice foot movement, but they are not trail shoes and I could feel that straight away – I will need to get used to it.
As for my light hiking footwear – I’m still not sure. I’ve reached the point of being torn between the Trailroc 245 (the slightly beefier version of my previous trail shoes) and the Altra Lone Peak – any ideas? Do you have any experience with either and can give me some input? Leave a comment or catch my on Twitter to talk about it.
That is a brief history of my hiking footwear, while I’m continuing my journey to find the perfect solutions for my needs. I can only hope that you are having an easier time, but if you are in the same boat as me, may my experiments help you get the perfect hiking footwear too.