A Guide To Buying The Right Walking Footwear

Your feet can be your best friend or your worst enemy when walking and hiking. Choosing the wrong type of footwear can be sole destroying, let alone painful. As your outdoor experts, we’ve created this straightforward advice guide that will help you get it right. We’ll explain what type of footwear you need and teach you some tips on how to care for it properly, setting you up for a lifetime of adventure.

Do I need walking boots or walking shoes?

Walking boots and walking shoes each have their own strengths. Your decision should be made according to the type of activity that you’ll be embarking on and the conditions that you’ll be faced with along the way.

Walking boots are perfect for wet weather as their higher cut provides additional protection from puddles and mud. They also offer more ankle support which is perfect for long-distance hikes and challenging terrains. If you’ve got a penchant for picking the hard route to the summit, it’s best to equip yourself with a good pair of boots for those scrambling sections.

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Walking shoes are lighter and provide more flexibility. On low-level trails and easy ascents, this results in extra comfort. They’re also better for fast-paced walking, so speed demons opt for shoes over a boot. Despite most walking shoes being waterproof, many adventurers use walking shoes exclusively in summer or in dry conditions to avoid mud and puddle water from finding its way to your feet via the foothole of the shoe.

Top tip – For general walking and hiking, we recommend wearing walking boots in winter and switching to walking shoes as the conditions become drier in the summer months.

Do I need leather or fabric?

Leather walking boots are usually more durable than synthetics and can deliver longer-lasting waterproof performance if cared for properly. However, the latest developments in fabrics and technologies mean it’s now a much closer run race.

The marginal gain in performance may be offset by the fact that leather boots need more time to be ‘worn in’. Good quality leather walking boots and shoes will still be comfortable straight out of the box, but lightweight synthetic alternatives are more breathable and are generally considered the most immediately comfortable option.

All in all, you can be sure that a good quality pair of either leather or synthetic will prove to be a reliable companion on your adventures. Prioritise finding the right fit and a style that you like.

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The components of walking footwear

To understand the tech that has gone into keeping your feet dry and comfortable, you need to get to grips with what each part of the construction does.

• Upper – the upper is the main fabric used on the outside of the boot that provides the first layer of protection from the elements. It will either be made from leather or synthetic fabric.

• Waterproof membrane – beneath the upper is a waterproof and breathable membrane that repels exterior moisture while allowing water vapour formed from sweat to escape from within, keeping your feet dry in all conditions.

• Lining – a moisture-wicking lining is used to help manage your sweat levels and prevent irritation and rubbing. Good quality boots and shoes use premium textiles that can withstand plenty of use

• Insole – this removable layer is anatomically shaped to provide comfort and arch support to the foot. It can be replaced with specialist insoles that offer more comfort, arch support or moisture-wicking performance.

• Midsole – a shock-absorbant, cushioning layer below the insole that dampens impact when walking to increase comfort. Midsoles are usually made of PVC foam or PU (Polyurethane)

• Outsole – a hard-wearing rubber section that’s designed to stand up to all terrains. Walking footwear often uses specialist hardened rubber such as Vibram® outsoles.

• Lugs – Lugs are parts of the outsole that stick into the ground to provide grip on loose and slippy ground. They are strategically placed to provide multi-directional traction (i.e. good grip no matter which direction your foot meets the ground)

• Toe/heel caps – a reinforced section of rubber, often attached to the outsole, that covers the front toe area to protect you from stubbed toes and heavy impacts when walking or scrambling on loose terrain.

• Toe Box – this is where your toes sit when wearing outdoor footwear. The toe box is often widened to improve comfort and prevent your toes from rubbing together and creating blisters. This is one of the biggest advantages of outdoor footwear compared to regular shoes when walking long distances.

• Lace eyelets – eyelets provide quick, customisable lacing that helps you find the perfect tightness. You’ll often see these referred to as a ‘speed lacing system’. Rather than threading the lace in and out of the boot, eyelets are placed externally. This ensures that there are no weak spots where water can get in.

• Tongue – often padded for comfort, the tongue is used to help you get the footwear on and off. Some waterproof boots and shoes use gusseted tongues, which means they’re attached to the upper to prevent gaps where water and debris can get in.

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How should walking boots and shoes fit?

You are looking for a snug fit around the foot with a fingernail’s width of wriggle room in the toe area. If your footwear is too tight you will cause aching and reduced flexibility. Too loose and the shoes will rub and become vulnerable to taking in water and debris like small stones. Be aware that feet swell as you walk due to increased blood flow, so if they feel ever so slightly loose when trying on, you’ve probably got it just right.

A common question that customers ask is ‘should my walking boots be a size bigger?’ That answer depends on whether you are wearing thick walking socks or are planning to add in some extra cushioning insoles. Both of those accessories would reduce the space inside your boot, so we would recommend going half a size up.

How to clean and reproof walking footwear

If you want your walking footwear to live a long, adventure-filled life, it's important to take good care of it. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide on how to prolong the life of your gear.

Step 1: Scrub clean

Take a stiff brush and warm water and remove the worst of the mud and debris from the upper and sole of the shoe. If you want to give them a deep clean, Nikwax Footwear Cleaning Gel is an easy-to-use product that works a treat.

Step 2: Remove moisture

Even though walking footwear is usually waterproof, moisture from your sweat can still cause them to become slightly damp. Moisture-absorbing products help to draw this moisture out of the material and neutralise odours at the same time. Alternatively, leave them by a radiator or in the airing cupboard until thoroughly dried out before storing them in a dry space until the next use.

Step 3: Reproof

All waterproof products need reproofing every once in a while to maintain their peak performance. Footwear is no different, so be sure to pick up some repellent such as Grangers Universal Footwear Repel alongside your new boots or shoes. It’s really easy to apply and takes just a few seconds. If your boots are leather, you could condition them with Granger’s G-Wax instead, which helps to soften the leather, reduce cracking and provides an extra layer of waterproof protection. Just make sure to let your footwear dry out after you’ve applied either of these solutions.

Step 4: Check before you trek

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Best practice is to perform gear checks on all your clothing and equipment before you hit the trail. Check your soles for signs of wear and look for any weak spots in the stitching to the upper. If you spot an issue, it may not be the end of the road for your laced companions. Some manufacturers like Scarpa offer a resoling service which will be cheaper than the cost of a new pair and better for the environment too.

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• Do I need to break in walking boots? Any piece of footwear you buy will take time to ‘break in’. This is where the materials loosen as they stretch and relax during use. Leather hiking boots take longer to break in than synthetics, but the latest footwear tends to be very comfortable straight out of the box. The experts who design walking footwear look to deliver a balance between durability and immediate comfort.

• Do I need GORE-TEX® Walking Footwear? GORE-TEX® specialises in waterproof membranes and is trusted by most technical brands like Berghaus, Rab and Mountain Equipment. Its technology is considered the pinnacle of waterproofing across footwear and clothing, so if you’re looking for the best performance from your walking boots or shoes then make GORE-TEX® a top priority. The main consideration to make is what kind of activity you will be using the footwear for. All-day or multi-day treks in wet, challenging conditions make GORE-TEX® a sensible choice. There’s no such thing as too much protection from water, but activities like dog walking and light hiking don’t always require top-of-the-range footwear.

• What are the best insoles for walking?

Insoles perform a vital role in absorbing shock as you walk and providing overall support to your foot to help minimise the effect of walking over hard, sometimes rocky terrain. You can find insoles that support your level of pronation (i.e. flat feet, natural or overpronation). There are also specialist walking insoles that provide superior levels of foam padding to reduce fatigue over long distances, as well as additional features such as moisture-wicking materials.

• What socks should I wear for walking?

Walking socks come in a range of thicknesses, are made from an array of different materials and boast surprising amounts of technology within their design. We’ve written a detailed guide on finding the right outdoor socks, but here are the basics to consider.

• Weight – the thickness and weight of a sock determine how warm it will be. Thick socks in summer may cause excessive sweating and irritation, whereas thin socks in winter can leave your feet feeling cold and unprotected. It’s best to have a range of outdoor socks and match the correct pair for each season.

• Material – if you’re someone who tends to sweat a lot when walking, then socks made from moisture-wicking, quick-drying materials like merino and polypropylene will be a good choice. Avoid cotton socks, as this material absorbs moisture and takes a long time to dry.

• Features – outdoor socks are built for epic pursuits and come with features that will help you perform at your best. Common features include arch support that compresses the sole to support its natural pronation, ventilation zones for improved breathability and seamless toe boxes that help prevent irritation and blisters. Some even have waterproof membranes for alpine adventures and winter hikes.

• What are multi-sport shoes?

Multi-sport shoes are a hybrid that can be used for walking or running. They’re often lighter and more breathable than walking shoes, making them more suited to intense activity. This can mean a reduction in waterproof performance. If you’re someone who wants the versatility of a shoe that can do both, or you simply prefer the athletic feel of a running shoe, multi-sport footwear will be the perfect choice for you.

• What are trail running shoes?

Designed to take on trails at much higher speeds, trail running shoes are a lightweight alternative to walking shoes. They differ from regular running trainers by having deeper lugs (for better grip), better water resistance and more sturdy constructions that are designed to handle the terrains that trail runners seek out. However, they aren’t built for all-day hiking and offer less protection than a walking boot or shoe.

• What are approach shoes?

Think of approach shoes as a cross between your hiking and climbing shoes. They perform the important job of getting you up the mountain comfortably as well as providing enough grip to safely see you through the scrambling sections. The sole is made from the same grippy rubber as climbing shoes and usually extends around the toe and heel for added traction. Not one for your everyday hike, but a vital bit of kit for those looking to take on a tricky mountain trail.

• What are mountaineering boots?

Mountaineering or alpine boots are a step up from approach shoes and are designed for climbing in snowy, winter conditions on their way to a summit. They’re extremely durable and much stiffer than regular boots which enhance the levels of stability and support. They feature a high cut that extends past the ankle for protection and either one or two layers of insulation to help keep feet warm in extreme conditions. They are graded from B1 to B3 which, much like crampons, is a scale that ranges from all-season walking boots with scrambling capability to full-on mountaineering and ice-climbing footwear. Always match up your boots with your crampons and your hike to ensure a safe and secure setup.

Adam is a lover of the outdoors who’s recently moved back to rural Lancashire after living in the urban confines of Leeds for the past few years. His favourite pastimes include cooking, playing countless sports to a barely acceptable standard and exploring the local countryside with his dog, Chip.

When the weather gets in the way, Adam can be found at home watching films & TV and listening to music. If he’s not there, he’ll be in the pub down the road.  



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