In my previous Great Cape Escape post I mention ‘arguing with outdoor shops about footwear’. Several people have kindly asked what on earth this (friendly) argument might have been about.
I’m no outdoors expert but I do have a few miles under my feet in the British hills. Over those miles I’ve acquired a buzzy and eccentric-sounding bee in my bonnet about ‘waterproof’ hiking footwear, and a strong preference for trail shoes over boots. For a multi-week hike over more or less continuously wet terrain, counter-intuitively, I’ve come to regard heavy, ‘waterproof’ footwear as a waste of money and even counterproductive.
If your outdoor activity is more in the way of scuttling up dryish, rocky, high hills at the weekend, or running, or scrambling or winter mountaineering you won’t find these reflections useful. If you’re a fellow long-haul bog-plodder I’ll be interested to know whether you share my damply and stinkily acquired prejudice.
Observation one: on a long distance trail, your problems come more from inside your footwear than from outside.
In my opinion ventilation, hygiene and freedom from blisters are more important than either waterproofing or ankle support. By the way I walk with poles, if you don’t use these ankle support may be more important.
I’ve personally found that on a multi-week hike, my footwear can be astonishingly minimal as long as the insoles give enough arch support and shock absorption and I carry waterproof socks for cold conditions.
Note the emphasis on ‘multi-week’ and ‘long distance’. In my experience the different needs of trail walkers compared to weekend walkers only start to really become apparent in the second week of continuous hiking. Not to mention the second half-century of age.
Observation two: on a multi-week hike, ‘waterproof’ footwear doesn’t stay ‘waterproof’.
I’m the first to admit that this is a small sample, but I’ve now walked three Pennine Ways in mid-price Gore-tex lined footwear: Karrimor KSB hybrid boots, Scarpa Ranger leather boots and Salomon X-Ultra* trail shoes. On all three of these hikes my footwear started to leak at around day nine, and all three times in exactly the same place – at the flex zone between the toe and the laces.
One thing this tells us is that most people who buy ‘waterproof’ hiking footwear will get four weekends of perfectly happy use out of it, and let’s face it that’s probably as much total use as many hiking boots get. A weekend hike with dry feet must be quite a pleasant experience, I really must try it sometime.
I found, by the way, that no amount of externally applied ‘waterproofer’ could subsequently fix this leakage once the membrane had broken down, certainly not under the pressure of further continuous hiking in soaking wet conditions.
You’ll have twigged by now that I’ve taken to wearing non-waterproof shoes in which – gulp – my feet can potentially get wet all the time, actually wet and from day one. Surely, you might reasonably ask, eight days of dry feet at the start of a trail is better than zero days of dry feet? I asked that too.
Observation three: once it gets wet, ‘waterproof’ footwear doesn’t ‘breathe’.
Even in those initial eight days your feet are not dry. They are stewing, rubbing, wrinkling and festering in their own sweat, because whatever membrane manufacturers may claim, I’ve concluded that in the British hills ‘breathable’ waterproof footwear is a myth.
A membrane will breathe if there’s a moisture differential across it, preferably also a temperature difference across it, and a flow of air over the outside. Clearly, breathable shell jackets and overtrousers often (though not always) comply with at least one of these conditions, hence they’re not a myth, they’re awesomely brilliant and have certainly transformed my hillwalking.
If you’re plodding through bogs all day and for multiple weeks, the outside of your footwear quite soon becomes permanently soaking wet. The airflow across your feet is negligible as they’re down in the boggy vegetation.
The above laws of breathability tell us that in such conditions ‘breathing’ of said footwear cannot occur. All the membrane is then doing is keeping your feet confined in their own stinky old sweat, rather than allowing them to interact dynamically with the wet environment.
The situation gets worse once the leaks start, at around day nine on the trail. Bog water enters the boot from small points of membrane failure, wicks throughout your sock and can’t get out.
Your feet are now sitting all day wrinkly-stinkly in a static cocktail of sweat and bog gunk. Nice fresh water from puddles and streams can’t flush this horridness out, because apart from the points of failure at the flex zone, most of your boot is still waterproof.
In the first few days the net effect of all this is to make the small blisters you inevitably pick up at the start of a hike bigger and squidgier, more prone to infection and slower to heal. Subsequently the skin of your feet starts to rot, the itching driving you crazy.
Even if you encounter a dry stretch of the trail and/or a sunny day, your feet will take ages to dry because even the most ‘breathable’ waterproof membrane sheds water vapour much more slowly than simple permeable mesh or fabric, especially if it’s encased in soaking wet leather.
Whereas, give my non-waterproof mesh shoes a couple of hours of skipping along in sunshine and a nice breeze and they’re virtually dry. In contrast, once my membrane-lined leather boots are wet, that’s it, they stay wet for the rest of the trail. Unless, that is, I’m lucky enough to be able to shrink and crack them overnight in a drying room, and that’s another can of worms.
South of the British Isles and ironically in generally drier conditions breathable ‘waterproof’ hiking footwear could make more sense. If trails are mostly dry underfoot and your feet are getting wet only intermittently, say from morning vegetation or sudden rainstorms, their materials might well work as intended, until their ninth day on the trail anyway. However, if trails are mostly dry, why bother? What’s the big deal about intermittently wet feet?
Well, the deal gets big if and when wet feet are accompanied by low temperatures. If your feet are wet while hiking through slush or snow or in a hard morning frost, you potentially have a problem. Walking the Pennine Way in early April and in leaky ‘waterproof’ boots, I did experience a teeny weeny touch of frostbite (although my ears copped it worse).
For this reason I now carry Sealskinz waterproof socks in case my wet feet get too cold in my non-waterproof trail shoes. On the Scottish National Trail in April/May I needed these only about one day in six, even though I was on occasions walking through snowstorms and several nights had ice in my tent.
There’s another way to look at this issue. Suppose you really can’t get used to nasty old fresh water entering your footwear from outside and despite my wittering on here you still prefer your tootsies to stew all day in nothing but their nice, warm, claggy sweat. Here’s a simple calculation comparing costs of going ‘waterproof’, simple being the only kind I can manage.
Say a pair of mid-price Gore-tex lined boots costs £160 and they stay reliably waterproof for eight days of rough, boggy hill walking, as per my real world experience on the Pennine Way. That’s twenty quid a day for stinky, sweaty feet and no say in the matter. Probably blisters too.
My Salomon X-Ultra Prime non-waterproof shoes cost seventy quid and lasted me seven hundred miles of rough hill walking. Say 17.5 miles a day, 40 days, that’s £1.75 a day. Sealskinz cost £20 – £25, so even if they only lasted eight days like the boots that’s about three quid a day. Call it a fiver a day in total for continuously waterproof footwear, as opposed to twenty.
In fact I’ve carried my present Sealskinz in my pack, only intermittently needing to wear them, for about eight weeks of hiking and they’re still fine. So in reality I’ve had the ability flexibly to waterproof my feet as and when needed on the trail for about 50p a trail day, hence arguably a real cost to date of £2.25 a day and still decreasing.
I’ve only really discussed the ‘waterproofing’ issue, because my take on this seems to surprise people. Lots of other people more knowledgeable than me have discussed boots versus shoes. All I can really add is that I’ve personally come to like minimal footwear and to consider ankle support something of a myth. I would stick to boots if you’ve a tendency to turn your ankles, especially if you don’t like walking with poles. If in shoes, take care on the first few days of your hike as it takes a while for ankles to strengthen.
I’ve never had any trouble with my ankles, touch wood, apart from badly turning one near the top of Snowdon on Boxing Day 1977 (I limped back down to the car park but then couldn’t drive and had to sleep in the back of my Triumph Herald, it was perishing). This happened while I was wearing extremely stiff old school Hawkins leather boots, with steel shanks in the soles. The Great Stone Chute in the Cuillins wore all the stitching off the back – Hawkins just re-stitched them, those were the days. They were stolen from my allotment twenty-five years later and for all I know could still be going strong.
Getting on a bit, I have had problems with knees, metatarsals and shin splints. Hence I’m personally more interested in shock absorption than ankle support and in fact I routinely replace all insoles, however fancy, with Sorbothane Double Strikes. I also find that having less weight on the ends of my feet transforms my oldie stamina. I’m convinced by the oldie adage that a pound on your foot equals multiple pounds in your pack.
One thing I have noticed with shoes as opposed to boots is poorer grip. Obviously this could be a very serious problem if your hike involves exposed scrambling. Transitioning from Scarpa boots to Salomon shoes I had to modify my gait on rocky descents to adapt to their different distribution of grip.
Incidentally, if you are wearing shoes rather than boots paying extra for the shoes to be ‘waterproof’ is even more nonsensical, because as soon as you step into a bog the water pours into them over their tops.
I find gaiters fiddly and noisy, and I’ve never come across any that prevented water rising into them from below, although for all I know they may be available at a crazy price. I was a big fan of gaiters when I used to hike in polycotton trousers that were quite chilly when wet. Now I have Haglöfs synthetic trousers that dry in a wink in the slightest breeze and on my last Pennine Way my gaiters were just redundant pack weight.
Still, your body and your needs may be different from mine and many readers’ experience will also be more extensive. Otherwise I hope you find my limited, personal experience interesting.
*these are ‘waterproof’, as opposed to the permeable Salomon X-Ultra Primes I use now. The Salomon website is an impenetrable labyrinth of despair, so there may be other options I haven’t had a spare lifetime to find out about.