Footwear has to fit the terrain as well as your feet

Finding shoes that match the strange contours of your feet is hard enough, but I've learned in the past few weeks that the right shoes can be the wrong fit if they're incompatible with local climate and terrain.

I picked up a pair of light, airy trail-runners a couple months back, thinking they'd be just the thing for (my first) steamy North Carolina summer. They were fine and dandy till I bashed my feet against boulders a few times.

For years I recited the modern hiker's mantra: heavy, hearty boots are overkill and lightweight low-risers are fine much of the time. But last week, there I was at the REI down the road, trying on some Vasques with thick padded uppers and deep lugged soles. My feet were practically tap dancing with joy that I'd finally come to my senses.

Back story: I moved across the country last year, from the San Francisco Bay Area to the middle of North Carolina. The climate changes in my new habitat were obvious: hotter and stickier in summer, colder and snowier in winter, stormier all year. The biggest surprise was the trails: while some of the Bay Area trails were steep, they were rarely rugged. Trails in North Carolina can be steep, rocky, and full of roots, and often all three.

Lately I've been exploring Grandfather Mountain State Park, one of the most popular hiking locales in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. Trail designers here seem to delight in routing trails through boulder fields, where the slightest slip can punish your feet royally if your shoes lack padding and support. 

The New Balance trail runners I bought had a lot going for them: perfect fit, low weight, excellent ventilation, decent traction despite small lugs in the soles. They're great for training hikes in a county park within walking distance of my front door, but they're just not built for the rough stuff. 

Trail runners should not be counted out for rugged trails: some have beefy soles, extra padding, and ankle support that almost rivals over-the-heel boots (Editor in Chief Alicia MacLeay swears by her La Sportiva Wildcats). I've had excellent luck with Montrails over the years.

I have developed a healthy skepticism for two features common to hiking footwear: high-top construction and Gore-Tex waterproofing. Laces, leather, and thin padding won't save your ankles if you fall hard enough. Gore-Tex just makes hot feet even hotter, and never seems to offer that much waterproofing when I really need it (such as a torrential downpour).

So why did I come home with a pair of over-the-ankle, Gore-Tex-lined Vasque Breezes? Well, they felt right in the store (I buy based on the best fit, not style, brand, reviews, or recommendations from other hikers). The jury's out on how they'll fare in a Southeast summer; so far (about 15 miles), the Gore-Tex does a fine job of preventing dewy grass from soaking my socks. Will they stay as dry in a thunderstorm? I'd love to be surprised.

Buying boots for new terrain is like tuition: the first pair gets you enrolled, the later ones fill out your education. You can't learn it all in the first semester.


Filed under: Gear News

Comments

Alicia
TRAILSPACE STAFF
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July 1, 2010 at 7:52 a.m. (EDT)

Editor in Chief Alicia MacLeay swears by her La Sportiva Wildcats.

Yes, I do!

I have now bought a pair of both the regular and Gore-tex versions and they are my go-to shoes for most trail runs and day hikes, even when carrying the toddler on my back. I had to replace my original pair (a sample) after I wore out the heel cushions after many months of wear. The rest of the shoe was still ready to go.

I still wear boots for backpacking and some day hikes, but the Wildcats are comfortable, quite sturdy and supportive underneath, but not too stiff up top, and I really like the La Sportiva Sticky Cat traction.

tommangan
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July 1, 2010 at 9:21 a.m. (EDT)

Why am I so certain there is no chance on earth such wonderful shoes would ever fit my goofy feet?

GaryPalmer
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July 1, 2010 at 10:27 a.m. (EDT)

Its true about shoes and terrain. I once bought a great pair of hiking boots to hike the Grand Canyon. But apon going down into the canyon on its steep trails I found my toes getting crunched into the tips. I had bought shoes that fit my feet but not long enough so my feet would not slide forward and be pinched. And on coming back out my heels took the punishment being too cramped also. I luckily had bought the boots down in Flagstaff so I took them back and bought a pair that were 1/2 size largr and then they worked fine. That was in 1983 on my first trip into the canyon.

trouthunter
MODERATOR REVIEW CORPS
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July 1, 2010 at 11:23 a.m. (EDT)

A keen observation Tommangon, and well illustrated in terms of your experiences.

I wear stiff all leather boots for backpacking in the mountains of eastern TN & western NC. While they are not as comfortable as trail shoes at first, their ability to protect my feet from strains, bumps, and other trail abuses over the course of a multi-day trip allow my feet to come out of the trip in much better shape than more spongy, flexible shoes.

When doing day hikes on flat, easy going trails I wear the lighter hiking shoes, or my trail runners. Everyone has to judge for themselves what foot wear is appropriate for them based on their feet, and their trail conditions as you cleverly point out.

tommangan
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July 1, 2010 at 1:37 p.m. (EDT)

TH: appreciate the kind words... I was concerned it was a bit too obvious, but most things seem that way after you figure them out.

tommangan
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415 forum posts
July 25, 2010 at 4:00 p.m. (EDT)

Update to note I had to return the Vasque Breezes -- the were fine around the bottom of my feet but dug into my left ankle in a very odd way. I figured the tissue on my ankle would just get used to them after a few days but no dice. I'd wear once, develop annoying ankle pain, let them sit for a few days, thinking that would let the tissue recover (presumably stronger and acclimated to whatever was bugging it. This worked in the past when new over-the-ankle boots inflamed the tissue just above the ankle. ).

Didn't give me blisters, just this stinging pain. No matter what happened, the pain came back, even after not wearing them for a week. I finally figured out the interior of the boot must've been hitting the nerve running across my ankle bone on the exterior side -- this was the only way I could explain it causing pain but no blisters.

Traded 'em in for the Keen Targee II Mid, the second generation of the boot I bought a couple years back and put many, many miles on. As one of our reviewers noted, it's a great boot if you have a fat forefoot but a normal-width ankle.

noddlehead
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263 forum posts
July 25, 2010 at 6:52 p.m. (EDT)

Shall I now share stories about how some foods do not get along well with my digestive system? They can be quite graphic but I will share if need be.

I do not like to see negative comments about certain products just because they may not fit out of the ordinary needs. Especially from editors.

Bill S
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July 25, 2010 at 7:52 p.m. (EDT)

One of the things about reviews, especially from the editors, moderators, and the upcoming Review Corps, is that to be really useful, they have to "tell it like it is." That means pointing out the negatives and downsides along with the positives. If it's just the positives, then it becomes nothing more than a "puff piece".

In Tom M's article above, he emphasizes yet again that footgear is intended for certain uses, and more important, what works for one person does not necessarily work for another, along with the fact that what works for someone in certain situations does not necessarily work for the same person in other situations.

Note that Tom said that, for him (and frankly for most people) trail running shoes are a poor choice for rugged trails, but may work for other people. When I hiked up Kilimanjaro, I noted that virtually all the porters and many of the guides wore trail runners on those rugged trails. I wore boots, but realized that, especially on the descent, trail runners would have been more appropriate for me as well (I do a lot of my approaches to climbs in them, and that's off trail). For the vast majority of people on the mountain, however, trail runners or anything less than a mountaineering boot would have been a disaster waiting to happen.

More than any other piece of gear, footgear and packs are very individual - they have to fit properly or the results can be misery.

noddlehead
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July 25, 2010 at 8:09 p.m. (EDT)

What does that have to do with slamming a boot that might be great for 99% of the people out there?

Personal weird feet should be soaked up.


JMO

trouthunter
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July 25, 2010 at 8:28 p.m. (EDT)

Whats wrong with someone giving an honest accounting of their experiences with a piece of gear? I don't think being an editor obligates anyone to give every piece of gear a gold star.

Alicia
TRAILSPACE STAFF
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July 25, 2010 at 8:30 p.m. (EDT)

I also dislike it when reviewers slam a boot or piece of gear, simply because it didn't fit them right or they didn't use it for the right application.

But in this case, Tom's intent wasn't to slam (or even praise) any specific boot or shoe. He simply wanted to share a personal update on a pair of boots he'd already mentioned and commented on.

(Now if he'd gone and written a 1 star user review about a boot that was durable and wonderful on all accounts, but just didn't fit his individual foot, that would be another story.)

Tom's point was that any footwear needs to match up with the user and the terrain and those variables are totally individual. Any Vasques or Keens or New Balances or whatever will fit someone well and someone else not at all, and obviously that alone is not a fault of the shoe.

As has been said, getting the right fit is the first and most crucial step (no pun intended) for everyone. Then you need to be sure it works for you and your activities.

But to illustrate those points, Tom had to do so with real examples from his experience. Anyone else could relate the same issues by naming different models and brands from their own experience.

I think Bill makes a good point above, that "telling it like it is" (as long as you're out to be fair and honest), requires you tell the pros and cons from your own experience. And on the other side, readers should weigh the info fairly too and realize that fit needs to be judged individually.

By the way, I use trail runners from La Sportiva much of the time, but I don't tell others to do the same thing and there are times I use my leather hiking boots too.

noddlehead
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July 25, 2010 at 8:36 p.m. (EDT)

Whats wrong with someone giving an honest accounting of their experiences with a piece of gear? I don't think being an editor obligates anyone to give every piece of gear a gold star.

But to just complain, gripe and moan seems to me to be counter productive. The boots do not fit an ape foot?........... So what? It will probably fit 99% of hominids walking on the earth today.

To give it a poor review because it did not fit a strange foot, or was bought in the wrong size seems a very poor review.

Content edited in accordance with forum rules.- http://www.trailspace.com/about/community-rules.html

F_Klock, Moderator.

tommangan
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July 25, 2010 at 9:10 p.m. (EDT)

I felt like in the interest of full disclosure I could not leave it unmentioned that I no longer owned the boots in question.

Mentioning them in the blog post cannot help but give the impression that I recommend them to others. Wouldn't you want to know if you came upon the post that I didn't actually own them anymore?

I was quite fond of the boots, truth be told. They breathed well and had good grip. The fit was a bit snug but didn't give me blisters. I hiked in 90 degree weather and my feet didn't feel like they were baking despite the Gore-Tex.

Bill S
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July 25, 2010 at 9:12 p.m. (EDT)

First, disagreeing with comments made in a post or article, whether made by an editor or any other person on Trailspace is no justification for using language unsuitable for a family-oriented web site. In fact, such language is a violation of the rules of the website (note particularly rules 1 and 2).

Second, the article was about the general need to suit gear to terrain and local conditions, as well as getting a proper fit, not an attack on or even a denigration of a specific piece of footwear. Tom stated that one pair did not work for the application to which he put it, despite being (his words) "perfect fit" for the that pair and his feet "were practically tap dancing with joy" for the other pair.

Third, disagreement with comments made in a post or article is no justification for a personal attack on the writer (such as the "ape foot" comment). Such personal attacks are also a violation of the rules of the website (again particularly rules 1, 2, 4, and 5). In actual fact, there is no boot or any other footgear that will fit "99% of hominids walking on the earth today" - that is why there are different sizes and manufacturers use different lasts, as well as why different pieces of footgear are are designed for the multitude of different purposes to which the footgear is put.

noddlehead
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July 25, 2010 at 9:15 p.m. (EDT)

I actually live life. What a cop out from what you wrote.

noddlehead
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263 forum posts
July 25, 2010 at 9:18 p.m. (EDT)

First, disagreeing with comments made in a post or article, whether made by an editor or any other person on Trailspace is no justification for using language unsuitable for a family-oriented web site. In fact, such language is a violation of the rules of the website (note particularly rules 1 and 2).

Second, the article was about the general need to suit gear to terrain and local conditions, as well as getting a proper fit, not an attack on or even a denigration of a specific piece of footwear. Tom stated that one pair did not work for the application to which he put it, despite being (his words) "perfect fit" for the that pair and his feet "were practically tap dancing with joy" for the other pair.

Third, disagreement with comments made in a post or article is no justification for a personal attack on the writer (such as the "ape foot" comment). Such personal attacks are also a violation of the rules of the website (again particularly rules 1 and 2). In actual fact, there is no boot or any other footgear that will fit "99% of hominids walking on the earth today" - that is why there are different sizes and manufacturers use different lasts, as well as why different pieces of footgear are are designed for the multitude of different purposes to which the footgear is put.

You are a tight knit bunch........ No outside view allowed.

noddlehead
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263 forum posts
July 25, 2010 at 9:22 p.m. (EDT)

No sense of humor either.

noddlehead
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July 25, 2010 at 9:34 p.m. (EDT)

I would tell you, Bill to stick it where the sun don't shine.......... But am to polite.

tommangan
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415 forum posts
July 25, 2010 at 9:51 p.m. (EDT)

Well I'm going to appall all my defenders and raise the possibility that Noddlehead is correct about a few things (I will not cop to being a humourless bellyacher -- I try to find the humor in all my complaints, as the 14 readers of my hiking blog know):

1) if you're writing about a problem you had with a product that has to do mostly with an individual body-shape issue ("these gloves made no accounting for the wart on my thumb"), you should go ahead and state the obvious -- "this is an outlier that probably won't affect anybody else" before somebody else does.

2) If you're going to raise the issue of why the product didn't work for you, you should take a second a say what you liked about it (this way, when called on the carpet for nit-picking over points that affect almost nobody, you won't look like a weasel bending to the winds of public opinion when you say it in a subsequent post)

3) It's an indisputable fact that ape feet are funny. I once told a guy with Size 15 EEEEs "man, those things are snowshoes," but "ape feet" would've been even better.

noddlehead
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263 forum posts
July 25, 2010 at 10:13 p.m. (EDT)

You may have really weird feet.

You did not tell of warts on your toes in your points....... They must be large.........

You might seek medical attention and have them removed.

Had I known about your warts it would have been heartless of me to comment. I had no idea.

tommangan
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415 forum posts
July 25, 2010 at 10:42 p.m. (EDT)

OK, this thread is being called on account of strangeness.

noddlehead
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July 25, 2010 at 10:48 p.m. (EDT)

Good for me but seek help for the warts............... I think they can burn or freeze them off............ Do it for your feet as well as your family, Tom.

noddlehead
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263 forum posts
July 25, 2010 at 11:07 p.m. (EDT)

Don't sweat it there buddy. If it is to painful they will give you some Morphine.

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