Woods & Mountains
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High-tech Footwear for Low-tech Hiking

By Mike McQuaide
Published: December 17, 2010
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Hiking might just be the lowest-tech of all outdoor pursuits. It’s just walking, really – albeit on trails, up and down steep inclines, and often through dirt and rocks and mud.
   
Despite this low-tech aspect, hiking hasn’t been left by the trailside, particularly when it comes to hiking boots, the sport’s single most important piece of equipment. As with most specialized outdoor gear, footwear has become lighter, more durable and versatile, while at the same time not sacrificing in the critical areas of support, cushioning and perhaps most importantly, comfort.

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he Whisper sandal from KEEN is for light-duty hiking. It has a quick draw elastic cord lacing system to adjust fit, plus a washable polyester body with an odor-reducing shield.
Photo by KEEN
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The Vasque Breeze Low is a light trekking shoe designed for day packers who want to cover a lot of ground without the extra weight of heavier boots.
Photo by Vasque Breeze
Runners Lead the Way
   
Many of the advancements in hiking footwear have come through the recent popularity surge in trail running. In the quest to offer running shoes tough enough to withstand the rigors of bounding over rocks, roots, mud and more, manufacturers have had to come up with lighter and stronger shoes and boots.
   
These days, in fact, many hiking boots resemble beefed-up trail-running shoes, cut higher to cover the ankles and keep rocks and other trail debris from getting in. More and more, synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon – often used in combination with Gore-Tex and similar waterproof yet breathable materials – are replacing the traditional all-leather hiking boot construction. They’re lighter and often less expensive than all-leather boots. Combination synthetic-and-leather boots are available as well. And there’s more good news: Hiking boots made from these materials – or these combinations of materials – usually break in more quickly.


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The FC ECO 3.0 GTX from La Sportiva is a mid-cut, lightweight hiking boot suitable for moderate backpacking loads and day hikes.
Photo by La Sportiva
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Merrell’s Isotherm 8 Waterproof can handle intense cold and snow in upper altitudes thanks to 400 grams of Primaloft insulation, sealed up with a waterproof membrane.
Photo by Merrell
Strong Support
   
Structurally, the metal shanks formerly used in most traditional hiking boots to provide stability have been replaced by plastic or nylon, which are just as strong, but lighter. For protection from rock bruising, thermoplastic urethane plates are often used in the forefoot area. These provide stability too, particularly when carrying heavy packs.
   
In addition, innovations such as air cushioning and molded EVA or polyurethane provide comfort and shock absorption over long, rocky hikes. Advances in the construction of rubber outsoles offer further protection from the elements, as well as improved grip and long-term wear.

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KEEN’s McKenzie combines the support of a shoe with the debris-stopping mesh of a sandal to create footwear for dry and wet light-duty conditions.
Photo by KEEN
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The Synchro GTX from Asolo employs their Matrix technology to provide firm traction on uneven terrain and combines lightweight construction with heel support to absorb shock and minimize fatigue for long hikes with heavy gear.
Photo by Asolo
Light Support
   
Boots toward the light-duty end of the hiking shoe spectrum are more breathable and comfortable; the quicker break-in time means fewer blisters and more smiles.
   
A recent hiking boot phenomenon isn’t a boot at all, but rather a sandal. First used by river rafters, sport sandals have given rise to hiking sandals. With their open-air design – a combination of nylon straps, mesh and, in some cases, even leather – they’re perfect for day hiking in especially hot climates and/or places that require water crossings.
   
Low-tech though hiking may be, there isn’t a footwear style that hasn’t benefited from recent advances. Which means there isn’t a hiker who hasn’t benefited too. Lucky you.

Mike McQuaide is the author of several guidebooks including “Day Hike! North Cascades” and “Day Hike! Central Cascades” (Sasquatch Books).

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