The conventional thinking for backpackers is that proper footwear consists of rigid, waterproof, over-the-ankle boots. The heavier the pack and the more intense the journey, the heavier-duty the footwear needs to be.
We are told that our feet need support which implies that somehow, if we do not follow these guidelines, we are setting ourselves up for problems. Despite following these recommendations, backpackers experience a myriad of injuries ranging from blisters to lower back problems. Often we are told that these issues arise because we are not bio-mechanically blessed. The reality is that many of these injuries could be avoided if we learned a little more about how our feet work...
The Conventional Approach
When it comes to conventional wisdom, the thinking on backpacking footwear has remained pretty much unchanged for years: trail walking requires heavy, rigid, over-the-ankle, boots. And that is just for day hiking - for backpacking, more is better. As backpacking loads and distance increase we are told to beef-up our footwear even more to provide adequate protection for our feet and support for our ankles.
Conventional wisdom also holds that our feet should not get wet and therefore hiking boots must be waterproof. This is typically accomplished by either applying a waterproof concoction to the surface of the boot, or by purchasing boots constructed with a waterproof membrane. The trick after that is to ensure that no water gets over the top of the boots so that they can be kept dry.
Conventional thinking can be summarized as follows: structure = good, water = bad.
Problems With the Conventional Approach
The conventional approach assumes that the foot needs external support in order to handle the rigors of backpacking. The question that everyone should ask but nobody thinks to is: why?
Support implies that something is week and needs to be strengthened. If we are told that we need support for our feet and ankles, that must mean backpacking puts more stress on the feet and ankles than they can handle. Is that correct?
The answer is: yes and no. Yes, for the most part people's feet and ankles are too weak for the rigors of backpacking. But it is not because feet and ankles weren't designed to handle it. They are weak because they are not properly conditioned. Sedentary lifestyles and years of wearing over-supportive footwear has created a weak-foot epidemic. Rather than properly training and conditioning their feet in preparation for backpacking, most people opt for rigid footwear instead. Not necessarily because they are lazy, but most often because nobody told them the alternative.
Not only is the support not required, it actually creates additional problems. Encasing the foot in a rigid structure limits mobility of the joints, creating stresses in areas that weren't designed to handle them. For example, the ankle is designed to flex and rotate in all directions. When you restrict the mobility of the ankle with a high boot, those stresses get translated up to the knees, hips, and back. These stresses may be in planes that the other joints were not designed to flex, and therefore increases the risk of acute or chronic injury. Besides blisters, knee and lower back pain are some of the most common injuries backpackers experience.
A common assumption is that by using a heavy, rigid boot, we get more stability. The idea is that by having solid footwear, you will have a stable platform to step on when traveling over uneven terrain. In reality, what happens is that rigid footwear behaves more like a teeter-totter (seesaw): when the weight is perfectly balanced over the fulcrum, there is excellent stability, otherwise it is very unstable. When wearing a rigid boot on rough terrain, every step is like a seesaw and - unless you have perfect balance - very unstable. In these types of conditions all it takes is one bad step to wreck the balancing act and put excessive stress somewhere that it shouldn't be.
For traveling with a load on your back over long distances, conventional wisdom says that a rigid protective boot is required for comfort. The abuse of the trail and the weight on your shoulders will take a toll on the feet and thus they need to be coddled in a cushy, protective, climate-controlled shell. Foot helmets. The paradox is that the one item that contributes more to foot abuse than any trail or backpack load is the one thing we use to protect them: footwear.
Every foot shape is different. Unless you have feet perfectly matched to your boots, there will be conflict... and the footwear usually wins. The end result is blisters, damaged toes and the like (this is why traditional backpackers like super thick socks paired with thin sock liners). Even if you don't have fit problems when you start out, your feet expand when under load when walking for extended periods of time. Wearing rigid footwear in those conditions can lead to increased discomfort depending on the length of the trip.
Cushioning gives us a false sense of security. The more cushioning you have under your feet, the more desensitized your body gets to the environment. It will cause you to step down harder, and cause you to walk in ways that may be detrimental to your body over the long haul. We have nerves for a reason: they prevent our body from doing things that may be harmful to ourselves. If we completely deprive our nerves of the sensory feedback on the trail, we can end up with problems. For example, if your foot steps down on a rock in a rigid boot, your brain can't tell where under your foot the fulcrum is. This means you could lose balance or twist your knee.
Excessive cushioning causes us to step more vigorously than necessary because it feels soft under foot. It also makes us more prone to walking with a heavy heel strike and locked knee. That excessive force over a large number of steps can take it's toll on the body, most often in the form lower back and knee pain.
Rigid boots are typically constructed out of heavy materials. Leather, artificial leather, and other combinations of natural and man-made fabrics are layered together to provide the structure. One side effect of this construction is that it takes a very long time to dry (it could take days in the sun)... that is after-all why electrical boot dryers were invented.
Having wet feet for prolonged periods of time can have negative consequences such as maceration and (if things get really bad) trenchfoot. Wet feet, when exposed to cold can make things worse, potentially leading towards unsafe conditions like hypothermia.
In an effort to deal with these issues, traditional trekking footwear is made waterproof. While this seems like a good approach in theory, there is a problem: boots will get wet. No matter how hard you try to keep them dry, no amount of waterproofing will prevent boots from eventually getting wet. It is not a matter of "if", it is a matter of "when", and when they do all of the efforts that went into making the boot waterproof will work against you to hold the water in.
Heavier footwear means you will travel more slowly, use more energy, and get tired sooner. All of that also means you will expend more energy and therefore likely require more food (calories) to travel the same distance as someone who has a lighter load. More food translates into even more weight on your back. More work also means that physical recovery will take longer.
You may have heard the saying "One pound on your feet is the same as five on your back". Long distance walkers have found this principle to generally be true.
The Minimalist Approach
The minimalist philosophy to footwear is exactly opposite to the conventional thinking: the proper footwear to use is lightweight, flexible, below-the-ankle, quick-drying, trail runners. And the recommendations don't change for different pack loads or trek distances. In fact the more time you spend on your feet with a pack on your back, the more closely you will want to adhere to this philosophy.
Click here for part 2.