Before even considering the relative merits of boots and shoes it is important to understand the role of effective footbeds. This has gained recognition in recent times and should be fundamental knowledge for walkers, particularly those who suffer from problens in the heel area of the foot. For many of those people, such problems can be banished completely in one simple step. I have devoted a separate article to this topic of footbeds which describes my experience on the way to a perfect solution:-
|Footbeds article →|
The footwear notes below give some details and observations on particular models we have tried. Some of these have been tested in the field and some are just first impressions from an indoor tryout, they might be helpful to others in making a choice.
Just so, and it was a Chris Townsend article on lightweight footwear that liberated our thinking and truly revolutionised our walking. It also made buying gear more frustrating though, because we became much more difficult to please, as the sales staff at our outdoor store will testify (we once spent over 3 hours in there testing and weighing boots and shoes and we now have a 10% discount card). We always take a small electronic scale to the shop and weigh everything, under the bemused gaze of other customers browsing the array of thick leather leviathans.
We can hardly believe that the old dogmatic tripe about the necessity of thick leather boots and support is still repeated mantra-like in some circles, and even less that so many people still believe it. Much more believable is that sales of products like Compeed remain buoyant!.
Many manufacturers make no weight statement at all and I'm not surprised, judging by the shelf-bending monsters that are typical of many of them. Others make a useless statement like 'Weight: XXXXg' which is totally meaningless without specifying a size. Almost as useless is 'Average Weight: XXXXg'. This tactic is sometimes used deceptively - the weight they quote is for a very small size. To get the true picture, we always weigh them ourselves and we don't rely on how they feel in the hand, as that can be deceptive too. For a phrase like 'luxurious padding' read 'unnecessary weight'.
We find this the most important and also the most troublesome aspect of footwear to deal with. By 'cushioning' we refer to the part under the ball of the foot which should prevent it becoming footsore, as distinct from the heel area discussed in the topic above. The problem is complicated by the critical requirements of backpacking (for us at least, see next heading). The flexibility can be reasonably assessed in the shop by force-bending and walking about, but we find that it is linked to the cushioning ability, which cannot really be judged until tried on a backpack, although the obvious losers can be eliminated by a shop trial. The only way we have found, though not really satisfactory, is to put our fingers in and press down hard on the ball area, which should have the right amount of compression, the trick is judging how much and trying to assess the likely effect.
We are bemused by the constant foot problems with blisters reported in magazines (or perhaps not, considering the prevalence of those awful stiff heavy boots!). With our lightweight more flexible footwear we walk over 1000 miles a year with backpacks over all kinds of terrain and have no problems at all - think about it. Another thing that helps us here is liner socks. Under our Thorlo socks we wear Bridgedale thin liner socks made of a Meraklon / Nylon / Lycra mix which wicks sweat away from the feet, and if there is a slight relative movement between the foot and the boot, they take some of the heat rather than the skin.
We use several types of footwear in the course of a year depending on the scenario and expected conditions:-
These are our staple backpacking footwear that we use for most of the year. Over the years the most agonising choice was always whether to have footwear with a breathable membrane or an unlined type which relies on waterproof socks for wet conditions. The main problems with lined boots are firstly that they can get a bit sweaty in warm weather, and secondly that if the liner is breached either by failure or water coming in over the top, they become worse than useless as they impede the drying process and keep the skin wet, rendering them liable to soreness or blisters. There is no easy answer and in the end we settled on membrane types for the vast majority of trips with a second pair of unlined approach shoes for warm dry weather on easy terrain.
We have been using these for a few years and they are easily the best all-round footwear we have ever tried. They are very light for a mid-cut and have good cushioning via a gel pad. They are the first boots we found that grip the rear end of the foot snugly while having plenty of width at the toes. Another unique feature (as far as we know) is that the XCR membrane is on the outside of the main uppers and protected by a layer of thin but fairly tough fabric, which sensibly shifts the water defences to the outer layer and makes them much more breathable. The disadvantage is that the liners don't last long on ours, given the roughness we subject them to such as tangled heather.
Performance wise we find them excellent for all types and lengths of walk, from mountainous rocky terrain to very rough moorland and long distance hikes on trails.
The Stratos are discontinued now (early 2008) and Montrail claim to have evolved them into the new Cirrus model, but see our notes below on that.
Note: don't confuse this model with the Pro Rush Primal Mid which is a different and stiffer model entirely.
The sleekest of the recent arrivals and the most shoe-like in styling, the Pro Rush Mid is the first Berghaus footwear I have tried. This is the 2007 model which was on sale offer at just over half price, the main difference from the new 2008 model being the lug pattern on the sole unit. The attached sales tag describes the sole pattern as Opti-Stud which 'optimises your movement and pressure on contact with the ground'. Additional tags proclaim other attributes of the shoe:- 'EVABreathe generates airflow even when compressed' and the enticing 'EHS lacing closure system that distributes lace tension giving great foot hold'. The latter sounds very promising, I have always found this system a lot better than those that concentrate pressure at localised points, it does give superior hold and is less likely to cause discomfort.
The first field trial was the Northern Arans trip, a good route for a first test involving a mixture of rocky terrain, steep descents, edging on steep rough tussocky slopes and a section of road walking at the end.
The Berghaus literature describes the flex as Medium. From the house trial I thought they might not flex quite well enough for a comfortable gait, but outside there was no problem at all with any of the terrain I encountered. I didn't notice any surplus stiffness at all when walking normally on the flat and my stride was natural and comfortable with no heel lift. On steep tussocky slopes the extra transverse stiffness made their edging capability excellent, better than the Stratos if anything, and the snug EHS lacing system held my foot very securely once adjusted after a couple of miles of acclimatisation. The lowish mid-height cuff was easily enough to prevent the uncomfortable and disconcerting foot-roll that plagues low-cut shoes, and the padded material has a vinyl-like feel that doesn't absorb water - a welcome feature seldom found in this type of footwear. Off the shelf they look a little narrow in the forefoot, but in fact they are surprisingly roomy at the toes.
The grip of the sole unit wasn't tested much on this walk, the only applicable situation being the fording of a couple of streams on damp boulders, but the perceived grip of any shoe depends as much on the character of the rocks as the material of the sole, as we know well from experience. At any rate the grip seemed as good as other lightweight footwear I've tried and felt ok throughout this trip.
On the 2-mile road walk at the end I had no problems with the underfoot cushioning on the tarmac and the shoes felt very comfortable. It was fairly warm in the valley and my feet didn't feel unduly hot or sweaty inside the XCR membrane, significantly better than most I've worn in the past, though on a hot day all membrane lined shoes will benefit from an airing at rest stops.
I get a satisfying glow from these in that there is no redundancy here: they have an economy of line, no unnecessary thick padding to add weight and a general simplicity about them. They performed very well indeed on this first backpack and I think I've found the Stratos replacement.
The Elios is the current waterproof mid-cut offering by Salomon, they seem quite substantial at first glance but are a lot lighter than they appear, lighter in fact than the much sleeker looking Berghaus above. They have a very soft flex where the foot bends making natural walking comfortable right away, and the underfoot cushioning from the midsole feels very good. Combined with the internal '3D foam' fit system, it was instant comfort all round.
The padded tongue is unnecessarily long: when laced up it sticks out quite a way and my urge is to cut off the excess, if only I could do it neatly and without damage.
The first field trial was on the Loweswater Fells. All new footwear needs experimentation with the lacing and that is certainly true with the Elios: at first I just tied them in the conventional way to see what would happen. The boot opening is large and relies on the top lacing hooks to hold it snugly closed, which meant I needed the laces tighter than usual around the ankle, not very much but enough to notice and something to get used to. I find that a smaller opening with more lacing holes is a better design, it hugs the foot more snugly and naturally without relying on excessive tightness in the laces and spreads the pressure load more evenly.
On steep descents I felt a lot of pressure from the uppers on top of the mid section of the foot, enough to become slightly painful by the end of the day, which was relieved somewhat by slackening off the laces in the bottom half near the toes but leaving the top half tight - the lacing loops have just enough friction to enable this differential lacing technique. I'll try this idea from the start next time.
The sole is Contagrip, a compound we know from years ago when we last had Salomons and which we found excellent then, with noticeably more grip than Vibram on rock. They were not really tested on this very dry trip.
After the liner in my Montrail Stratos failed, a diligent internet search of retailers failed to turn up any stragglers from the discontinued line in my size. My attention turned to the similar looking replacement in the product line: the Cirrus.
Montrail describe the Cirrus as "An evolution of our award winning Stratos GTX". Some people had reported problems with cracks appearing in the sole unit of the Stratos, and the placement of the liner on the outside of the main uppers, although great for breathability, rendered it more vulnerable to damage and early failure. I expected the Cirrus to be essentially a Stratos with these problems fixed or improved. It isn't: the moment I tried them on I knew this was no evolution of the Stratos, it's a very different species. In the spectrum of footwear the Cirrus is a significant shift towards the boot end.
The term "mid-cut" is imprecise and actually covers a small range of heights, and within the category there is considerable variation around the circumference of the ankle. At the sides a mid-cut just covers the ankle bone while the big differences are to be found at the front: the Stratos was low at the front with a small and unobtrusive tongue and lacing holes, giving it a shoe-like feel, but the Cirrus is higher with a large substantial tongue and two pairs of lacing hooks at the top. This extra height doesn't look like much but it seriously changes the position where the laces are tightened: these tighten closer to the ankle, and when combined with the thick tongue it grasped my ankle very strongly, much more like a boot.
Impressions were confirmed on walking across the room. Where the Stratos had a smooth rolling flex, the Cirrus has a quite beefy shank and is considerably stiffer, resulting in a slight 'rocking' movement in mid step as I moved forward - again more characteristic of boots and not welcome at all, especially on long walks. Some people might find the extra stiffness of the Cirrus an advantage on rocky terrain, but the more flexible Stratos were fine for me on any type of ground. The material of the Cirrus uppers feels similar, soft and comfortable, while the fit retains the same shape and is excellent for me: quite snug at the rear and roomy at the toes. The Gryptonite sole unit of the Cirrus is more aggressive with deeper lugs and I expect this would improve the grip on most surfaces.
As often reported with Montrail footwear, the Cirrus sizing is on the small side and I needed a ½-size larger than most other walking footwear. Last but not least is the important weight which is well up on the Stratos at 1324g for size 10, which takes it into the low end of the conventional boot class.
For an unlined pair we have Salomon Extend Low shoes which are very light at 920g per pair (size 9). These lack the above advantages of the mid-cuts but are useful for short summer trips on easy terrain and aerated for maximum breathability in warm conditions.
The toe end is on the narrow side and tends to make the toes feel slightly squeezed after a few miles, but the main problem is the poor lacing system:- it is not adequate for descents on rough terrain like trackless heathery tussocky ground as it fails to grip the foot adequately. The toes get pressed up against the front end, despite wearing custom orthotics and lacing up as carefully as possible, and the shoes tend to roll and squirm around a bit on the feet. They feel ok during ascents and on the flat. Like the Elios above, they would benefit greatly from having a smaller opening and more pairs of lacing holes to give a snug and natural fit while spreading the pressure load. We find this rolling tendency on rough descents is a problem to some extent with all low-cut shoes regardless of lacing, and is one of the reasons we generally prefer mid-cuts.
These are for day walks on easy terrain and paths with no snow or ice. The Kyotees have a standard trainer shape and an aggressive stud pattern: a pair size 9½ weighs a superbly low 800g. On hot summer days the mesh top panels make these gloriously airy and we can feel the cooling breeze through them. We have also used them successfully in wet and slushy conditions outside summer with waterproof socks on our 'walk & run' outings, and their grip on wet or frosty grass we find better than any boot. Saucony are well praised by the running fraternity for their superb traction.
We very rarely do that kind of day walk now and have abandoned the walk-and-run outings, but we do sometimes miss this lightest of all walking regimes. Using the combination of Kyotees and an ultralight Kimm daypack we could really glide along with very little effort!.
In snow or ice we use boots with chunkier sole units and a hard edge, which are better able to cope with winter conditions and facilitate edging on snow. Fortunately the walks are short in winter due to brief daylight hours and generally slower progress, and we can tolerate them for that long. They generally give better security in frosty or icy conditions and have superior grip. They enable us to kick steps in snow slopes and have a reasonably stiff edge that digs in when contouring.
Even here for most purposes, the boots don't have to be very stiff or weigh a ton, in fact since we never do very technical routes in snow or ice, our winter boots are as light as many people's summer boots.
I am using Asolo Fugitives that have a cut that is relatively low for a boot, which alleviates my problem with tendon pain and are quite wide at the toes. They are fairly high volume at the front and the boot fitter recommended a volume adjuster to hone the fit - a thin pad of material inserted beneath the manufacturer footbed - and he was right. They are reasonably comfortable for the short distance and duration of winter days but they make me appreciate the flexible lightweight footwear I wear most of the year.
They have a Gore-Tex waterproof liner which has remained waterproof over a couple of winters to date. The large amount of stitching in the uppers might cause concern for durability of the waterproofness, but so far so good.
The other pair are Lafuma Tech Treks, also wide at the toes but with a somewhat higher cut and more padded feel. These are not a well known brand but have performed well in winter conditions and are still waterproof.
There is a B-rating scheme for boots that is supposed to indicate the type of crampon they will take. Not surprisingly the scheme is weighted on the side of caution and even B1-rated boots are very stiff, but more importantly it ignores a whole class of crampons that are made for more flexible footwear. Our winter boots over the years have all been B0-rated, i.e. they are not supposed to take any crampon, but we find them perfectly ok with flexible walkers crampons on non-technical routes.
A few years ago we discovered Kahtoola crampons, which are specifically designed to work effectively with just about any footwear, even running shoes and trainers. There are two variants:- an all-steel version with standard long sharp spikes, and a mixed aluminium/steel version (pictured) with shorter less aggressive spikes. We chose the aluminium version, which is adequate for our needs since we never do anything very technical and they spend most of their time in our packs anyway, and at 540g per pair they are over 200g lighter than our old ones. The front and back of the crampon slide together when not in use and the back folds flat, resulting in a much smaller packing volume. The all-steel ones would be better for thick and/or steep ice, also when frequent contact with bare rock is likely which would quickly wear down aluminium points.
The binding system is a big improvement over our old ones too, once the front straps are adjusted for the boots at home prior to use. The front strap has a buckle tie and the rear strap has a fastex buckle, just click-in and pull tight. The left and right crampons are different, the forefoot of each is angled slightly inward for a better fit.
The flexies are fairly easy to attach and remove and don't present any hassle for a significant icy section, nevertheless we often encounter the worst of both worlds: alternating bands of hard snow or icy terrain mixed with bare rock. Walking on bare rock with crampons is excruciating, not to mention the severe wear on the aluminium points, and we usually can't be arsed to stop and put them on at all, we often slide and muddle our way across the icy bits.
The Microspikes are another step down from true crampons, consisting of small stainless steel spikes mounted on a chain and attached by a simple rubbery stretch elastomer harness, extremely quick to attach and remove. We are hoping these will suffice for most of the snow and ice we encounter and they might actually be used more often. The steel teeth are very small and walking should be quite comfortable on the bare hard bits, including icebound valley paths and tracks.