By Frank Sargeant, The Huntsville Times
Anyone who does a lot of off-road walking knows how critical hiking shoes can be. Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, is the single most important factor in enjoying your time on the trail–or suffering through it.
It used to be that hiking boots were heavy, uncomfortable, noisy and hot, but that’s no longer the case. The current crop are built much like quality athletic shoes, and they’re easy on the feet, light in weight, quiet, cool–and even dry in some models.
What do you need in a hiker? Depends on where you hike. But for the steep terrain of North Alabama–even some trails inside the city limits of Huntsville–an aggressive lug pattern has to be high on the list. You’ll be climbing up and sliding down some fairly vertical country, and if your shoes don’t grab hold, you’re going to get close and personal with the dirt.
You’ll also want a sole that’s tough and resistant to sharp rocks, thorns and other trail debris; the soft rubber on the typical running or walking shoe is not tough enough for anything more than casual off-roading.
Light weight is also a must; the best trail shoes weigh in at under two pounds, and shoes of this weight allow you to keep going all day. Even a slight increase in weight can kill your legs in extended going in steep country.
Waterproofing is a toss-up. If you walk in wet grass frequently, travel where creeks and puddles are abundant or do overnights where rain may be a factor, then waterproof shoes are a huge benefit. And with current technology in breathable fabrics like Gore-TexÂ®, waterproofing does not necessarily mean dry shoes have to be hot shoes–or shoes that create sweaty feet.
On the other hand, waterproofing does add a slight amount of weight and tends to make shoes warmer–if you’re strictly a summer hiker and confine your trips to dry high country, you may be happier without the waterproofing. Waterproof hikers are also more expensive than standard shoes.
Speaking of price, good shoes ain’t cheap. You can expect to pay anywhere from $80 to $140 for high-tech, name-brand hikers. But you can amortize that over a duty span that’s likely to extend for years unless you’re out there every day.
High top or low? Low tops are by far cooler, lighter and more comfortable, but if you hike in wet terrain or around lots of briars and sharp rocks, the high-tops will keep you better protected. They also tend to keep out sand and trail debris better, and some may give better support against twisted ankles.
Interior comfort is in the eye–or feet–of the beholder. Some like a lot of padding and support, which adds comfort but also adds weight. Others prefer the minimalist approach–and less padding makes a lighter shoe that better allows you to feel the trail–a plus in really steep going. In general, though, shoe experts say a shoe that’s going to work for you will feel good the minute you put it on–if you have to “break it in” odds are it’s never going to be a great pair of shoes for your feet in terms of comfort.
A CLASSIC HIKER WITH TODAY’S TECHNOLOGY
One example of a good trail shoe for our area is the Merrell Moab Gore-Tex XCR, a waterproof hiker that weighs in at just 1.8 pounds for the pair. The Vibram sole on these shoes has an aggressive tread that’s good in steep terrain, but the lugs are not so deep that they’ll pick up a lot of mud in wet weather. A molded nylon arch shank gives support and protection against sharp rocks, and an air-chamber cushions the heel, just as in the better running shoes. The breathable liner keeps water out but lets perspiration pass through. They’re about $130 from Bass Pro Shops, www.basspro.com.