Shoes vs boots

We put the age-old ques­tion to the test in the Lake Dis­trict fells and com­pare the re­sults.


“So the clouds are rolling in and the scram­ble across Great Gable is go­ing to be rocky – ev­ery­body happy in shoes, or is it time for boots?”

The swoon­ing moun­tain air was clearly lis­ten­ing to my voice, and as it car­ried those care­fully timed words from my lips to the ears of my com­pan­ions, Tim and Anna, the weather gods turned up the in­ten­sity on the weather gauge, from a gen­tle three to a more chal­leng­ing six. Dark clouds be­gan rolling up from the Cum­bria coast into the Was­dale Val­ley and then, like a sleep­ing gi­ant, Great Gable drew that dark blan­ket of cloud over her head. Fog smoth­ered the view and miz­zly, driz­zly damp­ness be­gan to soak into ev­ery fold in our cloth­ing and ev­ery crevice of the moun­tain. The re­sult was that our clothes be­came damp, the grass be­came del­i­cately glazed, the earth mud­died and the rock be­came as slip­pery as soap in the bath tub.

As we stepped from the path at Sty Head onto the rocky slopes of Great Gable, we rolled our feet from heel to ball to toe on ev­ery step to cre­ate max­i­mum trac­tion and sta­bil­ity. With gen­tle pres­sure, the rub­ber lugs on the soles of our footwear be­gan to bite into the softer sur­faces. On seem­ingly smooth rock, the rub­ber lugs flexed and wrapped them­selves around the gritty grains that rise from even the smoothest of rock. Care­ful tens­ing of mus­cles and bal­ance al­lowed us to place our feet in the best po­si­tion pos­si­ble to en­sure the best grip, and from this sta­ble plat­form we made our next steps on­ward, up­ward and over the moun­tain.

We swapped our trail shoes for boots and swapped them back again, chal­leng­ing our pre­con­cep­tions on ev­ery step, find­ing what worked and what didn’t, and fi­nally drew our con­clu­sions of where the line can be drawn be­tween the suit­abil­ity of trail shoes com­pared to the suit­abil­ity of 3-sea­son boots when head­ing into the hills.

There is no sin­gle de­sign of footwear that is right for ev­ery oc­ca­sion or ev­ery per­son, so choos­ing footwear has al­ways been, and will al­ways be, a con­tentious is­sue. But there are some fun­da­men­tal truths that may help us make the right choice.

An­kle pro­tec­tion

It is the an­kle cuff that trans­forms a shoe into a boot. The an­kle cuff re­duces how much de­bris can en­ter the footwear, which is im­por­tant on wet ground, boggy moor­land and also when cross­ing loose gravel and scree slopes. The an­kle cuff also pre­vents jagged rocks from scrap­ing against your skin, which can be use­ful when scram­bling over rocks or jam­ming your foot into cracks be­tween rocks.

When step­ping away from level paths the an­kle cuff can also pro­vide some ex­ter­nal sup­port for the foot by lim­it­ing lat­eral move­ment. This can help re­duce strained mus­cles in your an­kle by pre­vent­ing your an­kle from flex­ing be­yond its nat­u­ral lim­its, so the an­kle cuff can act like a sup­port ban­dage. But even if not pre­vent­ing strains, the an­kle cuff can re­duce how much your an­kle mus­cles need to work, which can in turn re­duce fa­tigue.

So the choice be­tween a shoe and a boot comes down to how much pro­tec­tion and sup­port you may pre­fer when walk­ing over dif­fer­ent types of ter­rain. In part this will de­pend on the de­mands of the ter­rain but also it will de­pend on how much work you are pre­pared to give the mus­cles and ten­dons that sup­port your joints.

Sole stiff­ness Whether you pre­fer a shoe or a boot, the stiff­ness of the sole will pro­vide fur­ther sup­port to the foot if needed. A soft flex­i­ble sole is ideal for al­low­ing the foot to move eas­ily, but will re­quire the foot to work harder as the ter­rain be­comes more un­even. Con­versely, a stiffer sole unit will re­duce the need for the foot to flex, which can be­come un­com­fort­able if the sole is too stiff, but can be more com­fort­able if it is stiff enough to re­duce the strain on the foot when cross­ing rocky or un­even ter­rain. So there is a need to find the right level of flex in the sole to match both the ter­rain and the user’s pref­er­ences. Get­ting a grip

What­ever footwear we choose, it needs to pro­vide grip. Grip is en­hanced through the use of lugs on the base of the footwear, and a se­ries of deep, widely-spaced lugs will gen­er­ally pro­vide a bet­ter grip on soft sur­faces than a smoother de­sign of lugs.

But deep lugs are of no use if they are placed so close to­gether that mud eas­ily lodges be­tween them. To al­low mud and grit to clear eas­ily some lugs are slightly ta­pered. They may also be widely spaced, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for mud or grit to cling to the base of the shoe.


To com­pare the ben­e­fits of shoes and boots, Trail sent my­self, hos­tel man­ager Tim Butcher, and out­door in­struc­tor Anna Humphries to the Lake Dis­trict. Each of us had a pair of shoes and a pair of boots from across the price ranges. We had been us­ing the footwear for a cou­ple of weeks in a range of con­di­tions and on the last day of test­ing we headed for Great Gable over a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent ter­rains.

The walk con­sisted of road at the start, then a gravel path fol­lowed by a man-made pitched path of rock. The walk con­tin­ued over grass and boggy ground with some boul­der hop­ping across streams. Fi­nally we crossed the rock and scree slopes of the Gable Tra­verse to Napes Nee­dle. After com­plet­ing the Grade 2 scram­ble of Thread­ing the Nee­dle, we picked our way across the rocky slopes of the moun­tain to the sum­mit be­fore de­scend­ing back down scree paths to the val­ley.

As our band of three de­scended from Great Gable, the fog lifted on what each tester pre­ferred when choos­ing be­tween shoes and boots for the hills. The re­sult was a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of the footwear and how each pair of shoes and boots had their in­di­vid­ual ben­e­fits and draw­backs. There were some sur­pris­ing out­comes along the way that high­light how im­por­tant it is to un­der­stand footwear de­sign.


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