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.
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.