FAQ - Equipment Footwear (and flame wars)

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This is one of the more popular flame war subjects. In simple terms, we have those who swear by big solid heavy leather boots (made from dinosaur hide) and those who have progressed to light-weight footwear such as joggers, light Dunlop KT-26s and the very light Dunlop Volleys (DVs). We have a few who use 'sports sandals', but not that many in the Australian scrub. We even have a few who go barefoot. The traditional arguments for boots include durability, waterproofness, ankle support (claimed but never verified by any medical research!), crampons, ice and snow use, and tradition. And a good profit margin for the makers and the gear shops. The arguments for light-weight (the 'DV brigade') include low cost, light weight, comfort, minimal impact and in some cases improved safety and better foot health. There is strong evidence for the improved foot health.

Some people regard the battle as one between an historic (and archaic) military rearguard and more enlightened users of modern technology; others think the wearers of light-weight footwear are mad although many of them don't seem to have actually tried light footwear themselves. The traditional leather boot vendors get very snarky when you criticise their products in magazines, with threats to withdraw all advertising revenue. (Yeah, it's happened.) Anyhow, it's your choice. I will try to present both points of view, but my bias may show J .

However, before we go any farther, remember the 3C rule: 'comfort, comfort and comfort'. It does not matter how cheap or how expensive your footwear is: if it is uncomfortable you will have a miserable trip and may seriously injure your feet as well. It can take years to undo the damage. May I recommend the section on Blisters, pain and shoes sizes, and especially the section on Shoe Sizes! If you only read the one bit of this page, make it the Shoe Sizes bit!

The other thing I would warn you against is asking other people to recommend a shoe. Well, It's OK to ask, but remember that what suits someone else may very well not suit you! If they have a narrow foot and you have a wide foot, pain and suffering will be your lot. Also, many makers of outdoor footwear only make one width, which they rarely disclose. Their idea of a good width may not be what will suit your feet.



The Need for Footwear

It is worth noting before we start that footwear, and especially boots, are really a fairly recent idea. Primitive man had bare feet. Many modern 'natives' also still go around in bare feet, and that includes our Australian aborigines. For all the commercial arguments in favour of footwear, it must be noted that barefoot people seem to manage just fine. I go around the house barefoot all the time, summer and winter. I admit that outside the house I normally wear thongs - but that is mainly because we have nasty bindies (spikey things) in our lawn. In fact, it is usually the little spikes and sticks which make people resort to footwear outside - except for the huge mindless bulk of the population which is so brainwashed that they wouldn't dream of ever going without shoes. After all, shoes are just so natural, aren't they?

Can one function without shoes? I quote from Barefoot Running by Michael Warburton of Gateway Physiotherapy, Capalaba, Queensland, Australia:

'Well-known international athletes have successfully competed barefoot, most notably Zola Budd-Pieterse from South Africa and the late Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia. Running in bare feet in long distance events is evidently not a barrier to performance at the highest levels. Indeed, in this review I will show that wearing running shoes probably reduces performance and increases the risk of injury.'...

Where barefoot and shod populations co-exist, as in Haiti, injury rates of the lower extremity are substantially higher in the shod population (Robbins and Hanna, 1987). Furthermore, running-related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries, where most people are habitually barefooted (Robbins and Hanna, 1987)...

One of the most common chronic injuries in runners is planter fasciitis, or an inflammation of the ligament running along the sole of the foot. There is some evidence that the normally unyielding plantar fascia acts as the support for the medial longitudinal arch, and that strain on the proximal fascial attachment during foot strike leads to plantar fasciitis (Robbins and Hanna, 1987). Barefoot running may induce an adaptation that transfers the impact to the yielding musculature, thus sparing the fascia and accounting for the low incidence of plantar fasciitis in barefoot populations (Robbins and Hanna, 1987)...

What that last paragraph means is that people wearing shoes with thick soles tend to clunk down on their heels, which does not work when barefoot. If you are going to go barefoot you will need to learn to land more on the ball of your foot. This may take some 'conditioning' at first. I could go on to include several other interesting paragraphs, but hopefully you get the message: you won't die if you don't wear heavy boots.


The History of modern boots

Roman foot soldiers wore leather sandals - and so did Greek and Spartan and Egyptian and ... Boots came out of the need by European armies for some tough footwear for their troops for marching over the rough roads of medieval Europe with a heavy load, and for the strife of battle. The almost-modern leather boot with a leather sole as we know it was being developed in the Asolo valley of Italy by many individual craftsmen for military use around the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. It was an Englishman, Lord Rupert Iveagh, who actually made the valley into the boot-making capital of the world. He brought a lot of those craftsmen together in 1938 to form the Societa Calzaturieri Asolani Reuniti Pedemonatana Anonima, now abbreviated as SCARPA, to make non-military boots. Yep, that's where the name comes from. It is perhaps startling to realise just how recent is the development of the leather boots.

Howevere, leather wears quickly and slips. That led to the era of hobnails, cleats and tricounis, and great arguments about the virtues of different nailing patterns (over an ale in an English pub of course). No worries about Minimal Impact there! There is another Italian boot company called Asolo - same valley of course. Later on the rubber Vibram sole was developed there to replace the leather sole and nails. By the way, the word 'Vibram'® is an abbreviation of the name of Vitale Bramani, the Italian bootmaker who invented it, although it does have a faint resemblance in a way to a bit of an old car tyre ... Then the sewn welt design was replaced with the rubber rand around the edge, and so on.

Bushwalking shops generally don't sell (or recommend) much in the way of cheap lightweight footwear: they prefer to sell big expensive boots. While not wishing to be unkind, it has to be pointed out that the profit margin on joggers and such-like (especially at places like Big-W) is only a fraction of the profit margin on big boots in bushwalking shops (>100%), so it is not really in the interests of the bushwalking shops to promote cheap joggers. Good boots may cost in the region of $300+ a pair, while a pair of DVs or KTs cost about a tenth of that at Big-W and similar places. Joggers vary: about $80-$140 a pair is typical, although the very similar 'Approach shoes' now being made by the boot companies will usually cost a bit more.

The above was first written around 2001. Since then the concept of the lighter 'Approach Shoe' gained significantly in popularity. This design is distinct from the American Cross-Trainers, in that Approach shoes actually have to perform in the mountains, while Cross-Trainers are basically teenager street fashion items. The Approach shoe usually has a more rigid sole, often using Vibram technology or something similar (thereby avoiding paying royalties to Vibram), and may have steel or plastic reinforcing inside the sole. The upper varies in height to cater for a range of tastes, but is always neat and tough. They work, but do have some drawbacks.

The American design of jogger or Cross-Trainer traditionally has a molded cup-shaped sole which is not as strong, but is made with high-speed injection-moulding gear and synthetic plastics. Each jogger company has its own proprietary formulation and pattern for this. The uppers on some of them usually look like something out of Star Wars. (Street fashion gear for teenagers, remember?) Some cheap joggers have very little strength in the sole and can break down easily in the field: You Get What You Pay For. The increased popularity of the light Approach shoes has seen an explosion in styles available and some drop in the price, to the $120 - $200 range (in Australia).

However, evolution continues, and there are now a number of good sports-shoe companies who make two useful styles of 'joggers'. There are the 'running shoes', which are very light and cater to the dedicated endurance runners, and there are the 'Trail Shoes' which cater to those who need something a bit stronger than the lightest running shoes. In fact it is this last area which should get most walkers' attention, as the shoes in this class are where the best action is for light-weight footwear. Fortunately the good shoe companies have got past the dangerous Nike-inspired era of 'arch-support' and are even starting to get over the 'pronation-control' fad (also inspired by the Nike marketing department).

Added in 2013: one of the world's biggest makers of joggers, New Balance (7 million pairs/year) has recently signed a deal with Vibram to put Vibram soles on the NB joggers. The author has tested the models Mo889 and MT1210 (Leadville) with the new Vibram soles, and likes them very much! It helps that NB make shoes in a number of width (which are specified) and a number of slightly different lasts (ditto) - and that you can search by width and last on their web site.


The Ridiculous Concept of Ankle Support

Boots are popularly supposed to provide 'ankle support', but the need for it, the value of it, the truth of it, or even the meaning of it is open to serious question. The matter has several aspects. Many novice walkers find that their ankles are not all that strong, and walking in low-cut footwear on rough terrain with a huge pack throws a load onto their ankles. So they are told by the shops they need 'ankle support'. However, while everyone knows about this concept, finding any good authority to justify it with decent published research is just a bit more difficult (or impossible). 'Urban myth' would be a polite description; 'marketing bulls**t' would be rather more appropriate. However, you will still find young assistants in some outdoors shops who are horrified at the thought of wearing anything but big heavy boots in the bush. One wonders how much experience they really have - or is it all boot-vendor training and profit motive? (Me, I am sure it is the latter.)

What is 'ankle support' really? An extreme form of it is found in the modern plastic ice climbing and ski boots: there is so much support there you can't move your ankle much at all, and casual walking is almost impossible. You can usually flex your ankle slightly in the forwards direction, but not at all sideways. This is a design feature needed in those boots, to be sure. But what direction of ankle support might be useful in the bush? There, you will need to be able to flex your ankle both forwards and sideways, especially while walking over rough ground. Even if the 'ankle support' is light, it still means that you will have to use your muscle strength to bend your ankle against the stiffness of the boot. That costs valuable energy, and will cause rubbing, pain and blisters where the ankle presses against your skin. How can this be good? I tried wearing plastic T3 ski boots on cross country skis once. I was assured they were suitable, nay, even designed for that. After about three hours my shins were so screamingly painful from the repeated pressure I could not move. They were a form of Chinese water torture. I had to completely undo the boots and shuffle gently back to the lodge and change into low-cut footwear. Ankle support indeed! Total and Extremely Dangerous Crap.

The reality is that most people are brought up in our cities and travel around more by car than on foot these days. What chance have they of developing even reasonable strength in their legs or ankles? For that matter, what chance have they of getting used to travelling over rough terrain? All this has been exacerbated by the American penchant for blaming someone else (anyone else, as long as they have lots of money and can be sued) when they trip over their own feet in a shopping centre. Of course novices are going to have to get used to travelling over rough terrain, and most likely they will strain their ankles a few times in the process. So what? The hard truth is there is no other way of recovering some ankle strength. Novices are also very likely to wake up the morning after a good trip with aching leg muscles. Do they need leg muscle supports?

In practice big stiff boots are very clumsy, especially if you aren't used to wearing them on a daily basis, and can cause more sprained ankles than bare feet. With big boots you cannot 'feel' the terrain properly, you cannot let your feet adapt to the terrain easily, and on scree or other rough terrain you can misjudge your footing and roll an ankle extremely easily. One could argue, with great merit, that they are actually a safety hazard on rough terrain. With soft light footwear etc you find your feet adapt very quickly to the terrain, giving you a sort of prehensile grip on scree. We often say we are 'pussyfooting' across scree in out lightweight shoes. It is also true that once you have worn light footwear for a while your ankles strengthen up anyhow. Maybe that should be 'once you have been bushwalking for a while'.

If you have soft shoes and put your feet down gently you don't bruise your feet, you cause less damage in fragile areas, and you use less energy. Minimal Impact Bushwalking. And remember: the Olympic marathon has (often) been won by runners in bare feet, and none of our ancestors from several thousand years ago ever had any footwear anyhow. Footwear is a new invention!


Strains and Sprains

You will hear these two terms, strains and sprains, used rather a lot, and not always correctly. They denote damage to muscles, ligaments and tendons in increasing severity. Basically, a strain is a stretch: the various bits have been stretched a little too far. There is temporary pain - which is of course the body's way of telling the brain to back off a little. Normally you can recover from a strain fairly quickly: anything from a couple of minutes to five or ten. After swearing for a while you can usually start walking again.

But a sprain is real damage: something has genuinely torn. There might be a rip in the muscle, or the attachment between the tendon and the bone may be partly torn. Recovery takes a lot longer - days even. Movement of the joint remains painful - again your body is trying to tell you something! Sometimes you can keep travelling slowly with the ankle strapped up, but one should be extremely careful about doing this. Permanent damage can result.

The next stage is where you really break something: a bone, or the entire connection between tendon and bone. This requires medical treatment, period. You can't re-attach tendon to bone in the right place without help. Don't try.

The majority of incidents in real life are strains. You roll your ankle and fall over. Actually, it is often better to fall over when you sense a problem, as this takes the load off the joint. You may well end up with a mild strain rather than a serious sprain. Experienced walkers learn to do just this - they 'roll' with the problem. The strange thing is, many of us will admit that most of our strains happen on flat paths rather than on really rough terrain. Why? Lack of attention mainly! Will a big boot help prevent this? Not likely: big boots are actually a lot more clumsy than lighter footwear. The heavy rigid sole of a boot can actually place far more leverage on the ankle than a light soft sole. We have a saying: 'Walk, OR Look'.


Arch supports: a Criminal Offence

Arch supports were all the rage in some places for a while in the 90s, especially in American joggers. They were essentially created by the Nike Marketing Department to gain an edge over the competition. They have absolutely no place in bushwalking at all. Why? Because the bones of your feet are like a bow, while the muscles and tendons under your foot are like the bow-string. Those muscles and tendons work very hard while you are walking. Put an 'arch support' there to 'support' the arch and all you will do is crush those muscles against the bone, causing bruising. In addition, the muscle will rub on the muscle sheath, tear it open and give you bad RSI problems very quickly. Too much of all that and you can be crippled for months. Remember that several hundred thousand years of human evolution worked with bare feet, not some form of Iron Maiden torture box.

There seems to be a belief among some so-called (self-appointed) 'experts' who habve been fed by the marketing departments of some American jogger companies that the foot is poorly designed, rigid and in need of strong support. Never mind that the foot is the result of hundreds of thousands of years of extremely competitive evolution: the marketing guys with their MBAs know better. Not explained is the amusing question of how you get a 'rigid' foot which still needs support. Of course, no evidence is ever produced to support these claims. In fact, medical research using athletes of all levels up to Olympic standard has shown this to be sheer crap, but the marketing spin persists. Maybe there is money in selling 'arch supports'? Runners who have been having foot problems for ages have had those problems eliminated simply by removing all forms of arch support 1. The marathon has been won many times by barefoot African runners - who don't have foot problems. And half the world still goes around with no shoes at all. It is doubtful that the Western Marketing Departments like this idea of course: you can't sell an absence of features.

In a curious - or amusing, turn of events, by 2010 a new fashion had developed: that of 'minimal support footwear'. Some of the more advanced footwear companies had begun to realise that not all their customers were complete idiots, and that some actaully did have an understanding of physiology and foot mechanics. So very light 'minimal' shoes came onto the market. Of course, one could argue that some of the Injinji foot sock shoes were there well before 2010 - and various barefoot walkers and natives were there all along, but anyhow it became fashionable. (The Injinji style has seperate toes, like a glove.)

Naturally, more conventional marketing departments latched onto this and started to talk about 'minimal shoes with light-weight foot support', and similar drongy ideas. You can always trust the creative guys in the marketing departments to really stuff things up.

Sadly, many forms of footwear still have some form of arch support or cushioning. It seems to be quite common in some forms of 'popular' American footwear, especially in joggers and especially at the inside curve of the arch and around the heel, but it is equally rare in good European boots. Maybe Americans don't have any muscles in their feet? Or maybe they let the Marketing guys take over their wallets? Maybe the Europeans know a bit more about footwear and ethics?

Sometimes the foam footbed has a very thick region against the inside part of the arch, presumably to help locate the foot inside the shoe, or worse still under the arch. If you find any of this in your footwear, take it out - or change model. If the footbed is thickly shaped at the arch, replace it with a thin flat one. KT-26s have a little foam pad stuck lightly under the footbed at the arch: take it out! Yes, we do, and we notice the improvement in comfort immediately. You too will feel the improvement in comfort. That is, provided your shoes or boots are not simply too small for you.

If you think the author is a little vehement about this, well, possibly so. He has suffered more than enough from 'arch supports' and other marketing gimmicks in his life.


Pronation, and other Marketing Myths

You will also hear the term 'pronation' in some sports shops. The idea was born somewhere in the early 90s from the observation that some people walk on the inside of their feet, some on the middle and some on the outside. OK, and some have their toes pointed outwards while others point them inwards, and some have high arches and some have low arches. Some bright spark (Nike Marketing Dept again, afaik) got the idea that anyone deviating from the middle of the range was aberrant, and should be corrected. That is, if you tend to walk on the inside of your foot with your toes pointed outwards, you should be forced to change this so you walk on the middle of your foot, and so on.

Now, a reasonable person would have thought that you would tend to walk in a manner that was most comfortable, for you and your bones and tendons. But no, if you deviate from the average you must be corrected, and forced to change your deviant ways. What effect this would have on the bones and tendons of your feet was not considered. Fortunately the stupidity of this idea was recognised by the end of the 90s, and competent medical practitioners and sports doctors do not subscribe to this idea. Actually, those who do know sports physiology condemn the idea totally. Unfortunately, a lot of the marketing and shop assistant guys have yet to be told that this idea is dead. It gives them some authority you see, and they have proved to be very reluctant to yield that aura (or the cash flow from promoting the idea).

Before leaving this subject, I should add that for a very small fraction of the population there is some benefit to be had from custom Orthotics, but these must be prescribed by a competent podiatrist. I have no argument with those. (Caution: not all podiatrists are 'competent' in this area.) Mass-marketed special foot beds are not medical devices, and are usually either irrelevant, useless, or even in some cases dangerous. If it feels wrong, it probably is! Listen to your feet, not to the guy trying to sell you something. Mind you, some of the replacement footbeds are little more than a flat bit of foam with a slight heel-cup. I doubt they do much harm, and in some cases may be used to adjust the size of the shoe.

So let us now see what other have said on this subject.


The Running Shoe - A Symbol of Our Time

We reproduce here an extract from an ABC radio discussion on sports shoes called 'The Running Shoe - Symbol of Our Time' . It has been trimmed down, but the original is/was still available at the ABC web site. The italics and bolding have been added. You should also read the extremely revealing Are Expensive Running Shoes a Waste of Money? from the UK Daily Mail. It is really a bombshell for the running shoe companies.

Maria Tickle: In fact, according to sports podiatrist, Simon Bartold, the technology is getting so complicated that even the people who sell the shoes are starting to have problems understanding it all. ['Bull***t Baffles Brains? RNC]

Maria Tickle: What is the Holy Grail of the sports shoe today? Like, what is everybody trying to achieve in their technology?

Simon Bartold: Well we do have a perfect model to work from, and that perfect model is called a human foot. Thereís really been a direct change in paradigm in the last 3 or 4 years, and that is, we always used to look at motion control, so if we saw somebody who was moving in an abnormal way, weíd try to control that abnormal motion. We now understand that itís pretty much impossible to do that, and rather than trying to control a footís motion, we want to try to enhance that footís motion. So we want to try to get the shoe to work with the foot rather than against it. So the Holy Grail really is to try to design athletic footwear that is very light, that is very flexible, that has specific areas of high shock absorbency or shock attenuation, whatever you want to call it. And also to try to make sure that every little subtle movement of the foot is allowed to occur and that the foot is allowed to feed back information to the brain, so that it can do its job properly. So the best analogy I can give you is, itís a little bit like trying to open your front door on a cold day with a single key. Imagine wearing a big heavy ski glove, picking that key up off a table and trying to put it into a lock. Itís a very difficult task. If you do it with a bare hand itís much easier. And the reason itís easier is because all the little nerve endings in your fingers send a signal back to your brain to allow you to do that task better. When you put a glove on, that signal is interrupted, so you canít perform a task as well. Itís exactly the same when you put a shoe on a foot. If it blocks off all that information, then the foot just doesnít work properly, and if the foot doesnít work properly, then you canít perform in sport properly.

Maria Tickle: In that move away from motion control towards complementing the movement of the foot, has there been much resistance from those whoíve been promoting motion control all these years, and still are?

Simon Bartold: The designs that are now being looked at really are the end product of quite hard-core science, so we know they work. We know that this is the story we should be telling, but because itís so diametrically opposed to the story of the last ten years, itís quite difficult to get people to change their minds. Itís quite difficult to get the consumers to change their mind, itís difficult to get the retailers to change their mind and itís difficult to get the referrists, people like me and sports medicine doctors, other podiatrists and physios, to really understand that weíve got to directly change the story weíve been telling over the last ten or so years.

Maria Tickle: So then is barefoot actually the ideal state to run in?

Simon Bartold: I think unquestionably Zola Budd got it right when she was running barefoot. I think the signs from all the laboratories around the world would support that the human foot is probably the perfect model, but of course itís impractical for most people wanting to go out running barefoot, there are too many obstacles, and of course you know, you might get injured by a sharp object, and the surfaces we run on transmit too much shock. But in a perfect environment on a perfect surface, then an unshod foot is probably the best way to go.

And I can't resist including this section of the interview, even if it is slightly less relevant - RNC

Maria Tickle: Well thereís another Australian athletic shoe thatís enjoying a new lease of life, having made the transition back from the depths of uncool. The KT26, also made by Dunlop, hit the market back in 1976 and was one of the first shoes designed specifically for running. Although its claim to fame is that it was also the shoe Australian mountaineer Tim McCartney-Snape wore on his trek from the Bay of Bengal to the Everest base camp. Mike Thanos is also a KT26 fan from way back, and it seems to be a love that, like the shoes, just wonít die.

Mike Thanos: Well I was 11 when I got my pair of KT26s. It would have been 1982. That was just after my Dunlop Volleys and just before my Adidas Romes. The KT26 at the time was probably cutting edge running shoe technology. So I was a very proud young owner, and in particular the kinetic cantilever sole with the black rubber that was guaranteed to leave marks on any netball or basketball court that you stepped onto. Iím pretty sure that rubber sole has a half life of about 3,000 years, so theyíre going to outlast most of their owners, and their children and their childrenís children I think.

My strongest memory of the KT26 apart from the sole, is probably the blue suede outer, which was almost indestructible. And in fact I know itís almost indestructible because I still use them to this day for a purpose they were probably never designed for, but they work very well for, and thatís prawning. I was a size 10 when I got my KT26s and Iím a size 12-1/2 now, so I had to cut the toes out of the shoe, but theyíre a fantastic prawning shoe. Yes. And a great example of brilliant Australian ingenuity and design, up there with the Stump-jump plough and the Hillís Hoist I think.

With Amanda Smith

The painful truth about trainers: Are expensive running shoes a waste of money?

The full text of this most excellent article has its own page here. It is a bit of a bombshell.


Shoe Lasts and matching the shape of your foot

Any shoe or boot has to be built to hold a foot of some shape. Traditionally the leather boot was made by molding the leather around such a shape, known as a 'last'. Even today with molded soles for joggers there will still be a 'last' used in the construction somewhere. It is reasonable to assume that the early bootmakers carved their wooden lasts roughly to the shape of their own feet (omitting bunions, corns etc).

We will return to the shape of boots under 'Blisters, pain and shoes sizes', but we emphasise here that footwear made in different countries can and does have different shapes. It is well-known that boots made in Italy for Italians are usually far too narrow for the wide Australian foot. Americans seem to like a huge empty space out the front of their toes, or maybe they have to buy shoes way over-size to get enough width. Fortunately, this variation is known to the good shoe companies, and many of them make 'Australian' fittings. In addition, there are a couple of good Australian boot makers, plus some local makers of cheap work boots. The latter are not that good for bushwalking, but they do fit the wider Australian feet. Some people prefer them just for this reason. The important thing is that if you find that the shoe or boot you are trying on seems to be the wrong shape, recognise this and look for something made to a different fitting or last. Do not think the footwear will adapt.


Boots - heavy

There is no question that leather boots are more robust. Even the DV fanatics will concede that, although some suggest it is your foot which usually gets 'broken in', not the boot. We will move on.

Boots can be waterproof, which is rather nice on a cold morning when walking through wet grass. Not all boots are really waterproof, although some today even have Gore-Tex linings or similar to keep your feet dry. However, this waterproofness is a two edged sword: a waterproof boot may appear desirable, but only until you walk through a creek. Then you find that you have two buckets of water on your feet, and they aren't draining. You can take your boots and socks off for river crossings, but this becomes dangerous when the bottom is not clear or is rocky - or is cold. All of a sudden your toes become very vulnerable. And of course when it rains the water runs down your legs into your boots. A Gore-Tex boot does not drain all that well! See also the section on Water Proofing and dry feet myths.

One area where heavier footwear try to claim some advantage over Volleys is the stiffness of the sole. The argument is that the more solid sole can protect the soles of your feet from the rocks underfoot. On long trips on rough terrain something as light as DVs can leave you with sore or even bruised soles if you tromp your feet down hard. Especially for novices this can be a problem (ever heard the term 'Tenderfoot' for a novice?). On the other hand, you don't actually need to crash your feet down like soldiers on the parade ground: you can place them gently. True, a stiff sole can help you get a grip (an 'edge') on some steep, slippery or muddy terrain. Be aware that this can damage fragile terrain, and it may not be Minimal Impact Bushwalking.

There are many brands of bushwalking boots on the market here. Some are imported, some feature an overseas brand but are made locally with an Australian last, some are made in Australia by an Australian company. There is no doubt however that some of these are very well made, but the prices are high: $300 - $450. (However, the Italians do know how to make boots!) There are also Australian 'work boots', and some walkers wear these as they are much cheaper and wider. But reports on these are variable, with failing soles (falling off) and poorer design being cited. But really, for 3-saeson use, boots are just dinosaur technology.

Some people think boots are essential if you want to go onto snow and ice. There is some truth in the converse, that DVs and KTs have such soft soles and edges that you end up with very little grip at all on ice, snow and mud. This is further discussed under Use in Snow. A stiffer sole and more rigid tread does have some value here. (I have worn KTs in the snow, but it was tricky on light snow over granite scree slopes.) However, people have climbed Mont Blanc in joggers and crampons.

Less expected was an experience I had in the Pyrenees in France, where we were on tracks which went through many high cow paddocks (alpine pastures). The cows and some rain (and some cow dung!) had made the tracks a very slippery bog. In other places there was light snow over smooth rock, melting in the morning sun. My KTs did not grip very well in either of these places, and I had to resort to buying some very light approach shoes to get a stiffer sole with a more pronounced tread. I should add that these approach shoes then lasted for several very long trips in the Pyrenees: they were good value. But they were not 'boots'.



Light Weight Footwear

More experienced walkers have long given up on boots and graduated to lightweight footwear. There is a huge range available here, from approach shoes to heavy joggers to the KT-26s and finally to the Dunlop Volleys (DVs). OK, add Teva sandals if you must. Different people have different needs. However, we often use the abbreviation 'DVs' for most light footwear, even if few actually go that far. One feature common to many forms of lightweight footwear is the lightweight effect on your pocket. That is, until you get into the fashion jogger or Cross-Trainer market - but they are made for the street fashion market and aren't suitable for walking anyhow.

Dunlop Volleys

The Dunlop Volley started life as a white tennis shoe; by now it's an Australian icon. The soft DV sole has excellent grip on all surfaces, even greasy rock. They are the default footwear for roofing tilers for this reason - to the extent that some tiling companies will not let their staff wear anything else, for genuine OHS reasons. In addition, they are the default footwear for Blue Mountains (NSW) canyons, to the extent that some walking clubs will not permit you to go on a club canyoning trip in anything else either! The clubs are not being funny about this: they have done too many Search & Rescues. However, many light-weight enthusiasts find the DV soles too soft for extended bushwalking and need a little more protection from the rough surface - or even from pounding along on a smooth surface.

Some years ago Dunlop moved the production of Volleys to China. That's partly why they are so cheap - typically about $39/pr. But for a short while after that the Chinese quality was, well, shall we say less than perfect? Since then the soles have improved a bit, but still do wear quickly. However, this higher wear rate is unavoidable if you want the very high grip. The uppers are made of a loose-weave canvas which does not seem to be as robust as it used to be, and this too wears quickly. On the other hand, they are very light, very cheap, grip extremely well and last a reasonable time for their price.

Some DV wearers have reported confusion over DV styles. Indeed, there are two versions of the basic DV as far as the author knows: one made for the general shoe market and one made for some of the largest chain stores. They differ slightly: the big chain stores have a lot of financial leverage.

More recently the DV has become fashionable again. In 2004 two more styles were added: a black style (evening wear?) and an industrial version, with a steel toe cap! The black one is illustrated in this most entertaining advertisement about Volleys I found on the web. I have removed most of the advertiser's stuff from the page, leaving just enough to give you a clue where it came from.

By 2005 the Volley had experienced a renaissance in the fashion market, or been worked over by Marketing to a degree which has to be seen to be (dis)believed. Have a look at this Target web site while it lasts! (Ahh ... the version that was there in 2004 has changed, but never mind: you will still get some amusement.) They may even have 'slip-on' versions for those of us who usually forget to do the laces up. Canyons will never be the same!

However, while DVs do have a wonderful grip, we should mention one warning about the rubber sole. Normally if you are wearing them much they will wear out. But if you are carefully hoarding them or just using them occasionally, that may backfire. After a long time (several years) the rubber can age and harden, for reasons unknown to the author. When this happens the rubber becomes glazed, and can become very slippery. If this happens or you even suspect it is starting to happen, it is time to throw them out.


The steel-blue Dunlop KT-26s are an up-market version of a tennis shoe - sort of. They too have become an Australian icon. They have a much stronger upper than the DV, with leather reinforcing, stronger soles with better cushioning, and what look a bit like claws (tricounis?) out the sides. Their grip is very good in the dry, at least until the just-adequate pattern on the centre of the sole wears out. While the edges grip well on slopes if used correctly, they don't do as much damage as boots. On very steep slopes you may have to 'edge' them in a bit. The heel design gives them good padding for high speed walking. However, the heel cup on the KTs (and DVs) is not quite as strong as on approach shoes or boots, and if you don't walk 'straight' you can break the heel cup down sideways - usually inwards. You will hear terms like 'pronate' in the shops selling joggers: it is worth going and looking at the psuedo-scientific pictures they have on the walls to understand what your feet are doing. But be cautious about listening to the sales pitches: few of the staff there understand bushwalking or even modern podiatrics. The whole concept of trying to 'correct for pronation' is a failed and quite ridiculous myth. Anyhow, KTs do work very well for some.

An area where KTs suffer a bit is on very wet rock and logs, especially in canyons. They do not have the grip that DVs have in the wet - but then nothing else does either. They also lack a little on wet greasy muddy cow tracks and on snow, due to the very thin tread and the high flexibility of the sole. Wouldn't it be lovely if Dunlop added just a little more tread to the centre of the sole? However, the carbon rubber soles do have excellent grip most of the time, even when bald.

How long does a pair of KTs last, and are they an economical alternative? Frankly, I think the latter is a silly question. A pair of steel boots would last for ever, but would you wear them? Your first choice should always be for something which works and is comfortable. The question of lifetime is impossible to answer. Some walkers find a pair will last them several years; other find they go through a couple of pairs a year. It depends on how much walking you do and what sort of country you traverse. On alpine grass a pair might last me for years, but the rocks of the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia wore the pattern off the sole in two weeks. The same rocks slashed my 1000 denier Cordura gaiters wide open with no effort, so maybe the KTs didn't do so badly. Mind you, the carbon rubber sole was still gripping very well even when smooth.

Some walkers have suggested that the lasts used to make DVs and KTs are different, and that you might be able to wear one but not the other. I haven't noticed this myself, but contributions on this would be appreciated.

One reason for the low price and popularity of the KT is that they are often standard factory issue to workers. They are light and comfortable, and apparently meet the required standards for grip and foot protection. Especially if you buy the version which comes in a yellow carton with black stripes: that version has steel toe caps as well!

For those with an interest in the history of things, the following comes from the Dunlop web site.

1959, Dunlop Footwear brought in their first imports Ė 300,000 pairs of Thongs and 16,000 pairs of PVC shoes.

1965, Dunlop Rubber Co. diversified into separate divisions Ė The Dunlop Footwear Division in its own right became a stronger force in the Australian Footwear industry.

1978, KT technology was introduced and the now icon product KT26 was born.

1978 to 1985 was a big era for Dunlop Footwear establishing the brand as the leading sports footwear brand in Australia Ė with big Volume sellers Ė KT26, Volley International, Supershot, Leviís for Feet, Boards, Jogair, Jaws and many others.

1994, Dunlop Footwear amalgamated with Winestock Pro-Sport Brand and became Dunlop Pro-Sport operating out of Port Melbourne.

1997 a new Division was formed Dunlop Sport now operating out of North Melbourne.

2004, Dunlop Sport Footwear became part of the Pacific Brands Footwear Group.


What are the really distinguishing features of the KT-26? The lugged sole and that funny oval pattern in the middle of the sole maybe? In 2006 I noticed that the Dunlop Marketing guys, inspired by the success with fashion DVs, attempted the same with the KTs. They came up with some new Dunlop shoes bearing the 'KT' prefix: the KT-42s. They were a bit heavier and more fashion-oriented, and had more tread on the sole. I suspect that even the most rabid Marketing guys realised (or had hammered into their skulls) that 'you don't mess with the KT-26 design!' on pain of death. So they created a parallel series to play with. They did not survive.

Dunlop Nuggets - Field Trial

Inspired by the success in America of an organisation called BackpackGearTest, and finding some very interesting Dunlop footwear called Nugget (or Montrail) in Big-W, the FAQ author organised six pairs of these for a Field Trial by readers on the news group aus.bushwalking in 2003. The shoe was very similar to up-market Approach shoes selling for over $200, but cost only about $49 at the time. One significant advantage they had was a far more rigid sole than the DV or KT, suitable for much rougher conditions and even casual rock scrambling. In general the reaction of the testers to these shoes was very positive. They were comfortable, had excellent grip on wet rock (but were not tested in real canyons), took a fair amount of bashing off-track, and survived river walking well. The soles seemed to last for ages. On the con side, they did retain a lot of water and could develop a bit of a pong if stored wet, and eventually some testers found the stitching around the edges could give away - but they were pretty cheap after all. Most of the testers (and the author) were keen on them.

The author took his pair through a lot of Wollemi NP: one of the most rugged testing grounds in Australia. They survived very well. Some side stitching did fail slowly after a long while, but a bit of Shoe Goo and some heavy thread fixed that just fine. In 2004 the author's wife wore a single pair for eight weeks walking along the Pyrenees in Europe. They survived the whole distance, and were still good enough for bushwalking after our return to Australia. Compared to some American North Face brand Approach shoes, they were found to be a little lighter in construction, the tread on the sole was not as chunky, and the sole was slightly more flexible. Apart from that, they have done just fine, at a fraction of the cost.

The reader can find the comments from all the Field Trial testers by searching through the 2003 aus.bushwalking archives on Google using key words such as Dunlop, Montrail, Nugget, Field Trial and Field Test. That is, if you can even find the news groups these days. Sadly, by mid-2004 the Nuggets had gone off the market (of course), but in late 2004 the Dunlop Ushers replaced the Nuggets, and the Dunlop Revolutions were pretty good too (RNC opinion). Unfortunately the next model, the Dunlop Beyonds, had a 'cardboard' inner foundation, and sort of fell to pieces as soon as they got wet. Why the change? I do not know, but I suspect the chain stores demanded an even cheaper model, and Dunlop (and the Chinese factory) complied. You want real cheap? You get real cheap. Exit a good idea. None of these have survived.


Joggers are sold in sports shops, where you will find a bewildering array of styles. These have a heavier construction over-all compared with the KT and DV, but they also have a larger price. A few designs are good, but be careful: most designs belong in the teenage street fashion department. The 'Cross Training' joggers are meant for fashion-conscious teenagers supposedly playing street basketball and are not recommended for walking. 'Walking' styles are generally a bit light, as are most 'Running' styles. I suspect they are meant for 'wanna-be's on pavements. 'All Terrain' joggers (or their equivalents) sometimes have good soles and may be suited to bushwalking, but this could change at the drop of a marketing whim. The All Terrain versions may be a bit cheaper than the fashion versions as well.

You will find the different brands have different 'lasts'. A last is the mold the shoe is built around: not all lasts will match your feet. Americans seem to like to wear their joggers with a huge overhang in front of the toes: 'correct length' can mean the shoe is too narrow for you. Some joggers have a slightly narrow heel: the footbed or inner sole edges close in a bit tightly. If you get blisters around the edge of the heel, suspect this problem. See below for more information on this.

You will notice a real difference in how joggers are made compared with boots. A boot usually starts with a rigid flat inner sole, often of hard leather. This is the foundation. Traditionally the upper is stitched to the inner sole, and finally the rubber tread or outer sole is attached. Most joggers start with an injection-molded cup-shaped sole, to which the upper is bonded. There may be no 'inner sole' or other foundation at all. The sole may be natural or synthetic rubber, with all sorts of fancy patterns all over it. This means both the upper and the cup-shaped sole have to fit your foot (or be uncomfortable). All you have to do is find the brand and style which suits you ...

A hazard with joggers is that the manufacturers seem to change their models every 12 months. By the time you have found that model X suits you, it has gone off the market. Sigh. Which gives meaning to the cartoon contributed by Joe Mack:

The author has no particular recommendations for joggers, although it may be worth noting that the New Balance 8xx series seems to have quite a following in America. I gather the model number changes regularly, as does the external styling a bit, but not too much. The New Balance company does have stronger links to the outdoors market than many of the other 'jogger' companies. They make some of their shoes in a 4E fitting, which feels heavenly on my feet compared to the narrower D fittings most running shoes come in. In addition, their web site www.newbalance.com has a brilliant search function which lets you search on shoe width and shoe last!

2013: New Balance have started using Vibram soles on their outdoors models. An excellent move.

Approach Shoes

These are a development by traditional bootmakers, taking their products in the direction of joggers. Well, I guess the writing was on the wall (or in the financial accounts). The term comes from their original use for approaching cliff faces for rock climbing. That means they are lighter than boots and should have a good sole. These days many of them actually have Vibram soles or similar proprietary styles. They started out as expensive as boots and as heavy as joggers, or slightly worse. But again, the market place has forced an evolution, and there are some good approach shoes on the market. If you find some that really suit you, they can be a good solution, albeit more expenmsive than joggers. Can we suggest you should focus on a good fit, a low weight and a low-cut ankle, before considering the price?

Author's note: I wear DVs in canyons and KTs on walks in Australia. I did wear several models of the Dunlop shoes, up to the Beyonds. I bought some leather The North Face low-cut approach shoes in the Pyrenees to replace some KTs, but they have worn out. I tried some Salomon Puntera and Extend Lows on some trips where the KTs were too light. After that I moved to New Balance shoes simply for the 4E width fitting. The NBs are light, fit well, have a very good outer sole, a flat inner sole, and grip in the mud and snow. In addition, some of the very light NB shoes have shown themselves able to take 2 month long walks in Europe. I will be posting reviews at Backpacking Light, where I am a Senior Editor.


Other Footwear Design Issues

Footwear doesn't just 'exist'. Each design is a result of compromises, marketing and designer bias. Just because someone made certain choices doesn't mean they are automatically right for you. With the way a lot of footwear is now being made in Asia, it may well be that some of it is quite UNsuitable for you. But not all. There are some good models on the market: you just have to be a bit choosey.

Effect of Shoe Weight

The issue of weight is real. Research has shown that wearing 1 kg on your feet makes you as tired as carrying about 6.4 kg on your back ("Energy cost of backpacking in heavy boots", S J Legg & A Mahanty, Ergonomics 1986, vol 29, no 3, pp433-438). [My thanks to Jim Colton for providing a copy of the reference!] Other research (cited in that reference)has shown similar effects with a slightly lower factor (about 5). Either way, the weight of your footwear matters! So note that suede leather is usually lighter than full-grain leather, and heavy synthetic fabric (Cordura etc) is lighter than leather. Equally, big clumpy soles are obviously heavier than thinner soles.

Some uncontrolled 'research' in America (reported at Backpacking Light) suggests that 1 lb on your back costs 1 mile per day in distance travelled - for those who like to travel far and fast anyhow. That means that shaving (say) 250 g off your footwear is equivalent to shaving 1.75 kg off your back, and that is equivalent to reducing your daily travel by 6.2 km. Think about this - would you like to be able to travel 6 km per day further at no extra cost? Experience over a number of long trips seems to suggest this is for real.

One or two boot enthusiasts have commented that extra weight on your feet just make your legs stronger. This is a totally stupid argument, and was probably raised just to stir things along. The issue of weight is one to consider no matter what you choose to wear or carry.

Sole Materials and grip

What the sole is made of can make an significant difference to the grip given by any footwear. Boot wearers have reported significant changes in grip when the rubber in the sole has changed: the harder the rubber the longer the life but the poorer the grip. This is the expected trade-off. It can get worse: a synthetic rubber sole is used on some joggers, but many of these synthetics are extremely slippery when wet. One user (of an American brand of Approach shoe) claimed they made a wet footpath feel like ice. So beware of synthetic soles: avoid them if possible. Since the joggers are usually sold in sports shops rather than bushwalking shops, you may be on your own in assessing the material in joggers, but the label should tell you what materials have been used. You are probably safer going for the branded Approach and Trail shoes.

Good soles often have a Vibram or similar pattern made from a carbon rubber: this material lasts well and grips very well. If the sole appears to have different coloured sections, that may indicate slightly different hardnesses. There may be harder rubber at the edge (for stiffness and life) and softer rubber towards the centre (for grip). On cheaper shoes the different colours may however be just for fashion. KTs have a soft carbon rubber sole over a high density foam for cushioning: the sole has a very good grip but does wear a bit faster. DVs have a strange rubber compound with fantastic grip but a shortish life. One person described the material as being like 'used pencil eraser'. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but claims for the excellent grip are not: they cling.

However, be warned. Old rubber can 'age', and become too hard, even slippery. Even the chewing gum on Volleys can go glassy with age, and when this happens they have no traction at all! Hopefully, you will do enough walking that you wear the soles out first.

Inner Soles and shoe construction

The original design for boots started with a heavy leather base or Foundation. Onto the top of this was sewn the Upper, and onto the bottom of it was attached a replaceable Sole. At first the replaceable sole was leather, with steel nails hammered into it for better life and grip. Ah, hobnails, tricounis, and endless arguments about the best nailing patterns. Later on the sole became rubber, or Vibram. Anyhow, what this gave you was a flat surface on the inside of the boot - and a pretty hard one at that. There is nothing wrong with a flat surface: try walking around at home in bare feet. (Half the world has bare feet.) In fact, I infinitely prefer a flat inner sole, and most good leather boots provide this. But there were some problems to be solved. Sometimes there was some space around the edge of the heel region, as shown here. This may have been due to the welt stitching, or because the upper needed to be wide enough to accommodate the wide ankle bone. And attaching the outer sole sometimes involved nails or screws, and after time these could protrude on the inside and stick into your foot. Rather painful of course. So, it became the done thing to have an Inner Sole glued to the Foundation, and this was also used to add strength to the sole of the boot. But it was still flat.

For those with an interest in boot construction, I would draw your attention to the little pink/purple bit at the stitching, outside the boot. This was the 'welt': an extra bit of leather added to reinforce the main part of the boot against the stitching. This is the source of the term 'welt-stitched'. It is seldom seen these days, although the American Danner boots are still built this way. And I have not shown the inner steel reinforcing usually included in heavier boots these days. You can't have everything. It should be noted in passing that the stiff sole sticking out at the sides does hold a pair of trekking crampons rather nicely.

Later on the design of the sole became a bit more sophisticated. The upper was tucked inside and stitched inside, and a rubber rand was welded around the outside. This put the edge of the boot much closer in, which is an excellent thing for any sort of climbing boot. Improvements in gluing technology meant that the screws could be eliminated and the sole glued to the Foundation. This is a common design in real boots today. But the need for an Inner Sole remained, otherwise there would have been a severe dent in the middle of the boot sole, in between the edges of leather. This would have been most uncomfortable.

Modern Joggers and Approach shoes are a bit different from the above: typically they have a sole which is molded. On the good ones the molding includes the traditional sole and the rand as well. Inside this, or on top of it, there may be some molded stiff EVA foam of fairly high density for cushioning, and on top of this there is some sort of inner sole, also molded. The whole lot is glued together, and often the edges of the uppers are interleaved during the gluing. In the picture to the right the sole is below the thin red line, and the black stuff above that line is the layer of EVA foam. On top of that there is a thin bluish layer: the inner sole, but in this case it is quite light as the EVA layer is thick. Then there is a loose footbed or insole. The upper part of the shoe is in two layers: an outer layer which is what you get to admire, and a separate inner layer or synthetic liner which is the real strength member. The outer layer handles the inevitable abrasion so it isn't just for show. The liner is generally a synthetic non-woven fabric, highly bonded and water-resistant (this does not mean 'waterproof'), and usually quite strong. Embedded in the toe region and visible as a white line there is (sometimes) a stiffened Toe Cap. There is also a stiffened heel cup (which is very essential), but this is not really visible in this picture. Finally at the top there is a padded ankle-surround. One hesitates to call the whole design a monocoque construction, but the analogy is there.

However, not all joggers and Approach shoes are built this way: the cheaper joggers skip some of the interior components, especially in the sole construction, and just have the fashion appearance. As you might guess, the cheaper ones can fall apart rather easily. I have seen ones which had the thin rubber sole and a non-waterproof fibreboard inner sole, with almost nothing in between them. They were not bad in the dry at first, but a total disaster once they got wet and the fibreboard went mushy. Street fashion.

Foot Beds, good and bad

This diagram shows a more recent development: the inclusion of a 'Foot Bed'. I imagine they were introduced to provide a bit more cushioning between the foot and the ground. In this sense they can be quite useful. After a while the designers decided to embellish the design, which started out flat. They started to add a curl at the edge. This was meant to help centralise the heel within the shoe, which might be useful if your foot has a very narrow heel but the shoe doesn't. However, whoever designed many of these things appears to have lost sight of the shape of the human foot and gone overboard with the size of the curl. That, or they have feet quite different to the average bushwalkers. (Or maybe they never walk, just drive around in a car?)

If you look at the diagram you will see that the edge of the wearer's heel (in blue) overlaps the edge of the footbed (in red) right in the corner. I have drawn it this way because this is what happens inside some joggers and even some Approach shoes. Of course, what really happens is that the foam foot bed gives away or yields to the heel. So what's the problem?

The problem is that now you have excess pressure just at the edge of the heel. For an hour or to this does not matter, but over a period of several days of hard walking, especially on a track with speed and lots of repetition, the heel starts to object, and you, the wearer, get blisters around the edge of your heel. It does not happen in general with flat inner soles; just with these shaped ones.

The situation is actually getting worse in some shoes. The curl at the back edge of the foot bed is initially splayed outwards when new. When the foot bed is jammed into the shoe the edge of the curl is compressed, and may even form little creases around the back of the heel. Needless to say, this simply hastens the creation of blisters. If you don't believe me, have a look inside some shoes at a gear shop. You will see these little creases soon enough. You know now what those lumpy creases will do to your feet after a day's walking, don't you?

An allied problem is the inclusion of a huge lump of foam curled up under the arch of the foot. This is called an arch support. It is a concept which was introduced in the 90s by some crazed American Marketeers (at Nike, I think). They wanted a technical edge or gimmick over the competition, and hit on this idea. These days it is recognised by performance experts and sports doctors as a Fundamentally Bad Idea. It just gives you RSI in the muscles and tendons under your foot. What else do you expect when something compresses a hard-working muscle all day? You should shun these completely if you value your feet. If the shoe shop attendant tries to tell you they are 'essential', reflect on how little he (or she) knows about feet, and what sort of 'training' he has been given, and go elsewhere.

If your current footwear does not have a good inner sole it may be worth adding one, or even replacing a poor one. This is different from adding a genuine Orthotic support: that requires skilled medical assistance. The obvious question is where would you get a 'good inner sole'? You can buy a range of these from Sports Stores, but you will need to try several out very carefully before choosing one. Many are structural disasters never intended for use by bushwalkers, so you need to throw them away if they are anything less than completely satisfactory: remember the 3C rule! I would strongly recommend you select a flat one: that way you won't have the problems of blisters at the edges. Also, make very sure that adding the inner sole or footbed does not now make the size of shoe you have a bit too small. After all, those layers of foam take up volume. Incidentally, most after-market footbeds are too big. You will find that in most cases you must cut them down to fit your shoes. What to use as a good pattern for this - maybe the original inner soles?

Allan Mikkelsen wrote in Oct-03 about his Field Trial of some Dunlop Nuggets:

I found the inner soles to be very poor after a few walks and replaced them with soles from old Volleys (not the current model - I have so many old Volleys in different stages of decay I cannot be sure how old they were). This considerably improved the fit and comfort of the Nuggets.

He is not the only one to collect the inner soles from old Volleys. It seems that in Volleys Dunlop have used ones just a bit stronger or better than in other heavier footwear - because the Volleys are so light themselves maybe? They seem to last a lot longer than the Volleys. And of course, once the Volleys are worn out, the inner soles are 'free'.


We have covered the rest of the shoe: what about the uppers? Well, in boots the uppers are usually leather. Good boots will have a lining inside the leather to conceal the stitching and present a nice smooth face to the wearer's foot. The better the leather, the longer the life of the boot. The better the care you take of the leather (Sno-Seal!), the longer the life. Some padding around the ankle and possibly under the tongue is usually nice, to prevent rubbing. The tongue may have a leather gusset down each side to help exclude water: this too is nice as long as it is thin leather. So far, very traditional. Hey, a well-made pair of boots are an artistic creation.I wouldn't wear leather boots in the bush, but leather 3-pin ski boots can be quite good.

Joggers and Approach shoes are a different matter - or rather, anything with a molded cup sole is. The reason is that the upper here is molded into the sole during manufacture, and may be made of quite different materials. Take a walk through a sports shoe shop or even a bushwalking shop and look at all the different styles of uppers. Why are there so many; how do they do it? The brief answer is that they aren't all different: what you see on the outside is just the equivalent of a paint&trim job on a car.

Take a dead jogger and cut it in half - or look at the picture of the chopped one above. You will find a non-woven synthetic fabric inside the shoe, under the jazzy outer layer. This is the strength member. This is what holds your foot inside. The many bits of trim and leather and synthetic adorning the outside are just there as trim: they do not hold the shoe together.

Well, true, but not the entire story. The outer layer does have one function: it is a sacrificial layer protecting the inner layer of non-woven fabric from the scrub and rocks. The outer layer takes the abrasion, gets worn and damaged, while the inner layer continues to hold the shoe together. In particular, the strange rubberised fabric around the front of many Approach shoes does a heroic job protecting the insides from abrasion. You need this whole outer layer - but try to pick one with some strength. In particular, avoid outer layers ones which look like a coarse loose-weave fabric. Scrub can tear such loose fabrics open quite easily. Light suede leather is pretty good here (but heavy), and so is well-anchored Cordura.

There is a very subtle feature which you will learn to recognise after wearing out many pairs of Approach shoes. Very often there is a layer of leather around the edge, above the sole, and then fabric above this. When you flex your foot you will see the stiff leather concertina at the flex-point, next to the widest bit of your foot, on either the inside or outside edge. This places a high loading on the stitching right there, and it is common for the stitching to fail just there - or for the fabric to wear out and tear just there. Well, if you do a lot of walking, anyhow. But some designs have the leather come up a little higher, so the acute stress point doesn't happen. If you can get shoes which don't have the high stress design, and you maintain the leather with Sno-Seal, the shoes may give you a longer life.

I guess I had better point out that our beloved DVs don't fit this description very well. In some places there is just a single layer of canvas. Ah well, but they are very light and have a superb grip.

A Caution about Leather

However, before you get carried away by the use of suede for uppers, let me point out that leather uppers can be a disaster if the weather is wet. My wife had some joggers with suede uppers on a long (2 months) trip in europe. It was wet for the first 4-5 weeks. The sueded got soaked and lost its tanning (or whatever). That did not matter: the synthetic strength layer inside handled the wet just fine. Then the weather cleared up - how nice! But the wet sueded leather dried out and shrank! Suddenly, in one day, my wife's shoes went from 'wide enough' to seriously too narrow.

When she took her shoes off that evening in the tent, we found that the soles of her fet were red from leaking blood pooling at the skin. The shoes were crushing the joints and tendons inside. How she survived that day is beyond me. The problem was that we were way up in the mountains ... I took the footbeds out of her shoes and she wore them the next day with the laces totally loose, and hobbled along down to the valley. Thanks to a very obliging shoe shop owner, we managed a suitable replacement - fully synthetic. Since then we have both been very wary of having any suede on the outside of our shoes!

Socks, wonderful things

One very important part of your footwear is the layer between your skin and the shoe: your socks. Now some walkers claim to be satisfied with bare feet in DVs, but for most of us the sock is an under-valued item. Quite seriously, a good sock is worth whatever it cost. But what features should it have?

In general, warmth is not an issue. A sock will not 'keep' your foot warm, despite advertisements to the contrary. If you have adequate blood flow down your legs and through your feet, they will be warm. If you are walking hard, there will be plenty of blood flow. In fact, most Australian walkers wish their feet were cooler! Of course, wearing shorts in a howling icy gale may mean the lower part of your legs could be less than toasty warm: be reasonable!

What the sock should do is provide a buffer between your soft skin and the harder shoe fabric. A very thin sock is not enough for this for most people: a thick sock with a generous terry-towelling loop structure on the inside is. You can also use a sock which is just a very thick knit, but this will not be as soft. A good idea here which some walkers use is to put a very light nylon sock under the main sock: it sticks to the skin and takes most of the rubbing which would otherwise be between the skin and the thick sock. The author has used the 'Gobi Wigwam' liner socks to good effect: these are found in good bushwalking shops. However, most any thin close-fitting synthetic sock should do - preferably nylon.

Some socks are of a uniform thickness. This is OK, but there are socks which can truly claim to be 'engineered'. They have thick loop padding under the ball of the foot and the heel, but only a thin layer under the arch. Support is given to the load bearing parts of your foot, and pressure is removed from the active bits under the arch for instance (see Arch Supports for more about this). One such sock is made by the Thorlo company; in fact they make more than a dozen variants for different activities. The 'Trekking' versions are popular (but expensive). They can be bought in good bushwalking shops (but see below).

Some good socks are pure synthetic, while others contains wool. This is a bit of a contentious issue: wet wool bushwalking socks can pong badly! However, some walkers claim the wool provides a longer-lasting bulk. The thicker wool/synthetic socks are often the better choice for snow and ice conditions, when boots may be heavier. They also help to absorb slight differences between your foot shape and the shape of the last used in making the shoe. We have many pairs of the 'Vermont Darn Tough' socks (originally obtained through a BackpackGearTest Trial) which are a wool/synthetic blend. They are fantastic, for both comfort and life. Some time after the BGT Test ended my wife and I actually went so far as to import some more from the manufacturer in America - actually paying for them. Trust me - when I pay for socks they are good! You can buy them over the web these days, from Amazon, at a very respectable price.

But let us add a couple of points of finesse here. You may find that your thick socks are fine with one pair of shoes, but the next pair of shoes seem just a bit tight. That is because every factory has a different last for their shoes - the better factories usually have several lasts and those in different widths as well. It can be very smart to have a couple of different sorts of socks, and if the really thick ones seem a bit tight in one pair of shoes, change to a slightly thinner sock for those shoes. Now you are fine-tuning the fit of your shoes to your feet - and it can make a lot of difference in comfort on a long hard trip.

Allied to the above is a problem which can happen if you have fairly solid feet - a problem which does creep up on experienced walkers as their feet get stronger. You may find that a thick sock such as a Thorlo adds just a bit too much bulk to the front of your foot, so the shoes feel too narrow. If you have this problem, or if you have especially wide feet, very thick socks may do more harm than good. Remember the 3C rule here: Comfort comes first! Of course, buying a larger size might be the best solution here, as your feet will keep growing until you die. (Truly!) This is explained under Shoe Sizes.

Another fine point is the state of your socks. It can happen that a pair of socks will suddenly develop a really thin spot under the ball of the foot or the heel. The synthetic core to the thread has remained, but all the padding around the core has gone. It is tempting to say that the rest of the sock is still fine, and so keep wearing them. Be warned: the edge of the hole will very likely cause blisters. The author speaks from sad experience. If the sock has any badly worn spots, throw it out. Your feet will love you.

Finally, please, do consider washing your socks on long trips. After a few days in the dust of Central Australia, I found my socks were rigid. A quick little wash in a pool got rid of most of the dust, and restored the socks to comfort. I have no problem putting them back on while they are still wet, but normally I take two pairs and have one pair drying on the back of my pack all the time. It makes a lot of difference to my comfort, and seems to reduce the pong too...

Wet Feet - who cares?

The next question is whether keeping your socks dry matters. As usual, the answer is 'it depends'. We have often walked down the middle of a river for days on end in Wollemi National Park - because that was the only place where the going was easy. Our feet were wet the whole day, but that did not give us any problem. However, see below for more discussion of this.

The one place where you can run into trouble with creeks is not actually due to the wet feet. What can happen is that sand from the bottom of the creek can wiggle its way into your shoes. Then it tends to pack into a few corners, and all of a sudden (actually, over a couple of hours), your shoes feel as though they are several sizes too small. Well, so they are! It pays to wear tight gaiters when river walking, and to empty the sand out of your shoes regularly. But actual wet feet? Who cares?

Water Proofing and dry feet myths

The glossy ads for some boots claim your feet will stay dry with their new special (Gore-Tex, Simpatex, Bull-Tex whatever) liners. Total Crap. The liner may 'breathe', but what about the leather outer - after several layers of Sno-Seal (below) have been rubbed in, or the outer has got wet? What about the cold leather and the hot sweat from your feet? Don't believe them: it's pure marketing crap, and it makes the boots dearer and the mark-up higher. (Funny about that.) On the other hand, with these superbly waterproof boots, if you go through a river you will have water buckets on your feet: they can't drain! The same applies when it rains, and the water runs down your legs into your boots. Anyhow, your feet will sweat a LOT, and they are going to get wet under any circumstances. Experienced bushwalkers forget about trying to keeping their feet dry: they know better. Note: your feet are wet on the inside anyhow. It is only a very thin layer of dead cells on the surface which has any resemblance to 'dryness'. Think about this.

I am going to recant slightly for one special case. If you want to wear light footwear in the snow, which is possible but requires some experience and expertise (see below)), then Approach shoes with some sort of waterproof lining may be a neat solution. It is not essential: thick socks and cold snow go together just fine, but when the snow is wet (because the day is warm) it can be nice to know your footwear is going to shed most of the water. But this is the only case, and is not essential.

When it comes to actual river crossings, many people take their boots off to keep them dry. This is a good idea for boots of course. Experienced walkers wearing lighter footwear usually don't bother, unless there is only one crossing and a long steep climb afterwards. They just plow through and let the socks squeeze dry as they go - until the next crossing. Anyhow, on a hot day some walkers have even been known to walk in the water to cool their feet down. It can be quite pleasant. However it does depend a bit on the temperature of the water: snow melt can be a little cold...

My attention has been drawn to the problem of 'trench foot'. This seems to be a problem for people (especially soldiers) who have to spend several days in a pair of wet boots without any chance of drying off. Under these conditions it would not be unreasonable to expect some bacterial growth, and that might not be too good for your feet. I have never suffered from this problem, but I always take all my wet footwear off every night and let them air and dry overnight. The concensus seems to be that this usually is enough to prevent the problem from staring.

Creek Crossings - hazards

A few words of caution should be given here about such river crossings. Warm shallow creeks don't really matter, as long as the bottom is clear. But cold water can make your feet a bit more sensitive, and a stony creek bed can be rather painful. If the water is very cold and there are stones, it may be very wise to leave your footwear on, even if you take your socks off. We have known the water to get so cold and the stones so hard that it became very difficult to even think. When you add fast water and big rocks, the situation can actually get very dangerous. In fact, one of the most common causes of death while bushwalking (tramping) in New Zealand is crossing rivers.

We crossed a river (river, not creek) in the snow once, and didn't want to wet our ski boots. We weren't sure which was worse: the ice-cold water, or the rocks and snow on the far side. It was very hard to even think straight, let alone stand! Fortunately, we had planned ahead, threw our packs down immediately we were over to sit on and then threw our gaiters down to stand on. The pleasure of putting on warm dry socks was (almost) worth the pain. Almost. Then we went very fast up the hill, to warm up.

Maintenance of Leather

We should mention the maintenance of footwear here, and especially leather boots (and other leather goods). Leather was meant to be looked after by its original owner (the cow), and when we take it off him/her the leather can degrade. If the fibres get too dry they can crack or tear while flexing, which is not good for your expensive boots, be they for walking or skiing. The standard of excellence for leather maintenance is Sno-Seal. I can do little better than to quote the web site on this:

Why is Sno-Seal so good? The superiority of Sno-Seal results from the combination of its ability to remain fixed in the outer layer of the leather and the superior water resistance of beeswax. Beeswax has a melt point of about 146 F [63 C]. It is very dry and oil free. Thus once applied it is not only waterproof but extremely durable.

Sno-Seal provides just enough lubrication to prevent hardening of leather in typical use. It does not soften leather. It was invented in 1933 by Ome Daiber to waterproof leather mountain climbing and downhill ski boots without destroying the stiffness required to climb or steer a ski. Boots, gloves, holsters etc will maintain their strength for years if treated only with Sno-Seal. A baseball mitt can be softened with a light application of mineral oil. When exactly the right ball pocket and fit have been achieved, applying Sno-Seal will maintain exactly the same form for the life of the glove.

Grease, oil, animal fat, and most other wax formulas are liquid (or at least soft enough to migrate thru leather) at wearing and storage temperatures. Sno-Seal is not. After application, when the volatile components have done their task of drawing Sno-Seal into the warmed leather, they evaporate completely leaving solid wax that cannot migrate at less than 146 F.

Suffice to say that the author's cross-country ski boots still look like new after more than ten years of use. Mind you, a lot of Sno-Seal has gone into them. You will also find a more extensive review of Sno-Seal at BackpackGearTest, by the author and some Testers.

If you have just bought new leather boots you may find neither boot polish nor Sno-Seal will penetrate the leather. This could be because recent developments in leather processing have seen the introduction of a polyurethane coating on the outside surface, and this is waterproof. If your boots have this you will have to wait until it has worn off before you can put Sno-Seal on - or need to.

One other useful material for the maintenance of footwear is polyurethane adhesive. It is excellent at repairing damaged soles and bonding the insides of boots and joggers back together. Some time ago the author's XC ski boots started to separate inside at the toe box: perhaps the internal stitching across the front had failed. Anyhow, the whole front toe box was lifting off the sole, although the welt around the edge was intact. I did not want to lose these very comfortable ski boots just yet. A small hole was made right at the edge of the toe box, where the stitching was, and a fair bit of PU goo was injected inside. Then the boots were clamped down into shape and left for a couple of days. Many years later the boots are still functioning perfectly. In addition, minor repairs to joggers, where one layer has started to separate, have been made quite successfully over the years.

The author knows of two main brands of good PU adhesive. There is a McNett version in a small tube, called Seam Grip, and it is obtainable from good bushwalking shops. There is also a version called 'Shoe Goo' which comes in a larger tube, and this can be bought from sports shops such as Athlete's Foot. Both contain toluene, which is fairly volatile. This means you should use the stuff outdoors; it also means that once a tube has been opened the tube will have a limited life before all the toluene has evaporated and the remains turned into a solid lump. But it's not that dear. Two other adhesives should be mentioned in passing. Silicone sealant is good stuff, especially on tent seams, but has nowhere near the strength of polyurethane. Rubber contact adhesives belong to history: they are far weaker than PU adhesive, and some seem to get old and crack as well.


Use in Snow - boots, and joggers

The author has tried using very light footwear in the snow. Sadly, many sorts of really light shoes do not work all that well. Very often you need to tromp hard or even to kick steps, and the soft flexible soles on DVs and KTs just don't have the rigidity to allow this with confidence. Some light North Face Approach shoes I had in the Spanish Pyrenees in 2004 were 'adequate'. There was still some old snow or neve on a few cols and I had to kick steps up the gully for some distance. On the other hand, on a recent Autumn trip over Kosci (picture to the right) I was wearing my KTs, and it snowed. I had no trouble walking in this new soft snow, about 300-400 mm deep, with the KTs and some light gaiters. The difference was of course the age and hardness of the snow: new stuff is soft. It's old hard snow which presents a problem. And yes, my feet were warm and fairly dry that day (and so was the rest of me). However, let the picture be a warning of what can happen in our Alps at any time of the year.

However, should you wish to move up one small notch to joggers with a reasonably firm sole, the matter changes and perfectly satisfactory results can be had. Contrary to all the claims by the makers of large (and very expensive) leather boots, joggers with a firm sole and a waterproof/breathable membrane work well in the snow, especially for snow-shoeing. The author and his wife have used such joggers very successfully with snow-shoes all over the Kosciusko National Park, under quite a range of conditions. In the photo to the left we were snow shoeing along the Main Range - pity about the extreme weather we encountered! We both had New Balance MT1110GT joggers here. I think the GT in the name means they have a GoreTex membrane inside. A great virtue of the New Balance brand is that many of their shoes come in a 4E fitting: suits me!

In the photo to the right we are on Mt Jagungal. In this case I was wearing some Salomon joggers with the Yowie snow shoes which did not even have a membrane, so I used some waterproof/breathable overshoes I made myself. Once again, I was warm and fairly dry inside them - as good as I would have been with leather boots. In reality, there is no intrinsic reason why you need to wear leather boots here. It is just that in times past leather was the only material we had which would work. But today we have many other lighter options which do work.

OK, so you do need some sort of stiff sole on serious winter snow. Going up in grade again, for ice you will need crampons, and crampons probably need a stiff sole to function well. But does this mean boots are required - or might good joggers or Approach shoes work? It has been claimed that a piece of 3-ply under each jogger worked with crampons on Mt Cook in NZ for one person, but this report may not be true. We respectfully suggest that this should not be attempted by novices anyhow. Peter Surna sent this rather fascinating quote from an American web site:

I've day-hiked the Mt Whitney Portal Trail three times (twice to the summit), all in the month of October. I used trail running shoes (NB 801AT) all three times with no problems. Some years there is lots of snow/ice on the trail, especially on the section between Trail Camp and Trail Crest (i.e., the '99 switchbacks' area). Those sections can be very difficult (if not impossible) to traverse without some sort of traction aid, whether wearing boots or running shoes.

Assuming that snow/ice is present (you'll want, of course, to check conditions with the Lone Pine Ranger Station beforehand), some people use full mountaineering crampons, but I found that a simpler pair of instep crampons ('Ice Walkers', a 4-point mini-crampon from REI) was sufficient. Rather than using them under the instep, however, I found them more effective under the metatarsal area of the foot (the 'ball of the foot'). They held securely on the running shoes. Also if the weather is wet or very cold, I found that Goretex oversocks and/or a pair of lightweight, low-cut gaiters to be great additions to the running shoe system.

More recently a guy climbed Mont Blanc in joggers and crampons. He had other problems, but the shoes seemed to be OK. The Guides were not happy though.


Shoe Sizing

Let us briefly divert from what shoe size you need to what shoe sizes you will encounter. It turns out there are many ways to measure shoe sizes. There is a UK system of measurement, a US system (which looks the same but isn't), a European system, a Mondo (Point) system, a Japanese system (in millimetres or centimetres, I am not sure which), and there are probably several others I don't know about too. Ah yes - don't forget that many of these have a Man's version, a Womans' version, and a Kid's version too.

The first (horizontal) chart here is from one shoe supplier. It mislabels the European scale as a French scale (I think!). And you will note the parallel between the UK and US scales - with about one whole size offset. But do not make the mistake of thinking that this chart is definitive: it is not.

Not included in any of this so far are the width fittings, which classically range on some scales from A through to D. However, for some reason whoever designed the width scales did not bother to check typical Australian bushwalkers' feet. There are now width fitting designated as E, 2E and 4E, to cater for the duck feet many of us have. I suspect that the source of the width fittings is probably the Italian boot manufacturing area. Italians are well-known to have really narrow and long feet - in the A and B widths.

But we can go on even further than this, into an uncharted area of shoe 'lasts' and foot volume. A bootmaker's last is of course meant to be a solid dummy for a human foot, around which the bootmaker used to fit the leather. Well, fine. But while we can specify the length of the foot and the width, we do not have a measurement for the height of the arch. Some people have low arches and slender feet, while others have high arches and solid bones. Many bushwalkers fall in the latter class, owing to all the exercise their feet have done. And some people have wide heels while others have narrow heels. This means that you may well have to try many different brands of shoes to find one which uses a last which matches your feet. I know I have suffered in the past from brands which were meant for a foot at least a centimeter lower than mine. OK, varying the lacing across the tongue can handle some of this- sometimes.

We move on to a pair of scales derived from Scarpa, as shown to the right. This chart has two parts. The three columns on the left are for leather mountaineering boots, while four columns on the right are for plastic boots. Mind you, Scarpa do advise you to upsize by 1/2 a size (scale not stated) for mountaineering boots. On the other hand, Scarpa size their plastic ski boots on the Mondo scale but they size their plastic mountaineering boots on the UK scale. Make sense of this if you can: I can't. It's ridiculous.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that this is the end of the story. Things get worse when you try to compare the two charts. For example, the first chart makes a UK Mens 10 equivalent to a US mens 10.5 and a French (Euro) 42.5; the right side of the Scarpa chart says a UK Mens 10 is a US Mens 11 and the left side says it is a Euro 43. You may note with some amusement that according to Scarpa US Women do not have feet any larger than a size US 11.5 (Euro 44) when they are walking or mountaineering, and their feet are even smaller when they buy plastic ski boots (max US 11).

So, have we got to the end of the confusion? No way! Just because these charts show what the equivalences are does not mean that a Euro 42 from one company will be the same size as a Euro 42 from another company. Chances are it won't be. I have found that there can be the equivalence of at least one whole Euro size difference between brands. Just because you take a 42 from one brand does not mean you will take a 42 from another. I don't, anyhow. Sadly, shoe sizes are one area where actually trying the shoes on, with the right socks, is essential.

Finally, one gentle bit of advice for all the women walkers trying to find a suitable shoe. Skip the 'Womens' size range. I don't know who invented it, but it is a travesty of pain. Go straight to the Mens sizing and ignore any shop assistants who bleat. We mention this again later.


Blisters, Pain and Shoe Sizes

The author speaks with some feeling on this subject of footwear, having been through most forms of pain and suffering (while trying to understand shoe sizes). If this FAQ helps you with nothing else but these problems, it will have been a success. Why do so many walkers have so much trouble with aching feet and blisters, while other walkers seem to cruise around without a single twinge? The answer is very simple. Read on, and remember that the three rules of footwear are Comfort, Comfort and Comfort!

If you want to see what others have said about this, be of good cheer: it is a very popular subject. Books have been written about it, and the ultra-marathon runners are a fervent bunch on the subject. A review in the online magazine UltraRunning of a book on feet by one of the 'gurus' makes fascinating reading. I have to confess I have not yet read the book itself. (The runners are definitely madder than us.)

The Structure of the Foot

If you want to get technical about your feet, first have a look at the illustration of the bones of your foot to the right, mentally add muscles, tendons and sinews, and then cover it all with skin. That's your foot. Complex little beast, isn't it? It gets worse: there are so many variations in foot shape.

Some of these variations have to do with the shape of the sole, and it may be worth knowing what sort yours is. If you wet your foot and stand on a bit of paper you will get a 'footprint'. This will reveal whether you have a low, average or high arch. In itself this doesn't matter much, but it does show what sort of arch your foot has. Just for curiosity. A very low arch may mean you have 'flat feet', or just weak foot muscles. I am willing to believe the latter, but 'flat feet' is a bit of a marketing myth imho. That's not all that you might find out about your feet: the footprint will also tell you whether you have wide, average or narrow feet. Well, so I am told, but in my experience Australian walkers have either wide feet or very wide feet, and you are much better off actually measuring your feet on Brannock Device. Whatever shape your feet have, that's what you have got, and they should work just fine.

One could go into great details about various foot problems you can have: bunions, bent toes, lumps out the sides, and so on. However, if you have those sorts of problems you are best off getting professional advice from a good podiatrist. On which subject, you could check the special section further on about Orthotics and Foot Problems. However, the experience of some readers has been that not all podiatrists are sufficiently experienced in the area of sports medicine, which is what we need. If you go to a podiatrist and are not entirely happy with the diagnosis, get a second opinion - maybe through the Sports Centre at the nearest University.

A common story I have heard many times is that every podiatrist you go to is quite sure that the diagnosis and orthotics from the previous podiatrist are a heap of rubbish. The podiatrist may be right of course, but you have no guarantee that this guy is any better. Caveat Emptor - and use you brains.

What is all this leading up to? Consider what would happen if you had to work hard with your arms tied tightly behind your back, or if there was a stone wedged between your shoulder and the strap of your pack - or for that matter wedged in your shoe. In each case you would expect to be in agony after a short while, and would do something about it. What causes the agony? Too much pressure on a small area of skin, or too much pressure on a joint. Exactly the same thing happens to your feet when they are jammed into boots: the bones, tendons, skin and so on are sensitive to pressure and rubbing. The only part of your feet which have evolved to take continuous pressure are the soles, and even those have their limits. So badly fitting footwear is going to spell trouble. The problem is, not everyone realises what a 'good fit' really means. So now we look at what can go wrong.

Blisters - what are they?

Blisters are due to an excess of pressure coupled with rubbing. If the bonding between the layers of skin near the surface are overloaded, they get overstretched and the layers separate. The gap between the layers fills up with plasma in an attempt to protect the damaged area inside. This is a blister. Forget all other excuses and explanations: a blister is a natural protective mechanism of your body which tells you that you have mistreated your feet. Your body is trying to tell you something: are you listening?

The cause of the blisters shown to the right is actually well documented in a review of some sandals published at BackpackGearTest by a tester going under the name of Emma Eyeball. She was kind enough to allow these pictures she took of her feet to be used here. Please ignore the dirt on her feet: she was wearing the sandals without socks to try to reduce the pressure on her feet. Bluntly, the sandals were too narrow. She partially solved the problem by cutting the offending straps off, as described below. (I cannot explain the toenail polish ...)

Bruises - what causes them?

Aching feet are caused by the joints inside your feet being under too much pressure while working. The tissue, muscles, tendons and cartilage between the bones get bruised, and bruises hurt. Blisters under the ball of the foot often show the joints in there are being squeezed too much and overheating, and probably being bruised inside. Bruised toe-nails show that your toes are too close to the front of the toe-box, and rubbing ever so lightly - Chinese torture style. Your body is trying to tell you something: are you listening? (And have you trimmed your toenails recently and checked the length of your footwear?)

Shoe size: the crux

Why do blisters and bruises happen? Well, let's see how you get fitted for boots. You walk into the shop, have your feet measured on one of those Brannock Device foot scales, and find you are a size X - with ordinary thin socks on of course. So you try on some size X boots, and after rejecting a few which really are the wrong shape, you find a pair that seems to be (maybe) OK. So you buy them, and what is wrong with that? Well, plenty! The first thing you have not allowed for is the fact that after a few hours walking your feet will no longer be size X: they will be at least half a size larger (on the 6-12 scale, or a whole size larger on the European scale). How so?

Think about a body builder going in a competition. Does he just front up and pose? No, he spends a couple of hours working his muscles ('pumping') first to make them swell up. Your feet swell up after work too. You don't normally see this happening when you are in an office all day - no exercise there! Few people seem to realise this is going to happen. By lunchtime you are walking around with a pair of heavy boots which are quite stiff and are now too small. Your feet complain. Why should you ignore that cry for relief? ("Because I paid a lot of money for these boots" is not a smart answer, although I have heard it a few times!)

It gets worse than that. After a few days of walking, your feet grow even more, such that they can be almost a full size larger. And just sometimes, if you do lots of walking, they stay larger. The muscles and tendons inside your feet can actually grow with all that exercise - just like with a body-builder. If you don't keep checking your foot size, you can drift into a lot of suffering. (Yes, my feet have grown, and are still growing. Ditto for my wife.)

Less well known, or so it seems, is that your feet are one of the few parts of your body which keep growing all your life. Going bushwalking can enhance this effect, it seems. This means that the shoe size which was just fine for you 5 years ago may not be the right size for you any more. Yes, you really can outgrow your footwear, even at a retirement age! This means that your shoes will effectively slowly get too small for you, and over the years will start to give you foot problems. You can't keep wearing those shoes from 20 years ago!

But shape matters too: some people have short wide (duck) feet, while others have long thin feet. For some reason footwear made in some parts of Europe is just the wrong shape for Australian feet. Italian footwear in particular is notorious for being made on a very narrow last (the mold the bootmaker uses to shape the leather). If you find that some of the expensive imported boots seem just too narrow for you, don't buy them hoping they will adapt to your feet. They won't, no matter what encouragement you may be given. (Be suspicious: the shop is mainly interested in making a sale.) Have a look at lighter Australian-designed footwear which will adapt more readily to your feet - such as KT-26s and Volleys. Or take a long hard look at light American joggers which actually tell you what width they are. Skip the ones which don't.

Some people hope that sports sandals might be more accommodating. However, Emma Eyeball of BGT did not find this to be so in the ones shown to the right. Eventually she had to cut off the whole strap next to her little toes. The ends are pointed to by the arrows. Only by removing the pressure they were causing was she able to finish her 5-day trip. Even so, looking at the gap between her toes and the toe box, one can clearly see that there was very little room there. Clearly, these particular shoes were just not her size.

The next thing you may not have allowed for is the change in sock thickness. You have just added all that padding: where is it going to fit? It must be said that good bushwalking shops usually suggest you put on suitable socks before measuring your feet, but this may not apply in Sports shops where the joggers are.

How can you tell if your shoes are large enough in the shoe shop? Well, the Brannock foot measuring scale they (should) have will tell you a fair bit about your foot size (with socks on!). But a good trick used by many experienced walkers is to put the shoe on, do up the laces, and then check two places for fit. The first is at the toe region: when you wiggle your toes they should be back a little from the very front, by maybe 15-20 mm or so. Less is not good. The second is at the heel: there should be enough room behind your heel for you to get a finger or preferably two down between your Achilles tendon and the back of the shoe. If there isn't, the heel shape may be all wrong for you. On the other hand, when you flex your foot you should not feel your heel pulling easily out of the shoe. Fortunately, after a few uncomfortable mistakes you should get to know what sort of fitting you need.

Even after you have bought a pair of shoes which seem reasonable, you may still find that there are pressure points which rub. The traditional solution to this for leather boots was to stand in a creek for an hour: this let the leather absorb enough water that the leather could mold itself to your foot. The idea lacks appeal somehow, and anyhow modern boot leathers are often treated with a waterproof polyurethane layer (which lasts for a day or two anyhow). Joggers on the other hand, or any shoes with a synthetic upper, won't change shape at all. If they are wrong, they are wrong. Reconsider before you buy: if the shoe doesn't fit very well, it isn't for you.

Women's shoe sizes

Before passing on we have to make a sexist comment. Talk to an experienced assistant in an ordinary shoe shop and you will learn something well known in the shoe trade. Women usually buy shoes which are about half a size too small for them. They want their feet to look small and dainty. So we find that many women have even worse problems with their feet because of this undersize bias. It's a bit like Chinese foot-binding. Many staff in bushwalking shops seem to be unaware of this problem.

If this makes you wonder about those low-cut leg-warmer socks and foot-bath salts and massage shoes and ... which are extensively advertised in womens magazines for women to buy, you are on the ball. Perhaps a little exercise, some warm slacks and some correctly-fitted shoes might help?

Correct fit: the solution

What to do about this? First, make sure you are wearing fresh thick bushwalking socks when you have your feet measured. Go on, buy a new pair of thick wool socks just for the occasion. Try the KX, TKX or KLT styles from Thorlo, or the Full Boot Sock and variants from Darn Tough Vermont. These are highly recommended socks, but they may be too thick for some. In that case, try some Ultimax socks, or even some Kosciusko socks from Wilderness Wear. (Amazing: this senetence was written in 2002, and in 2103 the Kosciusko socks were still being sold.) All are good. If you fancy even thicker socks, definitely try the Darn Tough Vermont socks. Then, when you have found footwear which seems really suitable with those new socks, buy that style but at least half a size larger. Yes, they may feel a little loose at the start, but several hours later you will still be feeling comfortable, and they won't feel all that loose any more. Just how much larger you will need them can vary a bit, but half a (European) size is probably a minimum. If you start with cheap light footwear, mistakes won't be too financially serious anyhow. If you make a mistake, throw the shoes out and start again. Do not be tempted to think you have to wear them: that's stupid.

Now, having got your shoes, what can you do if you get a sneaking feeling a few trips later that they might be a shade too tight for you, despite your best efforts? I'm talking here about their being only a shade too tight, not so tight that they are really the wrong size. Or maybe the available sizes were not exactly right, and you went for the smaller size at the time, but now you have reservations. This is sometimes found with some brands which don't come in half sizes (and the KT-26s are one such model). Well, if you have several different brands of socks you can fine-tune the fit by changing which brand of sock you wear with which shoes. This also can work for different seasons: I might wear some thinner Ultimax socks in summer and some thick Darn Toughs in winter, just to get the right 'fit'.

But forget anything you may have read about 'snug, well-fitting boots': that way lies pain. The comment was originally intended for climbing boots anyhow. It is in fact quite possible to walk around in very loose sloppy footwear without any real problem, just as long as they don't rub. I am quite serious here: I once had a pair of light leather bushwalking shoes which I jokingly referred to as my 'bedroom slippers'. They were that loose - I think the leather had stretched after being wet many times. But they worked just fine in some fairly rough tricky country until they fell to pieces. Just don't try to compensate by doing up the laces very tight: you are just going back to pain.

For what it is worth, the author has to point out that freedom from blisters is possible. By wearing good socks and the right size of light-weight shoes, both he and his wife were able to spend eight weeks walking in the Pyrenees in 2004 without any foot trouble at all. We repeated the results in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2012 for multi-month walks. Note: we washed our socks (mainly in creeks) every second day. Correct fit did it. That is not say we did not have tired feet (and knees, and legs, and everything else) by the time we got home. We did, but what do you expect from eight weeks of high-speed hooning? We just allowed a couple of weeks of rest after we got back.

Wet Socks and Blisters

A perennial question is whether wet socks give you blisters. Better make that wet and/or muddy socks. It depends.

As explained above, blisters happen when you put forces on your feet which exceed the shear strength of the skin. You are literally ripping the skin off. If you are walking gently you can have wet socks all day with no problems. If you are marathon running, you can get blisters even with dry feet. Wet socks can do two critical things to your feet. For a start, being wet all day can soften the skin, and this can make it weaker. If you are pushing really hard, this might become significant - maybe. But a wet sock may lose a lot of it's elasticity and cushioning, which can put greater stress on your feet. So whether you get blisters is a little more complex than just how wet your feet or socks are. And remember, many bushwalkers can go all day in rivers and on banks with soaking wet feet, without getting blisters.

While on this subject we should also mention mud and sand. If you get your socks muddy, or get lots of sand in your shoes, you can expect problems. Your socks are going to lose a lot of that vital cushioning. This is a very good reason for wearing gaiters when it is muddy: they can actually help prevent blisters. It also means that if you are river walking you really should wear some very snug gaiters to keep the river sand out of your shoes. Get several teaspoons of sand in your shoes and you have not one but two problems: you feet will be all squeezed up and the socks will become hard. We wear some short proofed-nylon 'stop-tous', like builders gaiters, when we are river walking. No weight, but they block all the sand (well, almost).

I have reproduced below a quote from Pat Christian, who has been involved with marathons.

... the comment on boots 'giving' someone blisters make me think of a recent experience with lots of blisters, when I was chief of field support for Team Rubican 21 in The North Face 7-day Adventure Race at Park City in August.

I watched all four members of my team suffer from blisters every day of the 24/7 race that took them 400 miles. And I watched almost every other team suffer the same fate. My son competes in triathlons, marathons, and is actually now in Mexico competing in a full Iron Man distance event. And he never gets blisters even after running 26 miles.

But in the adventure race, his feet were bloodied like 90 percent of the contestants were. Of course like troopers, blistered contestants pushed on in extreme pain. One team even carried a teammate to the finish. That woman's feet were so bad. The doctor told me she had the worst case of blisters he had ever seen.

I watched the two physicians who treated contestants work on blisters, and they told me it was the number-one thing they did out there - treat blisters. They said The North Face team from Britain (the team that won the race) was one of the few teams that did not suffer much from blisters, and said it wasn't their shoes or boots because most teams were using high-quality footwear that fitted, and had been designed for the uses they were put to.

They said it had to do more with foot care and preventive steps taken by the few contestants who did not suffer. The doctors said if the British team crossed a steam and felt water, they would stop, take off their shoes and dry their feet off. They would frequently change socks to maintain their friction-preventing qualities (dust and grime and wet increases friction potential).

In theory, one should never get a blister (of course, in theory only: I get them). Before a blister forms you should feel something and immediately take preventive steps with moleskin or duct tape, (yes that's what our team used, but only after it was too late.) etc. Many people use moleskin for treatment, but that is too late.

I have found I can get more friction-free (blisters are basically a friction aspect of physics) miles by greasing my toes and feet with a little (only a light coating) ointment with vitamin A & D. I don't know if The North Face team was doing this or not.

Frankly, I don't buy all of this. It is possible that many blisters were caused by the runners overloading the skin on their feet by the sheer pace of the race. That can and will do it of course. Feet were made for walking, not for endurance racing. It is also possible that many thought they had correctly fitting shoes, but didn't.

Cold Feet

Many walkers complain that they get cold feet, especially in winter or in the snow. Many boot wearers worry that lightweight footwear means you are going to get cold feet. In fact none of this should ever happen. I have worn KT-26s in the snow and had warm feet, and I have worn leather ski boots in the snow and had painfully cold feet. The reason is simple. Your footwear doesn't make your foot warm, nor can it supply any warmth to your foot (absent electrical or chemical heaters of course). It's the circulation of warm blood down your legs into your feet which warms them.

If you are wearing shorts in the winter your legs will get cold, and so will your feet. If you have any footwear which is so tight the blood flow through your feet is restricted, you will get cold feet. If you wear tight stockings you will get cold feet. (I was field-testing some strange thermal pants once which were too tight, and I had cold legs in my sleeping bag! I took them off, and was warm.) Many skiers buy their boots too small, supposedly to get better control over their skis, and complain terribly about the agony of their cold feet. What they really need to do is learn how to ski properly, but that's another subject. In fact, I find even a wristwatch strap can give me a cold hand while ski-touring if I don't leave it loose enough to accommodate the swelling due to the exercise. Hey, poling is hard work!

To be sure, you can get at least cool feet if you are travelling through lots of very wet snow in light DVs or KTs and get your feet very wet. In extreme cases experienced walkers stick a light plastic bag over their socks inside their shoes, of whatever sort, and limit the passage of ice-cold water. Bread bags have been found very useful. The bag will rip of course, and your feet will get wet (from inflow or sweat, or both) but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that the flow of water through your socks is reduced significantly. Keep your legs warm and let your circulation do the rest.

Sore Toe nails

A rather insidious problem which has hit a few people concerns very sore toe nails, even with boots or joggers which were originally big enough. Sometimes the toe box at the front of the boot can collapse down a bit when the boot gets old or has been wet for a while. It may not be visible from the outside. Or the rubber rand (buffer strip) around the front of a jogger may detach and get sand between it and the inner. The inner gets pushed inwards. Or again, if you are walking down a river bed you can get sand building up inside the shoe itself, collecting in front of the toes and taking up valuable space there. When this sort of thing happens your toe starts to rub, ever so lightly, on the inside of the shoe, and you can get a bruised toe or toe nail. It may be barely noticeable at the start, and surely nothing to worry about? But after a few kilometres your toes can start to get a bit sore: by the end of the day they can be agony - if you can still walk. If this happens it may be time to face the music and replace your footwear. Or, if you are lucky, you could clean out all that sand from inside the front of the shoe and glue the bits back together with 'Shoe Goo' or similar. Great stuff that. If it was sand building up inside the shoe, try some tight sand gaiters like builders' gaiters to keep it out. Oh yes, and don't forget the bleeding obvious: trim your toenails!

Heel edge and sole-edge blisters

Another problem which you can deal with is blisters around the edge of the heel or (less often) the edge of the sole. This can be due to the shape of the foot bed. The edges of the foot bed, especially around the heel cup, may be too pronounced. They often are. As with sore toes, it doesn't take much to be a problem. If you have this problem, try replacing the foot bed with a flatter one, or find one with a wider heel. You can also get replacement inner soles which are quite flat: no curled up edges at all. If desperate in the middle of a trip, try cutting the curled-up edges down flat. In fact, many European boot manufacturers don't provide a footbed at all, just such a dead flat inner sole, so you should question whether you even need a foot bed. (I may not agree that we have to wear their boots, but those European bootmakers sure knew feet.)

There is of course an alternative in some cases: switch from heavy stiff boots to lighter softer footwear - but still add that half size! However, when changing from one sort of footwear to another, remember that the last or foot mold used may be different. Do not automatically assume that you should always wear the same size across different styles. And read the next two sections for the rest of the story.

Despite all the best attempts at correct fitting, you can still sometimes get blisters on your heels. One way of doing this is to have heavy boots and thin socks, with lots of heel movement. You can make this a lot worse by walking in wet worn socks and very heavy ski boots for a long distance. Well, cases like that could be described as self-inflicted.

Book Review on foot problems - John Vonhof

The author came across this book review at the UltraRunning Magazine Online web site. It seemed relevant. Later on another review of the same book was found here: it is more colourful.

Fixing Your Feet, by John Vonhof

John Vonhof is a veteran ultrarunner and the founding Race Director [RD] of the Ohlone Wilderness 50 Km Trail Run, now ten years strong and one of the toughest (and most gorgeous) 50 kms there is. It's a point-to-point course over remote, mountainous wilderness terrain ó just the kind of layout that taxes an RD's investigative and collaborative skills, which John possesses in abundance. His diligent organization and thorough attention to detail have made Ohlone a coveted entry on any ultrarunner's schedule. He brings the same traits to bear in his authorship of Fixing Your Feet, which should be a coveted entry on any runner's bookshelf.

I am qualified to say so because I have been fixing to get rid of my own feet for years. After reading this book, maybe I will not have to. Vonhof has researched references, interviewed participants, and produced a resource that serves as a definitive starting point for self-care, as well as a cautionary blend of both clinical and anecdotal advice. Several themes pervade his book; one of them is the virtual absence of prescriptive orthodoxy in treating foot problems. Time and time again, he underscores the necessity of individual experimentation in coping with individual problems, no matter how commonplace the clinical diagnosis. When addressing the trials and tribulations of our truly pitiable feet ó I mean, just think how much we demand of them, small as they are ó prevention and correction are not the stuff of therapeutic syllogism. We plod along on our pair of largely idiosyncratic appendages of bone and sinew, and it follows that coping with such phenomenal stresses is an often random and haphazard process. Fixing Your Feet tells you how to start that process, and how you might shift your approach when one method fails. Although Vonhof has consulted closely with sports-focused podiatrists, he emphasizes that his book is not a substitute for professional treatment; rather, it is a sort of podiatric self-triage.

'Caveat pedis!' ('Let the feet beware') expounds multi-day veteran Marvin Skagerberg, citing his extensive experience with successive methods for curing his blister problems once and for all. Vonhof's quotation of Skagerberg is typical of the book's non-technical, open-ended, empirical approach: "I have completely solved the problem twelve times by perfecting various methods which allow me to run blister-free," declares Skagerberg. "However, the next time out with the exact same method, I have plenty of blisters. " It is the humble thesis of Fixing Your Feet that such chaos and frustration are the norms in pursuit of fit feet. The author cannot tell you what will work for you, but he can exhibit a range of credible options for you to choose from. The option proven for one runner will be worthless for another; or, as Skagerberg's lament demonstrates, the option proven for one day will be worthless for another. Just tweak one variable and you can start reinventing the wheel of science; your wheel of science.

In recognizing this crucial fact, and in the absence of the magic initials 'D.P.M.' after his name, Vonhof underscores his role as collator rather than doctor. He did not set out to write a bible of foot care, but merely to serve you a therapeutic buffet. It's a big, two-course meal. After an obligatory introduction (Part I) that most ultrarunners will find dispensable (except perhaps for some of the overview of shoe selection), he establishes the book's essential structure, dividing his focus between proactive prevention (Part II) and reactive therapy (Part III). The distinction is conceptually helpful but somewhat artificial, since treatment that relieves a problem may have continual utility to prevent its return. Vonhof's categorical division should be understood mainly as advocacy for the principle of preventive maintenance: all the things you can do to avoid the dnf, the forced layoff, the forlorn trip to the doctor's office. The reader, however, is well advised to consider the lessons of the text as a whole, thus taking advantage of the proactive/reactive overlap.

If it were not the real deal, Fixing Your Feet could be catnip for control freaks, as it proceeds methodically to consider all the pedal factors that are within your control prior to training and racing, with a particular eye to preventing that most topical of disabilities, blisters. Alternative taping techniques are discussed in detail, with helpful illustrations by the author. Blister treatmentócaring for them after they have your attention ó is then addressed in the 'reactiveĒ part of the book. Blisters get more attention than other problems because they are the most readily prevented, detected and treated by the sufferer.

Other problems ó traumatic injury, inflammations, biomechanical breakdown ó typically lead their victims to the podiatrist's office sooner or later. Vonhof considers each condition in a brief chapter that should enable you to diagnose the problem tentatively, and, if you've caught it early enough, to nip it in the bud by means of any one of several adjustments, therapies and devices. In keeping with his theme of the infinite variability of feet and their infirmities, he suggests remedies but does not prescribe them. A 'product source' chapter in the back of the book lists all providers with their postal address, telephone number and Internet address, if available. There is also a helpful glossary and, throughout the text, ample illustrations to facilitate self-application. Fixing Your Feet is not heavy going. I made myself feel much better just by reading it straight through and absorbing every gruesome detail of the most common foot problems, and discovering that I have had only about half of them. So maybe my glass is still half-full. Maybe it's the other thing, and unconquered horizons of hobbling torment still await me. At least I am better prepared to meet them head-on, forewarned and forearmed. First-time author Vonhof should be proud of his product. If you buy a copy, your feet should be proud to be affiliated with the brain that made you do it.

Review by Hollis Lenderking, © UltraRunning, 2001


Orthotics and Foot Problems

Mass-market 'arch supports' are rubbish, but that doesn't mean you can't solve or at least minimise some genuine foot problems. To do so requires individual medical attention and 'orthotics'. These are a form of specialised foot bed, but each one is custom-designed by a specialist for each user's foot. I quote from a most interesting web site on orthotics: "These are specially designed devices that are worn inside the shoe to control abnormal foot function and/or accommodate painful areas of the foot. Properly designed foot orthotics may compensate for impaired foot function, by controlling abnormal motion across the joints of the foot. This may result in result in dramatic improvement in foot symptoms" (my underlinings - RNC). Note the emphasis on 'abnormal' foot functions. I have extracted the key part of this web site here.

The web site goes on to say: 'Orthotics that are prescribed by the podiatrist and custom made for your feet should not be confused with 'over the counter' arch supports.' It also has some fascinating pictures of the muscles and bones inside your foot. These illustrate very clearly the 'bow and string' analogy. You can reach the original web site through the link above. My thanks to Kathy and Steve Kilpatrick for sending me the URL to this helpful web site.



We aren't going to recommend any one model of boot or jogger: people's feet vary too much and the styles change too fast. But we will mention (again) the Dunlop Volley (DV) for grip, the Dunlop KT-26 for light weight, and modern low-cut approach shoes such as the New Balance MO889s for good rough country performance. Let the flame wars begin! (Actually, they did begin a long time ago.)

Of course, if you completely disagree with any of this, or have some good information either in support or against, why haven't you contributed anything?


"1. Running related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations", S E Robbins & A M Hanna, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 19/2, 1987, pp148-156. (Many references.)

"2. Running Shoes", Choice, January 1991, pp6-12. (Most models quoted now unobtainable, except for KT-26s.)

"3. High Tech Afoot", J Braham, Machine Design, June 6, 1991, pp80-4. (All about putting air into jogger soles.)

© Roger Caffin 1/May/2002, 19-May-2009, 30-Sep-2013