Hike Barefoot or Wear Trekking Shoes?

trekking shoes for camping

Most every one of us has had the opportunity to go down to the beach and have been exhilarated at the feel of wet sand and tiny pebbles gently massaging our feet as we walk along the shoreline. 

The reason for this is our feet have been so protected by some kind of footwear that there are hardly any callouses; making the sole of our feet very sensitive to stimuli.

Thick leathery soles prevent us from feeling the pleasurable, tactile sensation of sand pressing against the bottom of our feet. Having soles as durable and as impenetrable as those off a pair of Florsheims, the Bushman of Africa will not feel the same pleasurable tactile sensation we do but he can run full clip through the underbrush without flinching at stepping on every sharp gravel.

This article isn’t meant for the Bushman so I will assume that all of us need to wear trekking shoes when we venture to the great outdoors. Let me quantify what images the words “trekking shoes” conjure for the average hiker.

Ninety percent of the time, what comes to mind are heavy, high-cut footwear like the one shown below. It would have deep, cleated outsoles, a toe scruff guard, substantial ankle support and oh, “Gore Tex” to allow the feet to breath.

trekking shoes

I have hiked extensively in North America, Hawaii, the Philippines and guess what? The use of trekking shoes, or the non-use thereof, is mandated by personal choice, terrain, climate and the duration of stay outdoors. This being the case, the high-cut trekking shoes (or boots, as the case may be) will not necessarily be suitable for outdoor forays to Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia or the Philippines.

If one were to hike even just a section of the Appalachian Trail, the prerequisites of terrain, climate and the duration of the trek all come into play. In a case such as that, the trekker carries a heavier load and therefore needs footwear that will withstand the added weight for a much longer period. Trekking shoes are also built sturdier and meant to survive the rigors of extensive hikes.

Let me also point out that in that section of North America the temperature differentials vary greatly and the added thermal protection of the high-cut footwear prevents heat loss through the feet. In tropical countries, these types of shoes tend to be a little hot on the feet and most trekkers resort to wearing low-cut sneakers with substantial cleats for traction.

I personally own a selection of outdoor shoes. There are “waterproof” Gore Tex high cuts in my closet along with cross trainer sneakers, arch-reinforced sandals with fully adjustable straps and outdoor slippers that are slowly beginning to be the footwear of choice for hikes in tropical countries.

outdoor shoes

​Confused on what to wear? You shouldn’t be. Here are simple guidelines: If you are going on an extended trek, you need the durability of a regular trekking shoe. If it is a day hike, especially during warm weather, go for the deep-cleated sneakers. If there are river crossings, definitely opt for either the sandals with adjustable straps or the trending cleated outdoor slippers with heavy-duty straps.

Here are other considerations to look at: when a trekking shoe or boots, is waterlogged, the added weight is considerable and adds to the total load you have to carry. Because of its very design, trekking shoes also take considerable time to dry out. The prudent hiker will pack either sandals or slippers as backup footwear.

the sandal with adjustablestraps

Trekking shoes are also recommended for novice hikers because of the ankle protection it provides. Beginners tend to just plod along, paying more attention to the unfolding scenery than the trail he, or she, is walking on. A large pebble is obstruction enough to twist an ankle if one is inattentive. So for beginners, yes, I would recommend wearing high-cut trekking shoes until such they learn to pick their way on different types of trails.

Navigating a downhill trail is a specific situation where the value of high-cut trekking shoes comes into play. Beginners are most prone to twisted ankles on trails with a steep slope. The possibilities of losing a footing are greater and “uneducated” foot placement compounds the problem. As a seasoned trekker, I have learned where to place my foot, how to place it and when to lift it.

The “lift it” part is quite important; ankle sprains are usually caused by lifting the weighted foot before the subsequent foot is firmly anchored. The conclusion? As a seasoned trekker, I can traverse tropical mountains comfortably merely wearing heavy-duty sandals but a beginner with a loaded backpack will not be able to. Until such time a beginner acquires sound hiking skills, trekking shoes are mandatory to prevent possible sprains.

In Southeast Asia, it is not unusual to go camping and see the porter (if there is one) or the guide wearing flip flops! Yes, I wrote “flip flops”. Those ubiquitous rubber slippers with suspect rubber  straps will go where the high-cut, waterproof, Gore-Texed, pricey trekking shoes go when worn on the feet of the gurus of mountain trails (think trekking skills of the Sherpa).  

So where did this article take you? It is simply this: when you are a beginner with untrained feet, it is judicious to wear high-cut trekking shoes. If you happen to be outdoors in the Tropics then sweaty, smelly feet may be the price you have to pay for not twisting your ankle.

There is also an obscure footwear that is my personal choice for all-weather climbs. It is lightweight (lighter than sandals), fits the foot like a glove, self-draining after immersion in water and has a soft, positive traction. The footwear has a split toe and mainly influenced by the Japanese Tabi.

The Hawaiian fisherman’s tabi was developed in Hawaii so that the “opihi” (limpet) gatherers would not lose their footing on mossy, slippery rocks. The sole is fabric, much like the scour pads used to scrub kitchen utensils with. It is worn like a pair of elastic socks.

What’s the whole point of this article? The type of footwear worn is not the Holy Grail of hiking. As the trekker gains experience, he will be able to dicern which type of footwear suits him best. However, my advice to novice hiker is to invest in a pair of good high-cut trekking shoes until he, or she, is more adept at traversing all kinds of terrain under the load of a backpack.

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