In this post, I’m going to be looking at the best footwear for hill walking and back packing in the UK: boots or shoes?
Footwear is a personal choice because everyone has different needs and foot shapes, so what’s best for me may not suit you. I’ve written this post to stimulate a more open minded approach to choosing footwear. Not to find which boots or shoes are best to buy, just the reasoning behind how I came to my conclusions of what I use.
Leather walking boots
I’ve been wearing leather walking boots for over 30 years, because that’s what you did when you went to the hills. I had trouble with blisters, spent months doing short walks to wear them in.
In 2017, I decided to tackle the infamous Cape Wrath Trail and needed a new pair of boots. My old leather boots were just too heavy and I needed to rethink and lighten my kit weight. I walked it again in 2022 – read that walk here.
After some research, I bought a pair of La Sportiva Trango TRK GTX boots, which at the time I thought were lightweight boots.
The Cape Wrath Trail walk went well and I loved the boots. I felt I had more energy with lighter footwear and didn’t even suffer as much with blisters. I’d walked the whole of the Cape Wrath Trail with dry feet and was extremely impressed with the boots. Unfortunately the waterproof lining failed in these boots, after only about 300 miles of use.
So I was looking for a new pair of boots again. This time, I wanted even lighter boots without a waterproof lining. Mainly because I cannot afford to keep buying new boots just because they’re not waterproof anymore. I could just use waterproof socks with breathable, non-waterproof boots if I needed to. It’s upsetting throwing away boots that still look perfectly good, just because they leak.
The trouble with waterproof linings in boots is they don’t breathe very well. They trap sweat when it’s warm and when they fail, they let water in and trap it there. The boots then take an absolute age to dry.
By using waterproof socks I can just throw them out instead of the whole boots when they start leaking, saving me money. Also I can just wear them when needed but take them off when it’s hot, and it’s a lot nicer not having sweaty feet. In summer I don’t tend to take waterproof socks because I’ve found that I don’t mind getting wet feet. In breathable shoes my socks dry quickly after getting wet and my feet are cooler so they’re rarely sweaty in the heat. Which is the problem I have in waterproof footwear in hot weather.
I don’t find that the waterproof socks breathe particularly well and I can often get wet feet from sweat when wearing them. So I only waterproof socks when I absolutely need too. Usually in the winter when I’ve got cold feet rather than to keep them dry.
So there I was, looking for cheaper walking boots without a waterproof lining. I came across the Inov-8 Roclite 325. They were comfortable straight out of the box and I used them on the TGO Challenge across Scotland.
I thought I’d found my perfect 3-season walking boot: cheap, no sweaty feet and not a single blister….Only to discover the tread was gone after about 400 miles and they were looking fairly tatty sooner than expected. Funnily enough, the inside of the boots was still in near-perfect condition and they were still really comfortable. So I thought I would just suffer replacing them more often.
Then in January 2019, I couldn’t believe my luck when Inov-8 brought out the Roclite G 345 GTX boot. It meant going back to a waterproof boot but they have a graphene in the soles, making them last 50% longer. So in February I set off walking 1,200 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats via the three peaks of Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis, expecting to wear the soles smooth long before the end.
Surprisingly, the tread lasted the whole way but yet again the Gore-tex waterproof lining failed at around 300 miles. So I was back to wishing for a non-waterproof lined boot (I was impressed to get a surprise refund from Gore-tex on these!)
I walked the last part of my 1100 mile Dover to Cape Wrath walk, through Scotland in some Salomon X Ultra mid 3 Aero walking boots. These were perfect for summer hiking over pathless or rough ground and in the mountains, I just added waterproof socks when the ground was going to be wet for a while.
My footwear of choice for lowland walking and in warm weather is a running shoe. A current favourite is the Inov-8 Roclite G 275. These are light weight and breathable, so my feet stay cooler and don’t sweat. This keeps my feet dryer so there’s less chance of blisters and they are generally more comfortable. They also have graphene in the sole so the tread lasts longer than other footwear of this weight. I add mini gaiters to stop the grit and mud getting in and waterproof socks when needed. This is the perfect combination for most of the year in the UK.
I also like the Altra Lone Peak 4.5 zero drop shoe. These are ideal for people with wider feet and long distance hiking because there’s room for your feet to spread. I really like the cushioned feel of these but find them best for day hikes. And camping trips when I’m carrying lighter loads. I don’t feel my feet are supported enough when I’m carrying a heavy rucksack.
The Altra Lone Peak shoes are very popular with thru hikers.
So boots or shoes – which is best?
So my question was which is the best footwear for hill walking in the UK – boots or shoes? My conclusion is: both.
I’ve found that I tend to use both, depending on the walk. This way I get the best of both worlds – Light weight boots or shoes for comfort and speed most of the time. Then tougher and heavier boots able to accept crampons and warm enough for winter conditions. For the few occasions I’m able to get to the mountains in the snow.
If I had to choose just one pair:
If you only want to buy one pair of boots or shoes and don’t do any serious winter hiking in the snow. Personally I’d choose the Salomon X Ultra mid 3 Aero or the Inov-8 RocFly G 390 walking boots. Then I would add a pair of waterproof socks when needed. This way, my feet wouldn’t be too hot and sweaty in hot weather and I could add the waterproof socks when my feet were likely to be cold or wet for long periods. They are also light weight and flexible enough for high mileages on easier paths, but supportive enough for hiking with a heavy pack and off trail.
If I had to buy waterproof boots:
If I had to have waterproof boots, it would be a choice between the Inov-8 Roclite G 345 GTX and Inov-8 Roclite Pro G 400 GTX boots depending on how much money I had to spend. They’re both extremely comfortable and good for year round use in the UK. I have written a 345 and 400 comparison review here. I’ve walked 1200 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats in the Roclite G 345 boots, also climbing Snowdon and Ben Nevis in the snow.
I’ve used the Roclite boots in the snow with micro spikes and they’ve worked really well. They’re not insulated for winter so I wear two pairs of socks in them when it’s very cold.
This post is just my opinion and what I’ve found best for me for the type of walks that I do. Footwear is personal and everybody’s feet are different, so try them on in the shop and decide what’s best for you.
I myself prefer to walk in light weight breathable non waterproof footwear and add merino wool lined EDZ waterproof socks when needed. I don’t mind getting wet feet knowing that they will dry quickly after river crossings. This was perfect for my Cape Wrath Trail walk in April 2022, it was great not having to take my boots off for the many river crossings during the walk. And I have found that since using light weight footwear I can walk further with less fatigue and no longer suffer with blisters. My favourite footwear are the Inov-8 RocFly G 390 boots. Read my review of the boots here.
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