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One of the largest investments we make when starting hill-walking is in a pair of boots.
They come in all shapes and sizes, with various claims as to how waterproof they are and their different features. Sometimes the choice can be baffling, and the cost can lead people to think that regular shoes or trainers will be enough; after all, you walk around in them every day!
But there are several risks about using shoes during hill-walking, all of which can be nullified by wearing boots. Here I’ll try and explain these, but if you’re in any doubt, just remember that your feet are the most important part of you when you’re walking, and it’s vital to look after them. Far better to spend money on some boots than cause yourself an injury or reduce the enjoyment of the experience due to discomfort.
One of the major advantages of boots is their height and therefore the protection that they give to your ankles. This protection is in the form of support, and cushioning from impact. Support is useful because it helps to prevent you from turning an ankle, which could result in a sprain, strain or even a break. Even if you stick to paths, there can be uneven places where ankles are flexed in ways that they’re not in day-to-day life; it’s easy to overdo it, especially on a rocky ridge, or the kind of boulder fields you find on the summits of Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis. Boots (if properly done up) will give the rigidity to help prevent these ankle injuries.
The protection boots give from impact is helpful when the terrain is slippery, creating the danger of slipping and hitting lower legs on rocks, or from rocks sliding down the slope from above. The nature of uneven terrain means it’s likely that there’s a risk of grazing your shins on rocks as you pass, an unpleasant experience easily avoided if wearing boots.
Alongside their ability to protect ankles, boots are ideal for hill-walking because they’re waterproof. This is usually a manufactured membrane such as Gore-Tex in a fabric boot, or the natural waterproofing qualities of leather and plastic. This, added to the height of the boot over the ankle mean that your feet will stay dry when walking through most puddles. Dry feet are important for comfort, but they also keep you warmer, make it less likely you’ll develop blisters, and reduce the risk of other conditions associated with waterlogged feet, such as fungal infection. Even if a pair of shoes is waterproof, it’s likely that water from splashing will find its way through the top.
The last feature of walking boots that’s worth buying them for is the protection they provide to the soles of your feet. Because they’ve been designed for walking, they have a more robust sole with an aggressive ‘grippy’ tread on the underside, both able to prevent the sharp stones you walk on from hurting your feet, and for reducing slipping on wet grass and mud. A normal pair of shoes or trainers simply won’t be able to provide this protection, and you’ll end up feeling every stick and stone on the ground, leading to painful feet and a grim day out.
The general message we give with boots is that they really are worth it. There’s really no substitute for dry, comfortable feet with protected ankles, and the alternatives of painful blistered wet feet with the danger of ankle injuries really isn’t a good idea. In the end boots are a small price to pay for the benefits of enjoying a great day in the hills. And yes the choice of boots is baffling, but take some time to ask friends, read reviews, and try on dozens of pairs, and you’ll get there in the end.
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