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Trail runners, lightweight shoes, barefoot shoes, sandals, hiking boots, waterproof socks and even literal barefoot hiking are all topics of hot debate in the backpacking world. Questions of durability, safety and physiological benefits and risks accompany the question of: what kind of footwear should one wear backpacking?

For this article, I decided to go to an expert on biomechanics and ask burning questions. I interviewed a physiotherapist. The expert opinions, in combination with my over a decade of passionate backpacking and personal experience dealing with foot injuries, I want to provide a high-level review of backpacking footwear to help hikers find the shoe that’s right for them. For the purposes of this article we are not reviewing any specific shoe or boot and will refer to two general categories of footwear:

  • Lightweight shoes, and
  • Full support boots.

Differences: Shoes vs. Boots

On that general note these are the basic pros and cons of both lightweight shoes and full support boots.

Lightweight shoes: advantages

  • Lighter and allow the user to burn less energy with each step
  • Usually cheaper than a full support boot
  • More agile than a full support boot

Lightweight shoes: disadvantages

  • Less support in the ankle and instep than full support boots
  • Usually less durable than full support boots
  • More frequently replaced than full support boots
  • Lightweight shoe manufacturers frequently change styles and features (pro or con depending on what they change)

Full support boots: advantages

  • More support than a lightweight shoe
  • More durable than a lightweight shoe
  • Less frequently replaced than a lightweight shoe
  • Boot styles remain in manufacturing for longer periods than shoes

Full support boots: disadvantages

  • Heavier than a lightweight shoe
  • More expensive than a lightweight shoe
  • Clumsier than a lightweight shoe

Interview with a Physiotherapist

Elizabeth Koleyak (Liz) swept into the coffee shop looking stylish in her jacket and brightly colored striped scarf. Her dark curly pixieish hair perfectly frames her big brown eyes and sparkling grin. She is confident and instantly likeable. I wave and she joins me at the table. Faint freckles and her natural athletic grace give her an air of a sun goddess.

What none of that information tells you is, Liz is brilliantly intelligent, pure athlete and a physiotherapist. Liz is a dancer, an ultra-marathoner and a hiker. She used to teach wrestling and still coaches various athletic events. She recently volunteered as a physiotherapist for the 2019 Canada Winter Games.

I asked Liz for an interview because asking her questions about how the body works and how to treat injuries might be one of my favorite personal science projects. I am ardently curious when I talk to any health care professional; partly because I have had many injuries and partly because they have great ideas and help me see the human body in a holistic way. My long term, informal research indicated physiotherapists see the human body as an interconnected ‘system’. You cannot change one mechanism in the human system without having a ripple effect in the rest of the system. Footwear and foot mechanics are no exception.

Questions and Answers

What are the most common athletic foot injuries you treat?

  • Ankle sprains – typical sprains and high ankle sprains
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Achilles’ tendon

What are the most common long term use foot injuries do you treat in athletes like backpackers?

  • Calf strains
  • Achilles’ tendon
  • Tibialis posterior
  • Plantar Fasciitis

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