So you’re thinking of going on a trek and you’ve got to carry all you kit, and you’re wondering if you’ve got the boots for the job? The following guide will give you some advice and show you what to look for when buying the right boots for backpacking.
What is Backpacking?
However, I’m getting slightly ahead of myself, as I really need to explain what backpacking is and why it differs from general walking. Backpacking or Trekking is when you go out for a multi-day adventure carrying all of your kit with you in a large backpack. This differs from walking which is when you go out for the day and you only carry a day sack (approx 30L).
When you are carrying a heavy pack for multiple days or if you were walking in really difficult terrain, you need to wear a backpacking/trekking boot. These differ from a traditional walking boot as they are much stiffer and generally have built up heel units to provide protection for your ankles and feet. Walking boots have more “play” in them which ensures a comfortable days walk over even ground and paths. But over rough ground and whilst carrying a heavy pack the “play” of a walking boot would increase the chance of injury, such as a sprained ankle or worse.
There are three main differences between a walking boot and one you would use for backpacking. These are in the upper, the heel and the midsole and together they provide the support needed. In the following article, with the aid of images of The North Face Verbera Backpacker GTX, Verbera Lightpacker GTX and Verbera Hiker GTX, I will show the differences between boots for general day walking and those for trekking/backpacking.
The upper has an important role as it shapes to your foot keeping it in place when walking. The stiffer the upper the more protection it offers the foot and ankle. This reduces the risk of a twist, sprain or fall spoiling your adventure. The stiffened upper also works in conjunction with the midsole and acts to reduce the boot twisting, once again protecting your foot. It is worth mentioning that since backpacking boots are stiffer than walking boots they are not going to feel as comfortable right out of the box.
Backpacking boots tend to be have a leather upper. This is a simple way of providing additional stiffness as leather is much stiffer than fabric. Leather offers additional durability and is much better able to deal with the potential abrasion and scuffs from rocky terrain.
You should also see more protection around the ankle as backpacking boots tend to be higher. This provides more all round support, which is important when carrying a heavy pack. This does mean that backpacking boots will weigh more that walking boots. For example, the weights of the Verbera range are 1608g (Backpacker GTX), 1522g (Lightpacker GTX), 1236g (Hiker GTX) based on UK size 9 boots.
The image below shows difference in the height and heel of the North Face Verbera range. On the left is the Verbera Backpacker GTX, designed for trekking/backpacking, you can clearly see that it is slightly taller than the other boots (all are a U.K. 8) with higher all-round ankle support. The Verbera Hiker GTX on the far right is designed for day walking and offers the least support of the three boots. You can also see clearly the difference in design of the heel units, these are examined in the following paragraph.
Boots designed for backpacking will have a stiffer and more supportive heel system, thereby reducing the amount of foot movement. This helps to maintain the position of your centre of gravity, which is shifted to a higher point than normal when carrying a heavy pack.
The rule of thumb in testing the stiffness of the heel unit is to squeeze the heel just above the point where it is joined to the sole unit. The more you can press inwards the more flexible the boot. The less you can press the stiffer the boot. Next time you’re in an outdoor gear shop try this little trick on a trainer and boot and you will see the difference. If the assistant looks at you blankly whilst you’re experimenting then at least you know not to get any gear advice from them!
In a high quality boot which has been designed for backpacking the heel unit will be built up with additional cushioning. You will be glad of this after a full day of trekking! Walking 15 miles for example may be a breeze for you, but walking 15 miles with a full 60L pack will have quite different effects on your body as each step you take has to absorb the additional weight from your pack and vibrations from its movement.
You can see in the above image the difference in heel units and design. On the left of the image is the Backpacker GTX. This boot has a leather heel which provides more stiffness and support. The sole has TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane) Cradle units built into the heel (the red triangular colouring) and within the midsole, which provide cushioning and stability.
The middle boot is the Lightpacker GTX, which has a stiffened fabric heel. Although the sole unit is similar in appearance to the Backpacker GTX’s sole unit, it is not as advanced. Whilst it has a TPU Cradle in the heel (black triangular colouring) it lacks the TPU Cradle in the midsole. Both of these boots are designed for use with a pack, although as you would imagine with the name: the Backpacker GTX is for more demanding treks, terrain and heavier packs, with the Lightpacker GTX being a bit more of an all round boot.
The final boot on the right is the Verbera Hiker GTX. This has been designed for walking with a day pack and you can see that heel unit is quite different. It has an EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) Cradle unit and less heel stiffness, which provides all day comfort on easier terrain.
The sole unit is the base of the shoe/boot and consists of various layers. These include the footbed, which keep your feet comfortable, and the tread, which provides grip and durability. Manufacturers will use different combinations and technologies depending upon the activity the footwear has been designed for.
A boot designed for carrying a heavy pack or for uneven terrain needs a sturdier stiffer sole unit than a general hill walking boot. To test this you need to bend the boot’s toe towards the heel whilst twisting the toe. The more movement you get the less suitable the footwear is for uneven terrain and the better suited it is to paths and flatter ground.
Another aspect of the sole unit is the tread pattern. Manufacturers often talk about their tread being “aggressive”. In my many day dreaming moments I picture the treads in the factory fighting it out, with the winner being put on the shoe/boot and the looser being melted down. Thankfully I keep most of these moments to myself!
What is an aggressive tread? Well, in short, the deeper and wider the tread pattern the better able to handle rough terrain. Debris and dirt find it difficult to clog the lugs up thereby allowing you to have constant grip and traction on different surfaces. Manufacturers also use different materials for their tread depending on the activity, for example a trekking boot may have a softer compound which gives more grip than a walking boot designed for flatter terrain.
The image above clearly illustrates the difference in the tread patterns between a trekking/backpacking and walking boot. On the left the Verbera Backpacker GTX has a much wider, deeper, chunkier tread designed for broken surfaces of rock and shale and uneven terrain. The Verbera Hiker GTX on the right has a tread which is much less “aggressive” and ideal for flatter, smoother terrain.
Best Qualities for a Backpacking Boot
When choosing backpacking footwear you need to be looking at a full boot which will support your ankles, reducing the risk of a twist. The stiffer the boot the more protection and support you will receive, helping you move over the terrain when carrying a large rucksack.
Since backpacking boots are stiffer than walking boots they are likely to take a little more breaking in than walking boots. They will weigh more too, due to the higher ankle, leather uppers and additional absorption and cushioning technologies of the heel and sole. However you will be glad of that extra support and cushioning after carrying your backpack all day!
The aggressive tread pattern on the soles of backpacking boots is designed for rough terrain. This prevents the tread from becoming clothing with dirt and stones, ensuring you can maintain a strong grip on ground.
Never be tempted to wear insubstantial boots or shoes when backpacking since you will seriously increase your chances of injury.
For more advice about walking footwear take a look at our article and video about boots, mids and shoes.