Despite what many guidebooks, salespeople and online “experts” claim, there is no one style of footwear that is best for bushwalking. Whether you choose a light, low cut shoe, a full leather boot or something in between depends on personal preference, experience with that type of footwear as well as the nature and condition of the track. The most important thing is that you have covered plenty of kilometres in them before you commit to an extended walk!
Walking Shoes/Trail Runners
Trail specific shoes with a low cut and a grippy sole are becoming increasingly popular on bushwalks. They are affordable, light, comfortable, breathable and drain water quickly. However they have far less support and protection than boots, and require precise foot placements and good ankle stability. For walks with a Moderate or Hard rating, shoes are only recommended for those who’ve previously used them in rough, muddy terrain while carrying weight. For these walks, trail runners with aggressive lugs on the soles are preferable.
–Pros: light, relatively cheap, comfortable straight out of the box, nimble and precise, breathable, drains water, dries quickly
-Cons: will not last as long as leather boots, no ankle protection, less foot and ankle support, won’t be as effective with traditional gaiters, requires more care with foot placements, possibly more taxing on calves and ankles if unused to them.
-Not suitable: Road running shoes or general purpose sneakers. These will have soles that will be slippery on rocks, roots and mud. They will also be less stable and have less protection compared to trail specific shoes.
These are essentially trail runners with a higher cut and sturdier construction, and represent a reasonable compromise between shoes and boots. They are a good choice for those new to bushwalking who are unsure about which type of footwear is best for them. The uppers are usually synthetic or mixed rather than pure leather, and as a result they are much lighter than full leather boots. They are also usually more flexible and more comfortable out of the box. Often they will have a waterproof-breathable membrane which will keep your feet dry for longer (although in very damp track conditions wet feet are an inevitability).
-Pros: more supportive/protective than trail runners, waterproof membrane, lighter than leather boots, usually cheaper than leather boots, shorter break in period than leather boots
-Cons: compromise between shoes and boots, will wear out as quickly as trail runners
Boots with a fully leather upper (or synthetic boots with a stiff sole and solid construction) are the traditional option for harder bushwalking. These boots will be much heavier, but incredibly protective, supportive and durable. While they may feel more “clumsy” than lighter shoes and boots, they will better handle the occasional misstep and their high, supportive cut can reduce ankle and calf fatigue on longer days with heavy packs. They often have waterproof membranes in addition to leather uppers which will resist water for a long time (although once they get wet, they won’t dry). Their stiff soles will generally deal with snow and deep mud better than softer shoes/boots. However their long break-in period, weight and lack of flexibility mean that they take some getting used to, and they will likely be overkill on dry, well built tracks with light packs.
-Pros: will last a long time, lots of support and protection, more waterproof, good in mud and snow, warmer in cold conditions
-Cons: heavy, expensive, require a long break in period to be comfortable, more likely to cause blisters/other foot issues, slow to dry, hot, leather requires maintenance
-Not suitable: Steel cap boots or work boots (likely to become extremely uncomfortable on long walks), Elastic sided boots or desert boots (unstable, not grippy), Mountaineering Boots (the rigid soles will make them slow and impractical on most walks, although they may be useful in very snowy conditions).