If you plan to head into the mountains, take a walk on a local trail, visit a remote viewpoint on foot, do a multi-day guided hike or maybe venture on a path that is short and steep, you need to consider your choice of shoes very carefully. And of course, South African hiking terrain can be slightly different to its European counterparts. With all the technical jargon out there, it can be tricky to distinguish ‘hike’ from ‘approach’ from ‘trail’ footwear. What is the difference?
In short, simple, South African English, these are all different kinds of hiking shoes. You’ll find the differences in exactly the types of ground, the steepness and how rocky and slippery you expect it to be.
It can be tricky to work out what you need. Shoes for the great outdoors come in so many shapes and forms, and while they are designed with a specific purpose in mind, you can sometimes chop and change these purposes depending on your budget, the sizes available to you, and what you will ultimately use them for in the long term. In addition to the terrain you’re walking on, you will need to work out how heavy your backpack is going to be. A heavier pack – if you’re hiking overnight for instance – means you might want sturdier, more supportive shoes. You will also want to consider durability versus weight and how much cost influences your decision. Oftentimes there is significant overlap when it comes to shoes, and one pair can be used in multiple scenarios. There is however reason to distinguish different types of hiking shoes as their technical capabilities vary greatly.
At Mountain Mail Order you’ll see we divide our shoes up into the following categories:
Climbing, Hiking and Approach, Alpine and Expedition. And then you will also notice Shoe Accessories which will help you kit your shoes out and help maintain them. Before we get started here’s a little bit of shoe anatomy to help make describing them a little easier.
Climbing shoes are specific for rock climbing and indoor wall climbing. These soft shoes are designed with sticky rubber and a tight fit for climbing very steep terrain and usually require you to have technical climbing equipment and know-how before considering a pair. They are worn only when on the rockface and are not made for any type of hiking, but we’ve mentioned them here for completeness. Some details of what climbing shoes to choose are a little complex, depending on how long you’ve been climbing and the kind of rock you intend to climb and the style of climbing, for example. You can read a little about the basics of what you need to get started rock climbing, including shoes here.
Approach shoes: An approach shoe is a specialised shoe that is usually bought by climbers, scramblers (people who ascend steep, technical terrain that usually doesn’t require roping up), or hikers who often find themselves on rocky terrain. They tend to have a snugger fit than other hiking shoes, sticky climbing rubber soles, a stiff midsole and a good edge which make it easier to climb short sections of technical terrain. Unlike climbing shoes, one can walk a fair distance in approach shoes as they are both comfortable and sturdy enough to withstand a fair amount of uneven terrain. If you are a climber or an outdoorsy person who wants shoes that can handle technical terrain and scrambling but are not looking to hike great distances, then approach shoes are often a good fit. A good example of an approach shoe is the Mammut Ayako that’s the ideal choice for Kloof Corner on Table Mountain.
Hiking shoes are for people who want to walk in nature, often on trails, and need a shoe that handles outdoor terrain better and provides more support and protection than a sneaker or street shoe. Hiking shoes can offer ankle support in the form of a boot or be low cut around the ankle for mobility and comfort. While durability, stiffness and ankle support are great when you’re hiking a long way and packing heavy, consider carefully whether you want a heavier shoe that’s less agile.
There is a trend to use trail (running) shoes to hike in. These are much lighter and often cooler than traditional hiking shoes but are also built to withstand uneven terrain. While this approach is great, the downside is that they wear out quicker and are often padded less than a hiking-specific shoe.
Hiking boots are made with heavier packs and uneven terrain in mind. With longer distances to cover, you may also appreciate the extra ankle support. They often have a stiffer midsole and thicker soles than lightweight hiking shoes. However, these boots vary from relatively lightweight and flexible to stiff and heavy duty depending on how long you want them to last and the conditions you’ll be hiking in. A classic hiking boot would be the Boreal Pointer that’s at home in the Magaliesberg or on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Both hiking shoes and boots have various uppers: fabric, leather, or a combination of the two. These will carry varying degrees of water resistance and water retention. Some boots and shoes come with a waterproof lining like Gore-Tex that is waterproof but breathes (allows sweat to pass out but prevents water coming in), helping keep feet dry in wet conditions. They can be slow or quick drying and flexible or light, depending on the choice of upper.
Alpine and Expedition shoes: These shoes are designed for mountaineering expeditions and the alpine environment.
Mountaineering is usually accessed by starting off as a hiker and working up towards more mountainous terrain. This could be tagging the top of Table Mountain on foot, or summiting Everest or Aconcagua. But, shoes in this category are built for high altitude, mostly snowy peaks. Mountaineering or expedition shoes are very large (some almost as high as your knees!) and are built to keep you moving in temperatures down to -40 degrees. These are usually for those mountaineers spending a significant amount of time in the mountains. If you’re planning a trip to Everest, then these are the shoes for you.
Alpine climbing differs from mountaineering in that it is usually accessed through the skills learnt while climbing as opposed to hiking. Alpine climbing involves covering more vertical terrain and the shoes needed for this terrain are as nuanced as the skills required. They are sturdy and are made for snowy and icy environments. They allow for crampons to be fitted onto them. If you’re going ice-climbing or heading to the alps, these bad boys are for you.
While the market for Alpine shoes are not huge in South Africa, you can find some low-level alpine boots in the form of crossover hiking boots that are crampon compatible. For more technical Alpine boots, a special order needs to be placed, or, if you’re visiting the European Alps, you’re likely to find a pair in the foothill villages. The Mammut Kento boots are amazing for winter hiking in the Drakensberg, they are crampon compatible for snowy passes and flexible enough to cover ground comfortably.
Remember that this list, while helpful, doesn’t account for the many shoes that cross over between categories and uses. It’s important to research the specific pair you intend to buy or ask one of our in-store experts at CityROCK Gear Shop in Johannesburg or Cape Town.