When I agreed to go on a 3-week walking tour in France this fall, I assumed my beloved Lowa boots would join me on that journey. We’ve been together for many miles over the past 15 years…
But all it took was one long walk on woodland trails and paved roads to reveal that these aging boots would be problematic on the Chemin du Puy.
For one thing there’s not enough cushioning for rocky trails or paved roads. For another, they are too heavy for a journey where every ounce counts dearly…
And so the quest for boots began — a quest that took weeks and many shopping trips (or online transactions) to accomplish.
Finding the Right Boots Isn’t Easy
Luckily, I’m in an all-women’s Facebook group with other pilgrims — past, present and future. Besides sharing travel plans, we talk about what to pack or what to wear.
We share candid questions and personal observations about the gear that will work best for trekking the Camino. We discuss everything, from sports bras to footwear, hiking socks, foldable trekking poles, packs, etc.
Everyone agrees: the single most important decision is what to wear on your feet.
We debate what’s the best footwear strategy: sturdy versus lightweight hiking boots; hiking shoes versus trail running shoes; sneakers versus hiking sandals. For those not facing mountain crossings, the consensus is: don’t bother carrying your heavy hiking boots. If you’ll spend all your time hiking on paved roads, boots are overkill.
And of course, we all agree that what’s best for your feet depends on many things: your age, weight, fitness; the size, shape and conditions of your feet (such as high arches, flat feet or vulnerabilities like plantar fascitis, bunions, arthritis, injuries, etc.). Some people prefer lots of cushioning, others want to feel the road.
Given those physical characteristics you then have to factor in your expectations of the terrain, the distance to hike each day, changes in elevation, and the degree of technical challenge. We learn from Facebook posts what to expect about specific conditions in France or Spain, for the locales or trails where we’ll be trekking.
For these reasons we care a lot about details, like how many ounces each shoe or boot weighs — things that aren’t always easy to discover from the manufacturers’ breezy sales pitches… For those of us who will walk 100–500 miles to train beforehand, we also worry about durability. Will our boots be worn out before we get on the plane? Once I’ve found the right boots, should I buy a second pair to bring to Europe to replace the worn-out training pair?
These are not questions for fashionistas…
It Takes Many Trials
To my surprise it’s not uncommon for future pilgrims to try a dozen pairs of boots and shoes before settling on the ones that work best for them. Some have posted photos on Facebook showing 4–5 boxes of shoes and boots they’ve ordered to try out.
Despite the diligent shopping and pre-Camino trials, some Camigas report back that they’ve given away their boots by the end of the first week. They will hike the rest of the Way in sneakers or sandals, to avoid the pain of ill-fitting boots.
I found this obsessive try-buy behavior hard to believe, until I began my own quest to find light, comfortable hiking boots. Firstly, there’s little relationship between the size of your street shoes versus the sizing used for boots or trail runners. This means that online shoppers have to anticipate lots of exchanges…
I’ve lost count exactly, but it’s taken me at least 6 tries (including 3 trips to REI plus a local shoe store) before settling on Hoka One One Tor Summit Mid WP boots. Luckily, they were on sale at REI when I noticed how many Camigas were writing good things about Hoka boots… Time will tell if this was the right choice.
We’ll be walking the Célé Variant of the Chemin du Puy (GR 65 and GR 651). Pilgrims tell us to expect strenuous conditions when hiking up and down the Célé Valley’s limestone cliffs or uneven, rocky trails.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, in early spring, it’s hard to find training conditions like the dry, stony hills and crumbling limestone cliffs we’ll face in France. Right now I’m focused on building up endurance and overall conditioning, rather than replicating the terrain.
I’ll need some training on loose scree and rocky hillclimbs before we fly to Paris, but fortunately, there’s all summer to get ready.
For now, early practice hikes suggest these boots will be quite comfortable, with some caveats…
Good Enough, but Not Perfect
After 25 miles in them so far, it’s clear that my new boots aren’t perfect for the trek in France. Their waterproofing makes them less breathable than what I’d hoped for, so my feet get hot by mile 5 — and we’ll be hiking at least twice that mileage each day. I’ll also be hiking in much warmer weather.
Message to self: Learn how to manage heat dissipation and avoid blisters. Step one: buy Glide. Check.
Even with thick hiking socks from Darn Tough, these boots are a bit too big, so my feet slip forward on steep descents but not enough to jam the toes. I haven’t yet tried the liner-plus-sock combination as a way of avoiding blisters from an overly roomy boot, but it’s on the list of things to try. I did try this model in half size smaller, and liked the overall foot comfort, but found that the top of the boots cinched my ankles too tightly. Except for the ankle issue they’d be good boots to wear with thinner, lighter socks.
By the time I leave for France, I’ll have figured out how to make my boots as comfortable as possible, via:
- The right lacing techniques to minimize slippage and maximize comfort;
- The optimal combination of socks and liners;
- How and where to apply Glide before putting on my socks.
My feet will swell after hiking all day, for 21 days in a row, so the fact that these boots are now 1/4 to 1/2 size too large will be most likely be a blessing on “les voies jacquaires” in France (camino hiking trails.)
For now I remind myself that this is a journey of many lessons and discoveries — with many experiences yet to unfold before we leave for France. Finding the right boots is an important milestone on the journey.
90 days later…
It’s mid-July and my love affair with Hoka boots continues, now that I’ve found the optimal lacing and sock combos through trial-and-error.
I’m grateful for the way they protect my toes and ankles from unexpected encounters with roots or rocks on uneven trails, the way they keep my feet dry in torrential downpours or unavoidable puddles.
Unlike traditional hiking boots, these are so lightweight, luxuriously cushioned and flexible under foot. My enthusiasm about these boots has inspired my friends too. Now almost half a dozen of us are hiking regularly with Hoka boots or trail runners…
Trail runners: happy compromise
That being said, as much as I love my Hoka boots, on hot days they become a bit too warm after ≥ 3 hours of hiking. If my feet get too hot and the socks get damp, there’s a risk of blistering. This has spurred me to find alternative footwear for hot days or less rugged terrain.
Fortunately, I’ve found the right trail runners to alternate with the boots: some Altra Olympus shoes with a wide toe box. This model is well cushioned, protects toes from encounters with roots or rocks, and breathes well. The wide toe box offers lots of breathing room so toes can flex or splay out — and it avoids the risk of blisters that can crop up when my bunion gets too cramped.
So I’m now a happy camper, well equipped for almost anything the French trails are likely to present.