Do we have to wear boots in the mountains?
We all know the mantra that you should wear good boots with ankle support when walking in the mountains but where does this belief come from and is it valid? Is there any hard evidence to support the advice?
My honest answer: No. I have found none or very little documented evidence to support the notion that to protect our ankles from injury, we must wear boots.
There has been lots of research done into lower leg injury prevention - much of it by militaries and lots to do with running and other sports. Not so much is hiking specific. Most of the outcomes offer very little hard evidence to support the received wisdom that ankle support actually makes any real difference.
One study by the Israeli Army found that around 17% of recruits in basic training suffered some form of lower leg injury during training, regardless of footwear type.
Another suggested that high tops might offer a marginal amount of protection.
I read another study that suggested that high top shoes might actually impair the natural response of the ankle to respond to a roll.
An interesting study of non fatal falls in the Austrain Alps over a long period of time suggested the most common cause of injury in this setting might be poor vision with age with weight also playing a factor, though these were only recorded accidents that required assistance. The majority of these incidents were during the descent.
After struggling to find any solid answers, I went nuclear. I asked Facebook… I directed my curiosity towards some outdoor friends, Mountain Rescue team members, Outdoor Instructors and Forces personnel, so there was value in hearing their thoughts on footwear.
It's important to acknowledge that these are still just thoughts, albeit backed up by experience and judgement.
Some anecdotal insight from Elfyn Jones of Llanberis MRT and the BMC.
"Around 75% of all injuries treated by Mountain Rescue are lower leg related (i.e. ankles) and 65% of them are sustained in the dominant leg when descending - usually at the end of the day when tired. There is a strong suspicion that the 'cause' of the slip/trip could actually be low blood sugar levels, causing a lack of concentration by the injured person and not necessarily the type of footwear worn. Of course, suitable tread might help mitigate/prevent the slip when it happens. In my time with MR, I've probably dealt with literally hundreds of ankle injuries and haven't spotted any pattern of injury or correlation associated between the type of footwear the casualty was wearing at the time of the incident and injury. Of course, that's very different in winter/snowy conditions unsuitable footwear does lead to a slip. (And usually a long fall!)”
So, what can we take from the information so far? I think some key points are this:
There is very little or no hard evidence to suggest that boots alone prevent injury in most situations.
There might be other more significant factors that increase the risk of injury.
So where does this idea come from, that to prevent injury, we should wear boots?
Says Steve Long, author of ‘Hillwalking: The Mountain Training handbook’:
"I think the mantra has not kept up with development. When the choice was between plimsolls and mountain boots, it made sense to insist that boots were better for hiking/trekking. Nowadays, I think it depends on the type of hike…"
Maybe this golden rule of the mountains has simply been passed down the early days of hill walking - and that's a really important point - because the choice and quality of footwear hasn't always been as varied and as technical as it is now. In the days before social media popularised the mountains, people learned from people with experience. Someone usually took you out and taught you how to look after yourself and one of the first things you were told was 'get yourself a pair of boots'... It's just the way it is.
My view is that boots are definitely not the only footwear suitable for the mountains and boots in themselves do not necessarily prevent injuries. In fact, I’ve seen plenty of people hobble off the mountain with agonising blisters due to poorly fitted, often cheap boots that they have either borrowed or bought to use once.
What footwear is available and suitable for walking/scrambling in the mountains?
Designed for wearing on approach to a climb. They are made for rock.
Great for the mountains and perfect for scrambling, with 'sticky' soles.
Low ankle cover.
Not always waterproof.
Not always the best for long distances.
Can wear out quickly.
Not suitable for winter.
Similar to Approach shoes but designed for walking.
Good for long distance routes.
Low ankle cover.
Can be poor in wet/boggy ground.
Soles not designed for scrambling.
Not suitable for winter.
Trail Running Shoes.
Very grippy on most terrains - designed for off road/mountain environments.
Low ankle cover.
Not always waterproof.
Wear out very fast.
Not suitable for winter.
Road running shoes are not in this bracket. They are pretty rubbish for the mountains, with softer soles that have less grip and protection underfoot.
Walking/Hiking Boots (B0 & B1 rated)
Flexible, which means comfortable.
High ankle cover, offering some protection from knocks on rock.
Good on wet/ boggy ground
Usually have some degree of waterproof.
Can be really lightweight
Leather ones can last for years and years and also be environmentally friendly when compared to plastic. Maybe not as appealing if you're vegan.
Not the best option for scrambling due to flexibility
Not suitable for winter. (B1's can be used for light winter days, with C1 crampons, but are still not ideal)
B2 rated Mountaineering Boots.
Semi stiffened soles are great for rock.
Excellent for scrambling.
Should be your default boots for whenever there is snow/ice on the ground.
Highly waterproof and warmer than shoes and B1 rated boots.
Solid ankle protection from knocks and scrapes
Can be worn year round and are compatible with C1 & C2 crampons.
Very heavy when compared to other options.
Can be too warm for summer, leading to sweaty feet and blisters
Can be painful/tiring on long or multi day routes (potentially causing injuries!)
An important note with all these types of shoes is that they have soles designed for the environment. Grip design is important, as is sole density/type of rubber. This will provide protection from slipping and importantly, from sharp, awkward rocks underfoot. Something that really does make a massive difference to general safety.
So now we have an idea of what is available, the knack is choosing the right footwear for the occasion. Some of this will come down to personal choice and that comes with time. Some will be necessity. Not everyone can afford different footwear for every occasion. We have to find the right balance.
Boots are always going to beat low tops for wet, rainy days and boggy terrain unless you like wet feet.
A good pair of approach shoes will be more secure on a scrambly route than flexible walking boots.
Trail running shoes might be better for a hot summer's day than leather walking boots, especially when moving light and fast.
Flexible walking boots will be better for long, multi day walks with a big pack than stiff mountaineering boots or flimsy running shoes.
B2 mountaineering boots are always going to be the best choice for winter conditions where snow and ice will be encountered, but they might not feel as good on a blistering hot summer day.
It's about finding a balance. Using the right tool for the job and making trading offs. Each type of footwear has it's pros & cons. Another critical factor is your socks.
Wearing thin summer socks on a cold winter's day in B2 boots might get you cold feet and sore toes.
Wearing thick, insulated winter socks on a hot summer's day scrambling Tryfan might lead you to smelly feet and blisters.
I always wear hiking/mountaineering specific socks that are designed to wick away moisture and provide the right level of warmth when I've got boots on.
On all occasions, mountain/hiking specific footwear should be the preferred choice.
Some other things that can help with injury prevention.
Don’t over pack your bag and pack it efficiently. Don’t have too much weight at the top. Don’t carry items you don’t need. Travel light and be nimble on your feet.
Use walking poles to take off some of the weight. This will preserve energy reserves for the end of the day - the key ‘danger zone’ for accidents.
Eat well and hydrate. Keep your energy up so you're not losing concentration on the way down. High sugar foods will burn fast and wear off quickly, leading to sudden drops in your own energy. Foods like flapjack, nuts and bananas provide great slow burning energy. I don't need to tell you not to throw the peel on the floor. It's not OK, despite what people might say.
Choose your routes well and don't overdo it. If you're feeling like it's too much, use an escape route or turn back early. Getting to the top is only half the battle!
Develop strength in your legs via specific exercises or cycling. This is particularly relevant for people who have suffered ankle injuries/sprains in the past and who are more prone to further injury. Ankle braces have been shown to be more effective and reliable for people in this category than any specific type of boot.
Look after your health and weight away from the mountains. Being 'hill fit' will help you stay active and alert for longer, allowing you to 'keep something in the tank' for that all important descent.
Get your feet measured at a good outdoor shop and wear footwear that actually fits you.
If I could sum up in a few bullet points:
Boots alone wont necessarily protect you from injury.
Choose the right footwear for the terrain and weather conditions. (Cold, wet or snowy - boots it is! Hot dry and sunny - travel light)
Mountain specific footwear should always be the first choice.
Be efficient with your packing (Don't carry unnecessary weight).
Descending the mountain at the end of the day is one of the most risky parts of the journey, regardless of footwear.
Eat enough food and keep hydrated to maintain energy.
I hope this blog has given you some food for thought, and provided a few options for what is 'safe' footwear in the mountains. As with everything in life, it's not black and white and there is room for personal choice within the wider boundary of what is appropriate.