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Footbeds - the breakthrough

Before even considering the relative merits of boots and shoes it is important to understand the role of effective footbeds. This has gained recognition in recent times and should be fundamental knowledge for walkers, particularly those who suffer from problems in the heel area of the foot. For many of those people, such problems can be banished completely in one simple step. I have devoted a separate article to this topic of footbeds:-

Footbeds article →

General

'A pound on your feet is equivalent to five on your back'

Merrell Moab 2 shoes

We can hardly believe that the old dogmatic tripe about the necessity of thick leather boots and support is still repeated mantra-like in some circles, and even less that so many people still believe it. Much more believable is that sales of products like Compeed remain buoyant!. Unless you have an existing foot/ankle problem, you don't need artificial support and, by forcing it upon your ankles, they will never become naturally strong. The feet and ankles are meant to flex and adapt to the terrain without hindrance.

'Never trust the manufacturers' stated weight'

Many manufacturers make no weight statement at all and I'm not surprised, judging by the shelf-bending monsters that are typical of many of them. Others make a useless statement like 'Weight: XXXXg' which is totally meaningless without specifying a size. Almost as useless is 'Average Weight: XXXXg'. This tactic is sometimes used deceptively - the weight they quote is for a very small size. To get the true picture, we always weigh them ourselves and we don't rely on how they feel in the hand, as that can be deceptive too.

Flexibility and cushioning

We find cushioning an important and troublesome aspect of footwear to deal with. By 'cushioning' we refer to the part under the ball of the foot which should prevent it becoming footsore after long distances, as distinct from the heel area discussed in the topic above. The problem is complicated by the critical requirements of the relatively heavy loads of backpacking compared to day walks.

Merrell Moab 2 MidsThe cushioning ability cannot be judged fully until tried on a long backpack, although the obvious losers can be eliminated by a shop trial. The only way we have found, though not really satisfactory, is to put our fingers in and press down hard on the ball area, which should have the right amount of compression, the trick is judging how much and trying to assess the likely effect.

The flexibility can be assessed easily in the shop by force-bending and walking about. A common feature we always avoid in footwear for use outside winter is the ¾-length rigid shank. Many boots have these, they flex well enough at a single point near the ball of the foot but the lack of flex elsewhere prevents the natural forward roll of the foot.

We are bemused by the constant foot problems with blisters reported in forums and magazines (or perhaps not, considering the prevalence of those awful stiff heavy boots!). With our lightweight more flexible footwear we have walked over 1000 miles a year with backpacks over all kinds of terrain and have no problems at all. Another thing that helps is liner socks. Under our main thick socks we wear thin liner socks made of a synthetic mix that wicks sweat away from the feet and, if there is a slight relative movement between the foot and the boot, they take some of the heat rather than the skin.

Our footwear types

We now use just two types of footwear depending on the scenario and expected conditions, both now standardized on Merrell Moab 2 with Superfeet Trailblazer footbeds pictured above. We are now well past the days of technical winter walks and front-pointing using step-in crampons!.

The Merrells have a quite wide, roomy toebox and allow the toes to spread out, unlike the many continental brands that are usually too narrow for typical British feet and cramp the toes inwards and often lead to bunions. Used with the Superfeet Trailblazers they make a superb combination, highly stable with very good cushioning over long distances.

Kahtoola flexi-crampons

Kahtoola aluminium crampon

There is a B-rating scheme for boots that is supposed to indicate the type of crampon they will take. Not surprisingly the scheme is weighted on the side of caution and even B1-rated boots are very stiff, but more importantly it ignores a whole class of crampons that are made for more flexible footwear. Our winter boots in recent years have all been B0-rated, i.e. they are not supposed to take any crampon, but we find them perfectly ok with flexible walkers crampons on non-technical routes.

A few years ago we discovered Kahtoola crampons, which are specifically designed to work effectively with just about any footwear, even running shoes and trainers. There are two variants:- an all-steel version with standard long sharp spikes, and a mixed aluminium/steel version (pictured) with shorter less aggressive spikes. We chose the aluminium version, which is adequate for our needs since we never do anything very technical and they spend most of their time in our packs anyway, and at 540g per pair they are over 200g lighter than our old ones. The front and back of the crampon slide together when not in use and the back folds flat, resulting in a much smaller packing volume. The all-steel ones would be better for thick and/or steep ice, also when frequent contact with bare rock is likely which would quickly wear down aluminium points.

The binding system is a big improvement over our old ones too, once the front straps are adjusted for the boots at home prior to use. The front strap has a buckle tie and the rear strap has a fastex buckle, just click-in and pull tight. The left and right crampons are different, the forefoot of each is angled slightly inward for a better fit.

Kahtoola Microspikes

Kahtoola Microspikes

The flexies are fairly easy to attach and remove and don't present any hassle for a significant icy section, nevertheless we often encounter the worst of both worlds: alternating bands of hard snow or icy terrain mixed with bare rock. Walking on bare rock with crampons is excruciating, not to mention the severe wear on the aluminium points, and we usually can't be arsed to stop and put them on at all, we often slide and muddle our way across the icy bits.

The Microspikes are another step down from true crampons, consisting of small stainless steel spikes mounted on a chain and attached by a simple rubbery stretch elastomer harness, extremely quick to attach and remove. We are hoping these will suffice for most of the snow and ice we encounter and they might actually be used more often. The steel teeth are very small and walking should be quite comfortable on the bare hard bits, including icebound valley paths and tracks.