If you’ve spent any time on the trail, you know the value of good hiking boots. Protecting your feet and ankles as you hike is crucial to any positive experience—particularly on rougher terrain or during long-distance excursions. This was as true 5,500 years ago as it is today, but people have come a long way since the use of the world’s oldest known leather shoe.
Visit the Dolomites on a Backroads bike tour, and you’ll see firsthand the shoes worn by Ötzi the Iceman at the South Tyrol Archaeology Museum. Made of tree fibers covered with deer hide and stuffed with dry grass and fur for insulation, these early hiking boots were tied on with string and undoubtedly made this prehistoric man’s treks through the Ötztal Alps much more comfortable.
Fast-forward through iterations of primitive Ötzi-esque styles and ancient Roman sandals to World War I and the trench boot, a leather boot developed for US soldiers to help improve foot comfort in the trenches. This boot featured a thicker sole, strong leather and waterproofing. Similar boots for military use were crafted in Italy, a mecca for cobblers and a key entry point for exploration in the Alps and Dolomites.
After the war, people began spending more time in the mountains for pleasure. Italian shoemakers took note, and they began altering their utility designs to develop a boot more appropriate for recreational hiking. This gave rise to technical function, as seen in La Sportiva hiking boots, and comfort technology, such as the rubber soles Vibram pioneered. (Both are Italian companies!)
The subsequent decades introduced incredible advancements and an expansion of the market: leather uppers and ventilation systems in the 1940s; European-influenced American-made boots, by Vasque, in the 1960s; Gore-Tex waterproofing and Merrell’s QForm comfort technologies in the early 1980s; and an internal fit system adapted from ski boots, by Salomon, in the 1990s—to name just a few.
Head to your local sporting goods store or browse online, and the available hiking boot options can be overwhelming. A classic leather boot reminiscent of 1940s Swiss Alpine guides? Check. Lightweight day hikers in vibrant colors? Check. Vegan trail shoes? Yep. Those too.
The important thing is to shop around and to do your research. Although it can seem daunting to have so many choices, you’ll know when you’ve found the perfect shoe for your needs!
Backroads Pro Tip
When you do find that perfect pair, wear your hiking boots as often as possible before a big trip. You want to break them in long before you hit the trail. Your feet will thank you!
Whether you’re an urban hiker hitting the pavement, a weekend warrior taking to your local trails for a day hike or a backpacker looking to get off the grid and into the wild, a shoe’s fit and support are paramount. And it turns out humans have known this for a while…a few thousand years, to be exact!