The evolution of the hiking boot
The design of this footwear style has changed dramatically over the years, due to a number of significant scientific advances and sometimes even as a result of tragedy.
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For millennia, people have been hiking across deserts, plains, rocky escarpments and other equally challenging surfaces. In fact, a shoe believed to have been made for this very purpose has been dated as being some 5,000 years old.
A ‘hike’ has been defined as a ‘long and hard walk that is usually on trails through the mountains or through bush or countryside terrain’. Such an activity is said to require ‘proper equipment and footwear’, as the topography involved is often very rugged. Alternative terms for ‘hiking’ (which is preferred in the United States and Canada) used around the world include ‘walking’, ‘rambling’, ‘hillwalking’, ‘fell walking’ (a phrase mainly heard in northern England) ‘bushwalking’ and ‘tramping’.
The thought of heading into difficult countryside for fun was unheard of until comparatively recent times. While a few people living several centuries ago ventured into the hills and mountains around their homes for some kind of uplifting experience, and long treks on foot were also undertaken as part of religious pilgrimages, walking was often viewed as indicating poverty and was even associated with vagrancy. So, where and when did hiking as a leisure activity – requiring specialised footwear – begin? There are claims of being the first from both sides of the Atlantic.
The USA’s side of the story
According to one published account, ‘the history of hiking boots parallels the great American love affair with the outdoors’. This version of events points out that ‘when the United States was barely 100 years old, its citizens began fleeing their hard-won urban strongholds for the quiet contemplation of nature’. In the eastern states, residents of the rapidly-growing cities which were viewed as ‘polluted and unhealthy’ are said to have wanted to escape for the countryside. An early example of an interest in walking for pleasure in the United States is a trail that was cleared to the summit of Mount Washington in 1819. This 8.5-mile path is claimed to be the oldest continually-used hiking way in the United States.
The phenomenon of hiking in the USA has been largely attributed to such men as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) – both described as a philosopher and poet – and naturalist and writer John Muir (1838-1914), who enthralled readers with accounts of his time spent living in Yosemite, California.
The popularity of heading into the American countryside proved so strong that by the late 1840s, the encroaching human population reportedly posed a threat to these isolated places. This led to the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, which was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1st 1872. America’s earliest recreation organisation, the Appalachian Mountain Club, was founded in 1876 to protect the trails and mountains in the north-eastern United States.
The National Parks scheme was extended by Theodore Roosevelt upon his election in 1901, and his action began the work of firmly establishing US National Parks legislation. There are now 63 national parks around the USA, which have been designated as such for their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse eco-systems and recreational opportunities. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are now over 6,500 national parks created and protected by national governments for conservation purposes around the world.
Meanwhile in Europe…
Some claims to Europeans having ‘invented’ hiking point back to writings published towards the end of the 18th century. For example, in 1778, a Scottish priest called Thomas West wrote a guide to the English Lake District in which he described walks around the locality and included various ‘stations’ or viewpoints from which tourists could enjoy the region's natural splendour.
Twelve years later, English poet William Wordsworth embarked on an extended tour of France, Switzerland and Germany, after which he extolled the virtues of walking for pleasure. Then in 1818, another poet, John Keats, joined a walking tour of Scotland, Ireland and the Lake District, and in 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island and other well-known tales) hiked alone – apart from the donkey which carried his camping gear – for 120 miles through the mountainous region of Cévennes in south-central France.
Other historians point to the mountains of Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland as being where the first hiking expeditions started during the 18th century. A significant example involved German author Johann Gottfried Seume (1763-1810), who set out on foot from the German city of Leipzig to Sicily in 1801, after which he return home via Paris nine months later.
Wherever the pastime of long-distance recreational walking actually started – in the US, Europe, or even some other part of the world – the important fact is that increasing numbers of people were venturing out of the cities and needed suitable footwear to keep them comfortable and safe.
Changes in design and materials
With continued industrialisation in the period after the First World War, people had more free time on their hands to pursue leisure activities. At this time, most hiking boots in Europe and the US were based on wartime leather footwear that had been designed for soldiers fighting in the trenches, and these would certainly not have had the same level of comfort as provided by modern boots. Therefore, shoemakers – such as those in northern Italy – are said to have started tailoring boots for hikers to wear by altering these utility designs to develop more appropriate footwear.
Early specialised hiking boots laced up to just above the ankle (like most modern boots), or rose nearly to just below the knee. Long before synthetic materials were used in footwear construction, these boots were normally all-leather, including the outsole, which could lead to insufficient grip. The introduction of rubber soles was the first major advancement in hiking boot technology. This significantly reduced production costs and increased the lifespan of outsoles, but without any texture they still lacked sufficient traction.
One of the driving forces behind the introduction of better rubber solings was Italian entrepreneur, mountaineer and mountain guide Vitale Bramani, who, along with other difficulties faced, blamed the deaths of six of his friends in the Alps in September 1935 on ‘inadequate footwear’. This tragedy drove Bramani to develop a new design as an alternative to the soles that he was sure put climbers and hikers in danger. Two years later, he patented his invention and launched the first ‘Vibram’ rubber lug sole onto the market. The purpose of this outsole – which was made from vulcanised rubber – was to provide excellent traction on a wide range of surfaces and have a high degree of abrasion resistance.
Facing up to other challenges
The next technical leap would see improvements on the rest of the boot. Although hikers now had more grip on rough surfaces, they still struggled with uncomfortable feet while on the trail. A 1943 patent filed in the United States described attempts to combat one of the footwear industry’s biggest challenges – moisture. Trying to solve the problem of damp feet, the new design suggested using leather uppers which rolled down to expose the ankle in order to vent out the humid air.
Another US patent filed six years later introduced an idea to counteract the problem of wet feet by a different method. This technology required a pump to be fitted beneath the footbed to push sweat-laden air through pipes running from the insole to the top of the cuff. With each step, moist air would therefore be forced out through the top of the boot. Please see the article ‘The evaluation of footwear ventilation systems’ published in the July/August 2022 issue of this magazine for a consideration of some innovative approaches to meeting the challenge of keeping a wearer’s feet cool.
In the 1960s, lightweight synthetic materials became available to footwear designers. The previously-mentioned problem of damp air trapped within leather boots began to be overcome. Each time new and improved synthetics were introduced, hiking boots became more comfortable and practical and, by the eighties, the water-resistant, breathable, and lightweight materials that we see in many boots today had become commonplace. Leather was relegated to a supporting role, often as reinforcement for lacing eyelets and other sensitive areas. Polymers such as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) and polyurethane (PU) were introduced to made lightweight footwear that was comfortable and water-resistant while still being durable, flexible and offering sufficient support for the trail. The incorporation of effective insulation and cushioning also became normal in many styles.
New designs developed
Not all hikers wanted to wear the accepted full boot when walking and the footwear industry reacted to oblige. In the early 1980s, a new style arrived – the low-cut ‘trail shoe’, designed for dry climates, on well-established and less rugged paths. This footwear, which resembled athletic shoes, soon became popular with certain sections of the recreational footwear-buying market.
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A slightly different style – the ‘trail hiker’ – was introduced for steeper inclines and muddy paths, but where a lightweight boot was more suitable than heavier footwear. Cut higher than trail shoes, trail hikers are also sturdy and watertight, and provide more stability and greater ankle protection than offered by their lighter alternatives.
Full hiking boots are designed for use on more extreme surfaces. Some allow for the fitting of crampons for better grip on ice or hard-packed snow. They are invariably very strong and durable, and are fitted with stiff soles to provide ankle support and underfoot protection on rocky routes.
The footwear today being created for hiking is said to have been inspired by a number of other types, including mountaineering boots, which are generally taller and stiffer than standard boots while providing high levels of insulation as well as support and protection, and even running shoes.
Modern hiking footwear is a technological marvel compared to the first heavy leather boots with little grip that our forefathers wore. Will there be even greater advances in design, materials and construction? Some improvements may already be in the planning stage. Time will surely tell.
How can we help?
Please contact SATRA’s footwear team (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss the testing of materials, components and hiking boots.
This article was originally published on page 20 of the November 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.