Great Gear: Brave New Shoes

In the woods or the mountains, you can’t go wrong with footgear that fits your piggies perfectly.

Lace up a modern shoe made for the outdoors and you might be surprised to see what’s on your foot. Gone is the monopoly of the stout leather boot. Here to stay are hybrid shoes for water and land, trail-runners that weigh scant ounces, and “gloves” for your feet.

Indeed, the scope of footwear has spun on its heels in recent years. Look down as hikers tromp past on any given trail. Shoes—not boots—are by far the most popular today in the outdoors, even on long-distance hikes. Laces have been subbed out for Kevlar straps. Anatomical mapping of a wearer’s foot trumps boots that need to be “broken in.” Ouch.

Behold! The brave new world of outdoors footwear eschews blisters and stiff soles. Flex and a “barefoot” feel are now more common. These five represent a new sphere of footwear for the woods and the mountains.

Stephen Regenold writes “The Gear Junkie,” a syndicated newspaper column on outdoors equipment. He’s also the founder and editor of

A lightweight hiking and trail running shoe with excellent cushioning is the work of Inov-8, a U.K.-based maker of footwear for on- or off-trail pursuits. The “GTX” in the Roclite 312’s eponym stands for GORE-TEX—a thin membrane of the stuff provides a waterproof barrier while keeping the boot breathable. And the “312” refers to the weight, in grams, of each shoe—the equivalent of about 11 ounces. A sticky-rubber sole for grip and minimal midsole cushioning round out this shoe.

The WP stands for waterproof. And with its latest “light hiker”—read: shoe-meets-hiking boot—KEEN has built a solid foot-protection system for trails as rough as they come. A “torsion stability” shank, extra heel support, and a plate in the footbed adds shock-absorption, protection, and stability. The Obsidians are bona fide stand-ins for a boot. They are capable on long hikes where you shoulder a heavy pack, plodding miles with feet unburdened on down the trail.

OK, clear your throat. Now laugh. Yes, these are gloves for your feet. Gloves made of thin Vibram rubber and kangaroo suede leather, no less. But the FiveFingers series from Vibram, which includes multiple foot-glove models, has spiked in popularity with avant-garde outdoors types and anyone looking for the ultimate anatomical design. As the company puts it, with the KSO Trek you get “the sensation of going barefoot with the protection and security of a sole.”

Footwear from Wenger, maker of the genuine Swiss Army Knife, continues the multifunctional theme found in its famous pocketknives. Instead of serrated blades and corkscrews, shoes like the Interlaken tout four-way stretch and water-resistant mesh. A one-pull lacing system replaces a bowknot for quicker on-and-off. The Interlaken, made for wet and dry conditions, allows a foot to breathe while still sealing out water from dew-soaked grass on a morning trail.

This is a sandal that’s almost a shoe. A closed-toe area protects your piggies on a hike. But tromp through a stream and water flows freely in and out of the injection-molded footbed. This is true amphibious footwear—good for land and water. The Itunda’s sole is a sticky rubber that grips dirt and slippery rocks alike. A buckle keeps it secured on the foot in river currents. Drain holes in the sole let water escape fast once you’re back on dry land and ready to hike again.

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