‘Footwear systems’ for the hills

One important piece of advice I was given by my old friend Dr Andy McMullen (Botanaeco) when I started doing a lot of outdoor work, both leadership and scientific fieldwork, in 2014 was to LOOK AFTER MY FEET! Part of that is the aftercare upon your return, whether at night or when you finish a longer stint but this post is going to reflect upon what we wear on our feet.

Foot, shoe, sock and insoles

Foot and ‘footwear system’

A good all-round read on footcare is this post from the Duke of Edinburgh Award site and it touches on some of the wider aspects of footcare. Although some brands are mentioned in that post, plenty of others are available. Use those brands to get an idea of the specification and features that are desirable.

If you are involved in training groups or people for expeditions, the DofE has an excellent poster in their online resources download section.


DofE poster on caring for feet on expedition

This post is not meant to be prescriptive but to share ideas and experience. We are all individuals and some willingness to experiment is important but it is hard to try something new if you’re not aware of the range of options and spend your time with other people who are engaged in these sort of topics.

Nearly all of my work (and play) is done from the lowlands to uplands in Scotland, so if you’re working in a different environment or climate, some of the specific concerns will not be relevant to you but I am aiming, in part, to get people thinking about the idea of a ‘footwear system’.

I’m borrowing from the concept of ‘sleeping systems’ that is sometimes used in the discussion of the combination of sleeping bags, mats and other elements. As with ‘sleeping systems’ I am going to extend this a bit beyond just the bag and mat.


For extended work ‘off-path’ I nearly always opt for some sort of waterproof sock. The variety has increased greatly from the first waterproof socks I used, which we made by Sealskinz. As a company, they continue to innovate and produce a wide range of activity specific socks. However, in recent years I found neoprene-based ‘booties’ in Aldi and socks from other manufacturers. I’ve got ankle socks for hill-running and mid-calf length ones for going inside my walking boots on river or bog trotting ecological surveys.

All have worked but the issues tend to be around comfort and durability. Some people I work with really do not like waterproof socks and find they make their feet too warm and damp but from my own experience, they are a valuable addition to my kit. I find the socks especially useful when camping, as I can put a trekking sandal over them on mornings with rain or a heavy dew to keep my feet out my boots until I am ready to start the serious days walking.


I’ll not dwell on this quite technical and activity specific choice, nor engage in the ‘boots versus approach shoes’ debate.

I am very fortunate that I can usually buy a pair of boots or fell shoes with few complications. I have a fairly regular foot and gait and, despite my height, don’t have overly large feet; UK 10–11/EU44.5–46 normally does me depending on the manufacturer.

A good outdoor shop will help fit boots or shoes for you and offer the chance to try them out on a ramp that may even have a few small climbing holds along the outside if the footwear is intended for mixed activities that involve climbing, which we’ll define as needing your hands for support to make progress. A good running shop may also be able to provide gait analysis too, sometimes for free. A good footwear store will also probably be happy to give you advice about the other items I’m pondering in this blog post too. Conversely, if staff in a store are not able to give technical advice that you would like, consider shopping somewhere else.

A good pair of four-season boots that provide a really stable platform and take crampons is probably one of the most expensive purchases a committed all-year round hill-goer in the British Isles makes. However, what I will say is that by thinking about a ‘total footwear system’, it can be possible to make other kit last longer and protect your feet and spend less on footwear that is not being used in such exacting conditions. In particular, I often use fell running shoes when I can.


We can all tie our laces, right? Well, we might know one way but there are a huge range of ways to lace up footwear and tie knots. Much of what I have learned about changing lacing and knots I have picked up from other leaders or instructors on courses. Shoes, including rock shoes, tend to have simpler lacing systems but do be aware that it is possible to make a significant difference to fit and comfort by exploring different lacing options and just pulling the laces tight before tying them off. Yes, velcro options exist and have their place but this usually costs a bit more and may be less flexible in the sock options or range of fit that may be achieved.

Walking boots tend to have a few more features and options. Even if your own boots are OK, you may need to help clients a bit, so studying some of the common changes that are possible to improve fit and comfort is worth your while.  Trying out alternative lacing approaches is one part of this but being aware that the D-rings and hooks may also be used in different ways is important too. I’ll work up from the D-ring area:

  1. Try putting a surgeon’s knot in the laces above the D-rings.
  2. If you’ve got your ‘big boots’ on for an easier section of path or trail walking, you might not want not to lace them to the topmost pair of hooks. This allows a wider range of movement.
  3. Bringing your laces up, over and down the final pair of hooks and then tying your knot can be really helpful. This is known as a ‘locking lace’ pattern and can be used in other places in the system. This last technique is referred to as ‘keeping it low’, in reference to moving the position of the knot on the boot 1–2 cm down. It is one technique I was explicitly shown by an instructor on a course to reduce the ‘faff’ factor of laces needed to be tightened or retied.

Many diagrams, videos and articles are available online. Read widely and experiment where and when it is safe to do so. After a quick survey, I really liked this post on Alpine Trek.


Inside your boots or shoes, there are probably some insoles that can be removed and replaced with other versions or supplemented with an extra insole. The main benefits I find are an improved fit, which I particularly want in hill-running shoes, and extra cushioning. I saw on Twitter that a company has produced a single shoe with three different insoles for different terrain. I hope this observation lends some commercial credibility to this discussion. If anyone can direct me to the company and product, please do so that I can update this section.

Waterproof trousers

Waterproof overtrousers are an important part of your footwear system, if you work in the rain a lot or are crossing boggy ground, as they prevent water getting into your boot if you plunge in above the top of the boot. By making sure your waterproof trousers are over the top of your boots, this gives the best chance of brief overtopping not flooding the boot. Shoes tend to be harder to protect in this way which leads us on to the other choice on the legs.


I don’t make a lot of use of gaiters myself, expect to protect trousers against crampon points, as I favour my waterproof trousers. Other people swear by gaiters. As with waterproof socks, gaiters are now available in diverse materials and lengths. The Yeti gaiter enjoys tremendous favour among some, while the fell runner may opt for a minimalist ankle gaiter. With regard to the latter case, gaiters are also a means of excluding stones from your footwear and some protection against thorns and other botanical defence systems. However, runners are probably wearing shorts, so this is probably of limited value. I’ve improvised a pair of very minimalist gaiters from on pair of calf-length waterproof socks that had worn out by cutting off the foot section with fabric shears to create a tube that can form a spray deck for the top of your shoe or boot and can get round the problem of trying to protect the top of the shoe against water coming in where waterproof trousers might not.

Shoe and improvised gaiter

Improvised gaiter from worn-out waterproof sock. Note the sock is stretched out like a kayak spray-deck.

I recalled descriptions of people using old socks to do this for stones but these are also grip the lower leg well and can help with repelling water. The damaged lower part can still make a useful waterproof pouch or mitten with some effort. Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Summing up

In essence, this post is about being thoughtful about your feet in the outdoors. With regard to footwear, many people will take a ‘good enough’ approach to this part of their kit. In particular, I’ve aimed to point to things that can make a difference without the need to spend money. Finding out more about lacing techniques is the best example of this I’ve come across and I’ve found out even more in the course of writing this piece.







I am a palaeobiologist in my early 40's carrying out research work. I am based in Scotland.

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Posted in Hill Running, Mountain Training, Orienteering, Scotland, Uncategorized

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Al is a Summer Mountain Leader
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