High on a hillside above us, a prissy-faced guanaco watched with an amused expression as we contemplated the barrier blocking our progress – a rambunctious river whose clear, pale water was a couple of degrees short of being ready for plopping into a bubble glass filled with G&T. There was only one thing for it, we stuffed socks in rucksacks, strung boots around necks, and waded in. The glacial water was so cold it numbed flesh on touch, which was welcome as no feeling meant no pain, not even from the slap of sharp boulders being tossed around the riverbed like inconsequential pebbles. Once safely on the other side, warm sand soothed feeling back into shell-shocked toes; sending a delicious tingle of life through zombified legs. We dried our feet, replaced socks and boots, and continued on our way into the wild Patagonian countryside, our feet and toes dry and snug once again. The boots were waterproof, but not if we completely submerged them in water.
The big question
The other day I saw a question on a Facebook group for long-distance hiking. It was about whether it was better to hike the Camino de Santiago in waterproof boots or not. Some of the answers surprised me. The consensus was that non-waterproof footwear was preferable to waterproof.
In an age where all that’s required to become an ‘expert’ in anything is an internet connection and a social media account, whenever I read specialist advice being dished out for anything I like to know who’s doing the dishing; what experience/knowledge do they have? In this case, all of the advice was from people who had actually walked the Camino, so that’s good? Well, yes and no.
Some definitive replies from the ‘waterproof boots are bad’ corner had a rabble of questions bursting into my head. What other hiking experience did they have? What other clothing were they wearing? Had they broken in footwear before hitting the trail? What time of year did they walk the Camino?
Complaints included waterproof boots being too heavy for walking in day after day; they didn’t allow feet to breathe, making them sweat and wet, resulting in blisters; and they didn’t necessarily keep your feet dry anyway.
We help create itinerant walking holidays. This involves regularly hiking for between a week and two weeks in a row. We’ve done this in countries across Europe at all times of the year – Germany’s Black Forest in October, experiencing a year of seasons in a few days; the Spanish Pyrenees in July; Greek Islands during an unseasonably hot May; the Canary Islands in wonderfully warm winter months; the mountains of Portugal (not very high) when it was cool and again when it was sizzling. When we’re not working we walk for leisure – snowy trails in Switzerland in February, glaciers and shifting moraine in Chile. We’ve also notched up a few stints on the Camino de Santiago – dipping in and out of it in northern Portugal; covering 200km in nine days in spring; testing hiking gear, including waterproof boots, over the last three stages of the Camino Frances in March.
Horses for courses
Our hiking footwear rack features lightweight waterproof boots, heavier-duty waterproof boots (favoured footwear), boots for hiking in snow, hiking sandals, walking shoes, and breathable trainers. If it’s hot dry terrain there’s no need for waterproof boots, but if the terrain and weather are damp, then I’ll choose waterproof every time. If it’s rocky and uneven underfoot I’ll wear boots with ankle support and toe protection. Terrain and weather dictate footwear. But there are other factors to consider. Every couple of days we walk a 5km circuit around the cork forest next to us. The path is soft and sandy – ideal for sandals or light shoes, except for one thing. There are beasties in the sand which nip at ankles. I wear light hiking boots to avoid ending up being eaten.
Walking three stages of the Camino in March 2017, I wore lightweight Lowa Gore-Tex boots. It wasn’t challenging walking and didn’t require anything hardcore; rain was due and I wanted dry feet. There’s a lot of tarmac walking on the Camino, making a decent sole essential. The boots were perfect for the terrain; light and airy. I had no problem with overheating feet, plus they stayed dry on a last, wet leg into Santiago de Compostela.
When we walked the Camino in May 2021 there were greater ascents and descents, and heavy rain was forecast, so I opted for heavier-duty waterproof hiking boots; although, these are lightweight compared to boots worn a couple of decades ago. We’ve been through a lot together and they are comfy friends, even after 200km. There were no wet sweaty feet, or blisters along the way. I don’t quite get the ‘sweat making feet wet’ complaints. It’s not something either of us have suffered from over who-knows-how-many-kilometres notched up in warm-weather walking, so I don’t know if boots aren’t the best fit, or if sufferers wear the wrong type of socks. Pairing boots/shoes with good hiking socks can be just as important as choosing which boots or shoes to wear.
There’s another potential reason. Although my lightweight waterproof hiking boots allow my feet to breathe almost as much as my trail runners, I wouldn’t walk the Camino in summer months, something many sweaty-footed pilgrims do. Having lived in Spain and Portugal for nearly two decades, my view is only mad dogs and foreigners go hiking in the midsummer sun.
Then there’s other clothing. We mostly wear quick-dry (or waterproof if conditions are really bad) hiking trousers. A lot of Camino images show short-wearing pilgrims, even when it’s bucketing down. Unsurprisingly, a common complaint against waterproof boots is about rain running down into the boot. Sometimes the water comes from below. When we reach a body of water where the level is going to rise above the top of the boot we do what I outlined in the very first paragraph, take boots off. But there are times where it’s impossible to keep your feet dry. I can only think of two occasions when that’s happened to us in more than a decade of long-distance hiking. We had damp boots for a couple of days, but no blisters.
So what’s better – waterproof boots or non-waterproof?
Ultimately, the question of the most appropriate footwear usually depends on a number of factors; only some of which I’ve mentioned. One of the most important though is who you are. I’ve talked about our experiences, and why we favour waterproof boots. But that’s us. One of the concerns I have about online hiking advice is often people don’t take into account everyone is different. Like when a fit 25-year-old, who can run up and down mountains, tells a 65-year-old pulling on the hiking boots/shoes for the first time “don’t worry, it’s easy. Just take to the Camino in your trainers and you’ll be fine.”
People dishing out advice often make the mistake of not realising the people they’re giving the advice to might not have the same fitness levels, ability, or experience.
So waterproof boots or not? That depends on what works best for you. But, and this is a huge, blister-avoiding but, you should find that out before taking to a long-distance trail.