Outdoor Footwear: A Guide from Moccasin to Modern Hiking Boot

A look at shoe technology over the years will give you a new appreciation for today's footwear, and help you choose the right boot for your trek.


| May/June 1990


When we rose upright our thumbs were freed to make us hotshot manipulators, partly because our feet bore the load. As elegant as hands became, however, their duties are light compared to those of the feet. Take a sturdy creature of, say, 165 pounds, carrying a load of as much as 45 pounds. Now equip this being with two all-terrain contact pads—feet. These will balance in four directions, absorb shock, lift, anchor and flex to establish stability on mud, sand, rock faces, tree limbs and ice. Each foot must support half the weight above it at rest, the entire weight while on the move and more than twice the weight on impact. Furthermore, each foot must cheerfully bear as many as 40,000 flexures over a day of walking upright. All this while the famous opposable thumb twiddles idly. Having studied anatomical engineering, the manufacturers of prosthetic feet have a lot of respect for the original design.

So it falls short of gratitude that our feet have seen little improvement in footgear until this century. While modern outdoor footwear is designed to ease much of the wear-and-tear on our feet—to say nothing of the back pain, shinsplints, constipation, and hemorrhoids that come with the territory of our stand-up existence—the available shoe options for much of human history were little better than going barefoot.

Shoes in History

Roman legions marched around the Mediterranean in sandals. As they marched farther into northern Gaul, the sandals became close-toed and wrapped with more cloth or leather to fend off the cold.

Medieval footwear consisted of the same sandal sole stitched to cloth or soft leather: the boot. Some historians identify the raised heel as an adjunct of the stirrup, and some contend that our medieval ancestors were not only short but sought an increase in height and stature. After this fashion statement, and beyond the introduction of lacing and buttoning, nothing much newsworthy occurred in the shoe business for several hundred years.

During the American Civil War, troops confronted a radically different shoe, the crook. A crook was a boot made on a right- or left-foot last (the hardwood form on which shoes are sewn). Before that time, boots were straights; they had no right and left and were interchangeable.

The conservative infantry regarded these boots with suspicion, thinking they were too confining. Remember that most of them had been raised barefoot. This is what drill sergeants tell their recruits to this very day.





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