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    What to Wear: Hiking Footwear – Boot vs. Shoe

    By Dawn Rainbolt, PR Manager
    More by Dawn

    Ireland Hiking footwear: boots or shoes?

    So you’re planning to come to Ireland, and you’d like to do a bit of hiking. Well, you’re in the right place – Ireland is best explored outdoors! But what kind of Ireland hiking footwear should you choose? Even before you get to selecting brands, you have to decide what type of hiking footwear will be best for you. Read on to see the benefits of wearing hiking boots vs. shoes.

    “Should I bring hiking boots or can I use my tennis shoes?” This is one of the most common questions we are asked. Your first port of call is to decide what category of footwear should you bring for your hiking trip in Ireland. In this article, we look at the pros and cons of wearing hiking boots versus tennis shoes for you upcoming hiking trip in Ireland (and why hiking boots are generally the best hiking footwear for hiking in Ireland).

    Ireland's Terrain

    Carrauntoohil hiking Ireland

    First up, you’ll need a bit of background on what kind of terrain you’ll be navigating while hiking in Ireland to choose the best hiking footwear.

    Though not overly mountainous, most of Ireland’s spectacular landscapes – the places you’ll be hiking – are hilly, rugged and desolate. Much of Ireland is covered by blanket bog, meaning that the ground underfoot is boggy, mucky, and wet, as well as slippery (especially when ascending or descending).

    While hiking in national and regional parks or government-managed forests, you’ll find a collection of well-maintained paths. Generally, these are wide paths laid with packed dirt or gravel underfoot. However, government-owned land is compact, often not covering a huge landscape (quite unlike the USA), and there are usually on a couple of paths to choose from.

    Therefore, much of the hiking in Ireland is off-road and off-trail. Ireland has no rights to roam initiative such as exists in the UK or Scandinavia. However, many private landowners have opened up their lands for hikers – particularly farmers who vast lands encompass large hills and mountain peaks, Neolithic-era monuments, medieval castles or abbeys, panoramic vistas and landscapes, and other sites of interest. However, this often means walking through open bogland, fields or coasts without a marked or maintained path. Best case scenario you might be walking on an under-used sheep trail. Either way, it’ll be rough going, quite mucky, varied and uneven, and far from infrastructure.

    Do I need ankle support - or is that just a myth?

    Hiking boots Ireland

    Hiking boots Ireland

    Any time you head to the local outdoor gear shop and have a look at the boots, you’ll hear all about ankle support. Those who prefer hiking boots will cite “ankle support” as the number one reason to choose boots over shoes. Hiking boots have higher sides that cover your ankles, therefore the idea is that hiking boots will reduce the risk of ankle injuries such as sprains and twists.

    But is that reality…or just myth? Spraining your ankle means that you’ve hyperextended it beyond the normal limits of your ankle’s ligaments. This causes a rupture of a tear, resulting in pain, swelling, and immobility. While wearing a boot might help to keep your ankle a bit more upright, it doesn’t prevent movement, and it’s still quite possible to roll your ankle causing a sprain (I’d know – I rolled mine recently while wearing boots!). A boot that completely protected against a rolled ankle would have to be stiff and upright – and impossible to walk in. Such a boot doesn’t exist.

    A different ankle-related issue is regarding ankle exposure. It’s easy enough to injure your ankle bone on loose rocks, uneven boulders or thorny bushes if it’s exposed – combining hiking boots with long trousers and perhaps gaiters as well will help prevent any such injury.

    So, is ankle support for your Ireland hiking footwear? There’s no definitive answer either way – and no proof that boots are better for your ankles than shoes. Best way to prevent sprains is to have good flexibility and strength in your ankle, as well as simply paying attention as to where you’re walking and avoid letting your guard down (just because the ground has suddenly evened out doesn’t mean you can stop being vigilant!).

    Is waterproof hiking footwear really necessary?

    Storms Ireland

    Half the sky can be stormy, the other half sunny… Ireland’s weather is unpredictable and changeable, and its best to be prepared.

    Before we answer that question, we have to detail Ireland’s terrain and weather. 

    Water is a big part of our lives in Ireland. It rains… well, quite often here. In fact, on average, we get between 750 and 1000 mm (29 to 39 inches) of rainfall every year. On the west coast of Ireland (most likely where you plan to visit!) rainfall is generally higher, averaging between 1000 and 1400 mm (39 to 55 inches), while in the mountainous regions, it can exceed 2000 mm (78 inches) per year.

    Compare that to other places renowned for their raininess like London (580 mm/23 inches), NYC (1140 mm/45 inches), Vancouver (1,100 mm/45 inches) and Paris (640 mm/25 inches). And then when you compare that to drier climates like Atlanta, San Diego, Nice, and Rome, well, it’s clear that it rains a lot in Ireland. Most places have a rainy season where there are storms that can last all day (contrasted with days and days of sun), but in Ireland, our rainfall is dispersed throughout the day and the year – its a well-known fact that we can get all 4 seasons in one day! Raining outside? Wait 10 minutes and it will probably have stopped. In another 10, it might very well be raining again…

    As said before, Ireland has a lot of bogland – essentially wet and mucky terrain made of peat and covered with heather and other wild flora. Though some 85% Ireland’s original bogs have vanished due to peat and turf cutting, deforestation and land reclamation/farming, the Emerald Isle still has an awful lot of bogs – over 420 km². Many of Ireland’s dramatic west coast landscapes are large parts bog.

    Learn more about Irish weather here.

    Which footwear is most waterproof? Does my Ireland hiking footwear have to be waterproof?

    Running shoes

    Running shoes are fine for some trails in Ireland, but once it starts to rain or you encounter boggy terrain and streams to ford, you’ll wish you had waterproof boots on!

    All this goes to show that Ireland has a lot of water, everywhere. So yes, you really do want waterproof footwear. If your feet are cold and wet, you’ll be cold and wet and unhappy. You might get lucky and have a dry few days, but even at that, if you venture from the path to climb Donegal’s Mt Errigal or Connemara’s Mweelrea Mountain for example, no matter how dry the week has been, there will be mucky, boggy patches. Waterproof footwear are necessary in Ireland.

    Hiking boots are made to be waterproof – Goretex waterproof membranes will keep the water out, and your foot nice and dry. Tennis shoes simply won’t do that for you. Ever gone running and got caught in the rain? Or had to dash through a puddle? As running shoes are made for running (it’s in the name!), they are made to be ultra breathable and lightweight – comprising on keeping your foot dry. Not ideal footwear for hiking in Ireland.

    But surely a high-end hiking shoe, coated with Goretex, would be waterproof and therefore great for hiking? Well, it would be, if you were only ever on nicely-compacted trails. But all of that off-path and boggy terrain discussed above means that most likely, you may have to wade through a stream, walk through wet vegetation, or hike through a bog, where your foot will sink through at least one or two (probably many more) boggy patches, and water will go over the top of your shoe. To be fair, this could happen with a boot as well (and might well do, depending on where you are hiking). but a hiking boot still provides far more protection against water or mud than any kind of shoe, hiking or otherwise. 

    Get a grip! What footwear gives me the best grip?

    Boots Hiking

    From soft sand to wet bogs to craggy slopes and steep hillsides, Ireland’s variety of terrain calls for footwear with s good grip.

    Hiking boots, made for tough terrain, tend to be heavier. Part of that heaviness comes from having thicker soles. Often made of brands like Vibram, designed to have the very best traction and abrasion resistance, hiking boots also have thicker soles.

    It will take longer for them to wear down, and they are less likely to loose the grip that provides you with traction for scrambling over rougher ground. These factors combined mean that the soles of hiking boots will last longer and have a better traction. 

    By contrast, shoes tend to have thiner, lighter and softer soles. Once again, they are made to be lightweight, which compromises on long-lasting durability. As treads wear down with usage, the sole’s grip because less, well, grippy, making it easier to slip and slide.

    Another thing to keep in mind on top of safety is comfort – thinner running/hiking shoe soles mean that you’re more likely to feel the uneven ground beneath you. While this generally isn’t the case on wide, well-groomed trails, when you’re walking along the winding sheep trails, scrambling across stony terrain, or hiking across open trail off-path, you want to avoid feeling the rough ground – boots once again emerge as the winner for best Ireland hiking footwear.

    Which hiking footwear is more breathable?

    Boots in sand

    Far from unbreathable, boots are some of the most comfortable footwear when hiking in the outdoors

    There is a long-standing myth shrouding hiking boots as unbreathable, stiff things that don’t allow any sweat to evaporate, while shoes have always been viewed as light and airy.

    This was perhaps the case in the past (probably where the myth comes from), but modern hiking boots have been engineered to be breathable. In fact, hiking boots and hiking shoes (though not running shoes) are generally made of the same material. Even leather boots, which perhaps have the worst reputation for breathability, can also be quite breathable. Therefore, it seems that hiking boots and shoes provide the same level of breathability. Only on the hottest days will shoes surpass boots… something you’re unlikely to worry about in Ireland! 

    Do I need to break in my new hiking footwear?

    You’ve heard it before – you’re meant to break in your new shoes before wearing them for long periods of time. Right? Well, yes and no. The concept of breaking in new shoes comes from past times when shoes and boots were made from harder, stiffer material that took time to mold to the shape of your feet. Before a shoe was “broken in,” you’d be a more risk of discomfort, blisters, and even injury.

    Today it’s still the case that it take a bit of time for hiking boots to mold to the shape of your own feet. That said, we’ve come a long way in shoe and boot design. Improved materials, design and ergonomics make this less of an issue today, and in many cases you can start hiking straight away. However that said, we still recommend that if you decide to buy new shoes before your hiking trip in Ireland, you take them out for a couple of small hikes just to make sure you’re happy with them over a longer distance, as you’ll be walking through Ireland for 7 days on any of our hiking trips!

    As for comfort – most outdoor footwear companies actually make two versions of the same product: one boot version, and one hiking shoe version (keep in mind that hiking shoes are not the same as a running shoe/trainer). The boot is essentially the hiking shoe version that has a higher ankle and thicker sole – but the interior is more or less the same, meaning that when it comes to comfort, boots have the same comfort level as shoes. 

    So what's the verdict on Ireland hiking footwear - hiking boot or shoe?

    Boots Hiking

    Hiking boots are certainly necessary when tackling Ireland’s mountains!

    When all said and done, the hiking boot emerges as the winner for best Ireland hiking footwear. It has a higher ankle and therefore better guard against injury, will be more waterproof, has a better grip, and is just as breathable and comfortable as a hiking shoe. When comparing boots with running shoes/trainers, the hiking boot is the clear winner.

    This is not to say that you can’t do one of our hiking trips while wearing a shoe. If a shoe is your preference, then go with what works the best for you. But at the end of the day, if you’re not sure which type of Ireland hiking footwear to choose, hiking boots are the safer bet.

    Looking for more information on what to wear when hiking in Ireland? Learn more here.

    Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

    American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.

    View profile More by Dawn


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