If you are looking for fast answers. For wet activities (stream hiking, coasteering) we use from lighter to most pro: Five Ten Eddy, Five Ten access mesh (you can buy previous two in Chamonix), Adidas Terrex Hydro Lace. I’ll suggest you understand a bit more though and for that all the post below.
Shoes are a tricky subject to talk about, especially among runners. Tons of trends, buzzwords, technologies and above all individuals who almost religiously believe that they know what is the best option for everyone: from minimalist “barefooters” to maximalist Hoka lovers. I would suggest you understand the basics (no more in this post) and try to find which works best for you.
If you are a newbie or doing easy short routes, you can go simple and cheap, even with just a pair of shoes to use for everything. The longer and more complex routes you get into, the more carefully that you will need to choose your options and you might end up with dedicated shoes for each activity.
Three main parts that I would consider when choosing shoes:
Outsole: the rubber that gets in contact with the ground. Deep lugs increase the grip when “physical” traction is required; think mud, sand dunes, etc. For wet solid surfaces, they are not helpful. In those cases (rocky wet paths, streams…), the size of the contact surface and rubber compound (“chemical” traction) will define the grip. In general, softer flatter shoes have better grip than lugged hard outsoles. Nevertheless, hiking shoe manufacturers continue improving their materials and are able to get compounds that have better grip with less degradation.
For wet rocks the best that I have used is the Stealth rubber of the Five Ten or Adidas canyoning shoes. The grip is surprising for those who have just used “normal” hiking shoes before. Some friends even mentioned that felt like cheating, cause how easier stream hiking became with them. Vibram, Merrel, Salomon, New Balance, etc do have also compounds specifically designed for wet surfaces. They are not as good, but you can find some good enough models. Read/watch reviews carefully (irunfar, TheGingerRunner, as examples; just Google) and look for specific mentions of grip on wet rocks.
Some examples with pictures.
For muddy terrain: Inov8 X-talon. Deep lugs (8mm). I loved them for running on soft grassy terrain and muddy areas in my hometown (Europe). They are a bit slippery as soon as you touch rocks though. In Hong Kong, we have very little of the former (Kai Kung Leng, Sharp Peak come to mind), where they excel, and tons of areas with rocky paths, natural or man-made, where they are a not so good option. Similar shoes: anything that is designed for soft terrain of Salomon including the specific S-Lab sense, Speedcross, etc.
Intermediate: New Balance Vazee Summit v2. Significantly smaller lugs (4mm). They can handle some mud decently and wet rocks way better, with more ground contact and a grippier compound. Similar shoes: Salomon Wings Pro 3.
Wet rock specific: Five Ten Access Mesh & Adidas Terrex Hydro. The lugs are minimal to have as much ground contact as possible. Stealth rubber specifically designed for wet surfaces. Similar shoes: the Adidas Stealth rubber models, Terrex CC Voyager Aqua etc.
Midsole: The EVA or PU that provides the cushioning to the shoe. The white part in the Five Tens above. Usually the thinner and denser it is the more ground feeling you will have, better for your proprioception. But if too thin it can be tiring or uncomfortable for those untrained. Depending on your weight, legs and feet strength, even your gait/technique and usual distances you will need to choose a shoe closer to each extreme: barefoot like
If going for longer routes, above all running, also consider the heel to toe drop. You might not know it, but if you have been exercising in the most common running shoes, you have been doing so on “high heels”. The, not so long ago, standard of 12mm drop might be affecting your gait and definitely you would need some time to get used to a more natural/minimal drop. People get problems, mainly in their calves, when they change too fast to lower drops. My advice would be to increase little by little your strength and legs/feet flexibility (a post asap), improve your gait/technique (another post) if necessary and move to lighter lower shoes with a small drop.
Upper and overall structure: all the material that keeps the foot in its place and protects it. Breathability is key in Hong Kong, where most of the year we have warm and humid weather. So try to find materials that avoid your foot getting overheated. Goretex or similar waterproof membranes are not very useful here. They are always less breathable and therefore will make you sweat more. Definitely not helpful (exactly opposite) when you submerge them fully in a stream or sea. Even when raining, cause it tends to be heavy, their usefulness is limited unless you are using gaiters that avoid the water coming from your legs down.
Hiking shoes tend to have reinforced areas: toe protections, rock plates in the soles, reinforcements in the sides to avoid early wear. How much protection you need depends on the routes and your preferences. You can go stream hiking fully protected with a boot like shoe (the Adidas above). You will minimize the chances of scratching your lower legs, hurting your feet hitting rocks or even mild ankle twists. The cons are that they are significantly heavier, overheating and that you might get overconfident with them: you might injure your knees or else if you do a bad enough movement but the boot is holding your ankle tight.
Lacing systems. Traditional vs Salomon’s Quicklace system and alike.
The latter is super fast to tie and loosen but are less versatile. It might be interesting for you to know that there are alternative ways of lacing your shoes for specific purposes (unstable heel, avoid pressure in certain areas, etc).
That’s why I tend to prefer the former. As they allow you to have more possibilities for a better fit. The lacing system anyhow will be good or not depending on how it works with the structure below to hold the foot firmly but comfortably. It will depend on the shoe and your feet. For that consider the shape of the shoe, among others the Toe box width.
Going again to extremes. On the left a classic climbing shoe. It is meant to be super tight so that you have as much feeling of the rocks that you are climbing on and for step precision. On the opposite side, on the right, a wide toe box that tends to be a better option for long routes where your feet will appreciate that extra room for toe splay. Therefore for more technical (or fast) activities we tend to go more narrow, for less technical and long wider.
Things to consider when buying shoes. If possible try the shoes late afternoon or after exercising when the feet are more swollen and bring the type of socks that you will be wearing in your activities. Thicker or thinner ones might give you different comfort feeling. Sizing in this industry can be a mess, so do not trust your usual “number”. You might need to go up or down even a full size (the former happened to me and most with the NB Summit for example). The shoe shouldn’t be too tight. The usual recommendation is that you should be able to fit a finger between the heel of the shoe and your foot. In my case, I like to bring a pair of shoes that I’m comfortable with an compare against the new. Checking the length of the insole and comparing overall feeling. They should be snug, without being too tight, loose or rubbing you anywhere.
Gender-specific shoes. There are some differences in construction, considering that in average female feet tend to be wider in the front, tighter hill, less cushioning needed due to lower weight… But you might find shoes that fit you perfectly even being of the opposite gender. So if you have feet that allow you to (smaller for guys, bigger for ladies), try them all 😛
In Hong Kong several shops have significant discounts on sale season. It is the case for example for Chamonix. So if you are looking to buy some Five Ten shoes, you might want to go there then. At 30% discount, the Access Mesh costed HKD620, for example.
Buying online. The main problem will be, obviously, sizing and not being able to try them on. Independent reviews can give you an idea of the true sizing and fit type. But sometimes even the same model, same sized shoes can be slightly bigger or smaller, so check the return policy of the web. In my case, when I like a shoe model and it is difficult to get it in HK shops I buy them online. Sometimes even stock. Five pairs of NB Summit so far and counting 😛
How much time will the shoes last? There is no real rule of thumb. The materials, usage, maintenance, your weight, gait, etc will define it. My usual mileage per pair is around 500-700km for hiking+trail running+coasteering shoes and 1,000 for concrete running + gym ones. If you are exercising daily, the usual recommendation is to have at least a couple of pairs and rotate them so that the midsole has time to recover its bounciness. If you are exercising little, remember to keep the shoes in a place with no sun and dry and know that somehow the shoes tend to have a shelf life and they degrade with time. If the outsole has too much wear, the midsole is clearly flatter in one side of the shoe increasing your pronation, and above all your joints start to feel uncomfortable, it is time to get a new pair.
Finally, my recommendations, although you might have guessed them already.
- All around, what I take with me when I can have only a pair: New Balance Vazee Summit v2. I would recommend them for anyone who is light enough and with good enough technique in all activities, so that he does not need too much protection. Long distance, multi-day trekking, swim run, coasteering, difficult streams; done with them.
- Wet activity-specific shoes: Five Ten access mesh for almost anyone. Best grip and some protection in a shoe that does not get too heavy and has provided me a couple of years of stream and canyoning fun in HK & abroad.
Shoes that have been mentioned in different conversations (readers asking about it, friends recommending, etc): Columbia Drainmaker IV (I have not tried them yet, but the rubber felt good, one notch below Five Ten though), Salomon Amphib (sounded a good idea, but they feel really slippery on wet rocks), maybe the Salomon Crossamphibian could be a better option in easier streams (not much protection), Five Ten Camp Four non-Goretex (for those liking the boot style without being so canyoning specific: deeper lugs, same Stealth compound)