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The Differences Between Men's and Women's Hiking Boots

Updated on October 10, 2011

What's the difference?

My wife and I have always loved to go hiking - whether it's a day trip to a nearby trail or a week long vacation in the National Parks, nothing is more refreshing than spending time outdoors. But no matter where we go, we always make sure to bring along the most important piece of hiking gear - our boots. For the longest time, boot manufacturers only made hiking boots for men. Women who wanted to buy hiking boots had to settle for a man's boots in their size. Today, however, more and more hiking boot manufacturers are recognizing that a women's foot is significantly different than a man's. As a result, they are offering hiking boot designing to address these differences. So how exactly are the differences between men's and women's hiking boots? Keep reading and find out.

Different Size Feet
Different Size Feet

Does Size Really Matter?

Most obviously, a women's foot is typically shorter and narrower than a man's. This in itself is expected, since (in general) women are shorter and lighter than men. So for many years, this was the only consideration that hiking boot manufacturers addressed when creating their women's hiking boots. Their men's styled boots were simply resized for women.

Unfortunately for the boot manufacturers, and fortunately for you, ladies, it's not just the size of a women's foot that matters, but more importantly, why your foot is smaller. First, a woman's heel is proportionally narrower than a man's, which means that if you're wearing a man's boot, your heel will lift and rub the inside of the boot with every stride you take, and rubbing causes blisters - not good. Boot manufacturers now compensate for this in one of two ways. Some will simply mold a tighter heel box, while others will use additional padding to hold the heel more snugly in place, reducing sliding, and blistering. Of course some manufacturers of ladies hiking boots will design for the best possible fit by both moulding a tighter heel box and inserting additional padding.

Aside from the heel, a woman's foot is also smaller due to the fact that it has less cartilage between the bones of a her foot. Also, her joints and ligaments are softer and more flexible.

Flexibility
Flexibility

Women Have a More Flexible Foot

All other things being equal, flexibility is a very good thing to have. Unfortunately, when it comes to a woman's foot, the fact is that there is less cartilage between the bones and her joints and ligaments are softer. So the flexibility comes at a price - strength.

Once hiking boot manufacturers learned that a woman's foot is more flexible than a man's, their designs for a woman's hiking boots included a very significant improvement. The more flexible woman's foot requires more support to withstand the continuous stress of hiking. This is generally accomplished by the addition of a stiffer mid sole support, such as an insert. Different manufacturers have different approaches to the size of and materials used for their inserts, but in all cases their function is the same, to provide additional support across the entire sole of the boot.

The insert will typically be a hard rubber or rubber compound (such as EVA - ethylenevinyl acetate) and is usually molded into the sole of the boot. It is essential that the insert be an integral part of the sole of the boot in order to retain traction, but at the same time the insert cannot be so hard (inflexible) that it prevents the sole from flexing as you stride. A properly designed insert will provide the proper balance between support and flexibility , providing a comfortable, natural stride.

The second, and possibly more important difference is the enhanced arch support in mid-sole of the woman's hiking boot.

Images of Bryce Canyon National Park

In less than 8 minutes, you'll see why Bryce Canyon is my favorite National Park. Not only is the scenery absolutely stunning, but the majority of it is easily accessible from a relatively small group of trails, and a series of overlooks situated along a 14 mile scenic drive. Especially memorable is the combination Navajo Loop/Queen's Garden Trail - also know as the 'Most Beautiful 3 Mile Hike in the World'.

Really High Arch?
Really High Arch?

A Woman's Foot has a Higher Arch

In general, a woman's foot has a higher arch than a man's, which means that the arch requires additional support. By itself, designing a hiking boot with a higher arch isn't a very difficult task. Unfortunately, the height of a woman's arch changes in a monthly cycle.

The changes in a woman's arch are a direct result of the monthly changes in a woman's hormone levels, specifically estrogen. Estrogen is a soft tissue relaxant, so as a woman's estrogen levels increase, the arch of her foot will actually decrease. This relaxation of an already flexible foot will cause the shape of a woman's foot to cycle dramatically between a relatively high arch and an almost flat foot. This fluctuation in the arch height makes it critical for the mid sole of a woman's boot to have a more enhanced (ie: stiffer) arch support. When a woman's arch is high, the enhanced midsole provides the proper fit that cannot be obtained with a lower support. Also, when the arch starts to decrease, the stiffness of the midsole, provides the strength to support the arch at its original height, while maintaining comfort.

Not Quite Vertical
Not Quite Vertical

Women Have a (Slightly) Different Posture

Although most manufacturer's designs for ladies hiking boots are based on a woman's foot structure, one manufacturer in particular (Lowa) has literally taken the design of their boots one step further.

It turns out that the differences in size (and narrowness), arch height and flexibility of a woman's foot also creates a difference in her posture. A woman's stance and stride is more upright than a man's so Lowa has designed a slight 2 degree offset into the ankle shaft of their men's hiking boots, to provide a more balanced stance.

A woman's natural, more upright stance, does not require any offset in the ankle design of their woman's hiking boots. So for all those years that a woman's hiking boot was simply a smaller scaled version of a man's boot, the only thing that was actually correct in the boots design (for a woman's foot) was the naturally upright stance.

What's your favorite brand of Women's Hiking Boots?

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Shoe Lasts
Shoe Lasts

The 'Last' Word

The last is the plastic mold that all shoe, and boot manufacturers use as the mold for their footwear. This means that every part of your hiking boot's fit - from the location and size of the arch to the narrowness of fit - all depend on this original mold.

Lasts typically vary from company to company, some using multiple ones for different styles of footwear. This is why when you're looking to purchase your first pair of hiking boots, light backpacking boots, or trail shoes, you'll initially need to try on boots from a variety of manufacturers, until you find the best fit. Since different hiking boot manufacturers use different lasts, you'll be trying on as many different lasts until you find the boot that was molded around the 'last' that most closely matches your foot. You've probably already noticed that the same is true for every type of footwear that you've already purchased - sneakers, casual or dress shoes. This is because once you find a shoe/boot that fits well, you're most likely to go back and purchase from that company/manufacturer again and again, since you already know they fit your foot. Why? because their last is the best match for your foot.

Does this mean that once you find the manufacturer with the best fitting hiking boots for your feet, that you'll only be able to purchase from them? Of course not. Not only does your foot change as you age, but manufacturers will actually modify their lasts based on consumer feedback, in terms of how well specific styles/lasts sell - or don't.

So although it may not consciously cross your mind, the reason that one style of hiking boots pinch your feet or rub and cause blisters, while others seem to 'fit like a glove', the first thing you need to thank, is the last.

Shrug off your backback, take a sip of water, a few deep breaths, then say hello...

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      great insight on shoes! found ya by you being the a category lens highlight, 'thumbs up' from this avid reader.