If there was one area worth obsessing over in planning for your Camino, it would be the choice of what shoes you will wear. A properly fitting, comfortable shoe will help to prevent blisters and injury. They will also help the long days of walking be much more bearable. While there is not an easy answer for which shoe is best for you, here are a few questions which will help you narrow the many options available down to the right shoe for your journey.
Which style is right for you?
There are three broad categories most people chose from when selecting their footwear; a traditional hiking boot, with good ankle support; a hiking shoe, which does not have the ankle support of the boot, but does have a similar stiff sole; and a trail running shoe, which offers greater comfort, but does not have good ankle support or the stiffer sole.
Most of the Camino is on relatively flat surfaces like paved or dirt roads and sidewalks. I have heard it said that nearly 90% of the Camino is made up of such surfaces. Given this fact, I chose a trail running shoe. They provided me greater comfort, and the added bonus of not needing to be broken in. Typically, they are also the lightest of the three choices. Studies by the military have shown that one pound of additional weight on the foot is equivalent to an additional 5 pounds on your back. It may not seem like much on a walk in your neighborhood, but on a 500 mile journey, this can make a significant difference.
The one significant drawback is that trial runners do not provide any ankle support. While the steep and rocky sections of the Camino make up only 10% of the path, these sections are quite formidable in some places. If you have a history of turning your ankle you might want to consider going with a hiking boot for added support.
Another benefit of the boot and hiking shoe is the stiffer sole. This allows you to tackle difficult terrain and carry a bit more weight with greater comfort. While there were sections where I would have liked a bit more stiffness in my shoes sole, the reality was there were not enough of these to cause me to give up the comfort the trail runners provided on the other 90% of the Camino.
If you are carrying a heavier pack, however, you probably need to think about a hiking shoe at the very least. My pact was around 9 km, light enough, it seemed to me, not to warrant the upgrade to the stiffer sole.
When I walk the Camion again, I will probably make the same choice and go with a trail runner, but I am open to considering a hiking shoe. The level of stiffness varies from shoe to shoe. If I can find one which provides a bit more stiffness, but does not sacrifice comfort, I will go with it.
You will have to choose the level of ankle support and sole stiffness that is right for you. This will narrow you down to a category, but in that category, you will still have many choices to make.
How do you get the right fit?
One of the best ways to get a proper fit is to enlist the help of a retailer, which has trained their staff to fit shoes properly and have a good knowledge of how the shoes from different manufacturers differ from one another. A size 12 from Salomon will not fit the same as a size 12 from Keen. You want to work with someone who knows the differences and knows how to measure your foot and point you in the right direction.
I have found the sales people at REI to be very helpful in this regard. I have also gotten great service at the New Balance store, where they have a device to measure your insole, which helps to identify the right insert to fit your foot.
When fitting a shoe wear the socks you plan on wearing on the Camino. Go in the late afternoon, or after a walk, because your feet will swell and will be closer to what they will be like after walking 30 km. Because of the fact your feet do swell when walking so much, think about buying your shoes a half to a full size bigger than normal. Make sure the toe box is wide enough, and check for slipping around the heel.
Don’t be afraid to walk around the store for a while to make sure the good feeling you have when you first put the shoes on, remains after a bit of walking. Buy your shoes from a retailer like REI, which allows you to return your shoes, even after you have walked in them. Sometime, it is not until you have put a few miles on a shoe that you realize it really isn’t the best fit.
Should your shoes be waterproof?
My experience tells me no. Waterproofing materials seems to not only keep the water out, but also the heat and perspiration in. If you are walking in heat of summer, the outside of your shoes may be dry and dusty, but inside might be hot and damp. Even if you are walking in the rain, unless you are able to keep the water from running down you leg and into your shoes, you will not be able to keep your feet completely dry.
One of the advantages of walking in trail runners is that they dried quickly. It rained three days while I walked. My shoes and socks did get wet, but they dried quickly and did not cause any blisters.
You will find people who argue both sides of water proofing or not with great enthusiasm. It is a personal preference. For me, on the Camino, I would rather have a shoe which is cooler and breaths better than one which is hot and water proof. You will have to choose which is best for you.
They are now make Gortex sock. Though I have never used them, they may allow the best of both worlds, a cool, breathable, shoe on warmer days and a way to keep your feet dry when it rains.
Should you purchase an insole?
After spending $120 on a pair of shoes, the last thing you may want to do is drop another $50 on some insoles, but it may just be the best $50 you will spend on your Camino. The arches of our feet absorb thousands of pounds of pressure as we walk. Good arch support goes a long way in helping to prevent injury. They can also add an additional level of cushioning to your shoes.
Sadly, most of the shoes, even very expensive shoes, do not come with a very adequate insole. I would not walk without adequate arch support. As I mentioned earlier, my local New Balance store has a device that helps you chose the one which is right for you. REI or your local running store can also be of great help.
Find and purchase the one that is best for you and bring with you when you try on shoes. This is necessary to ensure a proper fit, because, an arch support will change the volume of the shoe.
Should you bring an extra pair of shoes?
Your boots/shoes should have no problem lasting for your entire Camino. If there is a catastrophic failure of your footwear, there are places to purchase new shoes along the way. There is no reason to carry the additional weight of an extra pair of shoes.
I do recommend you consider taking a pair of multi-sport sandals like a Keen, Teva or Chaco. These are great to wear around town in the afternoon and evening and can be used to walk in, should your feet need some relief from your shoes. Some people have walked the entire Camino in a pair. Be sure to get a pair that has good arch support.
I also took a very light weight flip-flops to use in the shower. It is true you can contract athlete’s foot from public showers. Blisters and other open wounds also increase your chances of contracting an infection. They cost as little as $3 and weigh practically nothing. It seemed like pretty cheap insurance against an unwanted fungus or infection. Click here for a doctor's opinion about wearing flip-flops in the shower.
In the end, I went through six pairs of shoes and a couple of different inserts before I found the right fit for me. I landed on the New Balance Men's MT1210 NBX Trail Running Shoe and their Motion Control Insoles. The combination worked great for me. On my second Camino I had to switch it up because New Balance had changed their shoes and the insoles were no longer available. I went with Brooks Adrenaline GTS 18 and Superfeet Green Insoles. Good luck on finding the perfect fit for you.