Watch rock climbers hike into the mountains bearing huge packs loaded with ropes and gear. Then check out their footwear. Often, they're wearing technical scrambling, or approach, shoes. "How?" you wonder, and "why?" The "why" is easy: These shoes are very light, comfortable, cool, and great for trail hiking, scrambling off-trail, talus-hopping—even lazing around camp. The "how" may be more puzzling, especially to hikers with weak ankles. Consider these points when deciding if an approach shoe is right for you:
If you encase your lower legs in big boots on every hike, your feet and ankles will never get stronger. Hiking in lightweight shoes will actually strengthen your feet and ankles and make them less disposed to injury—provided you build up strength each season by gradually increasing the loads you carry when wearing these shoes. Exercises will also strengthen bad ankles; see a physical therapist for instruction.
Some scrambling shoes offer better support than others, but most of the models we tested manage light to moderate loads with minimal foot fatigue. That's because boot makers are using much-improved midsole technologies to increase support and stability. No longer must a light, low-cut shoe result in a sore foot after 10 miles.
Avoid these shoes if you'll encounter freezing temperatures, lots of snow hiking, or heavy rain. In big boots, you can plod along, oblivious to where your feet land. In scrambling shoes, step more carefully. Some tips:
- Avoid a slip or ankle turn by placing your feet in the most level spots. Avoid rocks, roots, and logs, especially wet ones.
- If you must step on a slick surface, place your weight over your foot.
- When going downhill, zigzag slightly, as though there's a switchback within the trail (or off-trail), to keep your feet diagonal to the fall line and to get more of the shoe's tread on the ground.
- Taking short, quick strides when going downhill reduces both the strain on your feet and joints and the chance of falling, because your weight is centered over your feet.
- Attention tends to wane late in the day, so slow your pace and focus on the trail.
- Trekking poles help guard against the inevitable stumble and reduce shock to your joints. Take along a pair if you worry about sprained ankles and sore knees.