Ever ask about this on a Camino forum and experience frustration? Hiking boots says one; hiking shoes claims the next, sandals insists a third, running shoes advises another, and even barefoot are common answers. Collectively, not much help…
First off, I’ve seen people do all of the above – even walking 800 kilometers barefoot. The real question is not what’s best, but what’s best for you… Here’s what I tell people in my planning courses.
High end hiking boots are designed with rigid uppers and soles intended for technical climbing and to protect against sharp rocks. You don’t want this kind of boot. The Camino path is gentle. Even crossing the Pyrenees is an uphill walk rather than a ‘climb’. The ideal boot is a ‘light hiker’ or ‘approach style’, preferably from a reputable manufacturer. Characterized by a rounded toe and heel for lots of walking, it will be light weight, have sturdy but flexible soles and good to excellent breathability in the upper boot. The pros – better insulation from the effects of foot ‘pounding’ (common after hours of walking); better ankle support (the backpack adds weight to legs and feet); and avoiding ankle twists on uneven paths. Light hikers deliver proper arch and foot support along with great foot bed design. The downside – boots can be heavier than alternatives and buying a pair can be expensive.
Hiking shoes (good ones) tend to provide most of the above benefits, minus the ankle support. They come in the rounded heel and toe design, are lighter than boots, and usually cost a little less. Some people feel these are still too costly and unnecessarily heavy.
I’ve known people to walk in sandals only. I did it myself for a few days on one of my Caminos. This approach requires ‘hiking sandals’, which have sturdier soles than conventional models, and heavier straps to anchor feet properly. Some have good arch support. The up side is feet remain cooler, and sandals are usually lighter. The downside is cold or wet feet should the weather turn bad, stones getting into the foot bed, insufficient arch support and less protection from trail unevenness. I walked in September both times, so I can’t speak to sandals for summer weather. September the temperature should be about 20-25 degrees C, about 65-75 F. On my 2009 walk the first 10 days were in the high 30s (about 100 degrees F). During the next 10 days, it was 6-8 C (35-45 F and quite cold). From a purely temperature perspective, sandals would have been great at the outset, miserable thereafter.
Many people do carry a pair of sandals for shower use in refugios, and the towns where they stop for the night. It gives feet a break from their day time footwear. Light sandals such as crocs will do for showers and around local towns, but cannot substitute for trail use if needed. Hiking sandals will perform the extra trail duty, but the penalty is the weight to carry them when not in use.
Running shoes are a usable alternative, and since many people already have a pair, can be the lowest cost approach. Runners can be super light. However, your feet will sweat walking 6-8 hours a day, so running shoes can get wet, increasing the chance of blisters. The softer sole of running shoes offers less protection against foot pounding and uneven terrain, and soft sides provide little foot support.
As for barefoot, well if you’re up for the challenge…
So, which should you use?
I’ve met hundreds of people on the Camino over my two walks, and slept in refugios almost 60 times where 50-75 people settle in each day. So I‘ve had the opportunity to see lots of footwear both on the trail and in the overnight accommodations. Let’s start by quantifying how many of each I’ve seen…
I’ve only ever seen one person doing the Camino barefoot, and he was the type to spend his life barefoot. I’ve seen a few people wear sandals the whole way, and I did myself for a couple of days. I’ve seen one person in running shoes (she carried 2 pair – alternating them each day), and fought moisture problems almost every day, especially when we had 2 days of back-to-back rain. She made it to Santiago but not without difficulty.
Many refugios ask pilgrims to leave footwear in racks in the entrance way so as to not muddy the floors. If you search Google images for Camino shoe racks, in almost every picture hiking boots and hiking shoes are the vast majority on the rack. This should suggest that while some do use sandals and runners, they are not the preferred choice. Hiking shoes or boots, seen in almost equal numbers, account for more than 90% of footwear on the Camino. From first hand observations on two walks, this is my experience as well.
I recommend hiking boots or hiking shoes in my Planning Courses. Newer light hikers are not that much heavier than alternatives, and have the best overall features to deal with the uneven terrain and varied weather you’ll experience along the Camino. I don’t encourage sandals (other than for refugio and local town use) unless someone has specific knowledge of how their feet will respond over very long distances. I counsel heavily against runners.
After over 100 workshops and 2,000 attendees in 8 years, I’ve yet to have someone tell me they wished for different advice. The choice is yours. But whatever you’re going to wear, make sure they’re well broken in before you go to Spain, and that you’ve done multiple long training walks in them.