Epic journeys call for top-notch footwear that can handle anything. You need a pair of shoes that are so comfy, protective and versatile you won't even think about them the entire trip. Here's what you need to know before you go.
From left to right: My dressy travel shoes, my rugged/outdoor travel shoes, and my urban travel shoes.
To get this guide started on the right foot, I got some help from another worldly traveller, Henrik Jeppesen. He's the popular Dane that travelled to every country in the world before he turned 28, and is currently in the process of visiting every territory in the world (he's at 98 out of 132). Jeppesen is pretty darn close to literally seeing it all, so he knows a thing or two about globetrotting on the ol' hooves.
Pick the Right Shoe for the Right Trip
Adventures come in all shapes and sizes. Will you be hitting the busy streets of Tokyo, or exploring the dense jungle of the Amazon? Are you hiking in Africa, or are you backpacking through the French countryside? Every adventure calls for a different type of shoe, so always ask yourself these two questions: "Where are am I going?" and "What will I be doing there?"
- If you'll be walking on the hard footpaths and pavement of urban sprawls most of the time, go with tennis shoes or running shoes. You can also go with a more casual sneaker as long as you know they will do well putting some mileage on them. I wear a pair of New Balance Fresh Foam Vongos. They're stability-focused running shoes that provide lots of cushion and comfort for those long days exploring a new city.
- If you'll be walking on trails or more rugged terrain, go with a pair of trail runners or light hikers. They're sturdy, protective and designed to be worn for long excursions. Shoes like this are also a good idea if you'll be encountering a lot of wet weather, since most trail shoes are water-resistant. My Salomon XA PRO 3Ds are waterproof, provide great grip, and give my feet a ton of support. On the other hand, Jeppesen notes that he only needs waterproof shoes for a few instances, like an expedition cruise. In those cases, he usually borrows or rents a pair. So be sure to consider the entirety of your trip before pulling the trigger. For example, a 10-day trip with only one day of wet, rugged adventure may not call for buying a pair of trail shoes.
- If you'll be attending dressier events while you explore a new city, go with a pair of dress shoes that prioritise comfort over fashion. The kind that are designed for professionals who have to be on their feet all day. My Docker's aren't the nicest pair of dress shoes I own, but they look decent enough, and, more importantly, don't murder my feet. Besides, you can always make yourself look good and stand out with other parts of your wardrobe.
Some people like the breathability and lightness of sandals and other open-toe shoe styles, but I don't recommend them. Your feet will feel gross quicker than you think, and there's a higher chance you'll injure yourself. Protect those feet! If they lose any function, your adventure will be cut short. If you really think you'll need some sandals, pack a pair of thongs. They're cheap, lightweight and they don't take up much space in your pack.
Comfort and Utility Over Fashion
I mention this briefly above, but it's worth reiterating: Travel shoes are not about looking good. They are about protecting your feet so you can go everywhere you want to go with minimal discomfort and pain. Plus, when you sacrifice a little fashion, you can travel a lot lighter.
Jeppesen usually only travels with a single pair of multi-purpose shoes that are lightweight and comfortable to wear in different climates. He likes shoes he can hike around in, but that he also feels comfortable wearing in a restaurant. I recommend you do the same if you can help it. Shoes are heavy, and even packing just one extra pair adds a ton of weight to your luggage. This is especially true if you are backpacking or going minimalist.
I travel with just one bag, so there isn't a lot of room for anything. I usually just pick one pair that fits the trip best -- either my comfy running shoes or my light trail runners. Then, if I really need them, maybe I'll pack my dress shoes. Of course, if you happen to find a pair of multi-purpose shoes that work well for your trip and look great, that's just gravy.
Test Them for Support and Fit
When you find a pair that looks like they're up to the challenge, you need to test them properly. Don't just put them on in the store and walk a few steps. That's not enough to really know. This is what the good folks at REI suggest for testing shoe support:
Pick up a shoe by the heel and toe and bend the toe upward. Does the shoe bend at the ball of the foot or at some random point halfway along the arch? It should bend under the ball of the foot.
Twist the shoe sole from the heel to the toe. Does the sole feel like a wet noodle, or is there some resistance to twisting? As a walker, you want to feel light to moderate resistance.
And here's what they suggest for testing a shoe's fit:
Walk down an incline. As you descend the incline, stomp and scuff your feet. Try to get the tips of your toes to touch the front inside of the shoes. Assuming you've laced the shoes snugly, the shoes shouldn't let you move that far forward. Shoes stretch and widen slightly with use over time. If your toes can already touch the front of the shoes when the shoes are new, try on a different pair.
Walk uphill on stairs. If the shoes pass the downhill test, try them on some stairs. Walk up a few flights of stairs, two stairs at a time. You should check for heel lift. If your heels are consistently lifting off the insoles more than about 1/8 of an inch [0.3cm], this may be a heel blister waiting to happen.
I do this for every pair of shoes I buy now, even if they aren't for travel. They're good habits to develop, and your feet will thank you.
You Get What You Pay For
Shoes can be very expensive -- some of mine cost around $200 -- but now's not the time to bargain shop. When you're travelling for adventure and not relaxation, you are guaranteed to spend a majority of your time on your feet. Follow the "time spent" rule here and spring for a decent pair of shoes that you feel very comfortable in, and that meet all of your trip's requirements.
If you can find what you're after on sale, great, but don't pick a lesser pair of shoes just to save a little dough. Your feet will hate you for it, and you might ruin parts of your travel experience. If you're worried about hitting the streets in expensive-looking shoes, Jeppesen says not to worry. He's never had his shoes stolen or experienced any trouble along those lines. That said, be sure to do research beforehand and avoid unsafe areas if possible.
Break Them In Before You Leave
OK, you have some shoes and you're excited to head out on your adventure of a lifetime. Hold up! Before you leave, take the time to break those puppies in, and do it gradually. Do not wait for your trip to really wear your travel shoes.
The break-in period will help them fit to your feet better, and it's a good time for a trial run. Maybe those shoes felt great in the store, but really irritate your feet after wearing them for an hour or two. Now you know and have time to get something else.
Don't Forget Good Socks
A shoe is only as good as the sock you pair with it. I recommend you avoid typical cotton socks at all costs. They're highly absorbent but dry slowly, so they get saturated with sweat and stay that way. That's a one-way ticket to blisterville.
Instead, go with merino wool socks. They regulate temperature well, so your feet will be comfortable in any environment, and they can wick and absorb a lot more sweat. Also, they're way more cushiony than cotton, giving your feet that little bit of extra padding. Synthetic socks are a good option as well. Most hiking socks and dedicated running socks are made from these superior materials, so head to your local outdoor or sporting goods store.