Changes Afoot

Hands up those old enough to recall when all you needed for a ramble in the countryside was a pair of good stout walking boots. Those were the days… And you don’t need to be a grumpy old man (or woman) to realise that things just aren’t the same anymore when it comes to outdoor footwear.
First we had a simple parting of the ways: the humble aforementioned stout (where did that word go?) walking boot, traditionally crafted by hand from full grain leather, was suddenly available in a lighter, cheaper fabric version too – although the latter was only really a few fabric panels sewn into an otherwise leather boot. And then came waterproof linings. What? No more need to get the dubbin out? How I used to love buffing up my boots.
But the fragmentation didn’t end there: it wasn’t long before we could choose between 3-season, 4-season, 3/4 season; summer, winter; crampon compatible; B1, B2 and B3; with Gore-Tex, without Gore-Tex; broad last, narrow last; women specific; walking, hiking, mountaineering, trekking – the list became almost endless.
It might have appeared slightly complicated but at least they all had one thing in common: they were all boots. Poor old stout might have gone missing – unceremoniously relegated to slightly iffy city centre theme pubs with names like O’ Reilly’s and Flanagan’s – but the good old boot remained the core bit of kit when happy wanderers hit the mountain track. But for how long?
First we saw the arrival of Approach Shoes: a kind of outdoor trainer that was somehow styled to vaguely resemble a rock shoe and was supposed to be used for walking in to a crag but could also be persuaded to take in a few easy routes or even the odd hike when the weather was too wet for climbing. Almost overnight this latest creation morphed into the multi-activity shoe: a walking boot-come-climbing shoe-come-cycling shoe-come-shopping shoe that would cover all your footwear needs in one (providing you didn’t mind putting them on when they were wet because they were far too busy helping you to work rest and play to be abandoned in a drying room for a few hours).
Amazingly these things actually worked in a limited kind of way, providing a soft walking shoe that worked well on well-surfaced paths (or trails as they’d now become known), while being sufficiently narrow at the toe to slip into bicycle pedal toe straps; and grippy and agile enough to do a spot of easy bouldering, climbing or scrambling if rock was your thing. But in reality most of them never ventured further than the High Street, the pub, or the airport. What soccer fans did in Nike or Adidas, outdoor enthusiasts matched in Salomon or Asolo or Meindl. But walkers still went walking in boots.
And then suddenly they didn’t. The groundswell began to rise on the other side of the Atlantic where a new lightweight movement was suggesting that all you needed to walk the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail was a pair of running shoes and a pack cut from featherweight nylon. And before we knew it, our outdoor magazines, websites, forums and even retailers had all got in on the act – professing that a sub 400g trail running shoe would be fine for a 10 day backpack from coast to coast across the Scottish Highlands. Ankle support had become a myth rather than a necessity, and dry feet were a thing of the past – although the lightweights among the lightweights, if you get my meaning, had taken to wearing waterproof socks beneath their sieve-like trainers to avoid trench foot in typical British conditions.
But it didn’t stop here. Suddenly household names from the outdoor world piped up with revolutionary claims of doing most of their walking, from pootles to the local Spar to multi-day treks in the mountains, in… wait for it… sandals – although whether they were C1 or C2 compatible was never made totally clear.
So just what does all this mean to the industry or, more importantly, to the retailer? In simple sales terms, the fragmentation of the market has got to be a good thing. Where the average customer once owned just one pair of boots he or she now owns two or three. And on top of this they probably also own at least one pair of multi-activity shoes and a pair of outdoor sandals (whoever wore them indoors anyway?) The more progressive customer may have also splashed the cash on a pair of lightweight running shoes too – although whether he’ll find them the ticket for the typical UK big adventure (read cold, wet stumble over a boggy mountain) is another thing altogether.
But perhaps the most notable knock-on effect of all this devolution is the relatively recent development of the hybrid. It seems that wherever a gap appears, there’s a product to fill it. Leather or even synthetic (Kevlar etc) mountaineering boots wasted no time in jumping into the gaping bergshrund that lay between plastic climbing boots and winter hiking boots – the AKU Spider being one of the most successful. And sandals have sprouted all kinds of toe protectors to make them better suited to walking – see the Teva Karnali Wraptor as a fine example. Trainers (or multi-activity shoes as we referred to them earlier) have developed gaping vents in their nubuk uppers and now boast linings suitable for bare feet (Keen, Regatta etc) and some of the more technical running shoes are now available with waterproof, breathable linings.
One of the most popular of these, the Cumbrian made, Inov8 Roclite, has almost inevitably come full circle and is available in a high ankle version: the Roclite 390GTX, which despite boasting a waterproof Gore-Tex lining and a reasonably protective leather and mesh upper, still hits the scales at a tad under 400g for a size 8 (42). Its higher cuff keeps stones and grit out, improves waterproofness and protects the ankles from the kind of knocks they might get on rougher ground; yet if the old adage is to be believed, and that a saving of 1 gram on your feet is worth 5 in your pack, then these babies will shrink that rucksack by 3-4kg – something that’s definitely not to be sniffed at.
So, after all that development, it’s really rather ironic that the good old humble boot could once again become the next big thing. I can’t see stout making a comeback though.