If the grid went down tomorrow, the type of shoes you’re wearing could make or break you. Any problems you have with your feet, will make everything you do more difficult and painful. Even if you do have a comfortable pair of shoes, how long will they really last? There’s plenty of cheap running shoes out there that are comfortable enough for their duration, but will they get you through a prolonged disaster? I know I’ve had cheap shoes that felt great in the store, only to have them go to pieces in only a few months.
There’s a lot of factors you should consider when buying shoes with preparedness in mind. Like most things, there’s going to be pros and cons with whatever you choose, and you’ll never get all of the best qualities in one pair of shoes. By observing of your environment, and assessing your needs and abilities, you can figure out the best fit for you. If you’re preparing for a disaster, you’re going to want to find the most well rounded shoes because they may be the only pair you can take with you. With all of this in mind, here are a few things you should consider before investing in your next pair:
Breathable vs Waterproof
How your shoes shed heat and moisture is crucial to the health of your feet. As your feet collect moisture they will begin to prune, making them more prone to blistering. While I have to confess, living in California I have much more experience with hot weather than cold, but it could be said that having breathable shoes is just as crucial in the winter as it is in the summer. Feet that are wet are also going to get cold very easily. So if you’re trying to buy the most versatile pair of shoes or boots, go with the most breathable materials you can. For the weather you should focus more on what kind of socks to wear (cotton vs wool), rather than shoes.
Goretex is a very popular material for hiking boots, as it can help evaporate sweat while keeping moisture out for the most part. Other than goretex, it may be a good idea to avoid synthetic materials like nylon or polyester unless it’s some kind of fleece (usually sheds moisture pretty well). Canvas is a good idea if you think you’ll be spending most of your time in hot weather, otherwise you may run into a few problems. Cotton materials are famously bad in cold weather if they get wet, and canvas is known to become very rigid in low temperatures, so it may make walking more difficult.
One of the best materials may be genuine cow leather, which I didn’t expect to stumble on while researching this. Most people probably wouldn’t assume that leather can “breathe” since it’s usually made for cold weather gear. However, it apparently works quite well at shedding moisture. Leather may be a good compromise between breathable and water resistant.
Speaking of water resistant, I would avoid shoes that are advertised as such. Unless you have rubber boots, it’s nearly impossible to find something that is truly waterproof. They’ll often work the first few times you step in a puddle or stream, but tend to lose that ability very quickly in my experience. Plus, the more waterproof a shoe is, the hotter it’s going to be. Your feet are still going to get very wet, just through sweat instead of water. It’s usually better to have a shoe that’s good at removing moisture, rather than one that attempts to prevent it.
Unfortunately, leather boots also tend to be rather heavy. Finding the right pair of shoes is really a balancing act between several factors, and you’ll have to decide what works best for you. In this case, most boots try to compromise by having a leather lower, and an upper made of canvas, goretex, or nylon. You’ll also have to decide how tall you want the boot to be, and obviously a higher cut boot is going to be heavier. However, a higher cut is also going to provide more protection, and give you greater ankle support, so that extra weight on your feet may help you carry the weight on your back. There are two other parts of the shoe that will effect the weight even more than the fabric. Steel toes, and the tread.
Usually, the thickness and stiffness of the rubber will add the most weight to a shoe. Obviously a thicker tread will be heavier, but also the stiffer the rubber the more density it tends to have. Having these qualities will make the tread last quite a bit longer. In my experience though, a really stiff tread can wreak havoc on your feet.
I remember going on a three day backpacking trip with a pair of military surplus boots from Sweden. They had a really stiff tread that you could almost hammer nails with. They had to have been sitting in storage for about 30 years until I bought them, and I had broken them in months before that trip. They didn’t cause any problems for most of the time, but by the third day I was experiencing some numbness in my toes. That tough tread, along with the 25lbs or so I was carrying, put a lot of pressure on the nerves in my feet and I could barely feel them. The numbness returned sporadically for weeks, and took a good 6 months before it went away entirely.
So it’s usually better to go with something a little softer. Many boots will compromise by having two different rubber layers. The rubber that touches the ground will be thin but stiff, providing a longer lasting tread. The upper portion will be soft but thick, giving you a more comfortable step. The most comfortable and longest lasting pair of shoes I’ve ever owned were a pair of Marine Corps Vibram boots that had this quality, and I’d highly recommend them.
Notice how similar the wear pattern is on the heals? The left is only slightly worst, except that it took over 2 years and nearly 1500 miles to do that. I’ve only had the one on the right for 6 months, and it even cost more. Go figure (or go get some Vibrams).
As stated before, having a steel toe in your boots can add quite a bit of weight. Going without that protection is certainly a reasonable option since toe injuries aren’t an everyday risk (at least for me). At the same time, it’s difficult to predict what sort of environment we’d be in after a disaster, and the risk of having a foot injury (or any injury) is definitely going to be higher. Plus it would have the added benefit of making your feet a little more lethal in a melee situation. It’s like having brass knuckles for your toes. Fortunately there’s more than one option for foot protection other than steel.
Aluminum toes are also pretty common, and they are significantly lighter than steel. If you’re expecting to staying in a hot weather environment, metals like aluminum and steel are very heat conductive, so they will help shed heat from your feet. But frankly I think these are where the advantaged end, and are pretty situational. In my opinion, a composite toe would make the best addition for a pair of ‘shtf’ boots. These toes are usually made of kevlar, carbon fiber, or plastic. They have nearly the same hardness as aluminum and steel, but with much less weight than either of those, and no heat conduction to speak of.
In the end there’s a lot of different opinions about shoes and you’ll have to do some research. You may even have to suffer through a little trial and error before finding something you like. Unlike some preps, the perfect shoes for a disaster are not something you would stash away for a rainy day. They should be something you wear at least once a week, so that they are completely broken in and ready to go at a moment’s notice. You need to try them out in different climates, different terrain, and preferably while carrying weight on your back to fully understand its strengths and weaknesses. You never want to be caught in a bad situation with a crummy pair of shoes, or even worst, a good expensive pair of shoes that don’t work for you.