Reading recently about the debate among hikers over traditional hiking boots vs. lighter footwear, I got to thinking: Is it true that Europeans were nearly unique in developing extremely heavy thick-soled shoes and boots, while the rest of the world either went barefoot or typically used sandals, clogs and soft leather/cloth shoes?
Now partially I can understand this: European style shoes seem to be adapted to frequent wet weather and especially mud; and soldiers who were going to march long distances for days needed protection from immersion foot and becoming footsore. But is lifting and dropping 3 pounds or more with every step really a good idea, especially for those soldiers and hikers? Why did Europeans decide they needed to wear heavy armor on their feet?
Last year I attended a lunch where the speaker was from a local mountain rescue team. One of the things he highlighted was the number of injuries from people not wearing proper - that is, heavy hiking boots - footwear.
Costs and the amount of time required to break in the traditional hiking boots declined in the early 90’s. Traditionally hiking boots were just slightly lighter mountaineering boots, and could be used in lots of conditions that would be problematic for the modern typical hiking boot.
I spent three seasons straight out of high-school as a wilderness ranger for the USFS, and outside of altitude related issues ankle injuries were the primary issue I saw.
these hiking boots are very different than typical European shoes, and I could confidently place my entire weight on the edge of a rock with confidence even with a heavy pack.
The weight of the shoe really doesn’t matter much in my experience, but heavy leather and up to an entire season becomes a barrier in a modern context because these boots took way longer to break in than most people spend backpacking in a year.
It really depends on what you are doing, and most hiking is typically walking along well maintained trails and in areas were you have the chances of another person coming along or you have the options of using cell phones or personal emergency beacons but using shoes without support does lead to this being one of the highest injury types.
Note that this study is from a national park, with trails that are well maintained and highly traveled. Talus, Scree, and wet logs are what I have seen cause most problems and you will note that professionals like loggers also wear shoes with lots of ankle support.
There’s a big difference between a human ankle supporting just a human being and maybe just a couple pounds of gear, and a human ankle supporting a human carrying a load half the weight of said human.
When I went backpacking I wore heavy leather boots with lots and lots of ankle support. I was walking 10-20 miles per day and carrying a pack of up to half my own bodyweight while doing that. Human ankles aren’t really designed/evolved to do that for more than a very brief time. Thus, the invention of heavy boots. (over the years those same boots also protected my feet from puncture injures, being stepped on by a horse, and having a lawnmower dropped on one of my feet) Yes, they do feel heavy - at first - but you get used to them, especially if they’re a well-fitting pair and especially once you break them in. Yes, it does take a while to break them in. On the upside, they can last a very long time once you do.
It’s the same reason we invented horseshoes - horse hooves do fine carrying just a horse over relatively soft terrain, but horses never evolved to trot on pavement, haul heavy loads, or carry large riders and for that their hooves do better with extra help.
Regardless of where heavy boots originated, they’re used world wide today by lots of people because they offer protection and support to human feet and ankles. They aren’t the ideal footwear for everything, but they certainly have a niche.
Traditional working footwear in the UK was the Clog.
Leather uppers with a wooden sole with iron Clognails or Clog irons (which look like small horseshoes.)
They were used by miners and factory workers. Easy to maintain and much more water resistant than leather soles.
Military boots tended to be designed for long life when marching, so again hobnails.
Most people, including children wore some kind of boot for warmth and protection from wet unmade roads.
So the tradition up till very recent times was boots. Many hikers would have bought “ex-army” boots rather than bespoke footwear.
Only after the war with the increase of disposable income could people afford to be more selective.
Medieval shoes were built like moccasins to retain the normal traction of a bare foot. Reinforced heels came later. Wearing medievals, you walk on the balls of your foot and reach out far, like the common image of the Pied Piper.
Off the top of my head, Central Asian steppe nomads have seemingly always had leather boots with thick composite soles, going as far back as the Scythians. The earlier ones were probably fairly soft in the uppers, but modern Mongol Gutal are quite firm. That style seems to have been prevalent in lots of places touched by the steppes. You might think Chinese cloth soles are soft, but when you see how they’re made, you’ll see they can be quite tough. The terracotta warriors look to be wearing the same stitched soles as those on their boots. That combo of glue and cloth is probably the same stuff Greeksused to make armour out of.