What Footwear To Pack: Quick Answer
When climbing mountains in Southeast Asia, you will be tossing up between two types of shoe, and perhaps three, depending on the hike:
- Runners for short day-hikes on trails that are
- Light hiking boots for longer hikes and rugged or muddy terrain
- Trail runners for just about anything
But as, if not more important, is to choose the right combination of good socks to deal with the damp. The best option for a long hike, particularly in the wet, is probably a combination of a synthetic liner sock and thick wool. Your standard sport socks might be okay for a day-hike that you’re doing in runners and dry conditions, but not for serious hiking. Be kind to your feet by making sure it all fits, keep your feet clean, and pack freshies in zip-lock bags.
Mid-length gaiters might be a good idea for longer hikes to keep debris, rain, and insects out of your boots too.
Runners (or sneakers) with a thick squishy sole and a good tread would be adequate for many of the popular mountains in Southeast Asia that have a well-developed and maintained trail all (or at least most of the way) to the top. Of course, they allow you to be supremely comfortable, to allow your feet to breathe, and not be so heavy as to drag you down.
Smaller and more popular mountains such as Mount Bintan, Ophir, Ledang, Inthanon, or Popa would be absolutely fine to tackle with runners. Even some of the larger mountains with good tracks treated with gravel or paving or built steps – such as Mount Kinabalu or Fan Si Pan – could be tackled with a sturdy pair of runners if the conditions are fair.
If you’re on vacation in Southeast Asia, the greatest advantage of runners is that you’re probably bringing them along anyhow. They will open up the possibility of many of the excellent day-hikes that are close to some of Southeast Asia’s entry and exit points, meaning you can usually squeeze a good hike into even short and leisurely holidays. So why not?
Light hiking boots
If you’re planning some serious hiking off the most beaten tracks, then you may have to consider hiking boots with more rigid soles, deeper tread, and ankle protection.
When to go for hiking boots?:
A harder plastic barrier underfoot and a bit more sturdy side support will be a better choice in less groomed trails that are uneven, rocky, and/or slippery. After kilometres trekking on a trail criss-crossed with tree roots, even the more cushioned runners will leave the bottom of your feet feeling bruised and the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your feet and ankle feeling strained. In the wet season(s), the extra grip and protection is important on less groomed tracks that have turned muddy and slippery.
Wetness is something you have to accept if hiking in the wet season. Although it might make sense to have a waterproof boot, this waterproofing works in both directions and tend to “lock in the flavour”, and the heat too.
So instead, choose something breathable and bring extra pairs of dry socks in a waterproof bag. If you’re camping out overnight, a pair of lightweight flip-flops will feel great at the end of the day (I advise against Havaianas in wet and sweaty conditions – their plugs bust out too easily).
How high up?
The higher hiking boots are particularly good for some of the volcanos in Indonesia and the Philippines topped with steep volcanic domes and peaks with loose and sharp rocks and soils. A boot that rises just above the ankle would protect enough, especially if you’re wearing thick socks that come up a bit further. But most of the time a lower, ankle-high hiking boot, or even hiking shoe, should be just fine.
Expert mountain climbing shoes?:
Unless you’re climbing Puncak Jaya in particularly snowy conditions, there is absolutely no need to consider insulated or even rigid plastic mountaineering boots in Southeast Asia where all the mountains are in the tropics and are under 5,000 metres. If you’re climbing vertical or near vertical rock faces in Southeast Asia, you’re probably a rock climber, which is another website entirely.
When would you not wear hiking boots?:
Good hiking boots should be pretty versatile. They can be almost as comfortable as runners, so there is nothing much preventing you from wearing your hiking boots on short, groomed, and easy tracks instead of your runners. They may be a bit heavier, but your legs can deal with it. In the opinion of the US Army, “the hot weather boot provides an excellent all-round platform for movement and climbing techniques and should be the boot of choice when weather permits.”
Trail runners or hiking shoes
Trail running or hiking shoes split the difference, and are great for almost all mountains in Southeast Asia. If you’re buying a pair of shoes particularly for getting up and around mountains in Southeast Asia, then this is your best bet.
The better ones have thick, durable soles with a wide base and a good tread which make them great on uneven surfaces. The more rugged have improved underfoot and toe protection, more durable upper materials, and multi-directional lug patterns. Yet they are also lighter and more maneuverable than hiking boots and allow for comfort and even speed if you’re really looking to leg it.
Trail runners are a relatively new category. They’re produced by Adidas and Nike using the words Terra and Terrex in their names respectively. The more serious mountaineering brands of Salomon, North Face, and Merrel also have offerings, particularly of the more rugged variety.
Overall: When it comes to footwear, comfort and dependability wins out
Most climbs in Southeast Asia are pretty short, so its best to just go with what’s comfortable, available, and reliable.
Although proper mountaineers will scoff at me, I have to admit to wearing Timberland Original 6-inch waterproof leather boots when hiking or mountaineering. The technology is 40 years old, and they’re absolutely the wrong boot for the tropics – mine are even black, which mosquitoes love! But they’re also the wrong shoes for dancing, working, building mountaineering websites, or sleeping, yet that doesn’t stop me. I feel tokimeku when I put them on.
I once instead decided to buy some ‘proper’ modern hiking boots for the 6 day Overland Track in Tasmania. Despite spending a month or so wearing them in, they were painful from day 2 and were causing my achilles real damage by day 4. I never wore them again.
I’m sure there is a better boot out there for me. But is it really worth buying something fit for purpose, taking the time to wear it in, and then risking that it surprises you when you’re really depending on it?
Instead of worrying about your choice of shoe, your socks might be the more important variable.
The aim when choosing what socks to wear:
Assume that you’re feet are going to get wet, either through sweat, water obstacles, or rain. So the aim is then to wick the sweat away from your feet, reduce friction with your feet, prevent any bundling or folding of socks, and preferably reduce heat.
Best option – synthetic liner with wool outer:
There is a growing consensus online that two pairs of socks do the above the best. The first sock next to the skin is a thin and well-fitted polyester, silk or nylon dress sock, or perhaps pantyhose material. The second is thick wool, as padded as possible, such as an Explorer Sock. When you don’t wear a liner, your feet rub against the thick hiking sock. If you wear thin socks, your feet rub against the boot. But if you use both, most rubbing occurs between the socks, meaning less friction on your feet.
US Army Advice
This advice aligns with the US Army mountaineering doctrine, which states:
“Socks are one of the most under-appreciated part of the entire clothing system. Socks are extremely valuable in many respects, if worn correctly. As a system, socks provide cushioning for the foot, remove excess moisture, and provide insulation from cold temperatures. Improper wear and excess moisture are the biggest causes of hot spots and blisters. Regardless of climatic conditions, socks should always be worn in layers:
- The first layer should be a hydrophobic material that moves moisture from the foot surface to the outer sock.
- The outer sock should also be made of hydrophobic materials, but should be complimented with materials that provide cushioning and abrasion resistance.
- A third layer can be added depending upon the climatic conditions. In severe wet conditions, a waterproof type sock can be added to reduce the amount of water that would saturate the foot. This layer would be worn over the first two layers if conditions were extremely wet. In extremely cold conditions a vapor barrier sock can be worn either over both of the original pairs of socks or between the hydrophobic layer and the insulating layer. If the user is wearing VB boots, the vapor barrier sock is not recommended.”
Other Tips for Socks
If you’re out on a multi-day hike (rare in Southeast Asia) treat your feet to some fresh socks in the morning. Although the synthetic liner can dry quick enough to consider 1 pair if you’re stingy on pack space, having a rotation of at least 2 woolen pairs is a great idea. You can air them out by tying them to the side of your pack if its not raining (although I once hiked the Inca Trail with a friend who did this and was a faster hiker than me, and I remember Machu Pichu smelling like a ripe cheese).
Don’t do cotton:
Nowhere above do I mention cotton. When wet, cotton will get damp, can bundle and fold, and even get quite abrasive, making them just awful to hike long distances. If you’re going on a short hike, perhaps wearing runners, and the conditions are dry and relatively cool, then they might be okay.
Give your feet some TLC at the end of the day:
Either washing and drying your feet, or wiping your feet down with wet-wipes or rubbing alcohol, then applying some foot powder or talc before putting them into a nice dry and comfy sock (this could be cotton, I guess) to sleep in, will mean that they’re fresh and as prepared as possible for your probably still-wet boots the next morning. Zip-lock bags tend to work well in keeping socks dry, and are handy if you’re bringing used wet-wipes out to dispose properly.
Sock fit is also important:
Socks probably won’t make up for ill-fitting boots. If you’re using socks to pad out boots that have too much room in them, or if you’re reducing your sock padding to account for socks that leave too little room in them, then you’re on shaky foundation. Sock fit is important too – you don’t want too much or too little material you’re trying to deal with through your boot.
You may look like a dork, but gaiters might be a good idea, particularly for longer hikes in wet weather and less groomed trails.
They’ll stop rain getting into the top of your boots, and will protect your legs against all the ankle-to-shin-height scrub and insects (including leeches) you might be pushing through on less groomed trails.
Mid-calf gaiters – usually about 8-to-12-inches tall – are best for the less-than-extreme conditions you’re likely to encounter in Southeast Asia. Find some that are waterproof, insect repellent, and with abrasion-resistant fabric. Make sure they are sized right to fit over the exposed upper portion of your shoes/boots, and that they clip to the front of your laces and strap under your boots (the understrap might not work so well if you’re hiking with sneakers, but if you’re hiking with sneakers then you probably aren’t doing the sort of hike worthy of gaiters). They would normally go under waterproof pants.