If there’s one thing I couldn’t have lived without in South America, it’s my hiking shoes. They were definitely the most useful item I packed. If I’m honest, I wasn’t really planning on doing much hiking, so I really only took the shoes for the Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu. But, as it turns out, there is a lot of hiking to be done in South America, even for lazy travellers like me, so my shoes turned out to be indispensable. In fact, I wore them so much that I’d pretty much destroyed them by the time I got home.
Following five months with the shoes, I not only learned how important they are for a trip to South America, but also what I did and didn’t need from a pair of walking shoes. Now that I’ve found the ideal replacements, I thought I’d share my tips with you…
Do I Really Need Walking Shoes?
This all depends on the type of trip you’re planning to have. If you’re not venturing much further than beaches and bars, of course you don’t need to take walking shoes. If you plan on doing any hiking, or any of the popular tours like the Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, Machu Picchu or Colca Canyon in Peru, the Salar de Uyuni jeep tour in Bolivia, an Amazon trek, or visiting Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, you should definitely consider bringing a pair of walking shoes.
Sturdy footwear isn’t just important for long hikes. Across South America, travellers encounter such a mix of climates – from baking hot equatorial sun, to humid rainforest, to pouring rain and even snow – and terrain that varies from rocks to mud to sand. My partner’s shoes even got coated in sludgy sulphur at one point, and were completely frozen for about three days during our Salar de Uyuni trip. No ordinary pair of trainers would have survived all that, so the walking boots really were the most useful items in our backpacks.
Hiking Boots or Walking Shoes?
I took big, sturdy hiking boots on my trip, thinking that these would serve me best for the Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu. But, since that particular trek didn’t involve any serious mountain climbing – and I didn’t do any other mountain treks, either – these weren’t really necessary. Hiking boots are pretty bulky, and took up a lot of extra space in my backpack.
If you plan to take on some more serious mountain trekking, perhaps in Patagonia or the Inca Trail or Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, then you might want to consider a pair of boots. Otherwise, a smaller pair of sturdy walking shoes will do the job perfectly and will help you travel light.
What do I Need from my Walking Shoes?
As I mentioned above, a trip across South America can take you across all sorts of terrains and into really extreme climates. You want to look for a pair of shoes that will be durable, hardwearing, breathable and waterproof. The Extreme range from Mountain Warehouse is ideal; products which are specifically designed to survive varying – and extreme – climates which “won’t let you down whether you’re hiking up a mountain or trekking through a jungle”. I recommend the Pebble Extreme Womens Waterproof Shoe, which I’ve been using since I returned the UK, or the Field Waterproof Men’s Shoes, both from Mountain Warehouse. But whichever shoes you settle on, here’s what you need to look for:
- Materials like suede and mesh, which are breathable (perfect for humid and hot climates), lightweight (perfect for backpacks) and hardwearing.
- Waterproofing. The climates vary so much across South America that you’re bound to encounter a rainy season at some point, and even if you don’t there’s the Amazon, the Andes, Patagonia, the Pantanal… plenty of places where you’ll encounter rain, snow, or boggy ground. Look for waterproof shoes to make sure your feet stay dry and comfortable whatever the weather.
- Comfort. This is probably more important than aynthing else, since the whole point of taking walking shoes is to make sure you’re comfortable on long walks. A cushioned midsole is equally as important as a decent outsole; giving you comfort and added support, as well as additional cushioning from impact for those really tough terrains. Shoes with a padded tongue and ankle provide optimum support for ankles, particularly important for tricky descents – like the trek down into Colca Canyon. For additional reinforcement against impact, look for rubber bumpers on the toes, too.
- It’s all in the Sole. My partner and I both walked our boots so hard in South America that the soles were almost worn away – in fact by the end of the trip Sam’s pair actually had holes in the outsole. Look for shoes with thick, durable outsoles that will not only last, but will give you the most comfort when you’re tackling some of the more extreme terrains the continent has to offer, too. Look out for these outsole brands:
Vibram: a world-leading high performance rubber outsole which gives traction and stability – perfect for those varied and difficult terrains. The Field Waterproof Men’s Shoes have these soles and they really do last a good long time. My dad, a frequent hiker, has this pair and they’ve been serving him well for over a year. It was actually on his recommendation that Sam opted for this pair for his replacements when we got back to the UK, and they really are great. Here’s a ‘before and after’ shot of Sam’s new shoes and my dad’s old ones:
IsoGrip: a long-lasting outsole guaranteed to last at least 5000 miles under the IsoGrip 5000 Guarantee, these are high-traction outsoles with great grip, perfect for descents and tricky terrains. This is the outsole used on my new Pebble Extreme Womens Waterproof Shoe, and after regular use over the past couple of months they still feel like new.
One Last Tip
It’s so important to wear in your walking shoes before you leave for South America. New shoes can be quite tight, and they need to be broken in so that the material stretches to find the correct fit for your foot. For the first few wears, the shoes might rub at the heel or pinch at the toes, causing painful blisters and sore spots. So its not much fun to pop your new shoes on for the first time the morning you start a day-long hike. Wear your shoes around the house a few times, and out for a few short walks, before packing them, and your feet will thank you!
If you’re packing for a South America trip, I really can’t recommend taking a pair of walking shoes enough. I only needed three pairs of shoes for the whole trip; flip flops, a very lightweight pair of plimsolls, and my boots. They really were the most useful thing in my backpack.
Do you have any tips about choosing walking shoes, or packing for South America? Let us know in the comments.