My wife and I love hiking. In fact, we spent our honeymoon in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon. But before we set foot on a path, we went out and bought the most important equipment needed for non-stop hiking weeks; trekking shoes.
Even if we were to follow the same paths, in the same conditions, the fundamental differences between male and female feet would not have allowed us to get the same boots. So what are the differences in our feet that make the construction of men’s boots and women’s boots so different.
Obviously, women’s feet are shorter and narrower than men’s feet. This is expected in itself, since (in general) women are shorter and lighter than men. However, part of this is due to the fact that there is less cartilage between the bones of a woman’s foot and her joints and ligaments are softer and more flexible. Furthermore, a woman’s heel is proportionately narrower than a man’s. Boot manufacturers now compensate for this by either printing a tighter heel box or adding additional rigid pads to keep the heel comfortably in place to reduce slippage.
The effect of the greater flexibility of a woman’s foot has led to two design improvements in the women’s boot. First, a woman’s more flexible foot requires more support to withstand the constant stress of hiking. This is generally achieved with the addition of a stiffer midsole support, such as an insert. The insert is usually molded into the sole to maintain the traction required for all types of terrain, but remains flexible enough for a comfortable step. The second and perhaps most important difference in the central sole is the improved arch support in the women’s boot.
In general, a woman has a higher arch than a man, who needs further support. However, due to monthly changes in a woman’s hormone levels, particularly estrogen, the arch of the foot actually decreases, since the estrogen is a soft tissue relaxant. This relaxation of an already flexible foot causes the shape of a woman’s foot to oscillate between a relatively high arch and a flat foot. This fluctuation in the arch makes it essential for the central sole of the female boot to have a reinforced arch support (more rigid).
One manufacturer (Lowa) made the difference in the foot structure a step further, as it also creates a difference in posture. The position and pace of a man are not as straight as those of a woman, so Lowa has designed a 2 degree offset in the ankle of men’s hiking boots to offer a more balanced position. Since women have a naturally more vertical position, this offset does not exist in the ankle design of their women’s hiking boots.
Understanding the differences between men’s boots and women’s hiking shoes should make the choice of a suitable boot much easier. Just because a woman’s foot is naturally smaller, don’t assume that buying a smaller man boot is the way to go. The best option is to try trekking shoes that are specifically designed as women’s hiking shoes. This tells you immediately that the manufacturer understands the differences between a man’s foot and a woman’s foot and has designed his boots to address these differences.