How to Choose Walking Shoes

Good walking shoes for fitness or travel have design characteristics similar to those found in running shoes, trail-running shoes, light hikers or multisport shoes. It's mostly their casual styling that sets them apart.

So can any of these shoe types be worn as walking shoes? In most cases, the answer is yes. Here's why:

Sizing Up Different Shoe Types

Q: How do walking shoes and running shoes differ?

A: Walking causes less impact to your feet than running does. As a result, walking shoes don't offer as much cushioning in the heel as running shoes provide. Walking shoes often focus on providing cushioning under the ball of the foot. Running shoes emphasize low weight and breathability more than walking shoes, offering more comfort for walking at an up-tempo pace.

Q: How can I tell if a shoe is suitable for use as a walking shoe?

A: Generally, you can walk in running shoes much more easily than you can run in walking shoes. Running shoes lend themselves well to walking because they are well padded, lightweight and very breathable. They often have built-in motion control, cushioning or stability technology—nice modifications if your foot type has any of those needs. Even many casual shoes at REI are very serviceable walking shoes.

To gauge a shoe's appropriateness for use as a walking shoe, try these "tweak tests":

  1. Pick up a shoe by the heel and toe and bend the toe upward. Does the shoe bend at the ball of the foot or at some random point halfway along the arch? It should bend under the ball of the foot.
  2. Twist the shoe sole from the heel to the toe. Does the sole feel like a wet noodle, or is there some resistance to twisting? As a walker, you want to feel light to moderate resistance.

Assuming the shoe fits well and it passes both tests, it is likely to be a serviceable walking shoe.

Types of Walking Shoes

The Importance of Fit

Q: What features are critical in a walking shoe?

A: Fit is always the No. 1 factor during footwear selection. Fit trumps all other considerations: technology, reviews, fashion or recommendations from friends. A proper fit will keep you from getting bruised toenails or heel blisters. You won't regret buying a shoe that fits you well.

Q: How do I identify a good fit?

A: A good fit can be defined as snug everywhere, tight nowhere and with enough room to wiggle your toes. Functionally, a good fit should prevent blisters or bruised toenails. You can do a few simple tests to determine whether your foot type and a particular pair of shoes are right for each other.

Q: How can I tell what type of foot I have?

A: Look at your footprint after swimming or showering. Feet with low arches have a lot of contact area with the ground; they leave a "filled-in" footprint. Feet with high arches contact the ground at the heel, the ball of the foot and the toes, but not along the outside edge of the foot. Average feet with medium arches are somewhere between these extremes.

Certain models of trail-running shoes cater to certain foot types, due to the last (the foot-shaped mold) the shoes were built on, and the method of sole construction. A sales specialist at an REI store can assist you in your decision-making. If you cannot visit a store, REI's customer service center (1-800-426-4840) also has skilled fit specialists available to consult with you.

What type of foot I have?

Shoe Shopping Tips

Q: What can I do to predict whether a walking shoe will fit me?

A: Try 2 tests. You'll need both an angled surface you can walk on and some stairs.

  1. Walk down an incline. As you descend the incline, stomp and scuff your feet. Try to get the tips of your toes to touch the front inside of the shoes. Assuming you've laced the shoes snugly, the shoes shouldn't let you move that far forward. With use over time shoes stretch and widen slightly. If your toes can already touch the front of the shoes when the shoes are new, give this pair back and try on different pair.
  2. Walk uphill on stairs. If the shoes pass the downhill test, try them on some stairs. Walk up a few flights of stairs, 2 stairs at a time. You should check for heel lift. If your heels are consistently lifting off the insoles more than about 1/8 of an inch, this may be a heel blister waiting to happen. If you're unsure, you might try releasing the shoes, changing socks for ones with more heel padding or substituting an aftermarket insole such as Superfeet. It's important to stop or minimize the up-and-down movement of your heels inside the shoes. You can take 10,000 footsteps in a typical day, and that repeated heel shifting can cause blisters.

Q: How will I be using the shoes most often during their lifetime?

A: Are your goals centered on fitness walking with a schedule and goals, or do you anticipate taking a more casual approach?

  1. If fitness is your goal, look for the low weight and support of a running shoe. A running shoe works fine on a treadmill. Just don't try to play basketball or any activity that requires abrupt side-to-side motion or quick lateral cuts. Running shoes are designed for linear motion.
  2. Will you go out even if the weather is bad? A waterproof shoe will likely be important to you, so a trail-running shoe could be a good option. Trail-running shoes often have waterproof uppers, plus sturdy soles and ample support features.
  3. If your approach will be more casual, your options are wide open. Pick a shoe style that most closely matches where you'll be doing most of your walking. On pavement? Pick a running, multisport or casual shoe. On nature paths or dirt roads? Go with a trail runner or light hiker.

Q: Should I look for a walking shoe with a waterproof/breathable membrane such as Gore-Tex or eVent?

A: In general, the more moisture you anticipate facing while wearing the shoes, the more waterproof/breathable linings make sense. Of course, there are always exceptions. Some people prefer shoes without waterproof liners, especially in hotter or drier climates, because of their increased breathability and quicker drying times.

Q: What's the best way to order shoes from REI.com?

A: Unless you already own the year and model of the shoe you are ordering, it's a good idea to order 2 sizes. Order the size you think you are, and also order the size that you might be. You then have the option of returning the size that doesn't fit to the REI store closest to you or to REI.com. This approach increases your chances of obtaining the right fit on your first try.

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