Latest issue
Online newsletter
Product Knowledge
April/May 2012

Minimalist boots

A new category for hikers?

Internationally many outdoor footwear brands are starting to incorporate hiking ranges with more minimalist designs. The minimalist and barefoot movement that has by grown leaps and bounds in the running shoe category and is starting to force brands to look at minimizing outdoor/hiking footwear as well, reports NELLE DU TOIT

While some cushioning and protection is required in a boot, the question is just how far, and at what cost, would minimalism influence hiking footwear — and would this make an impact on the South African market?

For the past few decades lighter and faster moving hiking boots have dominated much of the top-end boot brands produced. Many believe that the ultimate hiker would be a boot that is lightweight and comfortable, but still provides the support and protection needed in a hiking boot.

While others believe that the traditional hiking boot will never be replaced. “There is quite a debate around the minimalist/barefoot movement — there are some who are completely pro barefoot/minimalist/lightweight and then there are others who are seriously anti-minimalist and believe that a shoe stripped of its protective qualities (such as padding and structural support) cannot possibly give you the protection you need,” says Matt Tibenham of Drifters.

To add another facet to the debate is the question of whether hiking boots, which traditionally provide structural foot and ankle support, could tap into the same market minimalist multi-functional outdoor shoes seems to enjoy.

Tibenham believes there is a market for minimalist hiking footwear. “The interest is definitely growing as more people are starting to realise that there are shoes that are made specifically for hiking in a minimalist way — be it the differential heel to forefoot, ride height or purely the weight that is changing.” This market is, however, still very small, believes Jan van Rooyen of Hi-Tec SA.

“I don’t think there is a big market for minimalist hiking footwear — minimalist multi-functional outdoor footwear yes, but hiking boots, by design, should offer more protection and more support than seen in the current minimalistic offering,” adds Roger Noades of Columbia SA. He believes minimalist shoes offer the least amount of covering on the foot, sacrificing the protection and support needed for a traditional South African hike.

The alternative view, expressed by Donovan van Gelder of Rebel Elite Fitness, distributors of Inov-8 is that “more and more outdoor enthusiasts are realising that the technology that has been crammed into footwear has not been enhancing their experience, and they are moving towards shoes that will allow their feet to function as they were intended to do without hindrance from unnecessary technology.”

Consumers are looking for new and innovative hiking footwear that is lightweight and low profile, with durable outsoles, adds Gustav Nefdt from Medicus Shoes, distributors of Merrell footwear.

When looking at the minimalist running market, specialist retailers would agree that the majority of running shoes sold are still of the traditional, cushioned type. That being said, one cannot deny the total eruption of minimalist footwear over the last few years with the majority of running brands now having a minimal section in their collection. Could the same be said for minimalist hiking in the near future?

“What once was a fairly small, niche group of people who were looking at minimalist footwear, is now spilling over into the more mainstream markets and the growing body of knowledge, which is readily available on the internet, is convincing many to make the move to minimalist shoes,” says Van Gelder.

“I don’t think minimalist hiking will ever take off in the traditionalist hiking market as it is today,” disagrees Noades. “Even if a mass marketing campaign is used to convince the public to go the minimalist hiking route I still feel that I will sell a lot more traditionalist hiking shoes, approach and multi-sport shoes that make up our hiking category than I will do with minimalistic barefoot hiking shoes.”

Though the majority of hiking boots sold might be of the traditional durable leather/suede-like, stiff ankle support design, the type of customer who would prefer minimalist hiking boots could be of a more discerning nature.

Dr. Ross Tucker, the barefoot scientist, proved that it is possible (direly difficult, but possible) to reach Uhuru Peak, the highest peak of Africa at 5 895m, completely barefoot — provided that you do the correct preparation and apply some thought-through. Would there be a following of elite purist climbers/hikers who would also want to hike barefoot or minimalist?

“A large part of the attraction of hiking is to be outdoors, experiencing nature, and becoming one with your environment. Minimalist footwear allows you the freedom to better connect to this environment by feeling the earth beneath your feet, while still offering protection from sharp rocks, etc. Your biomechanics are better, you are lighter and it just feels good,” says Alex Hawkins of Branded Footwear, distributors of Vibram Fivefingers.

Advantages vs disadvantages

“As minimalist shoes allow for a more natural stride, the hiker will have more control of foot movements as well as being able to have a closer connection with the terrain he/she is hiking on,” says Gustav Nefdt from Medicus Shoes, distributors of Merrell footwear.

The lighter weight and the fact that it allows for better biomechanics and feel improves balance and the ability to adjust to varying terrain and under-foot conditions.

“Being closer to the ground also aids in stability, but the heavier the pack and longer the trek, the more the lightweight low profile features could become a disadvantage,” warns Jan van Rooyen from Hi-Tec.

One of the disadvantages of minimalist hikers are that in the beginning customers would not have the strength to actually utilise the minimalist hiking boot. “There would need to be a period where they will need to work purely on their foot strength,” says Tibenham.

Some brands therefore released different grades of minimalist hiking boots that allows the hiker to gradually become used to a more minimalist foot stride.

Traditionally hiking boots do not allow the foot to move freely as the nature of the terrain itself can cause injuries (steep declines, loose rocks, etc.). Many believe that hiking shoes need to be a lot more structured to prevent the wearer from injuring themselves on the terrain.

Traditional vs minimal boots

It is for this reason that experts advise that the retailer ideally understands the needs of the customer and their hiking conditions. “If you don’t know what the terrain is like where the shoes will be worn it is difficult to advise the customer about the right choice of footwear,” says Geoff Ward of Outward Ventures, distributors of La Sportiva outdoor footwear.

“Factors like the length of the hike, pack weight, the steepness of the terrain, whether it will be on or off-trails, whether it will be used in winter or summer conditions will all determine the type of shoe a customer should look for. When you wear light hiking or minimalist shoes and venture into terrain that is beyond the environment that the boot is meant for it is very easy to encounter problems,” he adds.

Hiking boots has traditionally incorporated some form of metal shank which also prohibits the foot from moving freely, whereas minimalistic footwear often lacks that medial support.

Van Gelder disagrees with this view. “The trend worldwide is away from overly supportive/restrictive shoes. We want the foot to be allowed to become stronger and better able to perform as nature intended. The same applies to hiking footwear and all footwear for that matter.”

Some of the latest minimalist hiking boots from minimalist brands has Gore-Tex uppers, special rock-climbing technology rubber for better grip in wet conditions, toe protection, a snug fit around the ankle and offer plenty of protection where needed.

Rubber toe protection, oval shaped sticky rubber lugs for grip and traction, are essentials in minimalist hiking boots, adds Nefdt. “We use an ESS Plate that disperses pressure along the footbed, as well as TPU support around the ankle area in our minimalist hiking range.”

Regarding the absolute essentials outdoor hiking footwear should have, van Rooyen suggests a day hiker would need a little bit of ankle and medial support, whereas a multi-day hiker and high-altitude mountaineer would need more stability with added ankle and medial support and some extra torsional stability.

Using minimalist trail shoes on the mountain as hiking boots is strongly discouraged as hiking shoes have a very specific dual-rubber compound on the outsole for different surfaces — such as rock, water, mud and grit. “Hiking lasts are completely different to those of trail shoes, the upper materials are different and even the outsole density, lugs and designs differ,” says Noades. “When you are hiking you traverse through rock, water, forest, sand and dirt and you would therefore need shoes that will protect you from these elements.”

Range news

There are some exciting new hiking boot offerings from brands for the coming season. Columbia “Waterproof breathable technology is one of the most important features a good pair of hiking boots should offer,” says Roger Noades of Wild Elements Apparel, SA distributors of Columbia. “It is easy to walk through a stream or get caught in a downpour on a hike. And wet footwear is heavy footwear.”

Columbia has developed the patented OutDry technology, which is used by many outdoor brands. The OutDry technology is used to waterproof items where the standard manufacturing techniques based on seam-sealed waterproof fabrics cannot be utilized.

The waterproof/breathable membrane is directly bonded to the external layer of the shoe or glove, perfectly sealing any possible water entry point. OutDry is waterproof, breathable and does not absorb any water past the membrane.

The Columbia Multi-Sport Descender is a multi-sport minimalist shoe ideal for casual day hikers. Hi-Tec

Hi-Tec will be launching their Sierra Lite range this winter. An evolution of the 1976 Sierra model, the 2012 Sierra Lite brings you closer to the ground by not having a midsole.

“Instead, we are incorporating the insole and midsole with a one piece dual density Ortholite innersole with added medial support,” says Jan van Rooyen of Hi-Tec SA.

“The Vibram outsole will protect and give exceptional traction while the Ortholite inner will give you cushioning and aid in stability.”

The shoe has a V-Lite design and build technology and the outsole also has self-cleaning properties. In partnership with Vibram, Hi-Tec created an exclusive sole that consists of a rugged vulcanised rubber area surrounding an inner area with activity-specific traction.


“The Roclite range of hiking boots are ideal for moving quickly and efficiently in the mountains,” says Donavan van Gelder of Inov-8. All three the Roclite 286, 335 and 400 are the lightest Gore-Tex boot in each respective category. The model numbers refer to the weight of the boot.

“The soles are as flexible as our running shoes, so that they provide the wearer with a natural foot position and the ability for the foot to adjust to the different ground positions,” he adds.

The Roclite range features a reinforced toe-box that protects the foot and shoe upper from any unexpected terrain, has a 6mm footbed, EVA midsole and sticky compound sole.

“We also have the Terroc range, which is a low-cut shoe ideal for light hikes in the mountains and trails and is supportive while still being light,” says van Gelder.


“The Merrell Mix Master Mid is an exciting new minimalist hiking boot. It is a mid-height, light and fast waterproof shoe designed for fast outdoor activities ranging from hiking to trail running — which has defined the future of multi-sport in a minimal, light platform with a rugged athletic outsole for sweat-worthy urban and outdoor activities,” says Gustav Nefdt of Medicus Shoes, distributors of Merrell footwear.

The Merrell Mix Master Mid waterproof shoe combines the functional trail running outsole, TPU plate, triple density midsole and sport structure upper (complete with breathable mesh and ripstop nylon) of the Mix Master, with a waterproof and all-weather friendly materials on the ankle high upper. They have also added more protection in the mud-guard area. Vibram FiveFingers

The FiveFingers KSO Trek range is made up of the KSO Trek and KSO TrekSport. The KSO Trek is a rugged outdoor shoe that delivers the agile performance and the protection needed for outdoor activities and the hiking trail.

“It has a Kangaroo leather upper, which is incredibly strong and breathable,” says Alex Hawkins of Branded Footwear, the SA distributors.

The 4mm EVA midsole offers plating protection from stone bruising, and a lightly cleated 4mm Vibram performance rubber outsole delivers enhanced traction on trails and rugged terrain.

The TrekSport FiveFingers is designed with abrasion-resistant Coconut Active Carbon uppers which is quick drying and offers natural breathability, 4mm EVA in the midsole for plating protection and a lightly cleated 4mm Vibram performance rubber outsole for extra traction on a variety of terrains.

“The Spyridon range, specifically designed for trail running, has a 6.5mm thick sole consisting of 3mm insole and 3.5mm Vibram Xtrek Rubber outsole,” says Hawkins. “The 3.5mm rubber outsole maximizes impact protection against stones and debris, and the aggressive tread design provides solid grip in all directions when out on the trails.”


The eco-friendly Vivobarefoot minimalist shoes, recently launched in SA, will be distributed by Native Sport. The Vivo Off Road Hi and Mid are waterproof approach and hiking boots with a 3mm base and 5mm lug height. The ultra-thin, puncture-resistant sole in both the models provides maximum proprioception and protection against off-road terrain. In other words, enhancing the body’s perception of terrain.

The rubber outsole has directional lugs that maximise surface contact for superior barefoot traction. The insides of the Off Road Hi and Mid consist of a waterproof sock construction and breathable lining, it has a secure and quick speed-hook fastening for personalised fit.

The minimum chrome leather uppers are engineered for durability, smart synthetic lining made from 100% recycled PET (plastic) and the soles are made from recycled rubber. The Off-road Mid men’s shoe weighs 304g and the Off Road Hi boot weighs 396g.


Weinbrenner might be a new outdoor footwear brand to many SA retailers, but it has a 120 year history of making boots for workers, the US military and the performance outdoor and lifestyle markets.

In SA, the brand will be aimed at the light hiking and casual outdoor market. “We are bringing in the traditional leather, waterproof, Weinbrenner hiking boots for men and women, as well as some lifestyle fashion styles,” says Gerry Smith of local distributor Futura Footwear.

Although the boots have Vibram soles and are waterproofed, they will sell at a very good price. There is also a kiddies range for children of all ages, from toddlers to teens. Their hiking boots are available in leather or suede — or a combination — with Vibram soles and comfort features like padded collars and reinforced heels and toes.

For summer, they have performance sandals in leather and suede. There is also an aqua sport range with mesh uppers and various levels of heel and toe protection, and straps and laces that can be adjusted for a snugger fit around the foot. In the leisure range they provide sports casual models with breathable mesh, suede and functional leather overlays, casual models in suede with a high cut padded or rubberised ankle protection and stitched down models in distressed leather.

Boots and vellies now fashion items

THE TRADITIONAL vellie or leather stitched-on hiking boots are perennial favourites with SA outdoors people — whether they are farmers, hunters, hikers or workers who spend many hours on their feet. Now, they are also high fashion items. Especially suede outdoor-style boots — resembling our velskoen in all but name — are featuring in the ranges of some of the top international fashion lifestyle brands.

The vellies in Puma’s new Wilderness range (see p4) are even made locally by Jordan & Co in Cape Town. Superga’s men's boot collection for winter 2012 in suede and leather is available in an array of colours – not the red that singer David Kramer made famous, though!

The velskoen as fashion item is a trend that has already been spotted in Europe a few seasons ago, retailers who’ve been on overseas trend spotting trips tell us.

The SA hiking boot stalwart — the stitched-on leather ankle boot — will also have a fashion link when a well-known label launches new range will be launched locally (more news later this year).

There is a definite nostalgia for the traditional SA leather hiking boot in the Trailbuster mode, says Geoff Ward of Outward Ventures, who used to distribute Trailbusters, but now supplies, La Sportiva ranges.

One of the locally made examples that have stood the test of time, is the Rogue boot, made by Trevor Selke in Hazyview. Steve Croudace, known as the founder and manufacturer of Strops webbing sandals, is now also making a stitched-on leather hiking and work boot range called Leatherback in his Pietermaritzburg factory.

One of the major problems faced by local manufacturers is the high cost of making sole units, explains Croudace. You need one mould for the insole, another for the outsole — and our small volumes compared to the Chinese manufacturers make it prohibitively expensive to make a signature mould. But, when a local manufacturer imports ready-made sole units, he becomes vulnerable to copying as it is easier to copy a style using the same sole unit available from, for example, the Chinese manufacturer.

It is no coincidence that so many of these leather boots have their roots in industrial or military boot designs. For people like factory workers, nurses, miners, policemen or soldiers — who are on their feet for long hours every day — comfort and a good fit are essentials, not luxuries.

The latest outdoor footwear brand to be introduced in SA, Weinbrenner, was created in Milwaukee in 1892 when Albert Weinbrenner and Joseph Peffer started making logging, safety and work boots for the US market. In America, they are one of the largest manufacturers of occupational safety work and uniform boots, producing over 250 styles, aimed at specific categories like the postal service, the construction industry – their Hike 'n Camp with its wedge sole and a reinforced moccasin style stitching is widely considered as the signature boot for the construction industry.

Their outdoor and leisure ranges, with the same tough shoe features that characterises their work and safety boots, are part of the international portfolio of Bata Brands, and are locally distributed by Futura Footwear. These ranges have the same no nonsense and for real reputation as the work boots. Weinbrenner says: our reputation for quality and robustness has been built over 40 years and it is this, combined with style and our dedication to comfort and functionality that ensures that our shoes meet the demands of your challenges.

Minimalist hiking boot features

  • Be it minimalist or fast and light boots, hiking boots would still need to have ankle support. If a customer is hiking and carrying any form of pack with some weight, ankle support is essential. “When carrying a 15kg pack and you put your foot down skew, that weight is just going to travel straight down to the leg and you will twist your ankle,” Tibenham advises.

  • One of the key features of a minimalist shoe is the heel to toe differential, that becomes less as the shoe becomes more minimalist.

  • Lower ride height is also one of the key features of minimalist shoes. “For truly minimalist footwear the ride height needs to come down as well. If someone places their foot down at an angle with a shoe that has a high ride height, the chances of getting injured is much high- er,” says Tibenham.

  • A snug fit is of utmost importance. “Be cause minimalist shoes have less weight, less padding, etc. it has to fit much more snugly around the foot so that the shoe does not shift around and one would get the full benefit out of it,” says Tibenham.

  • “Outdoor minimalist shoes need to be flexible in all directions to allow the foot to function as it would barefoot, whilst still being able to offer you suitable pro- tection from sharp rocks and allow for grip on a variety of surfaces and condi- tions,” says Hawkins

  • “They should be light and non-restric- tive, allowing the foot to function as if there were no shoes,” says Donovan van Gelder of Inov-8.

  • Any hiking footwear will need some sort of waterproofing system. “A wet shoe can add up to 40-50% of extra weight,” says Noades. Having a lightweight breathable waterproof system in the boot is therefore essential.

  • “Minimalist hiking footwear should incorporate rubber toe protection, rubber lugs for grip and traction, a plate that disperses pressure along the footbed (such as what Merrell offers) as well as TPU support around the ankle area,” says Nefdt.

  • *Read our copyright notice before making use of this article

    © SA Sports Trader