The need to protect our feet from treacherous terrain and weather stretches as far back as the human race.
The clothed, mummified remains of a man, nick-named the ‘Otzi’ man, were found 3,210 metres above sea level in the Austrian Italian Alps 1991, and they date from roughly 5,300 years ago. The Otzi man’s shoes are a rare survival from the Neolithic age, and they tell us an enormous amount about how early humans met the challenges of mountainous terrains. His shoes were made of a separate upper and sole that were stitched together, a type of construction far more advanced than had previously been believed to have been used in that period, and were made of brain-tanned calf, deer and bear leather. They also had an inner shoe made from woven bark strips and stuffed with hay or straw to insulate the feet. Leather strips across the sole added grip. Different historians have reconstructed the Otzi man’s shoes and used them in the same terrain as he was found in, and they all attest to their practicality in terms of warmth, grip and durability. Despite being from the Neolithic era, the Otzi man’s shoes met the same challenges of terrain and weather we face today successfully.
Different cultures in history met the same challenges of terrain and climate in different ways. The Romans favoured simple, flexible, hobnailed boots in northern or alpine climates, and 16th century Europeans developed welted shoe construction, which made shoes more waterproof and durable. Wooden overshoes or clogs were worn in snowy or rainy climates from the mediaeval era until the 18th century to keep shoes clean and dry.
Technological advancements in the 19th century led to the development of sturdy, stiff, leather laced boots which would support the ankle and protect the foot, but they took a long time to break in and were only partially waterproof. Further waterproofing could be added to leather boots by oiling them or rubbing them with fats, but this was a short term solution and could damage the boots. In the late nineteenth century, Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanised rubber, which created a stable substance that could be added to boots for waterproofing, although it was not widely used until rubber soling was developed in the 1930s.
Hiking and mountaineering as a leisure pursuit developed in the late 19th century in Germany, France, Austria and North America, and it became increasingly popular in the interwar period. As the number of mountaineers increased, so did the need for better quality, more reliable equipment to deal with rough terrain, water and snow. This led to a period of development in equipment in the 1930s, in mountaineering and hiking boots in particular. Local cobblers began to experiment with different ways of creating boots that were flexible enough to allow for climbing and scrambling, yet hard wearing and waterproof enough to handle the mountain terrain and weather.
For mountain climbing, thinner boots without linings were the preference, as fabric linings could be slow to dry out after a day’s climbing, and damp boot interiors and freezing temperatures could lead to frostbite. Boots would be stuffed with absorbent material overnight to help speed up the process and stop them warping as they dried.
For hiking, a more structured boot was still necessary, to support the ankle and protect the foot from rough ground.
Despite the fact mountain climbing boots and hiking boots began to diverge stylistically in the early 20the century, both relied on nailed soles until the late 1930s. Nailed or hobnailed soles were key to giving boots grip and traction on soft ground, but became extremely slippery on hard flat surfaces like ice. Boots with cleats (small spikes) in the soles were helpful for ice, but were impractical on soft surfaces. Crampons, an overshoe with metal spikes, were worn on boots with nailed soles on icy terrain, but they would have to be carried with the climber or hiker.
These problems were largely solved with the development of Vibram rubber soling in 1937. The company's founder, Vitale Bramani, was a keen mountaineer, and after witnessing the death of several fellow climbers due to their equipment and boots, he developed the Vibram sole to help keep climbers safe. Early Vibram soles used the principle of rubber nodules on the sole to add grip on a variety of surfaces. This worked for both hiking and mountain climbing boots, and changed the way both sports approached footwear.
Hiking boots continued to be stiffer, supporting the ankle and protecting the foot using thick soles, shanks and lacing that could be tightened or loosened depending on terrain. Many different inventors in the middle and later 20th century attempted to solve the issue of damp proofing and breathability, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that materials other than leather were commonly used for the uppers of the shoe. Synthetics like GoreTex made hiking boots lighter, more waterproof and more comfortable, and hiking boot makers now use a diverse range of materials and new technologies to create dry, light and sturdy boots. Today leather is rarely used for hiking boots, and is usually only added on the more hard wearing areas such as the toe cap, or as decoration.
Climbing shoes evolved into an entirely different kind of shoe. When mountain climbing as a sport became more about scaling vertical surfaces than just steep ones, flexible shoes with gripping rubber soles and toes became the popular choice, apart from ice climbing which requires a different set of skills and equipment. Modern climbing shoes are usually made from synthetic, breathable, light materials, and they focus on the areas of the feet that are needed to grip the rock surface, providing very little support elsewhere. It was the development of the rubber sole that made these shoes possible, as no previous material would have provided the flexibility and grip needed for climbing. The need for these types of shoes to be waterproof also disappeared, as climbing became an indoor or fair weather sport.