What are the right shoes for the Camino de Santiago? Good old leather mountain boots, technical trekking boots or trail runners? Here’s everything you need to know about choosing the right footwear for the Way of St. James.

Take one look at pilgrims› feet and you’ll see that the majority of pilgrims set off on the Camino with shoes that are completely unsuitable. While here in the Swiss tourist hotspots newcomers to the mountains are often out and about on rough terrain in shoes better suited for a shopping spree, the opposite is true on the Camino. Many pilgrims have heavy duty mountaineering boots on their feet that could be used to climb the Matterhorn. 

Even in hiking specialist shops, the popular opinion still seems to be that hikers need heavy clogs on their feet. But the truth is, for a long-distance hike on the Way of St. James, mountain boots are the wrong choice.  

This is because the various routes are mostly on dirt tracks, forest paths and asphalt. I don’t know of any section of any Camino that would justify the use of hiking boots. 

While hiking boots are designed for rough terrain, they have the following disadvantages on the Camino:

  • Too heavy. A sturdy mountaineering or trekking boot weighs several hundred grams (quite often over a kilogram.) That weight will tire out the legs and feet more quickly than a lighter shoe. The old adage “a pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back” rings true here. 
  • Too tight. Mountain boots fit snugly on the feet. The different layers of shoe leather are barely stretchable. With Spain’s heat, your feet will swell and have no more room in the shoes. The result: the toes press against the shoe wall and hurt terribly after a few days or blisters develop.
  • Too hard. Mountain boots have a rather stiff sole, which is useful for hiking over rough terrain, but can lead to pain in the sole and lower legs on hard ground. This is because the foot needs to be able to roll naturally and smoothly on asphalt, dirt tracks and the like. Mountain boots also have little cushioning. This means that on hard surfaces, the foot bones and joints get a shock with every step.

These disadvantages can be uncomfortable or even cause pain. In my early years on the Camino, equipped with sturdy mountain boots, I often suffered from severe pain on the entire sole of my foot.

The right shoe for the Camino de Santiago

The right shoe for the Camino should have the following characteristics:

  • Lightweight. A lightweight, breathable shoe does not place additional strain on the body (my model weighs just 270 grams).
  • Stretchy. Your feet will expand in the southern European summer heat and they need space to avoid blisters and pressure pain. 
  • Good cushioning.  This will protect your joints, feet, and legs.  The shoe should be heavily cushioned and your feet will thank you on the many hard paths on the Camino.
  • Soft Sole and Good Grip. A soft sole allows your foot to roll naturally and good grip provides safety on different surfaces, especially in wet weather. 

Trail running shoes have all of these qualities, which is why I have only been wearing these for years now. Some outdoor brands also offer shoes that are marketed as trekking shoes, which have these features. 

I have also switched to only wearing low shoes, i.e. shoes that don’t go over my ankles. I haven’t noticed any difference in the stability of my foot and it saves weight.

Trail running shoes have one disadvantage: the sole wears out more quickly than a classic hiking shoe – but they will last for a Way of St. James.

Extra Tip: always buy hiking and trail running shoes one size larger because your feet will swell a little walking so much and a little extra toe room prevents blisters. And of course, always thoroughly test shoes in the store before you buy them.  

Shoes for the Camino

The right-hand mountain boots from Meindl are unsuitable for the Way of St. James (even though many pilgrims wear them). The middle pair (from Decathlon) are useful for winter when it rains more. At all other times, trail running shoes are the best choice (Inov8).

Rain protection: yes or no?

You don’t need waterproof shoes on the Way of St. James. It usually rains so rarely during the pilgrimage season from Easter to around October that waterproof shoes are overkill. 

Shoes with a waterproof membrane make your feet sweat a lot. Even if the shoes are advertised as «breathable», they only allow a small amount of moisture to escape. As a result, your feet are constantly damp, which is not only very unpleasant, but can also lead to athlete’s foot and blisters!

My motto: I’d rather have wet feet for one day than constantly damp socks for four weeks.

My trail running shoes only have a mesh fabric, so they are in no way waterproof. As a result, my feet get soaking wet even in a light shower, but then dry quickly. However, the rest of the time I have a very airy and comfortable climate in the shoe. 

Always break in shoes for the Camino de Santiago

New shoes always have to adapt to the shape of your foot first and can cause pressure points or blisters at the beginning. That’s why it’s important to break in your shoes before the Camino. If you don’t have time to do a few hikes in your new shoes, you can also wear them in everyday life. This has the same effect.

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