The obvious answer is that as most of us walk from heel to toe, and therefore a tough, sturdy block at the back of the sole is good at reducing the shock from our body as we shift our weight across the foot.
But there’s slightly more to it than that. My personal gate is on the mid-foot, and yet I wouldn’t go without a heel if left up to choice. In my experience, heels have a range of benefits in addition to shock absorption, including traction and stability.
However, even these benefits come with a controversial caveat. Critics will argue that a lifetime of wearing shoes has made us dependent on heels for support, and feel that no heels at all are, in fact, the more natural and comfortable way to go.
Of course, there are two sides to every story. So why do hiking boots have heels?
6 Reasons Why Hiking Boots Have Heels
Superior traction is the often exalted benefit of a new pair of hiking boots over other forms of footwear.
It refers to how well your boots generate friction, stopping you from sliding from side to side and straight onto the forest floor when traversing rocky terrain or weather-beaten surfaces.
Your level of traction is determined more by the treads on the outside of your sole than the heel itself, but ultimately, bigger treads result in a larger heel.
It’s also the perfect position to place ‘breaking lugs’.
These spots of vulcanized rubber lead away from the rest of the boot, helping you to stand fast when moving downhill.
For this reason, bigger heels are usually employed on more uneven terrain, where this kind of grip is vital.
Stability refers to whether or not the shoe compliments your balance. As anyone who has worn high heels knows – a big heel seems like the antithesis of this.
But the high heel lacks balance for three reasons. For one thing, it is so tall that it raises the wearer’s center of gravity. Two, it is incredibly thin, providing no traction. Three, it means that your toes are in closer contact with the ground, undermining the natural stability of the foot’s arches.
A hiking boot would never have such fatal flaws. Its heels are thick, for good traction, and not hugely higher than the front of the shoe, keeping your foot relatively flat.
They’re also thicker on the outside of the sole, as the arches of your feet naturally are.
Anyone who has had to wear a pair of dress shoes for a wedding or the first day of their job will recognize the little blotches of tan that appear on the underside leather.
This is a heat map, indicating which areas of your feet you’re putting most of your weight onto when walking.
As mentioned in our introduction, this is, for a majority of people, the heel. Therefore, keeping the heels nice and thick is a way to improve durability, as it’s the area that’ll be worn down first.
Again, look at any pair of dress shoes and you’ll see this in action. So it goes with hiking boots. You’ll notice that when your hiking boots eventually give way, it’s often the areas under the toes that wear away first.
Support is a controversial term in the footwear world. When using some quality barefoot hiking boots, our feet and ankles have plenty of natural support.
Our descendants spent thousands of years traversing miles of savannah, rushing between the tall grass, walking over rock surfaces and through rivers and with nary a shoe in sight.
However, most of us have grown up with concrete under our feet, not dirt or rock, and now rely on our shoes to keep the pressure of walking on a firm surface spread away from the center of our delicate arches (which, fundamentally, is what an arch is supposed to do).
Some people have a foot shape that naturally strengthens their arches, too. This is also why those with flat feet often require less of an adjustment period to barefoot shoes. For most of us, however, they can cause discomfort and often result in a fair amount of foot pain to start with.
Hiking boots provide us hikers with plenty of arch support, as breathable, protective padding for the tops of our feet below the uppers. High-rising shafts also contribute towards plenty of ankle support as well, helpful if you’re moving uphill.
Regardless of the shoe, or your foot shape, your heel needs to stay firmly in place to stop it from slipping around there.
This slip action is the number one cause of blisters, and injuries are often prevented, if not remedied, by a comfortable amount of padding, a thick sole, and a properly tied-up pair of laces.
A good heel can help with this process as well.
The heels of your hiking boots are often their widest part (look above from a bird’s eye view and you’ll see what I mean), providing a steady surface.
This also helps ensure that the ball of your foot is at the center, stopping the shoe, and ultimately your unprotected feet, from slipping around.
6. Shock Absorption
We’ll reiterate here the notion that most humans move their feet from heel to toe, and therefore having a solid, thick heel is good for absorbing the shock of this particular action.
But a big hunk of vulcanized rubber also provides essential protection against the risk of injury to the underside of your foot if you are, say, forced to jump down onto rough terrain, into the water, or alternatively, have to steady yourself when falling over.
These things aren’t altogether uncommon for hikers. The first two, are undeniable evidence of your ruggedness, and the third, is an insurance pay-out.
Are Hiking Boots With Higher Heels Better Than Hiking Boots With Lower Heels?
It depends on the type of hiking you’re doing. For flat trails, you might want hiking boots with a lower heel.
You’ll roll off the ground more quickly, which is helpful if you want to hike at a steady pace. Lower heels will add less weight, too.
For trails that feature lots of serious ups and downs, you might opt for a higher heel.
This will be better at absorbing the shock of the downward movement and have deeper treads for greater traction.
Should Hiking Boots Have Heels?
Most of the time, yes, they should. We’re used to wearing boots that have heels, and our feet have become accustomed to this particular distribution of pressure.
Switching to boots without heels, zero-drop as they are called requires a significant adjustment period for a great many of us.
Heels will help to support and absorb the impact of shock and ensure your hiking boots provide good traction through thick treads, whilst improving comfort by stopping the boots from rolling.
Any heel that is too high, however, will lower your center of gravity and undermine your balance.
Here is a selection of top hiking boots and shoes in 2023 you may want to check it out before making any decision.
It largely depends on the terrain. During long, flat trails or hikes, a smaller heel will help you roll off the trail quicker. Hikes on tough, steep uphill terrain may warrant a larger heel, with deep treads to improve traction.
No heel can be too tall, though, as this would raise your center of gravity and undermine your balance.
Most, if not all, hiking boots have a heel. Humans typically walk by starting from their heel and then rolling onto the toe. Having a sturdy heel helps to absorb the shock of this first movement as the weight of the body transfers across the foot.
Some hiking shoes, however, opt for a lightweight, zero-drop design, eliminating the sole altogether and making your feet completely flat against the ground.
Advocates argue this is closer to our ‘natural’ way of walking, and that conventional shoes have created our reliance on heels in the first place.
Yes, but hiking boots without heels will take some getting used to. Zero-drop or ‘barefoot’ hiking boots are those with completely flat soles.
You should be aware, however, that a lifetime of experience wearing conventional shoes can result in a significant and uncomfortable adjustment period for some. Those with a flat foot shape tend to get on better.
The heels of hiking boots are made from the same material as the rest of the outsole: tough, vulcanized rubber.
This durable material is flexible enough to move with your feet and can be easily molded into thick treads, helping to improve grip.
It might not surprise you that manufacturers tend to use it for car tires – in fact, several tire manufacturers also produce the soles of boots. Michelin, for instance.