One of the things I try to do here on Splodz Blogz in my desire to encourage you to spend lots of time outside, is to help you choose the right outdoor gear for you. I’ve written posts on best practice when choosing hiking boots and walking shoes before (try this post on choosing walking shoes), and often speak about value versus technical specification. In this post I’m looking at footwear once again, considering gender differences in hiking shoes.
In this post I will try to explain a little bit about the common differences between male and female shoes, and why they are available. I’m not diving into the issues surrounding the given labels themselves, or why the men’s shoe selection in outdoor shops is always way bigger than the women’s (!!), but hopefully this post will be useful to those looking at men’s and women’s shoes and wondering why they exist or what the key differences are.
I’m using the Jack Wolfskin Vojo 3 Texapore Low Waterproof hiking shoes as my illustration (men’s here, women’s here), which were kindly gifted to my husband and I for the purposes of this post. We’ve been wearing the “his and hers” versions of these shoes on our local walks over the last couple of months, and have found them to be very strong and sturdy. I’ve included a mini review of the Vojo 3 towards the end of this post, if you’re interested in what we think of this particular style, but first I’ll deal with the issue they are helping me explain.
When looking at the photographs shared in this post, the men’s shoes are the black ones, and the women’s version are grey.
Why Hiking Shoes Have a Gender
While there is certainly an issue in the outdoors gear world of pink for girls and blue for boys, when it comes to the fit of a shoe, design is (thankfully) based on more than just what a committee of white middle-aged men think that women and men would like to wear out on the trail.
Outdoor shoemakers put a lot of research and development into the shape and fit of their footwear, and one of the ways they can generalise enough to make sure that as many as people as possible find their shoes comfortable, is to create two versions – a male and a female fit.
It is worth noting that everything I talk about in this post in terms of gender differences are based on generalisations. There are huge generalisations on shape, size, weight, and need. Different brands will tackle this in different ways, but hopefully the words here will help explain and maybe provide some advice for when you are looking for your next pair of decent outdoor shoes.
The key difference between men and women’s hiking shoes, which is often very noticeable right out of the box, is the width. Women’s shoes are generally shaped to be wider in the toe area and narrower in the heel, which reflects the (very) generalised differences in foot shape. Men’s shoes tend to be a similar width all the way down the shoe, as well as wider and larger overall than women’s shoes.
You can certainly see this in the photographs of the shoes on this page – the grey women’s shoes are obviously narrower at the ankle than the men’s.
Sometimes, manufacturers will also change the midsole (the bit you put your foot on inside the shoe) completely for a women’s shoe, in order to help with fit and comfort. Women generally weigh less than men, by around 15%, and therefore the midsole in a woman’s shoe is designed to sustain less impact on each strike of the ground.
Brands may use a lighter and softer midsole in a women’s shoe because women don’t normally need that part of the shoe to withstand so much impact, which results in in a lighter shoe overall. The difference might only be a few grams, but when you walk 2,000 steps per mile, it soon adds up.
And because the lighter weight of women’s shoes mean that grip can be compromised (we don’t stomp down into the mud quite as deeply), brands may compensate by adding deeper lugs on the outsole on women’s shoes. This provides the same level of grip without women having to stomp around using all their weight and strength.
Conversely, men’s shoes will look a little wider, have a stronger and more sturdy midsole, and will have shallower lugs on the outsole. The shoes might be a bit dirty, but you can see that the lugs on these Vojo 3 do differ slightly – the black sole of the women’s shoe has deeper lugs than the (much dirtier) sole of the men’s.
All this means that when I wear men’s shoes in my normal size, they feel a little big around the ankle, causing slipping, a little narrow around the toes, causing rubbing, and a little clompy when I walk. The same shoe in a female fit provides a much better fit around the ankle which stays put when I walk, more space for my toes, and means I can grip the trail without having to stomp around so much.
When to Swap Over
Choosing the right shoe for your size and shape could be the difference between happy walks and miserable ones. And while the vast majority of time the generalisations manufacturers use to design their shoes work out perfectly, there are some ladies who will find men’s shoes best for them, and some men who will find women’s shoes are much more ideal.
For example, if you are a man with narrow ankles and long toes, then you might find a shoe designed for the female foot more comfortable. Likewise, if you are a lady with large feet, or very wide feet with short toes, you will almost certainly prefer a men’s fit.
If you are a very small and light man, you may find a ladies’ shoe provides the flexibility and grip you need. And if you are a heavier lady, then you may choose a men’s shoe because you need that extra strength from a midsole designed for your weight.
Please know that there is no shame or indeed difficulty in going into an outdoor store and ignoring the given labels. No shoe fitter worth their job will let you leave with a shoe that doesn’t fit properly, and while I personally find that my feet do fit within the generalisations made about the female form, I have more than one friend who will always choose a men’s shoe because they are simply more comfortable for them.
Comfort is always the name of the game, there is no doubt about that.
Regardless of Gender
I believe we should have no issues with manufacturers making design changes based on gender generalisations when it comes to shape and fit. These things are a benefit to us, it gives us two versions of a shoe to choose from to make sure we are as comfortable as possible.
However, there are some things I expect to get some a shoe regardless of which version I choose. Primarily, brands should take both men’s and women’s hiking shoes equally as seriously. We need the equal technology, equal specification, and equal comfort.
Ladies might need slightly deeper lugs on the outsole, but both men’s and women’s versions should use the best version of those lugs to give us all the best chance of staying upright on the trail. Men might need a stronger midsole to account for their heavier strike, but it should not add so much additional weight that men’s legs have to work so much harder that walking becomes arduous.
My Choice of Gender
Personally, I find that my feet are pretty much exactly what manufactures believe women’s feet to be – narrow at the ankle, wider at the toe, and slender in form. This means that I will always choose a hiking shoe designed for the female foot, because they fit me better than a men’s or a unisex shoe.
But it is worth remembering that we are all very different. Some ladies will find that men’s shoes are much more comfortable. Some men will find that a “women’s fit” is better for them. We should also note that men’s and women’s shoes can vary hugely – even within brands you will find some shoes designed to be wider or narrower, higher or lower at the ankle, or more or less heavy.
What is most important is that we concentrate less on the label itself, and more on the comfort and fit. Always try your shoes on before buying, and worry about how they feel at the ankle and toe rather than what it said on the box.
Mini Review | Jack Wolfskin Vojo 3 Texapore Low Hiking Shoes
These are a classic looking hiking shoe that provides good grip, support and cushioning. Jack Wolfskin describe these as being robust, and I think that is an excellent word to use – they are a solid shoe, providing something that is sturdy and will last. They are low cut, have good ventilation, and provide all the protection you could need in a hiking shoe whatever terrain you were to take them on.
The Vojo 3 have been good for woodland trails and gravel tracks, but we have both found them a bit clompy for tarmac or concrete footpaths. Where they really do well is on muddy and uneven trails, where you can really be sure footed and confident with the treat and fit. I admit mine were not comfortable straight out of the box, they have taken some softening up, but they are certainly a good quality, versatile hiker, that keep my feet dry and cool, and most importantly, me upright.
I would say these are a traditional and basic hiking shoe, ideal for those looking for something genuinely strong and stable (sorry Theresa), who isn’t worried about putting a bit of effort into breaking them in. At £85 (same price regardless of gender), they are priced as I would expect.
With thanks to Jack Wolfskin who kindly gave me two pairs of their Vojo 3 hikers to help me illustrate this post about gender in hiking shoes.