They say that the two most important items on a Camino (or, any long-distance walk) are your backpack and your shoes.
I’d have to agree with this, though I’d probably go a step further and say that the most important items are your shoes. A well-fitted pack can really help you in your journey, but I think you can get by with just lightening your load and adjusting your straps in the right way.
But the shoes? In the wrong pair of shoes, you are probably going to run into trouble. Shoes that are too tight can cause blisters, shoes that are too loose can cause blisters, not to mention other annoying problems (and Camino-ending injuries like tendonitis).
As I prepared for my first Camino, I knew how important finding the right pair of shoes was going to be, but I was nervous. Even in my every day life, I have trouble finding shoes that fit my wide feet (though this isn’t helped by the fact that I get discouraged very easily when I go shopping). My solution is to slap on a pair of flip flops and call it a day.
But this strategy would not work on the Camino.
I went to REI and walked around the store in a dozen different shoes, most of them trail runners that were recommended to me when I mentioned that I would be walking the Camino. A trail runner is light weight and would keep my feet cool when walking during the hot summer months, and one pair in particular felt great on my feet. It was a pair of Salomons, and I forked over some cash, took them home, and over the next few weeks wore them on my training hikes.
Before long I had the same problem that I’ve had with so many other shoes in my life: what once felt great in the store, soon began to pinch against the sides of my toes and the widest part of my foot. I knew that my feet would swell even more on a month-long walk than on a 5-mile training hike, so back they went to REI.
On my next visit, I decided to look at the hiking shoes, rather than the trail runners. I knew I didn’t want to buy a boot (there may be others who have had success in boots, but if you’re going to do a long-distance walk in hot summer months, I would stay away from boots), but there was this category of shoes that seemed to be something between a sneaker and a boot.
A hiking shoe. That seemed right.
I bought a lime green/gray pair of Keen Voyageurs and I never looked back. That was 4 years ago, and I’ve gone through 4 pairs of the exact same shoe. In a week or two, I’ll be buying my 5th pair.
I’ve mentioned these shoes a lot on this blog, and I’m going to go a little more in-depth here. I know that this shoe isn’t going to work for everyone, but if I had read somewhere that this was a great shoe for a wide-footed-long-distance-walker, then I probably would have started here, and saved some of the hassle and discouragement of searching through other shoes first.
First up, some specs: The Keen Voyageur is a low-profile hiking shoe, with water resistant leather material, mesh insets, removable metatomical dual density EVA footbeds (I have no idea what all of this means, but I do know that these footbeds provide really good arch support). They have a wide toe box and a high traction rubber outsole, which means the shoe has good grip on rough terrain, and they weigh in at 13.3 ounces.
Here’s what I make of all of this: the shoe is sturdy and supportive, but also breathable and lighter than a hiking boot. The weight took a bit of getting used to, but not in any big way. You’ll notice that they are heavier than a sneaker, but it’s a quick adjustment.
Thoughts on breathability (I might be making up this term): this was an important factor for me, especially since I was walking in the summer. If the shoe didn’t allow for much air circulation, then I knew my feet would get really hot and this could potentially (and most likely) cause blisters. And my verdict was that I think the mesh on the shoe allows for just enough air to keep my feet cool (enough). A sneaker or a trail running shoe is going to be even more breathable and much cooler on the foot, but as long as I took off my shoes while I was on breaks, my feet were fine, and never too hot. Over 4 summers of long-distance trekking, I’ve only gotten one problematic blister (on the bottom of my foot) which I think was due more to high mileage at the beginning of my pilgrimage, some rocky and uneven terrain, and not stopping enough for breaks than it was due to the shoes.
Thoughts on waterproofing: First of all, this shoe is not waterproof. I remember there being a lot of talk about this in REI, and it was making my head spin. The Voyageur is a water resistant shoe, which is why this shoe is much more breathable than a boot or a waterproof shoe. Basically, ‘water resistant’ is on the bottom rung of the water protection ladder. It won’t keep out water in the same way that a waterproof or water repellent shoe will, but they are designed to protect your feet from minimal water exposure.
My experience: when I walked in a light rain or a mist, the Keens kept my socks and feet dry. It was only walking in heavier rain for hours that left my socks damp and/or downright wet. I had day after day of rain this past summer on the Chemin du Puy, and my socks were never more than a bit damp and that never caused blisters. It was only on my first day on the Camino del Norte, when I walked in heavy rain all morning, that I could feel water squishing out of my socks with every step I took. Now, I haven’t walked in a ton of rain on my trips, but I have walked in England and in Scotland, and my feet have stayed pretty dry (my friend Heather even marveled at my dry socks after a wet morning on Hadrian’s Way. She was wearing sneakers, and her socks were pretty wet). So with a little over 100 days of walking on long-distance trails over the past 4 years and only one day of wet feet? I think those are pretty good odds.
Thoughts on performance: Having never actually hiked in any other shoe or boot, I have nothing to compare these to. All I can say is that I love the Keens for walking and hiking. The grip does well on rocky surfaces, the shoe isn’t too heavy but it is supportive. I suspect that I have rather sturdy ankles (no one will ever call my feet elegant), but I’ve never fallen or twisted an ankle, and I do think a supportive shoe helps prevent this. Now, if you’re going to go hiking in the wilderness for hundreds of miles I can’t exactly attest to how well these shoes will do- that might be a situation that calls for a hiking boot. But for long-distance walking over different types of terrain, including pavement, this shoe holds up extremely well.
I get a new pair every year because I put a lot of miles on them, and the tread begins to wear. I’m finally counting my miles this year so I don’t have exact numbers yet, but I’d say that I average at least 1,500 miles in them every year. If you’re looking for a pair of hiking shoes to use for shorter distances (or just for walking around!), then I’m sure these will hold up for several years.
Thoughts on sizing and fit: The wide toe box was the big selling point of this shoe for me, and I almost couldn’t trust it. Would a shoe really give me enough room across the widest part of my foot, and not squeeze my toes together like so many of the other shoes in my life? Even with some foot swelling on the very hottest summer days, the shoes never cramped my feet or gave me any nasty blisters. Now, it’s probably important to mention that I order a half size larger than my regular size (I’m an 8 1/2, and order a 9 in these shoes); this extra space is to account for any swelling that I might encounter on a long distance walk. I may have to come back and update this post, because I’ve read rumors that this year (2018), the shoe is running smaller than normal, so it might be necessary to go up yet another half size.
One other note is lacing (though this can apply to any shoe, not just the Keens); before my first Camino, the good people of REI taught me a special way to tie my laces that helped lock down my heel. Then, before my third Camino (I think?), I encountered some pain on the top of my foot whenever I hiked, so I learned that I could skip a couple of the loopholes so that the top of the shoe didn’t press down on my foot. All this is to say that the difference between an almost perfect shoe and a perfect shoe may all be in the way you tie your laces. (This sort of sounds like a metaphor for something…)
Finally, while I typically give myself at least 1-2 months to break in these shoes before I take them on a Camino, I’ve read reviews that state they can be worn straight out of the box. I’d still recommend breaking in any pair of shoes before a long trek, or to at least make sure you wear them enough to know if they’re a good fit for your feet.
I encountered a bit of Camino magic with these shoes; towards the end of my first day on the Camino Frances, while I was on the descent to Roncesvalles, I noticed a girl walking ahead of me. I caught up to her and we smiled at each other shyly, and then I looked down at her feet. She was wearing an identical pair of Keen Voyageurs! I commented on them, and then we continued to walk together for the next two weeks (until she ended her Camino in Burgos). She was my first, and one of my best Camino friends.
But it’s not just pilgrims on the Camino who wear these shoes; I’ve recommended them to friends and family, and my mother is about to buy her second pair. They are a supportive and comfortable shoe that can be used for every day wear, they can be taken on a walk around the block, and they can be taken on a walk across Spain.
The Keen Voyageurs aren’t for everyone, but if you’re planning a Camino or are in the market for a new pair of shoes, I think they’re worth a try. I can’t sing their praises enough.
(Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links; if you purchase something through one of these links, a small advertising fee will come to me, at no additional cost to you)