How to Choose the Right Shoes for Various Walking Surfaces

Woman walking on a track

Westend61 / Getty Images

The right shoes for your feet can make all of the difference for walking comfort. It's true that you can walk barefoot or walk in stylish dress shoes. But for fitness walking, you should choose athletic shoes to support and protect your feet. You should also have a variety of shoes to meet different climates and surfaces.

Choosing the Right Shoe

Do you know what to look for in a walking shoe? Not all athletic shoes or shoes labeled as walking shoes have the right qualities for fitness walking. The qualities you need in a walking shoe include that it is flexible in the forefoot, it has a low heel that is not flared, and it is not overly heavy.

Then you should have your gait assessed at a serious running shoe store and have them recommend the right style of athletic shoes for your needs. They may recommend a motion control shoe if you overpronate.

You'll also want to choose shoes that are suitable for the conditions and terrain where you plan to walk.

Asphalt or Blacktop

Regular athletic shoes work well on asphalt, blacktop, and cinder running tracks. These surfaces have a little elasticity and so your feet, knees, and hips don't feel as much impact with each step as they do with harder surfaces.

If you walk on asphalt paths or roads, choose your favorite running or walking shoes. You won't need highly cushioned shoes.

With a smooth surface, you won't need hiking shoes that are designed to protect you against rocks and provide extra traction. But if you like those styles, there is no harm in wearing them on asphalt.

Concrete Pavement

Athletic shoes do well on pavement, such as found on sidewalks and buildings with concrete floors. This includes the typical flooring encountered by mall walkers. However, if your feet are feeling tired after you walk on concrete, you may want to look for cushioned athletic shoes.

Pavement has no elasticity, and even though walking is low-impact, there still is some impact. Many new cushioning materials are very lightweight, so cushioned shoes don't have to be overly heavy.

If you walk on cobblestone or paver stone surfaces and you find the stones are uncomfortable, you may want to get a trail hiking shoe. Those shoes often have a plate in the sole that keeps the bottom of your foot from feeling the stones.

Trails and Natural Paths

If you walk on natural paths of dirt rock, you may want ​​trail shoes with more rugged soles for traction and to protect the sole of your foot and toes from rocks. The uppers are also usually made of more durable materials to resist rips and tears. They also feature a gusseted tongue that helps keep trail debris out of your shoe. The shoes are built to be very stable and supportive so you have less risk of spraining an ankle.

Trail shoes come in many designs from most of the best brands of athletic shoes, plus many brands that specialize in them. Trail running designs are the lightest. If you are still walking rather than backpacking, look for the lighter weight varieties and those with some flexibility. Many boots are very stiff and should be used when carrying a heavy load, but are not pleasant to wear for a day hike.

Shoes for Rainy Conditions

Remove one excuse to not walk in the rain by getting a pair of waterproof shoes. Often you can find a pair of lightweight hiking shoes that are waterproof. These are often designed as GTX, which stands for the Gore-tex vapor barrier. You will pay more for this option, but it will help you keep walking through the dreary months and is a good investment.

Summer Walks

If you like to give your toes some air, walking sandals may be your choice. Many brands of sandals now have rugged-looking trail sandals, and some walkers enjoy using them in summer for fitness walking. Even some flip flop designs now have an orthotic footbed and provide support and cushioning.​

However, sandals have their drawbacks in that it's easy to get gravel and other debris under your sole, causing irritation.

Even well-designed flip flops don't work well for brisk walking as you can't properly roll through a step from heel to toe without a heel cup. Plus, the toe post will end up causing a lot of pain if you walk down a steep hill.

Comfort Shoes for Style

If you can't wear athletic shoes at work but want to be able to get in a walk during the workday, look for a pair of comfort shoes that can do dual duty. These also are good if you walk to work or walk quite a bit on your commute.

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.