Walking does not take much equipment but the one piece of equipment it does require is critical. When you consider how many steps you take and for how long, it all comes down to, literally, where the rubber meets the road - your shoes.
In most athletic mega stores you will find a category for "walking" which are modified versions of running shoes with the key characteristics being: light, flexible, and lower heel. If you pick up a pair you probably wont be able to tell the difference if you compare them next to a moderate to lower cost running shoe. In fact, if you understand the differences you might buy a running shoe where there is more variety and possibly better pricing. Or, you might want go with a trail running shoe. Of course, there is the choice of dropping mega-bucks for a pair of Mephisto's or Ecco's at your local high-end mall, if you either have money to burn or are status conscious.
Here are the six main points to look for:
Shoe Weight - You'll want a light shoe because the time on your feet and number of steps suggest you will use less energy. All atheletes know that weight is generally only useful if it protects or if you are going downhill. However, light weight is not the most critical of factors. Just avoid buying a heavy shoe for long distance walking.
Flexibility - All walking shoe reviewers always put this at or near the top factor. The most important point of flexibility is at the ball of the foot between the toes and arch. A walking stride assumes the heel on one foot is down and the rear foot ball is bent and pushing off. That push is a critical point of energy transmission. If the shoe is too stiff the foot must work harder to bend. Some running shoes may be too stiff, so test this feature. Some ability to twist the shoe provides lateral flexibility but is not critical for flat walking such as on streets and canal paths.
Heel - one of the main consistent differences between walking shoes and running shoes is the heel. Generally, a good pair of shoes for walking have a slightly elevated heel and are not too wide. You will notice that running shoes vary quite a bit in this category. A running shoe that feels very cushy in the heel is probably not the best choice, although you should have some mdoerate amount of heel cushion, especially if you are walking pavement and hard surfaces. The heel area of the outer shoe should also be cut fairly low so that the sides and back do not cause friction when walking.
Recently, you may have notice that running shoes are going through an identity crisis of their own. With the introduction of Vibram five-finger running shoes there is a popular movement to move running more toward flexibility and away from heel striking impact. From discussions with runner friends, I've learned that there may be an important trend that will affect runners, primarily because it requires changing your running pattern. The major benefit is that the new product is intended to make you run more naturally and avoid impact injuries - i.e., more like walking!!
Right-sizing - As a general rule, you should buy a pair of shoes that are a full size larger than your dress shoe size. This is perhaps the hardest feature to decide on because you dont want a tight shoe, yet you dont want a shoe that is much too large. When walking for a long period of time your feet will swell 1/2 size larger. You should only buy a shoe when you are wearing at least a medium to heavy pair of sox. You will want the heel and the upper to fit comfortably but not too loose. The toe box must be wide enough so that there is no rubbing. Also, there should be ample space in the front so that you toes never touch the shoe front even when walking downhill. Pronation is generally not a big factor in walking shoe since there isn't the same impact as when runnng.
Break-in - In the outdoor footwear world, breaking in hiking boots is the first commandment to insure a comportable shoe when hiking. That's true for stiffer, leather shoes and particularly boots. This is not much of an issue for distance walking shoes. Although, you should allow at least a month of fairly steady usage (say 3 days a week) to be sure a running shoe or trail shoe is properly broken in before a long distance walk.
Mileage - Reviews often talk about replacing shoes after 500 miles or 6 months. Of course there is a time when everything wears itself out, but this can be a bit arbitrary and depends on your use. It is good to have an alternate pair of shoes to allow one pair to dry out. There is a reality that either the sole material is wearing or the cushion of the shoe is "deadened" so that the shoes dont perform the way you would like.
My Shoe Buying Experience
The following is my REI story from the past two years. REI has stores in East Hanover, Marlton (near Philly) and one recently opened in New York City. They had a pretty good variety of shoes and I decided to go for a trail running shoe for distance walking. Salomon the ski boot company seems to have recently come out with a variety of models. So I ended up picking a high-end Salomon with Gore-tex. I was a bit puzzled if I should buy Gore-tex as it was sold for keeping dry in wet conditions. It seemed like it might be good extra option. I had on a medium weight sock and a sock liner to check the fit. The fit seemed a little tight but I rationalized this. After hiking with these for a few days, I realized that this was not the right size. I needed a larger size because the side of the shoe seem to almost cause a foot strain and was tiring me.
So, I went back for a larger size but needed to switch to another Salomon model because of larger sizing. This seemed like a better size but not perfect. I decided to try them out again for a week or so. They also seemed narrow on the outer side. It seemed that Solomon was just cut too narrow for my feet.
On the third try, I chose something entirely different, Merrill Moab trail runners. As soon as I put them on, perhaps because I had to learn the hard way, I felt they were right. More like slippers I would say. Wide yet not too wide. Able to put on 2 pairs of sox or 1 pair and still feel comfortable. The lacing was also better and more flexible. It became my primary walking/hiking shoe for 2010. Sometimes it takes some work and experience to get it right AND it pays to shop where you can really try out something and not feel dirty bringing it back until you get it right.
Last year, for the many long walks I planned in 2011, I took a quick look at alternatives and looked over my 2010 Moabs to check their condition. I was surprised to see that there was substantial wear in the heel. So, being tight for time, I went back to REI early in the year and saw similar offerings. So, I ended up buying Moabs again. Fortunately, they felt good and similar to what I was wearing, maybe a bit stiffer and substantial. So, I practiced often with both pairs and used the new Moabs for all five events. Only during the Great Canal Walk did I feel I was getting a blister, but still managed to finish before the blister finished me.
This year, I'll be shopping around in the early part of 2012 and will report back on the state of walking shoes then. Let us know your experiece.
Original Review January 2010, by Paul Kiczek. Updated 1/22/12.