Most of the insoles included in hiking boots, mids, trail shoes, and trail runners are crappy foam inserts that offer little to no support or protection for your feet. If you suffer from heel pain, arch pain, pain in the ball of your foot, plantar fasciitis, you have very tight calves, knee, or even hip pain, I really recommend trying out insoles to see if they reduce or eliminate the discomfort you experience. I swear by them.
I first discovered insoles when I contracted plantar fasciitis some 20 years ago and bought a pair of Superfeet Green insoles which have a high arch to prevent a recurrence. That experience convinced me of the value of wearing insoles with all of my footwear, both hiking footwear, and regular shoes. I put a lot of mileage on my feet with all the hiking and backpacking I do, and insoles have kept me on the trail, especially as I’ve aged, and the cumulative impact of hiking has added up.
Why don’t shoe manufacturers put decent insoles into the shoes they sell? Well, doing so would require adding many variants to the standardized shoes they produce today. People have a wide variety of arch heights including flat feet, malformations such as bunions, hammertoes, neuromas, and conditions such as metatarsal pain, Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, and other lower leg ailments. There are just too many variants to make it economically feasible. Think about it in terms of the computer industry. The shoe manufacturers make the “hardware”, while the insole manufacturers make the “softwear” that personalizes shoes for different foot types and conditions.
Performance Insoles for Hikers
There are a large number of replacement insoles available that hikers can try from the lighter-duty, comfort-oriented brands like Dr. Scholls and store-brand insoles found at drug stores to more performance-oriented ones tailored for outdoor recreation. I’ve tried both and found that the drug store brands aren’t as supportive or durable as insoles specifically tailored for hiking, running, and skiing from companies like SuperFeet, Treadwear Labs, Oboz, or Sole. You can also consult with a podiatrist and get custom orthotics, but that is going to be much more expensive than the $50-$60 that a performance-oriented insole costs.
Insole Basics: Arch Supports and Footbeds
There are often two parts to a performance-style replacement insole:
- Arch support: this is usually a piece of molded plastic that forms a heel cup and curved arch. Arch supports are usually available in high, medium, and low heights.
- Footbed: this is a foot-shaped piece of foam or cork with a covering fabric to prevent slippage inside the shoe. Insoles are usually available in different thicknesses to provide cushioning and to fit in different volume shoes.
When fitting replacement insoles, you need to take the volume inside your shoe into account. For example, trail runners tend to have very little internal volume and require a medium to low arch with a very thin footbed. Hiking boots are usually much higher volume can usually accommodate a high arch and a more cushioned footbed. Unfortunately, some trial and error experimentation is required to find the arch height and volume that works with both your feet and your footwear. While this can be frustrating, most insole manufacturers have generous return policies and will let you return insoles, even if you have to trim them to fit your shoes or soften them in a stove to mold them to your foot’s shape.
SuperFeet Replacement Insoles
SuperFeet insoles have the two parts I describe above parts: a rigid plastic arch support and footbed with a fabric cover. The fabric cover is the first thing to wear out, usually after 300-500 miles of use, while the arch support will last forever. Unfortunately, you have to throw out the entire insole when the fabric cover and what little cushioning provided by the foam footbed is smashed flat and needs to be replaced. That can add up during the course of a year if you burn through a few pairs of shoes and insoles each year.
Superfeet makes two insoles that I use a lot: SuperFeet Green which has a high arch but can only fit in higher volume boots and SuperFeet Carbon, which has a moderate arch and a very thin footbed that can fit into low volume trail runners. Both prevent plantar fasciitis because they lock your heel in place and prevent pronation and supination in addition to providing rigid arch support. However, SuperFeet insoles provide very little in the way of cushioning.
Treadlabs also sells a wide variety of insoles that vary by arch height and footbed/cover thickness, but you can buy the two components separately and mix and match them to fit different shoes. This is much more cost-effective than SuperFeet because you can simply replace the footbed when it wears out without having to replace the plastic arch support as well. The savings compound over time.
Treadlabs also has a stronger focus on treating foot maladies than SuperFeet. For example, I suffer from an overuse condition called Metatarsalgia which manifests itself as pain in the ball of my foot. When it flares up, I can insert a velcro metatarsal pad in between the arch support and the footbed to relieve pressure on my metatarsal heads. It works great and I’ve been using it all winter in my insulated winter boots.
Oboz includes O FIT insoles in the shoes that they manufacture. I can’t think of any shoe manufacturer that does the same. Their footbeds are so good that you can buy them separately at REI and put them in any pair of shoes you own. They’re only $30/pair too and they’re a great lower-cost option.
While the O FIT insoles are not as supportive as SuperFeet or as modular as Treadlabs insoles, they do a good job at preventing plantar fasciitis because they have a deep heel cup, a decent arch, and extra cushioning under the ball of the foot and heel. One of the reasons I recommend Oboz shoes is because the cost of a decent insole is included with their footwear and not an add-on purchase. Oboz also sells a variant of this insole that is designed for winter use, called the O FIT Plus Thermal which has heat reflective mylar shield for improved heat retention. While it’s included in their insulated winter boots, it’s also sold separately.
Sole Replacement Insoles
While SuperFeet Carbon Insoles are thin enough to fit into my train runners when I’m not having metatarsal pain, I’ve also just started using insoles from a company called Sole that makes a very thin heat-moldable insole called the Active Thin Insole with Met Pad, that fits perfectly into my trail runners. While much of their business is focused on people who need footbeds for specific conditions, they also sell footbeds for people with “normal” feet. I put that in quotes because most people’s feet are anything but normal.
Sole’s insoles are all-one-piece and not available as separate components, so you’ll have to throw out the entire footbed when the cover wears out as you would with Superfeet. But they are also heat-moldable, which is itself an important differentiator because most people have slight differences between their right and left feet.
For instance, the arch on my left foot is lower than the arch on my right foot and I appreciate having an insole that can adjust to that difference rather than taking a one size fits all approach. It’s much more effective and feels better. The heating process is also quite simple and only requires 2 minutes in a 200-degree oven although you can achieve the same result by wearing them for a week although it relies on body heat and is a slower process.
So far, these insoles have been great and I think Sole’s Active Thin Insoles are a great option for trail runners where a very low volume insole is required. Sole’s insoles cost the same as SuperFeet’s.
This has been a crash course on replacement insoles for hikers. While it’s not exhaustive, it describes some of my insights and experiences with performance insoles over the past 20 years. Let’s face it: the manufacturer-included insoles in most new footwear are cheap foam inserts that don’t provide any additional support and little cushioning. I think you’ll be surprised by the impact that a good pair of insoles will have on your comfort and hiking performance. They might even add a few years to your feet and keep you in the hiking game longer.