Do You Need Insoles for Hiking Boots and Trail Runners?

Do You Need Insoles for Hiking Boots and Trail Runners

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.

Many insoles have two parts - a molded plastic insert to crate a heel cup and arch and foam footbed with a fabric cover
Many insoles have two parts – a molded plastic insert to create a heel cup and arch, and a foam footbed with a fabric cover that provides cushioning and prevents slippage. Shown: Superfeet Green.

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.

The problem with Superfeet is that you have to throw away the entire insole when the footbed or the fabric cover wear out.
The problem with SuperFeet is that you have to throw away the entire insole when the foam footbed wears out or starts to deteriorate. Shown: SuperFeet Carbon

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 packages their insoles and footbeds separately so you can mix and match to fit different shoes volumes without having to throw out the arch support when the footbed or its cover wear out.
Treadlabs packages their insoles and footbeds separately so you can mix and match to fit different shoe volumes without having to throw out the arch support when the footbed or its cover wears out.

Treadlabs

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.

You can insert a metatarsal pad between the arch support and the footbed because the two are separable.
You can insert a metatarsal pad between Treadlabs arch support and footbed because the two are separable. This provides instant relief for ball-of-foot pain.

The only problem I have with using Treadlab’s insoles is that their thin footbeds take up too much volume in my trail runners, so I can’t use them unless I switch to a higher volume shoe, which ain’t going to happen. Otherwise, they make a great and sustainable product that’s a great alternative to SuperFeet.

Oboz Insoles

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.

Oboz also sells quite respectable insoles.
Oboz also sells quite respectable insoles.

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’s insoles are heat moldable so you can customize them for your right and left feet to take into account differences.
Sole’s insoles are heat-moldable so you can customize them for your right and left feet to take into account their differences.

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.

Sole heat-moldable insoles don’t have a separate arch and cover. They’re one piece so they can mold around your feet.
Sole heat-moldable insoles don’t have a separate arch and cover. They’re one piece so they can mold around your 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.

Wrap Up

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.

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32 comments

  1. Let me first apologize and say right off the bat that my comment is a little off-topic, but I do want to offer a slightly different point of view.

    I started backpacking in traditional heavy hiking boots, tried some different insoles including the SuperFeet, then switched to lighter trail runners. Three years ago I made the switch to hiking in barefoot shoes. I had previously worn casual barefoot shoes for several years and decided it was time to apply them to hiking. Now my feet and legs have been more than happy. There might be some truth that modern footwear can be overengineered, and some “technology” in shoes is just marketing hype.

    I’ll gladly be a test subject and find out how far I can go with just barefoot shoes until or if any problems arise. Less is more they say.

    • There are many ways to address these issues. I prefer wearing replacement insoles in my winter boots and in my low drop 4mm trail runners which I prefer the rest of the year. People just have to discover what works the best for them. Personally, I’ve avoided blindly endorsing the zero-drop religion because there is such a wide range of possible solutions that also have merit. Replacement insoles work for me and provide a very viable option for people who are in agony and can’t wait 3 years for zero drop shoes to transform their lower body. Your mileage may be different. My goal is only to provide another alternative and some educational information, minus the hype.

      • Yes, don’t endorse anything blindly and this isn’t a black and white issue. I likewise wanted to provide an alternative approach. I enjoy your blog posts and I’m sure you’re right about manufacturer-included insoles often being an afterthought.

        My transition to barefoot hiking shoes was a long process and it didn’t happen overnight. But if people continue to feel pain despite modern supportive, heeled shoes, high-performance insoles, and custom orthotics, while I’m going pain-free and injury-free with a no-frills barefoot shoe, then I could be doing a lot worse. A merely anecdotal observation.

        Of course, I can’t say anything concrete until we get a fair amount of useful scientific research on the subject. There however isn’t much to support the health benefits of traditional shoes either. The subject interests me and I will continue to keep up to date with what scientists publish on the matter.

      • Thank you so much for writing the articles about insoles.
        My feet can not stand arches built into the insole. I just need a good cushion. I used to buy and store New Balance insoles, but they disconinued the flat cushioned insoles I am trying the moldable “Sole’ insoles. Hopefully the cure is in hand..
        I’ll keep you posted

    • I had the same experience, except my zero drop no cushion shoes helped me strengthen and condition my feet. Until they screwed up my Achilles heel and I couldn’t run firm for six months. Everything in moderation, I guess!

    • I’ve switched to custom made insoles in a prosthetic and they’re great. They do a mold of your feet and then do a rigid insole that fully support your arch. Great stuff.

  2. I’ve been really happy with the custom orthotics I got from a podiatrist. It’s a pricey alternative that may not be available in some areas. I was fortunate to find a great one here in NH and it’s worked out well, and he certainly seemed super knowledgeable about feet and movement mechanics. I have to keep in mind that they were made for certain types of footwear and they do not work with shoes that have an arch already built into the shoe like Topo.

  3. Over the years I’ve used SOLE, Superfeet, $650 custom othotics, and now Treadlabs. For me, the Treadlabs are the best option. They are customisable with a variety of met pad options and they are sustainable with the replaceable parts. Wish I had found these before the $650 “custom” orthotics.

  4. I have had very good effects from my surefoot footbeds. I found out that i had a leg length diffrence that was giving me lower back trouble. It was only 4 mills, but enough. The guys at surefoot built my right thotic 4 mills fatter, and some added arch support for an old climbing injury as well.

  5. Bill in Roswell GA

    Philip, this is the most comprehensive review of insoles I’ve seen ever. Appreciate the attention to detail. Every foot is different, every case different.

    A few boots felt good out of the box over the miles. But my load became lighter and footwear followed. Salomon Quest fit well, felt good. First hike a rugged 5 mile loop in N GA. So rocky it was like my days in Maine and NH. My arch is a bit high allowing my feet to slide. My toes suffered on steep descents. Superfeet rep said try the green insole. Perfect! Great support, no sliding in the boot. My feet felt locked-in and comfortable.

    Lesson is shoes are made to fit an average foot. Few feet are average so you may have to try a few insoles to get it perfect. So go to a store with a good return policy and employees trained for insoles (most quality stores will pay for mfg rep training).

    Yes, it takes work to fit your feet!

    • REI has the entire Superfeet insoles in their stores for testing out in a new pair of shoes/boots. I found the ones that worked for me and bought them without having to return something later.

      Dave

  6. What brand are the oddly shaped ones on the far left and right in the first picture?

    • Emsold Orthotics.
      https://amzn.to/3Nfd5T9
      They’re half inserts with a very aggressive metatarsal “bump”. They’re made with leather so they’re not really suitable for any boot/shoe that will get wet inside. Half inserts are good if you have footwear that has non-removable foam inserts or a shoe that has a low volume forefoot.

  7. Love my treadlabs, they also offer 3/4 insole covers as well. So far with all my shoes and boots I haven’t had a problem with their normal or thin version. Their customer service is also fantastic! I had a insole start to fall apart not long after use, sent a picture and 2 days later had a brand new pair, no cost to me and no questions asked other than for a picture. I have 2 pairs, 1 for my running shoes, other for work and everything else

  8. Super helpful info. Most insole manufacturers have such a prolific product line that it is hard to know were to start. The current marketing trend based on “lifestyles” only adds confusion. Your list trims it down to a manageable group. A thumbs-up to Tread-Lab for having a rational and understandable product line.

  9. Foot shaped shoes with zero drop and kneesovertoesguy training does the trick for me. For the life of me I can’t understand why most shoe companies make shoes that force feet into unnatural shapes that lead to and exacerbate foot problems in the first place.

  10. Good stuff. I keep meaning to try some aftermarket insoles in a pair of Lone Peaks that are feeling flat but still have life left in the outers. Right now I just make them my yard work shoes. As far as the stock insoles providing little or nothing, my experience varies. I did a simple overnite backpack recently. 9-10 miles each day. I had removed my insoles from my Lone Peaks when cleaning them and forgot to put them back in. The first day involved traversing a lot of rough and rocky trail. My feet were very uncomfortable by about mile 4 and I was perplexed because the shoes had maybe 100 miles on them , much of that on very rocky trails in the Wind Rivers. I could not figure it out until I removed them and looked inside. Much profanity ensued. I made it out the second day, but my feet were pretty sore for a couple of weeks. Do not sell those stock insole’s short!

  11. Great article Phillip. The single most important piece of equipment a hiker has is footwear. I had plantar fasciitis about 10 years ago and finally concluded it was my shoes. Trial and error I found Oboz. Love the shoe but heavy. Kept looking and finally found Topo. Not everyone likes these shoes but they work for me. The stock insoles were like slippers to my feet. After about 250 miles the insoles were shot. I ordered a new 11.5 from their website and they fit perfectly with no trimming. I can probably get another 250 miles out of these shoes. Everyone’s feet are different so reviews are not really very helpful. It really is trial and error to find what works for you.

  12. My feet get stress fractures on the top of feet. What would help for this. I’ve also had Achilles problem o one foot. It popped a tendon which was 6 years ago & ok unless the other tendon ever pops then it means surgery. I’ve had planterfatiitis in the the past but not now. Have an exercise thing called Bob & helps for that. High arches so good support helps. Mostly on feet a lot for a lot of years weighing too much. Gonna try the treadlabs.

  13. I have had a great winter of hiking with the Power Step Pinnacle orthotic in my NorthFace Chilkat boots. I wasn’t a fan of the insert that came with the boot and wanted to make sure to replace it with something insulated. These footbeds are like a boiled wool layer on top of a nicely formed orthotic.

  14. Phil, thank you for this very important topic.
    For decades I would try conditioning my feet before a backpacking trip with long hikes carrying a weighted pack. It, sadly, dis not help much.
    10 years ago I bought a pair of the thinnest version of “SOLE” insoles from my local REI and WOW! After using them I never, ever got blisters on the soles of my feet from long backpacking trips in rough terrain. Now all my low and mid MERRILL shoes/boots those have them.

    They do require heating in an oven but if you follow the instructions precisely you will have NO blisters on the soles of your footsies.

  15. I have spina bifida occult and jarring up my leg can cause problems. I bought my first replacement insoles back in 84 to try and mitigate this problem. They used what was then a new product, sorbothane. It worked and I still use the same brand sorbothane insoles in every boot I own.
    I must admit I do not replace the ones in my salomon shoes as the proprietary insoles and footbed system seems to work but I do put them in my salomon, grisport and Garmint boots. This is due to the different terrain and load I go on in boots.
    They work, that is all I can say about them.

  16. Phil,

    Great article, I’ve been plagued with plantar fasciitis since October and have not hiked since. Saw a podiatrist and they recommended an insole that hurt so decided to scrap that idea.

    Have an appointment with the PT at Agility Orthopedics and will discuss the article with them.

    Thanks

  17. I feel I have to comment, and rarely, almost never, do. Thank you for concisely laying these out these insoles clearly. I found looking for replacement insoles to be frustrating, and you’ve cut through the marketing morass for me. Much appreciated.

  18. Hi Phil, Not sure why you didn’t include the Insole Company products in you great review. They have a variety of insoles that address different foot issues. I first tried their standard insert for arch support and was pleased with the result. Then I began to have pain in my metatarsal zone at the base of the toes. Insole makes a specific metatarsal insert that works well addressing that pain, at least for me. I use them in my everyday Atria Paradigm and my Lone Pine 4s.

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