Early last year, while training to climb Mount Rainier, I developed plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the thick band of tissue joining the heels and toes. Because of the lack of mountains where I live, my training entailed a lot of running and hiking with a heavy pack; by the time June rolled around, imperfections in my stride had torqued the tissue until it could take no more. I woke up with sharp pain in my heels every morning; how would I climb a 14,000-foot volcano hobbling like an old man?
The unfortunate truth is the insoles that come with your $100 running shoes are useless slabs of flaccid foam, and using them can result in some nasty physical injuries like mine. One solution is to visit a podiatrist and get custom-made orthotic insoles, which work for many people; unfortunately, when I tried them they did little for me other than make my shoes uncomfortable and empty my wallet. Off-the-shelf options, on the other hand, provided solid support and comfort at an affordable price. These four showed great results across a wide variety of outdoor pursuits.
Editor’s Note: Given the personalized nature of injuries, anatomy, activities and shoes, your mileage may vary, so be sure to consult with a podiatrist or knowledgeable shoe retailer when selecting the right insoles for you.
Superfeet has been around since the ’90s, and their product line is large, based on colors, and somewhat confusing. So much so that after years of wearing the Superfeet Blue insoles, I discovered that they were the wrong ones for my feet; I wanted the Superfeet Greens ($40), which are made for people with high arches.
But regardless of style, the Superfeet concept consists of a full-length foam pad with a rigid plastic heel cup that holds the back of the foot in place as you stride forward. This added support and had less discernible movement of my wheel while walking and running. Like most replacement insoles, you need to trim the front edge for it to fit in your shoes. In addition to being the most affordable, the Superfeet retain odor far less than other options, a plus when you’re spending half the price of your shoes on insoles.
Archflex is a Swedish company owned by Icebug, makers of innovative hiking shoes and studded winter running shoes. Their insoles are the patented result of a collaboration with Ortolab, another Scandinavian company experienced in custom orthotics. Archflex insoles ($45) lack the rigid plastic heel cup of the Superfeet, and are softer — in fact, they seemed too soft. But the full-length foam pads are highly molded with curves and protrusions in just the right places to provide stability and motion control while flexing to cushion impact.
Archflexes come in two different thickness levels, three different arch heights and ten different shoe sizes. I tried both the 5mm and 2mm versions in shoes and boots, and it was actually these insoles that I fitted in my Mammut mountaineering boots for the Rainier climb. Best of all, they’re washable, which I appreciated after a round trip up and down a mountain.
Footbalance Quick Fit Blue
Footbalance is another Scandinavian company (hailing from Finland), and they offer an impressive array of insoles tailored for very specific activities (figure skating, anyone?). They also provide custom insole fitting at their network of retailers, adding yet another measure of personalization. The Quick Fit Blue insoles ($45) are suitable for a variety of medium-impact activities. Their effectiveness is thanks in large part to the ability to heat-mold the insoles to your feet: out of the box, you trim the foam pad, pop them in the oven at a low temperature for 15 minutes, and then put them in your shoes and walk around for another 15 minutes. The result is a nearly custom fit that works great; these are the insoles I keep in my everyday shoes, switching them around as needed. A word of warning, though: they do tend to retain odor more than some others and are a bit thicker, meaning they take up more space in shoes.
CurrexSole is a German brand that partners with known footwear brands like Nike, Lowa and CCM (skates) to make insoles for specific sports. Lastly, they’re one of the few brands that make insoles specifically for cycling — which may sound counterintuitive, given the lack of impact in biking, but they have been proven to prevent foot fatigue and cramping during long rides with clipless pedals.
Their RunPro insoles ($50) are highly effective for a variety of activities. The deep heel cup and low profile help them fit in most any shoe, unlike some of the thicker alternatives. Cushioning pads in the heel and forefoot absorb impact well, the rigid arch support cements feet in place over long days on the trail, and the multilayer footbed is made from wicking material that keeps feet dry and prevents blisters. I opted for the blue version, which fit my high arches well, and though the RunPros are not as pronounced an arch as the others in this guide, they proved adequate for my feet. If you’re looking for an insole strictly for hiking, CurrexSole’s EdgePro is thicker and a bit less flexible.