The 5 (Functional) Travel Shoes You Can't Live Without

I've seen a handful of blog posts about travel shoes lately. While the shoes have been cute, without exception, they've also caused me to think "Ahh ... really?" 

It all comes down to what kind of traveling you're doing. I will not now or ever sneeze at the thought of strolling Paris in smart heels (although, how, with the cobblestones?). However, those dainties would typically not cut it for the type of travel that I'm most drawn to, which generally involves dirt, dust, mud, rocks, water and other situations that will test a shoe's mettle.

So, I'm warning you, this might not be pretty. However, after road-testing a variety of kicks over the years, slipping and scrambling and stubbing my toes all along the way, these are my tried and true shoe essentials for getting through any kind of travel (except mountain climbing, which is only for crazy people).

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1. Hiking boots.

If you, like me, are afflicted with ankles made of taffy rather than bone, you're going to need a good, high hiking boot if you want to off-road it now and again. They'll help you keep your balance, stave off twisted ankles and give you the confidence you need to go scampering up and down hillsides like a Swiss goat. There's no point in trying to go all fashiony here. What you want is something with a good, rugged sole that will take you over gravel, rocks and other surfaces of questionable stability; an adaptable lacing system that will help you customize the shoe to fit your foot better (read: cause fewer blisters); and perhaps some sort of waterproofing, like Gore-Tex, in case conditions get sloppy and you're a two-day hike away from the nearest hotel (or if it gets rainy on a short walk, whichever). Personally, I favor Asolo's boots, which tick all the boxes for ruggedness, comfort and functionality, while remaining fairly streamlined. 

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2. Hiking shoes.

Ugh, yes there's a difference. And no, your regular running shoes or tennis shoes or whatever they're called will not be an acceptable stand-in. Hiking shoes, for me, are the lighter alternative to boots, weighing in at closer to 2 pounds than 4 - and if you're carrying your crap with you everywhere you go, that weight differential will be meaningful to you. But even though they're lighter, a low hiking shoe can still give you more gripping power and support than your average mushy-soled, squishy-sided "athletic shoes." (Seriously, what are they called? I don't wear them.) My strategy was to buy a nicely ventilated low hiker for warmer climates and keep the Gore-Tex water resistance to my big girl boots. The Oboz Sawtooth just happened to fit my foot extraordinarily well and I found the styling inoffensive, so it's my shoe of choice, though I will say that Merrell's Moab Ventilator was also a strong contender. 

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3. Sandals.

Flip flops have their place (the beach). But if you want to get the benefits of sandals without the risk of them flying off your feet or destroying your arches, maybe consider something that is a little more, dare I say, clunky and functional - clunktional? These are great for doing active, fun things like scampering across waterfalls and fording streams and clambering up slippery jungle slopes - and all of those are awesome things to do. So ignore the look of those heavy soles and concentrate on having a great time doing things the people in flip flops can't. Chacos are my sandal of choice because they're incredibly comfortable and don't look totally hideous if you opt for a subdued color.

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4. City kicks. 

You don't want to go plodding everywhere in your hiking shoes/boots/whatevers, so you're going to need something that will: A) be kind to your feet; and B) be subtle if not sort of stylish in appearance. I'm now on my second pair of Tretorn Skymras, despite frequent queries about my abilities to tie my shoes and why I'm wearing ace bandages around my feet. They're pliant, comfortable and reminiscent of the classic Converse Chuck Taylors, only more ... Swedishy. In my opinion, they're a nice middle ground of practical and chic. They're also a charm for airports, since they slip easily on and off. 

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5. The just-in-case-you-need-to-dress-up shoe.

In my travels, the need to dress up is generally rare. However, it's nice, when the occasion arises, to have something feminine to fall back on. Enter the genius of the folding ballet flat - they weight close to nothing, they take up about as much room as a large orange when folded, and they instantly add polish. Pack these, a little dark jersey dress and a shawl and you can certainly feel comfortable going out for a nice dinner in Lima, Istanbul, Hanoi, Luang Prabang or wherever you find yourself. A word of caution, though - not all stretchy, foldable ballet flats are your friend. Some of them pinch your ankles and shred away your skin like little patent leather demons. I opt for the super comfy Festive from Corso Como, which you can find in a zillion different colors at multiple Web vendors.

Depending on the kind of trip you're taking and the weight you're willing to schlep, you can pack a combination of any of these shoes and be ready to take on just about any situation, from sloppy trails to capital city streets.