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What Is The Outsole of a shoe? [Definition, History, Types & Uses]


Article Categories: Gear | Hiking Tips
Article Tags: Footwear

In this article, we will discuss the outsole of a shoe. What it is, the purpose, technological advances, history, and different types of outsoles.

What is an outsole?

Simply put, the outsole is the outermost part of the shoe that is in contact with the ground.  The outsole is meant to provide footwear with the necessary traction and protection from the surfaces it will be in contact with. They can be made from various materials, often rubber, polyurethane,  leather, and other synthetic materials. The material in use depends upon the use case for the shoe. The outsole is often simply referred to as the sole of a shoe.

What Materials Is An Outsole Made of?

Makers of the outsole can design it using a variety of materials.

These include rubber, polyurethane, PVC compounds, and leather. Note that some types of outsoles will give more traction compared to others. This is especially true if certain designs or materials are used. The design of the sole can be thought of much like the design of tire tread. Different tread patterns will yield different levels of traction on certain surfaces.

What matters is the style of the shoe and precisely why it is being made. For instance, a ballroom dancer might prefer to wear a type of shoe that has a smooth leather sole to make it easier for the individual r to turn and glide on the floor. A hiker will want a thick, and tread filled sole for traction, and protection on various outdoor surface.

Hiking Shoe Outsoles

A hiker, on the other hand, might prefer to wear a shoe made with durable, thick, and waterproof material. Notably, the soles of most shoes are usually made using natural rubber, PVC compounds, and polyurethane.

Why Are Shoes Designed With Outsoles?Shoe Outsole

Shoes that are made using outsoles are usually longer-lasting and more durable than a shoe made without an outsole. Regardless, we all know that, after a while, these soles and shoes ultimately wear off. Indeed, the first part of the shoe to wear off is often the outsole. Happily, many types of shoes can be repaired and resoled right there in your local repair or cobbler’s shop. This is far more common in older shoe types, or handmade shoes. Often, modern, or athletic footwear tend to not have replaceable soles.

The History of the Outsole

Have you ever considered the origin of the shoe or its outsole? Well, the first-ever shoes were designed using natural materials.

For this reason, the outsoles were quite thin. On their part, Native Americans designed soft-soled moccasins that were cleverly crafted out of animal hides. This allowed for greater warmth, greater comfort, and protection from the harder ground surfaces that aided in survival.

Further down in history, designers in the Middle Ages typically made soles using sturdier materials. These included braded jute and leather.

In time, the shoe-making craft gradually evolved to include shoes that were exclusively made of leather soles. Such soles were carefully sewn onto the shoes. This was the case particularly beginning around 1600 AD. To date, this remains the standard used for fine leather dress shoes.

The Rise of Outsole Technology

Dress Shoe OutsoleInterestingly, shoes continued to be steadily handmade down into the years of the Industrial Revolution.  Before this time, the designers painstakingly stitched leather soles onto the shoes of the time. Imagine how time-consuming this process was.


At the time, leather was one of the most durable materials that could be used for such a purpose. Regardless, it is not one of the most malleable materials. But things steadily changed as the industrial revolution took charge. By the end of the 19th century, the art of shoe-making was now mostly mechanized. It, therefore, consumed less time.  As we can imagine, the factories soon produced the shoes in mass quantity, using specialized machines. It was no longer such a painstaking process.

Types of Outsoles

It is quite reasonable that the outsoles for men and women’s dress shoes should be made in a special way. Yes, they are usually made using high quality rubber and leather. On their part, casual shoes, that are worn every day, are made of outsoles crafted from materials like polyurethane or rubber. The same applies to shoes that are primarily used for work, athletics, or other outdoor activities.Dancing Shoe Outsole

Designers of the outsole have different methods that they use to make the products.

For example, the outsole can be made using the same or different type of material. An all-leather shoe, for instance, is considered as the standard characteristic of the dress shoe. Unfortunately, it does not offer the most ideal traction compared to others.

To remedy this, some modern types of dress shoes are designed with a leather outsole placed on the front section. Moreover, a practical rubber sole is placed in the heel to boost greater durability and traction.

When considering the type of material to use in making the outsole, designers usually consider the purpose of the shoe being made. As a result, athletic shoes are generally designed with different kinds of outsoles.

It all depends on how the shoe will be used.

If, for instance, the athletic shoe in production will be used for various kinds of games, it is designed and made in a specific manner, using specific material for the outsole. Therefore, football shoes, track shoes, baseball shoes, soccer shoes and golf shoes are likely to be embedded with spikes or cleats to boost traction.

Further, other athletic shoes, including wrestling shoes, climbing shoes and basketball shoes are all likely to be made with rubber soles to improve the chances of greater grip and traction.

Marathoner Vs. Engineer’s Shoes

Interestingly, if you talked to a long distance marathoner, like Kenya’s legendary champion, Eliud Kipchoge, you will learn some interesting

Running Shoe Outsole

facts. The champion marathoner will, likely tell you that the best type of shoes for his sport should have a sturdy grip, rougher edges and should be gently spiky. But, in comparison, an electrician, who is highly skilled in repairing a camping generator, for instance, will probably have a slightly different preference. Most likely, he might rather use a type of shoes made with a rubber sole. Such a sole works perfectly to prevent grounding and electric shock, and has traction on wet, muddy, or dirty floors, thus enhancing his personal safety at work.

Finally, what if the designers are making cycling shoes? This is a different ballgame altogether. Typically, cycling gamers usually use sturdy, rigid shoes. Cycling shoes, are, therefore, designed to be stiff with the featured outsole reflecting the same design.

Don’t even get us started on wading boots. While some boots have studded bottoms, others are polyurethane, and others are made of felt. This is all in attempt to gain greater traction on river bottoms to prevent fast moving water sweeping anglers away.

What Makes A Good Outsole?

It depends on the type of shoes you want. Moreover, what will you use the shoes for? Nevertheless, here are some of the premier qualities of the best outsoles in the market:Running Shoe Rubber Outsole


During winter, it’s easier to slide and slip over an icy sidewalk if you are wearing shoes with smooth leather soles instead of grippy rubber ones. Trail runners, and hiking boots will often have some rubber studs, running shoes may have thick flat soles, and dress shoes or dancing shoes may have smooth soles. Be sure to get the right level of traction for your needs.


Pavement, ice, wooden floors, snow, dirt, mud, rocks all have different abilities to break down shoe sole materials. Know that polyurethane, rubber and other synthetic materials generally hold up much better than natural materials.


This is very subjective, but dress shoes generally have the natural leather look. All kinds of shoe soles can be designed differently, so this one is really up to you preference.


Some shoes may be a bit heavier and stiffer, while others are lighter and more flexible. Comfort really has to due with use case. Heavy and stiff, may be great for work boots. Thin and light might be great for some runners, and terrible for others.

Final Thoughts

We all wear shoes for different purposes.

We wear shoes when going for a walk in town, when riding, when going sporting or simply to protect our feet from injury on a day-to-day basis. The outsole, or sole, is an extremely important piece of the footwear you have on.

The outsole is a crucial invention that changed the lives of people hundreds of years ago in the days of the industrial revolution and the Middle Ages, and even far before then.

Knowing the various materials used in making shoes helps a lot in selecting the right shoes for your needs. Understanding the differences in type, quality, and maintenance as well as the benefits and drawbacks will help guarantee that you wear your shoes with pride, comfort, and ideal functionality.

Alexey P.

Alexey P.

Alexey is an electrical engineer by training. He has a passion for camping, which, mixed with his passion for electrical engineering makes him intrigued by camping tools like generators. If you have a question about camping generators, ask Alexey.

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