footwear-bannerWhen it comes to footwear on the trail, I keep it simple. I pick a style of trail running shoes that is lightweight, fits well, is a good balance between flexible and stiff, and seems reasonably rugged. I typically hike once a week, on a Saturday or Sunday, and occasional multi-day hikes throughout the year. These shoes last for about a year and a half. I only wear hiking boots when I need protection from water (think winter, Pacific Northwest). And for smaller hikes in the summer, I find sandals to be the most comfortable because they keep my feet cool.

Beware the Shoe Salesman

Be cautious listening to the advice of outdoor shoe salespeople. They tend to steer you toward stiff, heavy hiking boots, especially if you say you plan to do multi-day hikes. I’ve been suckered by this too many times. DON’T LISTEN! And for gosh sakes don’t carry a 50 pound pack that requires you to wear boots! You’ll only make a miserable experience for yourself.

Hiking Boots

These come in enormous variety today: Solid leather, mixed mesh fabric and leather, all synthetic, soft, hard, flexible sole, stiff sole, etc. Bottom line: If you hike with less than 40 pounds on your back, you really don’t need a hiking boot. When I see people on casual summer day hikes trudging down the trail in huge heavy boots, all I can think is: hot feet. I hate hot feet. I used to hike this way and my feet would swell and sweat into misery, and blister up too. I had to stop every hour and air my feet for 10 or 15 minutes. Fun. That, plus the rule that one pound on the foot equals five on the back, and you can see how hiking in boots really cuts into your progress, not to mention enjoyment. It’s time to do away with boots, except where you really need them.

When Boots Make Sense

Wear waterproof or water resistant boots if you’re hiking in snow, heavy rain, thick mud or similar conditions. With a wicking sock (see Socks below), this is the most comfortable option in these conditions. I do not agree with ultralight hikers who insist on trail running shoes for all conditions. You’re not out on the trail to make yourself miserable. Choose the most reasonable option for the conditions you’re expecting.

Hiking Shoes

I plant to investigate this option soon. Last time I did was several years ago and the fit of these shoes just did not work for my feet. These tend to be a little more stiff and also a bit more protective than trail running shoes. With advances in footwear lately, these might be worth a look.

Trail Running Shoes

Trail running has taken off in popularity, so today your local running store has a number of trail shoe options. I’ve tried a lot of these for running and hiking, and lately I’v settled on the brand Mizuno, whichever current model best fits. I’ve also found New Balance shoes sometimes work. Other brands won’t work so well for me because they have more narrow toe boxes, which cram my toes together. I find this extremely uncomfortable. Trail runners are my default choice for most hiking conditions.

Toe Shoes AKA Five Fingers

The book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall has inspired barefoot runners, and their less hardcore brethren who wear minimal, more natural-style shoes such as Five Fingers. These have gotten quite popular in the last few years. I have not personally worn this type of shoe. My wife has some expedience with them. Basically, they might be very comfortable to wear for casual walking and running on groomed trails, but for rugged trails, which is what I favor, they just don’t have the support or protection from uneven conditions and sharp rocks that you need. And I have it on good authority that Christopher McDougall himself was spotted buying conventional running shoes at the Boulder Running Company, so that should tell you something.

Hiking Sandals

too much hiking in Chaco sandalsToo much sandal hiking in dry weather. Ouch!

I hike in Chaco sandals through much of the summer. They keep my feet from getting uncomfortably hot, and if you stay on trials, they offer enough support and traction. These are extremely well made and durable sandals that can last for years. My previous pair lasted four years before the tread and straps simultaneously wore our beyond repair. If you catch them sooner, Chaco offers re-webbing and re-treading service. A word of warning: If you wear just sandals on dusty or sandy trails, your feet can dry out very quickly. Check out this photo of the bottoms of my feet after a couple of day hikes in the Sierra Nevada. The trails were made of soft, powdery dust and the resulting cracks hurt for weeks. Ouch!

Spikes and Crampons

In some winter conditions, you’ll need more than a grippy shoe or boot. Hardened packed snow and ice can be dangerous if not fatal. I use Kahtoola MICROspikes (see my review) and find them to make winter hiking much more enjoyable. I’ve not yet stepped up my game to include real mountaineering, but real crampons are a must for real mountaineering. Kathoolas work best with a stiffer shoe or boot. I’ve found that with flexible running shoes, they can pull the toes forward, forcing your feet into an uncomfortable position.

Gaiters

These are not strictly footwear, but are related, so I’ll mention them here. Gaiters are fabric covers that keep debris and moisture from entering through the top of the shoe. They run partway up the leg, over shoes and pants. I usually use these in the winter, if I expect to hike in unpacked snow. These are great for preventing that not so nice feeling of snow melting between your sock and the inside of the boot – yuck! Smaller, lighter gaiters are also used by some hikers to keep small rocks from getting into the shoe. This will primarily be a concern if you cross-country hike or run off of established trails.

Socks

Accompanying my Mizuno trail running shoes on most hikes are Feetures ┬╝ cut medium padding running socks (synthetic). These are the best socks I’ve ever experienced. They provide wicking to keep my feet dry and comfort for day hikes, runs, casual walks and multi-day backpacking trips. They’re also highly durable, outlasting smartwool by many times. Smartwool socks are very comfortable and are good at wicking away sweat, but they just don’t last long. I’ve had them develop holes after only two or three hikes. Given the cost and my disdain for planned obsolescence, that is not acceptable. Not to mention the lurch these could leave you in on a long hike.

A Note on Cotton

Cotton, did somebody say cotton? No, I didn’t think so. Cotton socks are WRONG for any physical activity beyond the easy chair. Cotton holds sweat, making for quick and frequent blisters, and they’ll have holes within hours. Believe me, I know the cost difference. Cotton socks are cheap. You can buy a six pack for the cost of one pair of synthetic running socks, true. But as is often the case, more is not better. I can wear one pair of synthetic socks for days of hiking and they hold up just fine.

Bottom Line

Don’t believe the hype about boots! Chose the best footwear for the conditions you expect. Wear socks that wick away sweat and provide a comfortable experience. Keep it simple.