Your shoes are one of the most important pieces of gear you will use on a thru-hike. One thing that always amazed people that we have talked with after our hike was what kind of long-distance hiking shoes we wore. Most people, when they first get involved in backpacking, think that they have to go out a get a huge clunky pair of hiking boots. Most of the employees at the box stores are more than happy to sell you a pair too. In my experience, for a three-season hike, you want trail running shoes.
In the Beginning
I used to wear hiking boots, there I said it. When I first got into backpacking that is what you do right, you make mistakes and you learn from them and you move on. I have always been careful with my ankles since I have broken them 3 times. I thought it made sense for me to have the extra support so I did not roll an ankle or hurt myself hiking. The part of the equation that I was missing was to decrease my total weight and strengthen my feet. I am now an avid believer in using trail running shoes. Don't get me wrong I am sure hiking boots have a great use, just not on a three-season hike.
Trail Running Shoes are not just for Thru-hiking
While on the PCT, we almost never saw any person on the trail that had on hiking boots. Once we started to see the JMT section hikers, boots were on everyone along with another pair of "camp shoes" or "water shoes". These were also the same people that had 60 lb backpacks. If thru-hikers can use trail running shoes, why not in any other section or day hike? I have yet to hear a good reason. Boots do have a place in certain terrain and weather conditions, mainly snow. I think that people have been gripped by the stereotype of a hiker having some huge clunky leather and red-laced boots. I get it. Strapping on a pair of boots makes you feel like a hiker, but that technology is just plain outdated. Some would argue that even cushioned shoes are outdated.
Why you want Trail Running Shoes
- Weight is considerably less on a trail running shoe than on a boot. Again having less weight on your feet lets you hike longer and faster.
- Trail running shoes breathe better than boots. Let your feet breathe, and it will cut down on the moisture in your shoe, decreasing the chances of getting blisters.
- Trail running shoes will dry out much faster when wet. Anytime that you are exposed to prolonged moisture like rain, boggy conditions, or river crossings, your shoes will be wet. Trail running shoes that are not waterproof will dry out really fast compared to boots.
- Trail running shoes are more comfortable. Right out of the box no break in required.
- Lots more options. No kidding there are lots of options for hiking boots, but for every hiking boot, there is probably ten more trail running shoe options. This will allow you to find the perfect shoe for your foot.
What kind of Trail Running Shoes
This is the most difficult part. There are so many options for shoes and every person has different needs and wants. There are some basic guidelines to follow when picking out your trail runners, but the most important factor is really how the shoe fits on your foot. So before we get into that, let us go over the general guidelines.
- No waterproofing. There is no such thing as a waterproof shoe. Rain will soak in from the top of the shoes. Waterproofing does not breathe at all and will trap in the sweat of your feet. Once wet, "waterproof" shoes are slow to dry.
- Tread. Consider where you will be hiking. What is the terrain like? Having aggressive tread on a well-traveled trail is just a waste and leads to more erosion on the trail. While wearing shoes without aggressive enough tread on a loose and slick terrain, will make you more vulnerable to slips and falls. Overaggressive lugs on the tread will also lead to less stability, because of less contact area and will tend to pick up more mud and rocks between them.
- Cushion. This is again related to the type of terrain. Is the trail compacted dirt or cushy? Some shoes offer a ton of cushion and feel great to walk on, but feel less stable, because they stand so high and raise the center of gravity of your feet. You will want more control on technical terrain.
How to check for good fitting shoes
This is hands down the most important part of the shoe. Get a professional who knows what they are doing, to measure your foot, look at your gait, and check your foot to see if you even need insoles. I had a sales representative from Lowa in Idyllwild spend some time with me. He really knew his stuff and made my decision for shoes easy, and steered me away from some insoles the salesman at the store was trying to sell me.
- The Heel. Your heel should be secure in the rear of the shoe. Movement in the heel area indicates that the shoe is not a proper fit. As a consequence, you will have less stability and control. You will have some movement but you should not be able to slide your finger behind your heel. If you do, make sure you are lacing the shoe properly and try again. There should be no side to side movement in your heel. Any substantial movement here will almost guarantee blisters.
- The Mid. Your midsole on your foot, from the front of your ankle to the knob on top, should be secure. Really you are checking side to side movement. Again this will indicate that you may have too wide of a shoe and can create problems.
- The Toe Box. My feet went from a size 10.5 to a 12.5 on the PCT. Having a wide toe box helps accommodate this process. Having plenty of room in front of your toes is key for preventing the loss of your toenails. Going downhill for a long time with too small of shoes will ruin your feet. I recommend if you are thru-hiking that you go up at least a size from your measured size. Check the room in front of your toes when you try on a pair. You want about 3/4" there, about the width of your thumb. Have someone else check this for you. If you are sitting down or bending over, your foot is not spread out correctly and will change the results.
Fears of switching to shoes from boots
- Ankle support. I have heard this as a reason to use boots. If you have a legitimate medical problem, you made need them. You don't really need ankle support from your shoes, you need it from your muscles. Do some training and strengthen your body for proper support, relying on your shoes is what leads to muscle imbalance and only prolongs or covers existing problems.
- Protection. This could be legitimate if you are bushwhacking, trail cutting, or kicking steps in the snow. On the 1,400 mile portion of the PCT we hiked, you don't need it.
- Durability. Lighter materials make running shoes less durable than boots. I think that the benefits outweigh the cost of the shoes. I like to replace my shoes about every 400 to 600 miles.
Stick with shoes that work
Once you have found shoes that work for you, keep them. I changed my shoes during my time on the PCT, and it was horrible. I tested the shoes at home. My feet changed during my time on the trail. When I wore the other shoes, they made my feet tingle on the bottom. I got nerve damage from them. I lost time because I had to order another pair of shoes and wait for them to arrive. If your shoes are working for you on the trail, don't mess with what works. Leave changing things up for another hike.
Resupply shoes for a thru-hike
We choose to ship our shoes as part of our resupply. When you replace them will be as personal as your shoe choice. Your shoes will wear out based on how heavy you and your pack are and the terrain. We initially tried to just have them shipped when we thought we needed them. We got burned by this a couple of times. Taking unscheduled zero days waiting on shoes is not a good strategy. I replace my shoes at 400-600 miles. We calculate the distance on the trail and have them mailed at that interval.
Altra Lone Peak
We both wear Altra Lone Peak 3.0 shoes. I personally have tried all types of shoes, and always come back to these. I have even tried the newer Altra Lone Peak 3.5 but prefer the 3.0. Altra Lone Peaks were by far the most popular shoe that we found on the PCT. Customer service from Altra was next to none. I warrantied a pair for a defect at the beginning of our PCT hike in 2017. Altra just asked for a picture and sent me a free replacement.
I thought it would be good to end with some good tips for buying shoes and some warranty advice. Stretch jokes with me about trail naming me Warranty, due to my keen eye for a good warranty and customer service.
- When trying out new shoes, buy them from a retailer with a great exchange policy. I buy my shoes from REI. The return policy allows me to give a shoe a real trial. If they don't work, they take them back. Why spend $160 on a pair of shoes that will not work for you. A stroll around the store does not cut it for a test drive. Online retailers are great for low prices but often will not take returns on worn shoes, or you have only 30 days then have to deal with the manufacturer for a warranty issue.
- Don't give up the ghost. I had personal experience with this issue with La Sportiva when trying to warranty a pair of Wildcats. A whole lug had come off with less than 20 miles on the shoes. They would not warranty them because I was backpacking with them, which violates their warranty. What a joke. My extra 25lb pack ruins the shoe? So don't tell them you are backpacking, unless they don't seem to mind. The lesson for me is I don't buy La Sportiva shoes.