The wrong footwear can lead to debilitating blisters and painful black toenails, while the right shoes (or boots) can help the miles pass quickly. The variety of backpacking footwear has increased dramatically in the past decade, meaning it may be time to reconsider how you dress your feet for the trail. Here’s a list of popular footwear and some tips on how to choose what will work for you.
PROS: Over-the-ankle hiking boots have long been the go-to footwear for backpacking trips, with leather being the preferred boot material. Part of the appeal of a leather hiking boot is their durability; leather is both abrasion-resistant and water-resistant making them last longer than other materials. Another factor in the boot’s popularity is height. Leather boots generally provide more ankle support than other footwear lowering the risk of ankle injury in uneven terrain.
CONS: While some people prefer the safety provided by this bulk, others prefer a lighter shoe with thinner soles because it allows them feel where and how their foot is landing. Another downside to leather hiking boots is their tendency to shrink as they dry. Because leather is water-resistant, boots that have been submersed in water (maybe on a river crossing or a long rainy day) don’t dry very quickly and when they do, they can shrink up to half a size. Leather is also difficult to break in, so if you’re buying boots right before a trip, be sure to have them stretched in the store. This softens the leather and prevents hot spots that lead to blisters. Leather hiking boots are a terrific option for new hikers, people who are carrying heavy loads, and individuals with weak ankles. They’re also great if they’re the shoe you love. Why change what’s working?
PROS: Popular with long distance hikers and people who run on trails (hence the name), trail runners differ from running shoes in their tread and sole. Trail runners have an aggressive tread and the sole usually wraps over the front of the shoe, protecting toes from getting stubbed. One obvious benefit of a trail runner is the weight: these shoes are about half the weight of a hiking boot. Lifting less weight on each step can reduce the relative weight of your load. A common aphorism is: a pound of weight on the foot is equal to five pounds in the pack.
CONS: There are some downsides to trail runners, the biggest being durability. These shoes will not last for thousands of miles; a descent pair will average about five hundred miles, depending on how liberal you are with your definition of “destroyed.” Although some manufacturers make water resistant trail runners, it doesn’t take much for these shoes to get wet. On the flip side, because they breathe better than leather, they don’t retain as much water and dry quicker. For people with weak ankles or extraordinarily heavy packs, beware: the lower profile of the trail runner doesn’t offer very much ankle support. However, if you’re tired of hot, heavy, hiking boots, pick up a pair of trail runners before your next backpacking trip–the difference in weight and comfort is noticeable.
PROS: For the past few decades, approach shoes have been a staple in the climbing world. But these grippy-soled shoes are now growing in prevalence in the backpacking community. Approach shoes were developed for use on long, semi-technical approaches to climbs, hence the name. The body of these shoes are more like running shoes than climbing shoes, because they need to be comfortable for long approaches. The difference between this shoe and a trail runner is most apparent on the sole. Approach shoes are soled in the same rubber as climbing shoes, which makes them especially grippy on rock. The sole extends above the toe box and usually surrounds the back of the heel.
CONS: If you intend to do some light climbing or bouldering on your backpacking trips, then you probably already own approach shoes (or at least, you should). For backpacking purists, consider buying approach shoes if you’re looking for better traction on rock and better protection around your toes and heels. Like trail runners, approach shoes are not designed for longevity if they’re used while backpacking. Water can erode the material of the shoe, while rocks and sticks take a toll on the stitching. Be prepared to replace your shoes more often then you would replace boots.
PROS: Developed to mimic the freedom of running barefoot, while still providing a modicum of protection from the rough ground, barefoot shoes are a product of the running community. These shoes became vogue after reports suggested that traditional shoes inhibit the the foot’s natural movement and can lead to an increase in injuries. While this argument has been hotly contested, barefoot shoes are now commonplace and may be the right option for some backpackers. The shoes’ thin sole allows for greater connectivity to the trail, but offers less protection against sharp rocks and sticks.
CONS: There is no ankle support in these shoes and they are not recommended for hikers with heavy loads. But if you’re looking to cut back the weight of your footwear, nothing is lighter (unless you’re barefoot). Because these shoes have individual toe slots rather than a toe box, they don’t work well for people with non-traditional toe lengths. For example, individuals with second toes that are longer than their big toe frequently have a hard time finding barefoot shoes that fit properly. For ultra-lightweight hikers and veteran backpackers, barefoot shoes may be the perfect option because they’re light and they revolutionize the feel of walking.