Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Hiking boots vs. Trail shoes
There are many factors to consider when trying to determine whether to wear hiking boots, trail shoes, or even sneakers. Here are some generalizations to keep in mind and some personal observations from my own experiences. As always, there are exceptions to every rule.
There is a rule of thumb to the effect that one pound on your feet is like six on your back. Therefore, the lighter you keep your footwear, the more energy you'll have to enjoy the rest of your hiking experience.
Some of the things to consider that might help you determine what type of shoe might work for you are your weight, your pack weight, your foot length, and your own physiology. If you are a big heavy person and carry a big heavy pack, your feet may need more support than a small light person with an ultralight pack. Longer feet tend to need more supportive shoes than shorter feet but that's mostly because the shoe manufacturers rarely take into account the added leverage that a longer foot puts onto a shoe. People with "loose" muscles, flat feet, or other possible "problems" may need more support than those with other foot types.
How you walk also helps determine the type of shoe you need. Do you "kick rocks" a lot while you walk? If so, you will want a shoe with a toe that's not going to delaminate very quickly.
Some people like boots for their "ankle support." In reality, very few hiking boots have a stiff enough ankle to really support the ankle. Some of those boots may seem to support the ankle because the sole of the shoe is wide enough to prevent more instances where you might otherwise "roll" your ankle. Just because a boot is higher than your ankle does not mean it will provide any significant support. Often, a high ankle is there to protect the ankle from scree and talus for those hiking off hardened trails rather than to provide support.
A heavier boot is likely to last longer than a lighter boot but will cost more. So, do you buy two pairs of heavier boots or three or four pairs of trail shoes. Could be a financial wash unless you get really heavy boots that can be resoled. But, then again, think about the weight issue and it may not be so easy to decide.
Heavier boots, properly waterproofed, initially keep your feet drier than trail shoes but once they get wet, they stay wet for a very long time. With trail shoes, your feet get wet more quickly but the shoes dry very quickly as well. Would you rather have wet feet for the duration of a quick moving storm plus an hour or two after the storm or wet feet for the duration of a quick moving storm plus two more days? Boots also get a lot heavier than shoes once they are wet.
Gore-tex boots don't solve this problem either. On a long-distance hike, you're more likely to have to deal with water that pours over the top of your boot or runs down your legs into the boot. Once they get wet on the inside, they take just as long or longer than other boots to dry. Wet boots are heavy boots and I just wanted mine to dry as fast as possible. For the occasional hiker and day tripper, I think Gore-tex does have its place. For the long-distance hiker, I think the extra expense is unnecessary and the added waterproofness of marginal, at best, utility.
I have extremely hard to fit feet and have custom hiking boots (Limmers) as a result. They fit live a glove when I got them but they are about 5 lbs for the pair. I can only imagine how much they weighed when they were fully soaked. I got through the worst of the ups and downs on the southern AT and switched off to a pair of midweight (~3 lbs) hiking boots which didn't fit nearly as well. My toes would sometimes get crunched on downhills but there weren't that many extended downhills in the mid-Atlantic states. Immediately after switching out, I found myself hiking .5 mph faster just because I had less weight on my feet. 2 pounds off my feet really did feel like 12 off my back. The theory worked for me. I was less tired at the end of the day and enjoyed the hiking more. When I got to the Whites, I had totally worn out my midweights and switched back to my Limmers knowing that I would be facing some really rough extended downhills.
It was only during the year after I finished my thruhike that I really started paring the pounds off my pack weight and then started experimenting with trail shoes. Within a couple of years, I stopped wearing my Limmer's not only because they were heavy, but because they no longer fit my feet which had spread and lengthened. Because of my hard to fit feet, trail shoes don't fit quite as well so I sometimes have to take it a bit easier on the downhills and take breaks if necessary. But, the added relief of not having the extra pounds on my feet is well worth it.
I suggest hiking with the lightest shoe that works for you. Just because a lot of people have success with New Balance 800 series shoes doesn't mean they'll work for you, but if they do, they are very light. I find that New Balance shoes have less torsional rigidity than standard trail shoes like Merrill which are a bit heavier. Only you can determine, usually through experience, whether or not you need that support.
If you can make do without the torsional rigidity that true trail shoes offer, you might get a better fit with lighter shoes. To see the difference in torsional rigidity, grab a shoe across the ball of the shoe in one hand and the heel in the other and twist in opposite directions. You'll notice most New Balance shoes twist quite a bit more easily than most shoes manufactured as "trail shoes" by boot manufacturers. You'll also notice most NB shoes are lighter and offer less support than trail shoes. (If you happen to be in the Boston area, the NB factory outlets are here with a great selection and relatively cheap prices.)
It's probably also a lot cheaper to experiment with a lighter shoe that you can end up wearing to work or around town if they don't work on the trail than to drop $300 on a pair of heavy leather boots only to find that they are collecting dust in your closet.
Experiment in a safe environment regardless of which footwear you buy. Wear them without a daypack for short day hikes before you do big day hikes. Then do overnights with them before you do week long trips. Then you'll know if they might just work for you on a thruhike. This training also helps strengthen your feet and the stronger your feet, the easier it is to wear less supportive shoes.
I now wear wear New Balance shoes almost exclusively. They come in long lengths, a variety of widths, and multiple lasts. Living near Boston, I buy them at the factory store and save a lot of money.
Keep in mind that different types of shoes wear differently. Sneakers and trail shoes are probably only designed to get about 400 miles. Of course there will be a lot of variation depending on the person wearing them, where they wear them, in what conditions, whether they "kick rocks," etc.
Heavier shoes may last longer. Midweight boots, for example, seem to be good for about 1000 miles. Heavyweight boots, often designed to be resolable, may last thousands of miles as long as the upper is well taken care of.
I had one pair of Limmers (very heavy custom made boots) that had been resoled twice already. I stopped wearing them when my feet outgrew them, not because they broke down. Even still, towards the end, I only used them for work trips or snowy hikes not requiring double boots.
Also, it may not be visually apparent when a shoe breaks down. If the sole is worn or the upper is falling apart, then it's obviously time to replace the shoe. For some shoes, especially lightweight sneakers, the midsole may break down before the outer sole or upper. In that case, you won't be able to see the problem. But, if the same shoes that have been working for you start hurting your feet, try some new shoes. It may not be your feet that are the problem. It may be the shoes.
Backpacker.com has good information about lacing techniques which could make the difference for some people. 5-irons and tongue depressors which are both designed to help take up volume in footwear can also help a shoe or boot fit better.
Last updated, December 5, 2011.
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