Your shoe is the only thing between you and the ground and the one you choose will greatly impact your enjoyment of the trail. From mild distraction to full on hike-ending, failures, the wrong shoe will ruin your trip to some degree. Your footwear choice is arguably the most important decision you will make in preparing for your hike, after the initial decision of attempting the hike, of course.
Back in the day, the name of the shoe game was big and waterproof. High top leather boots with metal eyelets and extra-deep lugged thick rubber soles with Gor-Tex® uppers were the most common sight clomping down the trail.
The future, however, is now. Even outside of the ultralight backpacker community, hikers of all types are starting to see the benefits of a lighter-weight shoe, instead of a boot. Since pretty much any shoe you choose to hike in will eventually become soaked, the value of a quick-dry material, instead of a waterproof one, is also beginning to be realized. The other big change in shoe choice is the rise; a lot of hikers are now using low or zero drop soles, instead of soles that increase in height towards the back with a large clunky heel.
The saying goes: “One pound on the foot equals five on the back”, meaning that you will do more work and fatigue more quickly, the heavier your shoe is. After all, you are lifting weight with your legs, thousands of times a day. The thinking is that it’s much more efficient to relieve them of as much burden as possible.
Why not waterproof? Because there is no such thing as a fully waterproof shoe. Even rubber galoshes have a weak point: the top. Try wearing galoshes in a driving rainstorm. Stand out there long enough and they are like funnels. Once moisture gets in, it’s stuck, and you’ve got wet feet all day.
Even if a shoe were completely waterproof, that would inherently mean that moisture and vapor from inside (from your sweaty foot), would also be unable to escape. There are companies that use “breathable waterproof” materials to build some trail running shoes, but I have yet to use one that can keep up with the moisture my feet produce over a day of walking. Nor have I used a waterproof breathable that can be submersed (up to below the cuff opening) and not seep moisture. Obviously, once the shoe cuff gets submerged, rained into, or takes on the water dripping down your leg during a rainstorm, the waterproof-ness once again works against you, trapping the moisture inside.
As far as the soles go, hikers still want durability and grip, but without the stack in the back. Many medical professionals and pro athletes are now endorsing zero drop soles, and the science that putting your foot back into a natural stance, not propped up on the false supports of a stacked sole, actually strengthens your foot muscles by engaging your foot the way it was meant to be and has been for millennia before the invention of mass made shoes. Theoretically, strengthening these smaller, less used muscles not only improves stamina, but decreases your chance of injury.
Zero drop shoes can still have cushioning, though some purists like super thin zero drop soles, claiming it helps the foot sense the trail and adapt to obstacles better. A zero drop shoe could still have a thick bottom with a stacked cushioned sole of 24mm, but the heel and toe will both have 24mm stacks, so there is no increase in height at the back.
There are tons of medical and sports journals releasing contradicting data on zero drop and barefoot running (which is essentially what zero drop running is, with a cushion) science all the time. There are doctors and athletes that I respect on both sides of the argument. You can find thousands of entries concerning barefoot running online, but the best research is your own. If you are making the switch to barefoot/zero drop shoes, GO SLOW! Transition from just a few miles a week up to a few miles a day, etc. You can injure yourself badly if you don’t ease into it.
I use a bit of a compromise: I have zero drop shoes with a custom insole. The insole has a built up arch (because my feet have collapsing arches) and a minimal stack towards the back to engage and support my heel (because I’m prone to plantar fasciitis). The insoles last about 5000 miles and I can remove them and put them into any shoe I may switch to.
The following are the stats and my humble opinions on some of the shoes I’ve used and liked (or not) on the trail:
Weight: 191 g / 6.73 oz
Material: Upper: Hexagonal EVA (Ethylene-vinyl acetate) Foam
Outsole: Pro5 puncture resistant sticky rubber sole
So, I said there is no such thing as a fully waterproof shoe. I lied. This one is. Even though your foot will immediately become saturated as soon as it encounters the least bit of moisture, the shoes themselves do not take on any liquid at all. You can towel them off and they are 100% bone dry.
The Vivobarefoot Ultra’s make a great ultra light camp shoe that you can easily forget are hanging on your pack. Obviously, they excel at river fords. But where I found them to really shine, was during rainy day hiking.
When it starts raining, I’ll throw my hiking shoes in my pack and slip these on with a thicker wool sock. My socks and feet will become instantly soaked, but the sock does its job constantly wicking while the rain continues. When the rain stops, the socks and my feet are completely dry within two hours.
During all day rain, I have hiked over 20 miles in these shoes. Though they are puncture resistant, the soles are very thin; sharp rocks and spiky roots are easily felt through them. If you are not conditioned to barefoot running, you will definitely feel it, as far as sore muscles and bruising from impact with debris.
I have Ultra 2’s, which you can still find used and new online if you look hard enough. I have heard that the construction of the Ultra 3’s is inferior; customers complain that the sole separates from the rest of the shoe after minimal use. Guys don’t be afraid to order Vivobarefoot Ultras marketed as “women’s”; they are essentially the same shoes.
My only complaint about these shoes has to do with the lacing system. The Vivobarefoot Ultras use a elastic bungie and line lock to cinch the shoes around your feet. Unfortunately, after prolongued exposure to water, the elastic becomes weak and begins to slack. To combat this, you have to tighten the cords super tight, causing more stretching and looseness in a vicious cycle. Also, the extra cordage flopping around on top of your shoes isn’t a cute look.
Weight: 275 g / 9.7 oz
Stack Height: 25 mm (zero drop)
Material: Upper: Quick-Dry Air Mesh
Outsole: MaxTrac Sticky Rubber with TrailClaw™
Altra Lone Peaks are the most comfortable hiking shoe I’ve ever worn. I’m not the only one that feels that way. The majority of feet on the trails these days are decked out in Altras. The Lone Peak is Altra’s most popular hiking shoe. It has a zero drop Vibram sole with aggressive tread, the foot bed is a natural foot shape, and the the foot box is extra wide, allowing your foot to splay, expand, and swell comfortably and naturally as you walk.
The upper is constructed of synthetic and quick dry material and the sole is made of grippy Vibram rubber. Cushioning in the sole is there, but not overkill squishy; just enough to protect your foot. The laces stay tied. They breath well and dry pretty quickly. In a humid environment they will take about 24 hours to dry completely. In an arid location, they will dry in a few hours.
Once you try on a pair of Altras, the natural position of the foot bed is the first thing you notice, or don’t notice. There are no constricting bends or curves to constrict your foot; your foot just sits comfortably like it wants to. Your big toe and little toe both have room to spread all the way out and you can wiggle all of your digits. Sounds loose in there, but once you start walking, there is no movement or sliding of the foot. Almost immediately you forget that you have shoes on at all, and that’s the goal with footwear. I have never gotten blisters wearing the Lone Peak 3.0’s.
Weight: 295 g / 10.4 oz
Stack Height: 25 mm (zero drop)
Material: Upper: Durable Quick-Dry Air Mesh
Outsole: MaxTrac™ Rubber with TrailClaw™
This is the new version of the Lone Peaks. I have yet to use them on a thru hike, but am currently breaking some in for future use. Initially, I can say that they do feel more constricting. The whole shoe hugs your foot. I find I have to lace the 3.5’s much more loosely than the 3.0’s, to relieve pressure around my foot.
Altra has added drainage holes to help water escape and your feet to dry faster, a redesigned 4-point gaiter system, and a new more durable mesh upper
It takes me a little more distance to forget that I am wearing these shoes. My feet start feeling unfettered within a quarter to half a mile, compared to the almost immediate freedom I feel in the 3.0’s.
Weight: 315 g / 10.67 oz
Stack Height: 16 mm (8 mm drop)
Material: Inner: Gore Invisible Fit: Gore-Tex membrane bonded directly to the upper
Upper: X-Protec: Kevlar technology delivers the ultimate in protection
Outsole Compound: Tri-C Sticky
I have been a fan of the Inov-8 brand since my running days, before I started focusing on hiker-specific specs and longer slower distances. I really had hoped that some of the shoes in Inov-8’s arsenal would translate to hiking too. Inov-8 designs their shoes to encourage natural form, and the foot beds in their shoes flow along with your foot’s shape. They do not have a zero drop sole, with an 8mm drop in height, from heel to toe. Most of the shoes I’ve worn from this company are super comfortable, qualifying for the “forget you have them on club”.
I wore the Roclite 315’s on my 2012 Mountains to Sea Trail thru hike and they made it all the way through 961 miles. No blowouts, but definitely a couple of holes and smooth soles. I did get blisters for the first week or so, mostly during five of the seven days of rain I endured on that 41 day hike. Since they are “waterproofed” with breathable Gortex, once they got saturated in driving rain, they took forever to dry back out completely. My feet stayed wet for days. I got lucky with so little rain on that hike. Otherwise, using a “waterproof” shoe would have been a deal breaker. Lesson learned.
If you accept the fact that breathable waterproof fabrics are fallible, but perform well in some scenarios, a “waterproof” hiking shoe has its place, but it isn’t on a long distance trail. It took me an entire thru hike to accept that. Once I understood that I couldn’t expect my feet to stay dry fording a stream or hiking through driving rain while wearing breathable Gortex, I began to see their usefulness in other areas of my life where exposure to the elements wouldn’t be constant or saturating.
I love these shoes for trail running though puddles or walking through fields on dewy mornings. The Roclite 315’s can easily handle that type of moisture. These shoes come in very handy for yard work and gardening, keeping away moisture from the hose or wet ground and deflecting debris. I use them when working in beer coolers, since the floors are typically covered in sticky beer and your shoes getting sprayed down is part of the job. They are awesome in any minimally wet environment, that would otherwise leave you with wet socks.
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