How important is tread?

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    Diane “Piper” Soini
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Barbara

    I suppose it depends on the trail. I'm curious, many of us switch from boots to trail runners. But what about to shoes not specifically marketed for trails? Is a lugged tread really that important? The consistency of my local trails during part of the year is much like ball bearings. I think tread helps, but I still slip even with a deep tread. And I have been pretty disappointed by poorly treaded shoes that cause me to slip and fall down a lot so have always been of the opinion that a good sole is important. I wonder if I could change my technique and be able to walk more stably without using deep lugs? What do you think? Do the lugs matter? What about the kind of rubber a sole has? Are there other ways to improve traction other than with deeper lugs on your shoes?

    Rick Dreher
    BPL Member


    Locale: Northernish California

    Hi Piper,

    I sure think it does, but much like picking a "perfect" set of car tires, every shoe is a set of tradeoffs. And unlike tires, there's no decent system for rating sole performance, much less comparing among shoes (and especially across brands).

    Lug size and shape do make a difference, as does the rubber itself. Rubber's "stickiness" affects grip on smooth dry surfaces, like rock slab. How well it does in the wet depends on how hydrophilic the rubber is. Tread that works well in sand and dry dirt may be awful in mud, and I sure can't tell in the store.

    What I hate more than anything is heading down a steep slab and having my shoes suddenly lose their grip. I've fired more than one pair of trail sneakers that did this to me. Likewise, grip can become scarce hiking up steep, loose trials. The first is due to rubber that's too hard, the second is due to soles lacking aggressive enough lugging.

    OTOH a couple years ago I hiked up Lassen, a trip that included many tricky snow chutes. A sizeable group of Japanese tourists also summited and at least half the women were wearing what looked like stylish jazzercize shoes, complete with gym soles. You can never tell!



    Chris Benson


    Locale: Boulder

    I usually use lugged trail runners. However, for hardpack, generally flat stuff, I find it doesn't really matter.

    For slick conditions (slick rock, wet grass, etc.). I swear by inov-8's "sticky" rubber sole. I have some of their non-sticky rubber soled shoes and can really tell the difference in grip. The caveat here the sticky rubber wears more quickly. Other manufacturers may have similar soles. (inov-8's traction web page:

    For muddy conditions I like deep lugs that are spaced enough that they don't readily jam full of mud.

    Of course, regardless of the sole, paying attention to foot placement, step frequency, and weight distribution also helps control traction.

    T kawa


    For me it only seems to matter on snow, which I slip on not infrequently. mud isn't as bad, but still not so great. but for wet rock I think my flexible, smooth soles on my runamocs grip much better than stiff boots, or even trail running shoes.

    Erik Danielsen
    BPL Member


    Locale: The Western Door

    On flat surfaces you can get away with no traction at all, using walking technique where forward motion is a function of shifting balance. It's similar to a slowed-down version of the POSE method of running. I've found that I can walk and even run almost normally on the local ice rink.

    Sticky rubber is great as well, though. All I really want in life is an Inov-8 shoe with Five Ten's stealth rubber for a sole…

    Brian Lewis


    Locale: Pacific NW

    "What I hate more than anything is heading down a steep slab and having my shoes suddenly lose their grip."

    I hear that. Not a problem I'd had very often hiking in the west, occasionally on wet pavement or mossy logs or ice or the like, but hiking in New Hampshire and Maine last year I fell several times (normal for me is "almost never") due to smooth wet rock and smooth tree roots. With the roots I think you're just screwed no matter what if not paying attention, but for the smooth rock it would have been very nice to have shoes with more surface contact, i.e., NOT lugs. FWIW, I've also had deep lugs break off (in the Whites there in fact).

    Nevertheless, my own algorithm is "learn to love whatever tread pattern there is on the shoes that I select based on other criteria". Which for me is a wide toe box and just generally a shoe that doesn't hurt me in various ways. Adding in any particular tread criteria would make the difficult job of finding an acceptable shoe almost (if not just flat) impossible.

    Tom Clark
    BPL Member


    Locale: East Coast

    My biggest surprise when I switched from boots to sneakers (other than no blisters and easier miles) was the lack of a heel. It took me a couple of near slips off logs or rocks before I got it through my head that I couldn't count on the heel of my shoe to catch the edge.

    I usually find my sneakers falling apart before the tread goes (northeast US trails mostly).

    Paul Wozniak


    Locale: Midwest

    My personal experience on wet granite is that it matters very much.

    Love my Innov8 Fly-roc 310's but I really struggled on a trip that had us on granite boulders for the better part of 4 rainy days. I slipped more than my companions who were all wearing traditional hiking boots. I took one headfirst fall between VW-sized boulders that should have resulted in injury. I managed to roll so that my pack took the first blow.

    What are you walking on and slipping on? I suggest matching your soles. For me, I'm going with Innov8's sticky soles.


    Travis Naibert


    I don't think tread is important at all unless it is really steep and wet. I hike in crocs most of the time, which I am sure you would consider to have no tread at all. Also I trail run in VFFs. I have done all sorts of trails, including very steep climbs. The only time I dislike either of these footware choices is on snow or shortly after a heavy rain, but it doesn't really matter if the trail is flat, my balance only fails me on steep and slick terrain.

    I believe it is all about getting used to what shoes you normally walk in and knowing their limitations.

    Diane “Piper” Soini
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Barbara

    Thanks. I don't really know where I'm going with this. I guess it's just that I'm disatisfied with my hiking shoes more often than I'm satisfied with them. If they fit well, then they tend to have poor traction. If they have good traction, then they tend not to fit well. I am wondering if I could just give up on hiking-specific shoes and branch out to shoes with a good fit and see if I can make those work for hiking.

    I've worn plenty of hiking shoes that had terrible traction on wet surfaces. Those tend to have Vibram soles. I've always thought it was some kind of major marketing success to get everyone to believe soles that barely allow you to grip the surface of the earth were "no slip" soles. Of course, some Vibram soles do have good traction. But I've never been good at figuring out in the store whether the ones I was holding would be good ones or not. Some are great on dry surfaces but dangerous on wet. Others are great on wet and dry surfaces. I wish there was a way to tell. It's really hard to find anything that works on coarse sand or small gravel over a hard surface.

    So after so much wasted money, perhaps, as with a lot of things, it's time to stop waiting for some product to solve my problem and figure out how to solve it myself. What that means, I'm not sure.

    Mary D
    BPL Member


    Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge

    I find lugged tread important here in the PNW, where the soil consists mostly of volcanic ash. On trails, it becomes a nice slippery film of extremely fine dust without lugs to bite through it. While this can happen anywhere, it's especially true of areas hit by Mt. St. Helens ash in 1980.

    The other concern is, as Diane says, wet rock, whether rock-hopping streams or walking on glacial polish in the rain! One possible check would be to test out the wet kitchen floor (even better, a wet brick patio if you have one) when you first buy a pair, while you can still return it.

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