How to choose backpacking footwear so you can keep hiking until you die
Jul 14, 2019 at 4:11 pm #3602046Ryan JordanAdmin
@ryanLocale: Central Rockies
Companion forum thread to: How to choose backpacking footwear so you can keep hiking until you die
Most advice about minimalist footwear can be rejected outright. Often, the advice is given by hikers who haven’t put in the time required to understand the complexity and depth of foot biomechanics and the long-term effects of overuse that is endured by walking for decades. Here are some guiding principles if you want to keep hiking into your sunset years, so you can delay the inevitable onset of overuse conditions like hallux rigidus.Jul 16, 2019 at 6:08 pm #3602161Curtis CarmackBPL Member
Thanks so much for the practical advice. At almost 60, I agree 100% on sizing up a bit and having a bit more stiffness for long days. Sometimes all you need for that is a good rockplate (like in the Altra King MT). I have also found that zero or low drop, once you’re used to it, really helps in recovery from very long days.Jul 16, 2019 at 11:33 pm #3602202Randy MartinBPL Member
Obviously you are doing enough trips and mileage that having a variety of footwear to suit specific needs makes sense. For weekenders like myself, I definitely find that stiffer trail runners that fit well so that your foot isn’t moving around a lot has helped me. I am currently using La Sportiva Wildcats and have for the last 3 years and on my third pair. There are others I would like to try but it’s hard to change when you don’t have many opportunities to evaluate and so your review really help narrow choices and focus on the right things when evaluating footwear. Thank You.Jul 16, 2019 at 11:47 pm #3602205Kathleen B.BPL Member
After limping ten miles with severe knee pain back to the car on the second day of what was supposed to be a 3-day backpack trip, I took my aging and painful knees to the doctor who sent me to Joe, a wonderful physical therapist. I brought in my 3 different brands of hiking shoes and my pack, and he had me walk in the various shoes while wearing the pack. He also had me walk in sock feet. He said due to my years of hiking my walk was now terrible without shoes and with most of the brands of shoes I had. In addition to giving me some exercises, he molded custom orthotics for my feet and told me to get a separate pair of shoes to wear in the house and never go barefoot again. The cure was instant. In my particular situation, the 70-year-old knees needed the orthotics and work best with one particular brand of shoes. My knees haven’t hurt since in the 2 years I’ve been wearing the custom orthotics and Salomon Ellipse hiking shoes. Bottom line, sometimes a checkup with the doc and PT would be a good additional step in choosing footwear.Jul 16, 2019 at 11:48 pm #3602206
For me at least, part of the problem has been learning when to throw away the shoes. It seems painfully wasteful to throw away running shoes when there’s still trend and the upper barely looks worn, but it turns out that any number of shoes is cheaper than modern medical care.Jul 17, 2019 at 1:22 am #3602215Ryan JordanAdmin
@ryanLocale: Central Rockies
Kathleen – our PT’s, ortho docs, and podiatrists have earned “privileged” status in our family in terms of the extent to which we take their advice :)
MJ wrote: “part of the problem has been learning when to throw away the shoes” – my answer to this is “sooner than you think”. The idea that a trail running shoe actually provides benefit for your feet for 500 miles seems ludicrous. Unfortunately, we have the thru-hiking community that says “my shoes last about 500 miles”. Well, that’s when the tread wears out, or the shoes fall apart, and is usually long past the point at which the midsole breaks down.Jul 17, 2019 at 2:44 am #3602218Tom KBPL Member
“Well, that’s when the tread wears out, or the shoes fall apart, and is usually long past the point at which the midsole breaks down.”
+1, which is where you run into problems eventually. Look for little wrinkles in the sides of the midsole for indications of compression, which mean it’s time to change shoes.Jul 17, 2019 at 12:52 pm #3602264Geoff CaplanBPL Member
@geoffcaplanLocale: Lake District, Cumbria
As someone of a “certain age” who has walked a few thousand miles in minimalist shoes I would agree with your main points, with a couple of reservations.
First, I’m not sure that you give enough emphasis to the importance of low-to-zero drop. Significant heels throw our whole gait out of whack, and this surely can’t be a healthy thing long-term. Research has highlighted the damage that high heels are causing to womens’ spinal health, so why would we use heels to walk for long distances?
Second, my own approach is to use the most minimal practical shoe on short training walks where there will be time for feet to recover. It’s surely the way we evolved to walk, and it strengthens the feet. I also find that the sensory experience adds significantly to my enjoyment.
But through trial and error I’ve come to agree with your view that we need to be pragmatic about longer projects and add a bit more padding. Banging out big miles day after day with a pack on our back is not something we evolved to do, and we need to give our feet a little help to keep them healthy.
So my suggestion is that we should train in minimal shoes, and section hike or thru-hike in zero-drop, spacious but reasonably padded and protective shoes. And as you say, be pragmatic if our route includes technical scrambling or icy snow.
I recently had some interaction with Lee Saxby, the doyen of “barefoot running” in the UK, and he has come to similar conclusions – you need some protection for your feet on long and/or gnarly trails.
As for the choice of shoes, my personal beef is with the built-in midsole. As other have said, the midsole will often give out long before the upper and outsole, but people keep using the shoe because of the cost. I’d like to see more modular systems with a removable insole. That way you could have a quiver of midsoles and rock plates to tune the shoe to the conditions, and simply replace any insole that wears out.Jul 17, 2019 at 10:35 pm #3602370
I’d like to see more modular systems with a removable insole. That way you could have a quiver of midsoles and rock plates to tune the shoe to the conditions, and simply replace any insole that wears out.
I am a bit confused here. I do not know of any joggers which do not have removable insoles. After-market insoles are a thriving business.
Or do you mean removable/replaceable mid-soles? That is totally different, and arguably just not possible with current injection-moulding technology. There has to be something to serve as a foundation for the rest of the shoe.
CheersJul 17, 2019 at 11:26 pm #3602372Geoff CaplanBPL Member
@geoffcaplanLocale: Lake District, Cumbria
Roger – yes, I meant that the shoe is a basic shell with outsole, upper and the most minimal midsole possible. But designed with enough volume that you can use your own selection of insoles and/or rock-plates to act as the midsole and tune the shoe to the conditions underfoot.
I don’t know much about the constraints of modern shoe production, but the VivoBarefoot trail shoes have no midsole padding at all and hold together quite well, so I think it’s doable. You can just about use them as a modular shoe system but a bit more volume would be more flexible – with my foot I only get 3 or 4 mm to play with which is marginal for a longer trail.
Another option is the Joe Nimble trail, designed in partnership with Lee Saxby. It’s specifically intended to be modular and they offer a range of insoles and rock plates. Though again, you only get 3-4 mm of volume to play with., even with a thin sock It seems to fit most stand-alone insole options too. It’s a robust shoe that I like very much, but for some reason they’ve gone for a Vibram outsole with a minimal tread-depth and it doesn’t work at all well for wet grass or mud, so it’s restricted to good summer conditions. Good as a training shoe, but not flexible enough for a long hike.They use a traditional last and hand-sewing which accounts for the price, but it does mean that it’s repairable.Jul 17, 2019 at 11:49 pm #3602376
Interesting, BUT … NO width specification! Killing fault.
So many really cute but niche market shoes out there, all about a D or an E width fitting (to suit the average), but my feet are NOT average in width: they are a 4E width. Yes, I know they claim they don’t need a width specification, that their shoes ‘follow the original shape of the foot’: I DON’T believe them. Feet vary wildly in shape; all the rest is spin. I will NOT wear shoes which do not fit MY feet, no matter what.
Yeah, those lugs are a bit shallow, aren’t they? With the very rounded edges, they are clearly not meant for traversing or for muddy conditions. Well, possibly OK for trail running, but a bit questionable for backpacking.
CheersJul 18, 2019 at 12:46 am #3602383Paul S.BPL Member
Merrell made some trail runners that had a very thick removable insole which included the rock plate, the All Out Terra. It was a weird shoe with a semi-gaiter sock opening. It never took off but it’s the only shoe I’ve seen with a significant amount of replaceable padding.Jul 23, 2019 at 10:58 pm #3603168Sundance KeyBPL Member
I’m a backpacker in my 60s; and wearing flexible-soled barefoot shoes has allowed me to do hikes I would otherwise never be able to do. The best are XeroShoes, which are super lightweight, with highly flexible soles, minimal padding, lots of space for my wide forefoot, and zero drop from heel to ball. I’m an average backpacker in that I don’t do extreme hikes, just a few weekend outings and a one-week or 10-day trip each summer (mostly on rough backcountry desert or mountain trails but some cross-country). My multi-decade history of foot, ankle and knee pain has faded thanks to these shoes! They’ve allowed my feet AND my ankles to become both stronger AND more flexible. My feet and ankles are thus enabled to do the work they evolved to do, so my knees are no longer forced to absorb all the torquing and twisting of walking on rugged terrain and rocks. I can’t speak to hiking in winter or through snow, but the fact that I’m able to hike for several days with a full pack, pain-free (something I thought impossible for decades) is a great testament to these shoes! I haven’t had a blister for years. Getting to camp, my comrades are always eager to take their boots off, while I can forget for hours about switching from my XeroShoes boots to my XeroShoes sandals…. The three places in your body with the highest density of sensory nerve endings are the soles of your feet, palms of your hands, and your lips! Your feet are supposed to flex and feel the terrain and grip the ground with each step. Let them do that, and your whole body will be happier!Aug 4, 2019 at 1:14 pm #3604784
Based on the advice in the article, I have been rotating my shoes in daily life instead of just wearing the same pair until it falls apart. (I know the article was about hiking footwear, but by necessity, most of my walking is in town.) It really seems to be paying off. Maybe it’s just my tendonitis finally resolving, but I can now jog in the evening and walk down the stairs without pain in the following morning. That hasn’t happened in a couple of years.Aug 4, 2019 at 1:45 pm #3604787matthew kModerator
I like the overall approach mentioned in this article. It makes sense to me to use different types of footwear in order to strengthen and rest different parts of your feet. I tend to find a model that works for me and wear it exclusively. Perhaps I should rethink that.
I see one mention of plantar fasciitis in the article, in reference to sizing shoes up. I’ve dabbled with PF pain and don’t like it! It happened after trying zero drop shoes. It makes sense to me that zero drop would put more tension on the posterior chain (which is tight in my case) because of the more acute leg to foot angle. Ryan (or anyone else), do you agree with my perception that people who have PF issues are suited to shoes with some drop to open up the foot angle?Aug 4, 2019 at 2:00 pm #3604788Greg MihalikSpectator
I would suggest stretching to maintain a fully functioning body is better than elevating the heel to accommodate tight hamstrings. Just saying ….Aug 4, 2019 at 2:03 pm #3604791
Those boots that keep your foot bent up as you sleep really do work for stretching that tendon. They aren’t the best for a good night’s sleep though.Aug 4, 2019 at 9:15 pm #3604815David ThomasBPL Member
@davidinkenaiLocale: North Woods. Far North.
Even a pair of Italian fine-leather loafers (coated inside with cyanide) would “keep you hiking until you die”.Aug 4, 2019 at 9:19 pm #3604816David ThomasBPL Member
@davidinkenaiLocale: North Woods. Far North.
I didn’t have to resort to the keep-your-toes-up boots to sleep in for PF. For me, consciously stretching by forcing my toes up (say, against the footboard as I did the crossword puzzle in bed) was enough.
The other thing I get is a bruised feeling under my heels. That happens if I do a lot of trail miles in minimally padded soles or if I spend much time standing without any shoes. My wife wants a shoe-free house, but that doesn’t work for me so I keep an indoor pair to wear on the hardwood and tile floors.Aug 4, 2019 at 9:28 pm #3604819matthew kModerator
Actually I’ve found tremendous relief from the sock version of the aforementioned boot. It has relieved my symptoms effectively and is less weird when sleeping. I try to be diligent about stretching… I agree that is the root cause.Aug 5, 2019 at 1:16 am #3604843
I try to remember to stretch my feet when I’m sitting at my desk. Sometimes I succeed. I was told to wear shoes in the house, but I’m not often enough in pain that I was able to make myself do that.Aug 6, 2019 at 8:12 am #3604964Nick GatelBPL Member
@ngatelLocale: Southern California
I’ve been backpacking for over 50 years without a single serious foot injury. Plus I have run thousands of miles in my lifetime without significant injury.
One thing Ryan didn’t mention in the article is the vast majority of Americans are overweight or obese. Why worry about a different pair of shoes for a “heavier” backpack when one’s extra body weight exceeds that heavy pack? We may want to consider that foot problems might have a cause related to body weight.
Another thing Ryan didn’t mention is footwear for everyday use… work, around town etc. All my life I have gone barefooted or worn flip-flops at home and around town. This is the best way to get your feet into shape. I do a lot of day hikes in flip-flops.
On most of my backpacking trips the last 10+ years I have been wearing less than minimalist shoes, which are cross country racing flats. However I have had a few minor impact injuries with these shoes over the years, when I should have worn a little more robust shoe for the terrain or pack load. But I never had an injury that forced me to cut a trip short. I don’t recommend racing flats for most people. With a heavier load or rough terrain I have been wearing one model shoe for over a decade — Salomon XA Pro 3D. I’ve worn out several pairs and fortunately they haven’t been discontinued by Salomon — I bought another pair last year, at least my 6th pair. They fit me perfectly, which is why I keep buying them.
But herein is the problem. In the past 10 years I have worn out a couple dozen of “backpacking” shoes. 24 pairs of shoes into landfills in 10 years! I think that is insane. Unlike most people I haven’t bought shoes that “didn’t” work out.
Prior to my change to trail runners in 2008, I had been wearing two different pairs of boots for 30+ years. A pair of Pivetta DMCs I bought in the early ‘70s and a heavier boot, a pair of Danner Mountain Lights I bought in the ‘80s. Last year I had to retire the Pivettas because they could not take another resoling. I don’t know how many times I’ve put new soles on my Danners — quite a few. In the late ‘90s or so, Danner completely rebuilt these boots for me. They are still in excellent shape. Same goes for work wear. I buy expensive leather shoes with a proper fit. The last pair I bought was in 1998 and I have some shoes that are over 40 years old. All of them have been repaired many times — although a good shoemaker is difficult to find these days.
So many BPLers espouse a minimalist life style and demand we reduce our impact on the environment, but seem to take a pass on our conspicuous foot fetish consumption. Why is that? Same goes for most backpacking gear. I guess if we backpack we are special people, which makes it is okay to buy so much disposable or fragile gear? I don’t claim to be a minimalist or staunch environmentalist, but one who would rather save and invest my disposable income — I’m cheap.
This year I will wear out my last two pairs of cross country flats, leaving me with one pair of Salomon XA Pro 3D. So I am re-evaluating footwear. I don’t want to go back to heavy boots, trailer runners and cross country flats have had such a positive outcome in my ‘60s. But as I approach my ‘70s I am thinking it is better to invest in shoes that can be repaired and last for many years.Aug 6, 2019 at 8:20 am #3604968
Why worry about a different pair of shoes for a “heavier” backpack when one’s extra body weight exceeds that heavy pack?
That’s something I have never understood. If you are carrying an overweight pack for any reason, WHY would you add to the suffering with a heavier pair of boots? All they will do for you is to kill whatever proprioception you might have had.
I am ignoring the small matter of an overweight body here, but it is worth comparing the weight of a pack with your own body weight. Usually, your own body weight is the elephant in the room.
I suspect it another urban myth promoted by the vendors of big heavy boots.
CheersAug 6, 2019 at 12:33 pm #3604976David PBPL Member
Something else to note, not sure if mentioned in article, is being mindful of Posture while hiking or performing any task that involves repetitive motions and impacts… no shoes will help you if you’re all hunched over like Quasimodo :) I’ve had to become over-mindful a bit due to 4 separate back injuries, that’s what led me to UL in the first place
@nick – I’ve also been won over by the Salomon Xa pro 3D. It’s the only shoe I’ve trekked in for about 6 years now. In deep winter I use the Goretex version under 40below Light Energy overboots. When I was a little younger and a little sillier I hiked Katahdin in a pair of chacos. My friend Bear was barefoot. It was a blast because of the high wind warnings on Knifes Edge! Good luck on your search for another great, repairable shoe. It is really such a personal endeavor…
I run my own Residential construction and remodeling business and my feet(and other parts) take a beating. l have 3 different pair of work boots and one work shoe that I alternate throughout the week. It seems to help compared to same boot day in day out like I used to.
definitely spending as much time barefoot on the earth as possible, free foot massage on all those rocks, and it just feels good… that said nowadays I don’t usually go barefoot when hiking or in camp to lessen the possibility of accidental lacerations while deep in the backcountry… if my shoes are off in camp it usually means I’m lying on my back with my feet up on a tree trying to drain all that lactic acid!Aug 7, 2019 at 1:11 am #3605051
So many BPLers espouse a minimalist life style and demand we reduce our impact on the environment, but seem to take a pass on our conspicuous foot fetish consumption. Why is that? Same goes for most backpacking gear. I guess if we backpack we are special people, which makes it is okay to buy so much disposable or fragile gear? I don’t claim to be a minimalist or staunch environmentalist, but one who would rather save and invest my disposable income — I’m cheap
This is certainly right on the shoes for me. But if I’m inactive because of pain, I’m more likely to need medical care of the kind that goes through much more disposable plastic than 80 dozen pairs of shoes.
But I don’t think of the rest of my gear as being particularly disposable or expensive even though it is light. Most of the rest of it is used, from Gear Swap, and still functional.
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