New footwear always abounds at Outdoor Retailer, and it’s a challenge to decide what to highlight in our coverage. Every hiker has individual needs and preferences for backpacking footwear, and the bottom line for all of us is the "best" footwear is what fits our unique feet and is comfortable to wear in rough terrain day after day. Many of us have found a particular brand or type of footwear and stick with it because it works.
Note how water beads up on this mesh shoe. Ion Mask is a nanotechnology that uses a plasma environment to permanently bond a fluorocarbon monomer to every fiber in an item (e.g., the mesh hiking shoe shown) to make it highly water repellent, without affecting other properties like breathability.
Considerations for Choosing Footwear for Fast and Light Backpacking
This article will be focused on footwear for fast and light backpacking, which is the core activity of our magazine. We fundamentally subscribe to the philosophy that when you carry a light pack, you don’t need traditional (heavy) boots to insulate your feet from the trail. Lightweight trail running shoes are just fine and are our preference. They provide plenty of support and protection from the rocks, and they literally take the load off your feet. According to U.S. Army research, taking one pound off your feet is equivalent to taking 6.4 pounds off your back.
In fact, low-cut trail running shoes are now the "in" thing. The current market trend is toward lightweight mid- and low-cut trail runners and light hikers, rather than the two-pound clunkers of yesteryear. Some manufacturers and many retailers still adhere to the notion that a taller, stiffer boot is necessary for ankle support and foot protection while backpacking. Granted, taller boots do provide more stability, especially for traversing, but a good fitting and supportive heel cup also gives a lot of stability in a low-cut trail runner. Taller boots may actually cause atrophy of the foot muscles and tendons, while trail runners actually strengthen them. However, if you do have a problem with weak ankles, you should follow the advice of your podiatrist.
So, what specific types of shoes are we talking about? It depends a lot on individual preferences and specific footwear needs. Many hikers have special needs because of wide or narrow feet, under- or over-pronation, and low or high arches. A good description of specific footwear to address those needs is found in the September 2008 issue of Runner’s World, along with their fall 2008 shoe guide. However, fast and light backpacking is different from running on relatively smooth trails, and pronation and other issues may be moot when hiking on rough trails or off-trail, where your ankles are bent at forty-five-degree angles.
When searching for shoes suitable for fast and light backpacking, the choices become mind-boggling. Every manufacturer has a zillion models with similar descriptions, and it’s hard to choose a model that’s right for you. Add to that the fact that shoes are becoming ever more specialized: trail running, cross-training, off-trail, adventure racing, fell (hill) running, approach shoes, etc. No one seems to slice and dice them the same either, so we have a lot of overlapping categories.
In footwear for fast and light backpacking, some hikers really like the ultra lightweight neutral trail runners such as the Inov-8 shoes, which are the lightest to be found, provide good traction, and give a good feel of the terrain. These shoes require some adaptation to get accustomed to the softer soles and reduced rock protection. Other hikers (me included) prefer a more supportive trail runner with moderate stiffness, torsional stability, and an aggressive tread. These shoes are a few ounces heavier per shoe, but they provide a lot more support and reduce foot fatigue at the end of the day, especially on trails.
Footwear for fastpacking and off-trail hiking needs to be lightweight, durable, grippy, and supportive. Shown here is the Montrail Hardrock, an adventure racing shoe, worn with Teko Eco Merino wool socks and Integral Designs Shortie Gaiters.
Things you should look for in a trail runner or light hiker for fast and light backpacking are good torsional stability (grab the shoe and twist it, there should be good resistance to the twisting), heel support (pinch the heel cup area, it should feel stiff, and the heel cup should fit your heel like a glove), flex (bend the shoe longitudinally, it should have a medium flex to it – not too stiff and not too soft – and the flex point should line up with where your foot flexes), and outsole grip (that’s the tread; it should be grippy and sticky so you don’t easily slip). Many shoes nowadays have a fairly shallow tread; the outsole adds a lot of weight, so manufacturers make them thinner to save weight. They also save weight in the tread design and materials. That’s not a problem because modern outsole materials are grippy, sticky, and durable and often outlast the upper.
Backpacking Light Staff Footwear Preferences
Many of the Backpacking Light staffers’ choices have evolved with the lightweight backpacking revolution since it started about ten years ago, so I thought it would be informative to get their individual opinions and preferences for fast and light footwear. Here is a collation of their input.
Ryan Jordan writes: The context of what I’ll present here is off-trail on Yellowstone tundra – rock, tundra grass, and scree. I want good lateral stability for traversing steep slopes, so a higher top is better for me; if the trip involves minimal traversing, then a lower top. I prefer a shoe with minimal longitudinal (midsole) resistance so the foot can do its natural thing when walking. Minimally supportive trail runners are my favorite. On hardpack (trail), I prefer a more supportive shoe to prevent foot fatigue over long distances. Trails are actually hard on feet! For cross-country: Inov-8 330 and Inov-8 370 (boot type); for snow: Inov-8 390 GTX; for trail: Montrail Vitesse.
Sam Haraldson writes: When hiking in the summer, I spend most of my time on trails ranging in quality from well-maintained to barely there. I connect these trails with off-trail jaunts over trail-less mountain passes and summits. I also take a few winter snowshoe backpacking trips in which the conditions range from icy hardpack trails shared by snowmobiles to fluffy, deep woods powder.
For all my hiking I’ve taken to wearing Inov-8 brand shoes. I hiked the 1,100-mile Pacific Northwest Trail wearing the Inov-8 Flyroc 310 and Terroc 330. I found the 330 to have amazing traction, almost akin to an approach shoe on slippery rocks. They performed excellently as well in terms of stability and grip for steep off-trail sidehills through brushy canyons. For on-trail sections, both the 310 and 330 performed perfectly.
My choice in winter hiking footwear is something waterproof designed to keep melting snow from soaking my feet. The Inov-8 390 GTX boot combined with a gaiter is my current hiking combination. The gaiter keeps snow from falling into the top of the boot and the Gore-Tex fabric keeps melting snow from penetrating the boot from above and from the side. Although the 390 GTX is cut higher than a trail running shoe, my opinion is I would do just as well with a Gore-Tex shoe as I do a boot, so long as the right gaiter was used for the application.
Roger Caffin writes: I backpack in local harsh sandstone country with ironstone, Australian alpine country, European alpine tracks, and on snow in the Australian Alps.
For harsh sandstone country: Dunlop KT-26 – an ultralight low-cut fabric shoe, high-friction carbon rubber layer with radial lugs over an EVA foam sole. The soft sole allows almost prehensile grip on rock, the design was created at least twenty years before Inov-8, about US$30/pair. The thinner and softer sole wears faster than joggers with their Vibram-class soles. Another key feature is the soft upper which adapts so nicely to my foot shape. In the Australian Alpine: usually KT-26, for similar reasons. Even in light snow falls, but only UNplanned. European tracks: typical good light low-cut joggers with FLAT footbeds. We will NOT buy shoes with pronounced "arch supports" (like some Nike models). The soft flexible sole of the KT-26 has had trouble on mud and snow on the tracks.
Snowshoeing: this year we (Sue and I) used New Balance MT1110GT shoes in a wide EEEE width. The ones they supplied were a size too large for my feet in summer, but this allowed me to wear a second layer of thick socks in the snow on my Yowies. The sole was stiff enough to take the bindings easily without pressure on my foot. The Gore-Tex membrane kept my feet dry, and hence, warm. I used one pair of Gobi Wigwam liner socks, then a layer of Darn Tough Vermont Boot socks (wool), then a layer of Ultimax wool blend socks on the outside. Comfy!
Don Wilson writes: I hike in both mountains and desert, and lots of it is off-trail. My preference is low-top trail runners. In summer, I don’t care if my feet get wet. I’d rather dry quickly than attempt to stay dry in the first place. Montrail shoes are my favorite for my narrow feet. I’m still using pairs from 2006. I like both the Hardrock and Continental Divide models.
Carol Crooker writes: I usually hike on rocky trails and like a lightweight, low-cut trail runner. My favorite shoe for backpacking is the GoLite Sun Dragon. The shoe is a recent innovation from the Timberland Invention Factory and has "Trail Claws" that retract individually in response to terrain features. It also has a nice wide toe box. When I wear Sun Dragons, my feet don’t get that hamburger feel after a long day of hiking up and down uneven, rocky trails. The brand has just been bought by New England Footwear, a new company headed by Doug Clark of the Invention Factory. Since the purchase included the existing shoe designs, I’m looking forward to even more models in this line.
Alan Dixon writes: I generally prefer the lightest and most flexible trail runners available. I hike pretty much everywhere (Appalachians, western mountains, canyons, and Pacific Northwest as well as winter/snow travel) but do not vary my shoe choice that much. On most trips I wear the Invo-8 Roclite 285 or F-Lite 250.
For desert travel, mesh shoes in fine desert sand can take on so much sand you can’t walk. This can happen in as little as five minutes and usually doesn’t take longer than ten to fifteen minutes. Then you have to stop, take off both shoes, and work the sand out. It is incredibly debilitating. But with hot weather your shoes need to breathe, and with wading they need to drain well. So shoes need to breathe well, drain well, and stop the entry of fine sand.
Alison and I took two softshell trail runners to Utah for a week. Mine were Salomon Softshell Walkers, and Alison’s were the Keen Shellrock. Both did great at stopping sand entry and were reasonably breathable and quick drying. The Salomon adventure race shoes are always a consistent good bet; Alison and I still use them (Alison actually gets the US$80 version). Alison’s Keens get a slight nod for their more breathable fabric. Even the Salomons were fine for breathability and water draining and are overall a better constructed shoe with an excellent sole. It would have been nice to have the same fabric on a lighter and more flexible Inov-8 chassis because their mesh is a bit too open to stop fine sand, and nobody wants to take GTX shoes to the desert! Another desert/canyoneering rat friend of ours tried the Keens, and he loves them as well.
For rugged trail travel in western mountains, I prefer the Inov-8 Terroc because they are very durable and have a well lugged sole. These shoes stand up to abuse without being too rigid or heavy. They have a roomier last than the F-Lite, which gives more room for heavier socks, a light orthopedic insole, or foot swelling on long days,.
For general trail travel and moderate off-trail travel, I prefer the Inov-8 F-Lite 300. It’s lighter and more flexible than the Terrocs with a shallower lugged sole that is quite pleasant on a trail, especially when traveling very fast and light with thin socks. It has a bit tighter last than the Terrocs. The Roclite 315 is maybe the best all round trail shoe, with the roomier, more comfortable "Terroc last" and a lighter "Roclite" sole.
For serious snow travel I prefer the Inov-8 Roclite 390 GTX boots with thick wool socks (possibly with a liner). For intermittent to moderate snow travel I like the Inov-8 Roclite 318 GTX shoes with a single pair of medium to thick wool socks.
Mike Martin writes: For three-season, on-trail hiking, I usually hike in Brooks Adrenaline running shoes. I’m a fairly serious runner, and the excellent fit trumps most other considerations for me. They are a "stability" running shoe with lots of cool, quick-draining mesh on the upper. Their major drawbacks are that they lack a very aggressive sole, and the mesh material is open enough to collect prickly seeds and other debris.
For more rugged terrain, I go to a pair of mid-height Merrell Moab Ventilators. These also fit my particular feet well and provide additional stability and a rugged sole. They are not particularly light. But again, fit is everything for me.
For snow travel in warmer weather (25-40 °F), I like the Merrell Moabs so much that I also have a pair of the Gore-Tex version of them for these conditions. With a pair of wool socks and a short gaiter to seal the top, I’m all set for early and late season mixed terrain hiking.
Finally, for winter snowshoeing, I use a pair of waterproof-breathable, insulated Keen Growlers. For me, they hit the sweet spot of breathability, water-resistance, and warmth for use in snow from 10-30 °F.
Will Rietveld writes: Most of my hiking and backpacking is in the southern Rockies and southern Utah, where I typically hike on trails to get into more remote areas, then explore off-trail over steep, rocky, rough terrain. I love to find new routes, which involves steep uphills and downhills, some traversing on steep slopes and scree, and some scrambling. I have wide feet, so my choice of footwear is more limited. I prefer trail runners with a wide toe box, lots of support and torsional stability, and a snug heel cup. My favorite backpacking shoe right now is the Vasque Velocity, which is available in wide. Other wide shoes that have served me well with are the New Balance 872 (which evolve to the 875 for spring 2009), Montrail Hardrock Wide, GoLite Storm Dragon, Keen Wasatch Crest, and Salomon XT Wings. I always wear short gaiters with trail runners to exclude snow, water, and debris. I only wear waterproof shoes when I expect wet conditions; otherwise I prefer a more breathable upper so my feet stay dryer and dry out fast if they do get wet.
Janet Reichl writes: I hike with Will in the southern Rockies and southern Utah, and we make an annual trip to the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. My preference is to stay on trails as much as possible, and I like to wear lightweight low-cut trail runners with a mesh upper so they breathe well and dry out fast. Shoes I use a lot are the New Balance 872 and Keen Wasatch Crest. Both are excellent for mountain trails, but not for southern Utah sand, because the sand comes in through the mesh. There I prefer to use the Salomon XT Wings or Vasque Velocity. I always wear short gaiters, like the Montbell Stretch Gaiter, to keep debris out of my shoes. In winter, my favorite footwear is the Keen Growler with heavy wool socks.
(Photo not available.) Rick Dreher writes: My typical trail is steep, rocky, and rubble-strewn, often over a loose base of sand and silt. As someone with bad ankles, I’m always looking for a "perfect" pair of shoes and always falling short of the mark. The last several years, I guess "supportive trail runners" is where I’ve been shopping, although I’m not too cognizant of the differences among the many categories. I require torsional stiffness, a fairly wide toe, a straight last, and reasonably aggressive soles of hydrophilic rubber.
I’ve been using New Balance 810 ATs this season and have discovered that they, for whatever reason, now give me blisters on the balls of both feet. I have to fire them and find something else, as I’ve tried other insoles, double socks, etc. Too bad, because they’re otherwise comfortable and perform well, but with an overnight load on steep terrain something happens to upset the fit.
Last two seasons I used Montrail Hardrocks, but kept losing the nail on middle toe, left foot, so I’ve had to fire them as well. I just can’t tweak the fit; the left shoe is just a hair too short (interesting, as my right foot is a bit larger).
Other than outright fit, it’s impossible to figure out in the store what’s going to perform on the trail. (e.g., nobody can tell you which shoes are hydrophilic.) Every shoe is a basket of disappointments just waiting to be unveiled.
The crux is this: my daily hiking mileage is limited by my wheels (feet) more than my energy. It generally starts and ends there.
New Lightweight Footwear Standouts
The summer 2008 Outdoor Retailer Show provided us with an opportunity to search for new lightweight footwear that appear to stand out from the crowd. Please note that we have not tested these footwear models, so we are not recommending them; rather most are recent introductions or new footwear for spring 2009 that we perceive to be particularly suited for fast and light backpacking and worthy of consideration. Also note that our coverage does not include all manufacturers; there are many, many shoe manufacturers, and there simply was not enough time for us to visit every one of them at Outdoor Retailer to look at their shoes.
Space does not allow an in-depth description of each shoe, so I have provided basic information in the caption for each one. Note that shoe weights are for a men’s size 9, and all shoe models are available for both men and women unless stated otherwise.
Trail runners have evolved to the point where one is amazed at the amount of technology that is packed into a shoe, and they are remarkably light. It’s no wonder we prefer trail runners: they give us what we want – comfort, light weight, support, and stability. Overall it seems that the concepts and technologies embodied in trail runners have matured, and what we are seeing is new materials (fabrics, foams, rubbers, etc.) incorporated into trail runners to make them better, and shoes designed for more specialized applications (adventure racing, fell running, approaching, mountain biking, etc.). One wonders if the construction is really that different, or if it’s just re-packaging.
In contrast, it seems like light hikers are stuck in a time warp – traditional styles with leather and fabric uppers, lots of padding, a deep traction outsole, and weight of one to one-and-a-quarter pounds per boot. We looked hard for light hikers under sixteen ounces per boot and found a few, but they were generally unremarkable. The Montrail Hardrock 09 Mid (12.6 ounces/boot) and Inov-8 Rocklite 370 (13 ounces/boot) are exceptions; why don’t we have more of these?
The new Montrail Hardrock Mid (left) for spring 2009 and Inov-8 Roclite 370 for fall 2008 weigh just 12.6 and 13 ounces/shoe, respectively, and the Inov-8 Roclite 390 GTX (13.7 ounces/shoe) is available now. These boots equal the weight of trail runners and provide more ankle support for rough terrain and traversing.
Instead, it seems that manufacturers are afraid to depart from leather construction and traditional styles for fear that retailers and consumers won’t accept anything else. Apparently there are a lot of occasional hikers who walk into an outdoor store to buy hiking boots and walk out with a pair of light hikers of the type I described above, and most likely they will have a Gore-Tex lining because people don’t want to get their feet wet. That’s all fine, and I recognize that occasional hikers are a big part of the market, but why don’t they have more high performance mid-height lightweight hikers for people like us? I personally feel that most of us would buy mid-height boots if they were truly lightweight, highly supportive, and highly breathable.
Trail runners have become high-tech, and we are seeing trail running shoe technologies starting to migrate to light hikers to make them lighter, better cushioned, and more stable and supportive. The new La Sportive Flex Control boots are a hybrid, but they are still on the heavy side. The Montrail Hardrock Mid and Inov-8 Roclite 370 (pictured above) are good examples of what we are really looking for. Basically these shoes are just taller trail runners. Perhaps we have the beginning of a new footwear category – mid-height trail runners, or better yet – fastpackers. We do deserve to have our own footwear category don’t we?
New Footwear Technologies
In terms of the concept and potential, the new Ion Mask technology developed by P2i Ltd. in England is the most exciting development to come along for some time. Ion Mask is a patented plasma-based technology that permanently alters the surface of a fabric at a molecular level to repel water and other liquids – which are forced to bead and simply run off (see photo at the top of this article). As a surface enhancement technology, it works by invisibly binding polymers to each individual fiber. When a shoe is treated, for example, every fiber inside and out is coated with a fluorocarbon polymer. If the benefits of Ion Mask (minimum consumption of materials, durable long-lasting water-repellency, no effects on breathability and other fabric properties) are fully realized, Ion Mask enhancement represents a quantum leap in footwear and fabric treatment technology, and it could make shoe/boot waterproof-breathable membranes obsolete.
Here’s how the process works:
- The item is put in a chamber within the machine.
- Air is removed from the chamber to create a vacuum.
- The machine generates a plasma to activate the surface of the item.
- The chamber injects a fluorocarbon monomer which penetrates every fiber of the item.
- After the finished treatment, every surface of the item is coated with a polymer layer only nanometers thick (1000 times thinner than a human hair) that is not visible to the eye.
Click here to download a pdf of the image below. (Adobe PDF File, 444k).
Ion Mask fact sheet provided by Hi-Tec footwear.
In the United States, Hi-Tec Sports is the first to use the technology on their shoes, and will be rolling out a total of nine models with Ion Mask treatment in spring 2009 (I highlighted two of them in our roundup). Regatta, a European outdoor brand, will feature Ion Mask on selected products in their Spring/Summer 2009 footwear ranges. P2i’s Business Development Director Dr. Ian Robins stated in a press release: "Since we won an Innovation Award last year at the ISPO Show and signed up our first high street brand, the phones haven’t stopped ringing. There’s no better way for us to showcase the amazing benefits of Ion Mask enhancement than by being able to demonstrate the technology on a variety of applications from the industry’s leading manufacturers. Interest has come from a wide range of markets, including companies involved in performance textiles, bio-consumables, and electronics, proving that the potential of this technology is almost infinite."
Another noteworthy technology advancement is Vibram’s IdroGrip rubber compound, which is a very sticky rubber that is also firm and temperature stable. It’s a spin-off from their ExcessGrip developed for climbing shoes. This new compound is 30% stickier on wet surfaces and will be incorporated into various shoe models targeted to situations where extra dry and wet traction are needed.