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.

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.


  • Considerations for Choosing Footwear for Fast and Light Backpacking
  • Backpacking Light Staff Footwear Preferences
  • New Lightweight Footwear Standouts
  • Footwear Trends
  • New Footwear Technologies

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