This post is part of a new blog-style series that summarizes key concepts about backpacking skills, gear, and philosophy in a shorter format than our standard articles.
I would rather die on a trail than in a hospital bed.
However, I have a lot of trails I still want to hike. I would prefer that my last trail day comes well after entering Old Age.
Over the past several years, I’ve been studying how lifestyle choices affect the longevity of our biomechanical systems. I’m fascinated by how badly we can screw up our feet with bad shoe choices, under-recovery after high-exertion events, and not knowing when to throttle back our physical output.
That’s my motivation for writing this post.
Thus, I’ve come to believe that much advice about minimalist footwear for backpacking (i.e., hiking while carrying a heavy pack, for multiple days in a row) can be rejected outright.
Often, the advice is given by hikers (and the marketing people who work for shoe companies) who haven’t put in the time required to understand the complexity of foot biomechanics and the long-term effects of overuse that is endured by backpacking (and other athletic endeavors) on a regular basis for several decades.
Here are some guiding principles to consider if you want to keep hiking into your sunset years, so you can delay the inevitable onset common overuse conditions that sneak up on you in middle age – like hallux rigidus (arthritis in the big toe joint).
Give your toes plenty of room.
Altra and others build shoes with nice, big toe boxes. Allowing your feet to splay naturally inside a shoe distributes stress among more joints and soft tissues in your foot, so you don’t concentrate it too much in one spot, like the MTP joint.
Maximum flexibility and thin cushioning isn’t always a good thing.
Stiffer soles and lots of midsole cushion seem to run counter to the “barefoot” movement, which has been pretty trendy for several years.
But remember, you are carrying a pack (which should be as light as possible), and traveling over rough terrain, for days at a time without the opportunity to rest your feet and allow them to heal and recover.
The heavier your pack, the rougher the terrain, the faster you hike, and the longer the trip, the more cushion you’ll need.
And a sole that is a little bit on the stiffer side will help prevent the overuse injuries that plague hikers when they accumulate decades of trail miles. Stiffness also provides a hedge against injuries related to hyperextension of the MTP joint and metatarsal stress fractures.
Wearing only one type of shoe is not healthy.
Hike in more than one different type of shoe, often. Mixing up your hiking footwear (hiking in several different types of shoes) helps develop comprehensive strength and adaptation to walking because different shoes create stress across different sets of soft tissue groups and joints.
These guidelines aren’t gospel. Yes, you can carry a heavy pack on rough terrain over long distances with minimalist (lightly cushioned, highly flexible) footwear. We just have to acknowledge that with that decision comes some risk for short-term acute injuries (e.g., hyperextension, stress fractures), and accelerated wear and tear on cartilage tissues. I’m not asking you to follow my advice, just to consider the risks.
The shoes I’m wearing right now.
Here are my favorite shoes – I switch them up often when I train, and even on a backpacking trip, I may bring two of them:
- Altra Lone Peak 4 – a zero-drop, wide toe box, well-cushioned shoe. My favorite shoe for very long daily distances on trail.
- La Sportiva Akyra – a technical shoe with an outstandingly grippy sole. My favorite shoe for off-trail travel that doesn’t require a lot of rock scrambling.
- Scarpa Zen Pro – a stiff approach shoe. Not awesome for high mileages, but I can still cover 15 or 20 miles a day in them without foot pain. Terrific when I start adding Class 2-4 terrain to my routes, or when I have to hike long stretches of snow in crampons or spikes. My favorite shoe for scrambling and snow hiking.
- Hoka Stinson ATR 5 – a recovery shoe, for when I need to nurse bruising injuries to the bottom of my foot.
Should I use orthotics?
I prefer shoes and orthotics that put the foot into a neutral position. If you want extra cushion in your shoes, check out the heat-moldable cork Performance Thick footbeds from Sole. These live in my Scarpas but I can see the utility of having them in your trail running footwear as well. Just be sure to size up your shoes to accommodate their volume.
What size shoes for backpacking?
Most hikers don’t size up enough, and their toes and forefoot get cramped. that causes all sorts of problems. My foot measures at just a shade over a men’s US size 8. I wear 9’s or 9.5’s in Altra, 10’s in La Sportiva, 9.5’s in Scarpas (with the Sol footbed), and 9.5’s in Hokas.
Since I started sizing at least 1.5 sizes up in most models (1.0 size in some Altras), my foot comfort increased dramatically. My arch has actually developed over the past 20 years from being nearly flat-footed, and I’ve never suffered from plantar fascia pain.
Your shoes may not matter so much if only…
A lot of attention is paid to the question “what shoes should I buy?”
A lot less attention could be paid to that question if we maintained healthier, leaner body weights, and spent more time on fitness development. Over the past 3+ decades of backpacking, I’ve learned something that has almost entered into my own personal gospel: the leaner I am, and the more attention I give to physical training, the less my shoes matter.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links to products that I’ve purchased and have used for many years. They work for me, but they may not work for you. Don’t buy anything just because someone else found value in them. Do your homework and gather data based on your own experience.