You know the routine. Hike all day in “state-of-the-art” waterproof leather trekking boots carrying a “state-of-the-art” backpack filled with 60 pounds of “state-of-the-art” equipment. Arrive in camp. What are your first three tasks? Get rid of the pack (“thud”), remove your boots (“ahhh”) and pop a few ibuprofen (“unnngghh”). The rest of the night is spent in recovery. You’ll take photos tomorrow.
There’s no single piece of backpacking equipment so adored and loathed by hikers as their trekking boots. Adoration most often reaches its peak when trying them on in the store. Loathing tends to be directly proportional to pack weight and mileage traveled.
Traditional backpacking footwear (“trekking boots”) is defined by the mid- to high-cuff leather, synthetic leather or otherwise waterproof boot. Trekking boots have stiff soles that are resistant to flex, weigh more than four pounds per pair and have nonpliable uppers that won’t mold to the shape of your foot without an extensive break-in period.
The primary advantage of trekking boots is their durability (my trekking boots are so uncomfortable that they last for years because I won’t wear them!). However, the perception that “bomber durability” equates to “performance in rugged terrain” has now been challenged enough in the backpacking community that traditional beliefs about the utility of trekking boots for backpacking are now crumbling.
The Trekking Boot Problem
A plethora of disadvantages of using trekking boots has been discovered by backpackers (especially, long-distance and expedition trekkers) in recent years.
Trekking boots are bulky and heavy. They require more energy for careful foot placement on rough terrain (tripping and stumbling are more common among boot-clad trekkers). Also, trekking boots require more energy simply to lift them up with every step: Weight carried on the feet requires disproportionately more energy to propel than weight carried on the torso (most scientific studies claim between four and seven times more!).
Trekking boots (because of their waterproof construction) don’t breathe well. Consequently, the warm and moist environment inside a boot predisposes the hiker to a host of foot problems, including blisters, fungal infections and outrageously stinky feet.
Trekking boots don’t drain water well. Consequently, they aren’t the best choice for river crossings. The traditional solution is to bring a second pair of footwear, which adds weight to your pack, and time and fuss spent on both sides of the river changing shoes.
Trekking boots are stiff, so they don’t promote healthy biomechanical walking motion. Stresses from walking with a pack can’t be distributed in a foot and ankle that aren’t allowed to fully flex, so the stresses are concentrated into the knees, hips and back. A long day of trekking in a stiff boot is often greeted at the end of the day with muscle aches and pains caused by footwear that’s too stiff.
The Trail-Running Shoe Solution
In response to these disadvantages, more and more backpackers are trekking in lighter footwear. Trail-running shoes that weigh less than a pound per foot are rapidly becoming the most popular footwear among modern backpackers. Their advantages are outlined in the chart below.
The combination of lighter weight, more flexibility and better foot health has significant impacts for the backcountry hiker. You can hike longer days and more miles with less stress on the body. Ultimately, this leaves you with more energy at the end of the day to do the things you love to do—like taking photos (instead of recovering from hiking in boots!). Likewise, the ability to hike farther means you can access areas of the backcountry you may not normally be able to access when clad in boots that limit your range and physical abilities.
Boots, Shoes And Blisters
Three factors are required for blister development: heat, moisture and friction. Boots with stiff uppers don’t mold to the shape of your foot; this creates friction. Lack of breathability creates both moisture and warmth. In other words, boots are blister factories. Trail-running shoes that dry fast, breathe well and form to your feet result in minimal blister development.
Limitations Of Lightweight Footwear
The primary limitation of lightweight footwear such as trail-running shoes is their durability. You can generally expect a pair of high-quality trail-running shoes to survive 250 to 500 trail miles before the sole lugs wear out. In contrast, a full-leather boot might last for 800 to 1,000 miles, and can often be resoled.
Most lightweight backpackers accept this limitation, however, and they would prefer to spend $300 on three pairs of trail-running shoes than the same amount of money on a pair of full-leather trekking boots.
A second limitation with lightweight footwear is that their key biomechanical advantage—their flexibility—can require some physiological adaptation. If you’re used to hiking in a stiff trekking boot, then expect to undergo a transition period when you switch to trail-running shoes. You’ll work new muscle groups in response to trekking in more flexible footwear, and those muscles must adapt to a new (expanded) range of biomechanical motion (i.e., a change in your gait). This takes time. Start by hiking in trail-running shoes a few miles a week without a pack, and then begin to add pack weight and mileage week by week until you’re hiking several miles a few days a week with a full pack. This transition period normally requires 4 to 12 weeks of adaptation if trekking boots were your normal hiking footwear.
Mythbusting Lightweight Footwear Assumptions
Hikers who have covenant relationships with their Big Boots tend to be more skeptical about the advantages of lightweight footwear for backpacking. Here are a few of their common concerns, with some counterpoints to consider as you make your own decisions about backpacking footwear.
Myth #1: Trail-running shoes don’t offer the ankle support required for backpacking with a heavy pack.
My first response: Stop backpacking with a heavy pack. Lighten up! However, even if we lighten up much of our camping gear, professional photographers may still be required to carry a heavy pack full of equipment, so this advice may not be practical for everyone.
So, instead, I’ll make the argument that ankle support isn’t a benefit. Preventing normal flex of the ankle by cladding it in a boot cuff inhibits the distribution of biomechanical stress through the entire musculoskeletal system of the lower body. This places more stress on other joints—especially, the knees, hips and back—increasing the risk of fatigue and injury in those areas. In addition, ankle flexibility allows for more precise foot placement on uneven terrain.
Keep in mind, the risk of ankle injury is high if you have weak ankles and are carrying a heavy pack. So if your ankles are used to being immobilized in a trekking boot and you wish to make the transition to trail-running shoes, I encourage you to develop ankle fitness (flexibility and strength) before you embark on a long or remote expedition.
Myth #2: Hiking in mesh trail-running shoes without a second pair of footwear for stream crossings means wet, cold feet!
During summer, the refreshment of walking through a cold stream not only reduces foot temperature (a good thing for preventing blisters, which form in response to heat), but minimizes the time required to change footwear and dry your feet only to imprison them back into the festering cesspool of your boot when you reach the river’s other side.
Myth #3: Trail-running shoes aren’t burly enough for off-trail backpacking.
Off-trail backpacking involves a variety of terrain types—scree, talus, tundra, bush and river gravel come to mind. Don’t expect to travel efficiently over rough terrain without intentionally and discriminately placing your foot down carefully with every step. Boot trekkers get lazy at this because their feet get tired from being bogged down by pounds of footwear, especially late in the day. The hiker wearing trail-running shoes has a distinct advantage during off-trail travel.
More flexible footwear allows for more sole contact with uneven surfaces and more precise foot placement. The key to off-trail travel isn’t footwear burliness, but walking technique and precision. Lighter footwear naturally lends itself to more careful walking technique.
Advantages of Trail-Running Shoes vs. Trekking Boots
|Trekking Boots||Trail-Running Shoes||Advantage|
|Heavy||Light||Less energy required for walking|
|Bulky||Streamlined||Foot placements are more precise|
|Waterproof upper||Mesh upper||More breathable, drains water more rapidly, dries faster|
|Stiff sole||Flexible sole||More natural biomechanics, less stress on muscles and joints|
|Mid- or high-top||Low-top||More ankle flexibility for better foot placement on uneven terrain, less knee/hip/back stress|
|Hard rubber soles||Soft rubber soles||Better grip on rock, especially in wet conditions|
There are a lot of ways to save pack weight and go lighter in the backcountry. Saving weight off of your feet is one of the most effective. Replacing heavy trekking boots with lightweight trail-running shoes will result in more comfortable walking, fewer blisters and better musculoskeletal health. Most importantly, hiking in lightweight footwear will leave you with more energy at the end of the day to do the things you love to do—fish the evening bite, prepare a gourmet backcountry meal or take photographs during magic hour.
Ryan Jordan is the founder of Backpacking Light (backpackinglight.com), an online community dedicated to promoting lightweight backcountry travel. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, with his wife and teenage son. Connect with Ryan on Twitter or Instagram (@bigskyry) or at ryanjordan.com.
|> Shoes: The ideal trail-running shoe for backpacking offers the following features:
1 A high level of underfoot cushioning for shock absorption while carrying a heavy pack over rocky terrain;
2 A lightweight, breathable, mesh upper that drains water rapidly while being durable enough to resist tears from sharp rocks and poky brush;
3 An aggressive lug sole for traction over a wide variety of terrain, including mud, snow and dirt;
4 A wide toebox and minimal heel-to-forefoot drop to maximize natural biomechanical motion;
5 A semi-flexible midsole (flexible enough to promote the full range of foot flexion, but stiff enough to resist overuse injuries of the plantar fascia on long treks).
Few brands and models address this balance perfectly, so you may have to hunt around for footwear that offers the most important of these features for you. As a starting point, check out Altra (altrarunning.com), Inov-8 (inov-8.com), Patagonia (patagonia.com) and La Sportiva (lasportiva.com).
> Socks: The primary purpose of socks in a trail-running shoe is to distribute moisture and keep the surface of your feet as dry as possible. Merino wool is the most effective fiber at absorbing moisture while maintaining its form-fitting fiber structure (unlike cotton, which absorbs moisture, but collapses into a sloppy mess of bunched wrinkles). Merino wool blends (usually merino wool in combination with either nylon or polyester) are more durable than pure merino socks, but the addition of synthetic fibers compromises moisture management and increases the probability of foul odors accumulating after a few days.
Socks that are too thick will be too hot for summer hiking, and socks that are too thin will be overwhelmed with moisture. Look for a sock that has plenty of cushioning underfoot, but is still thin enough to remain cool in warm weather. I prefer socks that come up over the ankle; they provide some protection for the ankle bone when bushwhacking and traveling off-trail in rocky terrain, such as talus. Some brands, like SmartWool, refer to this stye as a “light hiking sock.”
> Gaiters: Full waterproof gaiters aren’t necessary for summer hiking, but short breathable gaiters that keep dirt and debris out can be very useful. My favorite styles are those made of stretchy materials such as spandex. Ultralight stretchy gaiters are available from Dirty Girl (dirtygirlgaiters.com), Mountain Hardwear (mountainhardwear.com) and Rab (rab.uk.com).
> Lubricant: No other footcare product has revolutionized my ability to travel long distances in extreme conditions (e.g., wet, cold or heat) than a quality foot lubricant such as Bodyglide Liquified Powder (bodyglide.com). This type of lubricant is non-water-soluble (and, thus, remains active even in the sweaty environment of a shoe). Obviously, lubricants minimize friction, which helps prevent blisters. However, the greatest benefit of a quality lubricant is its ability to protect the skin from overhydration, which causes separation of the epidermal layers that leads to blisters and cracking.
> Trekking Poles: I’m not really a trekking pole guy, but I’m a fan of using them when I’m wearing light shoes and carrying a heavy pack (more than 40 pounds) on rough terrain. Using trekking poles to maintain an upright position and good balance seems to save a lot of energy. I find them less useful when hiking on easy trails with a light pack (less than 30 pounds)