The “Real” Big Three: Footwear
Sorry this last post took so long. Life has been crazy! Since my last post we have made it back to Catalina Island and are teaching camps and work is busy. So my previous two posts in the series was on clothing and food. Many people I know like to lump shoes in with clothing but I just can’t bring myself to do that when it comes to backpacking. My shoes are just such an essential part of the hiking process that I can’t lump them in with clothing. In all honesty I see my feet as much a piece of gear as anything I carry. I tell people who ask me about backpacking that my body is my greatest piece of gear. My feet are the building blocks of that piece of gear. Without healthy well cared for feet I’m stuck on the side of the trail with no way to go down it and my shoes are the most essential item I can buy to aid in healthy feet.
A lot has changed about shoes and how we use them in the backpacking world in recent years. It isn’t like when I was a kid and you just bought the hardiest looking hiking boots you could find. Now there are so many different opinions and theories on what works best and options to go with each idea, but just like there is no one clothing system or set of gear that works for each person, not any one shoe is the perfect choice for every person. Some people need more cushion than others, some need arch support where others do not. Our feet are not one size fits all. You also need to take into account what kind of terrain you will encounter. The most basic idea that most people I’ve talked to agree with is that the less weight on your feet, the happier you’re whole hike will be. There are 3 basic shoe types that are considered good options for ultralight hikers.
1. The Light Hiker – This is a shoe that has some ankle support but still is light enough that you’re not hauling a ton up the trail. They usually also have breathable uppers that can still dry fairly quickly, but not as well as something like a trail runner. This is my least favorite type of shoe personally and many ultralight hikers even discount the validity of this option, but it should be put on the list. There are many medical reasons why some hikers can no longer use a lighter option, whether from flat feet or weak ankles or another similar issue and the Light Hiker is just the shoe type for these folks. My favorite choice is Merrel’s Moab Ventilator.
2. The Trail Runner – This is quickly becoming a favorite choice among most UL backpackers that I know and it is currently my shoe of choice. This type of shoe has no ankle support, light mesh uppers, a padded foot bed and a thicker sole. When you get them wet they dry faster than the Light Hiker but it can still take some time depending on the weather conditions. This is an excellent shoe for people who have no need for the beefy support of a Light Hiker but still want to have thicker sole. My current pair is the Adidas Trail Thrashers, but a few others are Innov-8’s Trail Roc line, New Balance Minimus Trail Runners, and Merrel just came out with a new line of shoes called the M-Connect line that features several great shoes.
3. The Barefoot Shoe – There have been several recent conversations and some controversy floating around about the use of barefoot shoes in hiking. Some people love them, some people feel they are harmful, but if light is what you are looking for there is nothing lighter than the Barefoot Shoe. The idea is that your foot works just exactly the way it is supposed to and anything more than mere protection is unnecessary. They have very light and breathable uppers, thin footbeds and soles, and their main claim to fame is that there is what is called a “zero drop” between your heel and your toes. This simply means that there is no traditional rise in the heel and your foot is completely flat. Some options have arch support, some have thicker footbeds, but all have zero drop. The basic idea is solid and I really feel that it is true, though as I pointed out with the Light Hiker, it only works if your foot is in good, healthy condition already. While a barefoot shoe has fixed small issues in several backpackers I have met and can bring relief for many, if there is permanent damage already done to your feet, they might not be the best option. They are an amazing choice and one I plan on trying, but if I had feet issues, I would seriously think about checking with a doctor first. Now Richard has the undisputed leader in barefoot shoes, the Vibram Five Finger Treksport. He loves his and I’ve been considering getting a pair myself. Some of the other options I’m also considering are Merrel’s Barefoot Glove and Innov-8’s F-lite series.
Whatever type of shoe you pick, it’s important to pick a pair that is comfortable for your feet from the time you get up, to the time you set up camp and will work with the terrain you are hiking through. No one can tell you what shoes work best for you, only you can decide that and in my humble opinion, no one should try.