Shoe Styles For The Trail
Anyone looking to get outside and hit more trails this fall will have to make the decision on what shoes to wear. Footwear selection for outdoor adventure, while important, is often overlooked. So before you throw on whatever pair is closest to the door and head outside, you might want to think twice about the beating your feet are about to take. Your shoes should provide solid support for your feet, have enough traction on the sole to keep you stable on rugged terrain, and preferably leave you light and nimble. In this post, we will share some of our own experiences with how different styles of shoe perform out on the trail.
When I first started hiking regularly, my go to shoe for the trail was a waterproof, mid-style hiking boot (coverage just above the ankle). They provide a great balance of stability and support without the overkill weight and bulk of a full hiking or mountaineering boot. Both mid and full-style (full ankle coverage and lower shin protection) backpacking boots offer the most support and protection available for your feet while on the trail. The stiffer sole and rigid heel cups can help prevent ankles from rolling on difficult terrain or for those with ankle instability. While the waterproofed, leather upper on my boots does keep debris and weather out, they tend to trap sweat in and once wet, take forever to dry out. They are also the heaviest form of footwear, and as many researchers will tell you, require the most energy to lug around all day.
My next progression in trail shoes was a waterproof hiking shoe, which is basically a beefier version of a traditional sneaker. Unlike the heavier mid and full-styles, they offer no ankle support. Many waterproof models are available and several styles still maintain stiff rubber soles, and rock plates that help reduce impact from rocks and roots. I have noticed, however, that these shoes seldom seem to be waterproof (once had a ‘waterproof’ pair leave my feet soaked after only 30 minutes of hiking in grass with heavy dew). These used to be my go to choice for on-the-trail adventures with either light loads or semi-predictable footing.
Lightweight Trail Runners
These lightweight, breathable shoes are quickly earning the type of praise that makes them serious contenders for a wide variety of hiking, running, and backpacking pursuits. While my wife and I have only recently used trail-runners, they have now become our favorite outdoor shoe. They are comfortable, breathable, dry quickly when wet, leave you light and nimble on the trail, and provide grip and traction comparable to most hiking shoes and boots. It is common knowledge in the backpacking community that dropping weight carried on your feet is the equivalent of dropping 5 times that amount on your back (Check out swedish researcher, author, and backpacker Jorgen Johansson’s compilation article on research regarding weight on your feet). Research aside, lighter feet=happier hiker! Due to the low degree of ankle coverage, these would not be best for you if you have a history of clumsiness or poor ankle stability. In addition, they would struggle to keep dirt and debris out in off-trail situations. All things considered, we find our feet begging for these on just about every adventure we set out on!
As is the case with most outdoor gear choices, I have not found one ‘miracle’ shoe that will be the best performer across all situations and for all individuals. I own each of the shoe styles described above and what I choose to wear will vary based on the type of trip and trail conditions. Due to their increased weight and bulk, I only wear the boots on off-trail hikes, when I will be carrying excessive loads, or when I know the footing will be poor (i.e. many trails in Shenandoah National Park with granite base, roots, and knife-edge boulders protruding). For me, the hiking shoe is the least useful pair, for when I need the support, the mid will perform better, and when I don’t the trail-runner is more comfortable. For most trips that I take outdoors, my trail runners are the shoe of choice. Their lightweight design allows me to be more comfortable while using less energy. I can even be more precise with my foot placement which helps prevent ankle injuries even without the ankle support.
Of course, shoe selection is different for everyone and your ideal trail shoe may be different than ours. The important thing is that you take the time to think about your feet before setting out on a trip. Trust us, your feet will thank you later!