Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lightweight Footwear

Anyone who has ever worn uncomfortable shoes will no doubt confess that attempting to find any joy in a walk with barking feet is nearly impossible. In these situations, I highly recommend being carried on the shoulders of adoring fans (i.e. Cleopatra-style). If this is unavailable, the next best option is to get a good pair of shoes with a padded wicking sock.

Lightweight backpackers identified the value in hiking with running shoes long ago as the need for heavy lugged boots is best left to construction sites. After all, walking along a dirt path is no different whether in your yard at home or in a National Park. Once past the stigma of needing boots, users will quickly realize their feet are far more comfortable and they will be able to walk longer distances and step more safety on difficult terrain. Running shoes also allow the user to fatigue less because of foot flexibility, breathability, and weight. “Camp shoes”, such as those clown shoes known as “Crocs”, can also be left home as they are unnecessary which cuts down on the weight of yet another unneeded piece of gear.

Much like with any piece of gear, opinion differs between running shoe choices. After absolutely hating a pair of Merrell’s and not having much luck with finding a size 14 elsewhere, I have found extreme comfort in a pair of Inov-8 Rocklite 318 GTX ( By far, these are the lightest shoes I own and they are terribly comfortable. They have a very good tacky sole and tie snugly enough to avoid blisters. I broke them in on a 20 mile hike and I only realized my feet didn't hurt when I was trying to fall asleep and discovered my feet had never felt better. I have been very impressed with these shoes and only time will tell if they stand up to the abuse of backpacking. Other popular lightweight footwear includes Salomon XA Pro's, Montrail Hardrock, and Montrail Vitesses. GoLite also makes amazing stuff and started making shoes within the last two years. Unfortunately, it is uncertain whether their footline will continue as their manufacturer (Timberland) decided to discontinue making shoes for GoLite.

Some choose to avoid waterproof membranes such as Gore-Tex, which exist in the Inov-8 Rocklite 318 GTX, because it causes the shoe to be a little heavier, breathe less, and it doesn’t dry out inside as quickly. These things may contribute to blisters. These are valid points. To me, however, I have stumbled and bumbled my way into too many puddles during all seasons to know my best option was a waterproof shoe. To me, the chance of having wet feet while trying to hike was a much worse option. A good Merino Wool or SmartWool wicking sock and some deodorant on the bottom of your feet will also make all the difference in the world to a cushy, supportive and blister-free hike. My personal favorite is the “Darn Tough” ( brand of socks and “Body Glide” ( brand of anti-chaffing deodorant for feet. Hydropel Sports Ointment ( is also a great option for stopping wet feet before they start sweating which cause blistering and hot spots. Another solid option is to add a thin sock with a heavier sock over it. With this configuation, any chaffing will occur between the two layers of socks and will otherwise be minimized on your foot.
For winter hiking, many incorrectly believe they need boots. The reality is, running shoes are again a solid option. In this case, a Gore-Tex membrane is preferred along with a heavier wool or Merino/SmartWool sock. Add a pair of appropriately sized waterproof gaiters and you've got an excellent winter foot system. If conditions are just too soggy or snow is too deep for your feet to be comfortable in this system, then snowshoes would probably be more appropriate.
Many folks may feet that this kind of option doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense when dealing with a lot of creek crossings. I'd actually argue that it makes perfect sense. When I approach creeks, I roll up my pants, take off my socks, take out my insole, take off my gaiters, unbuckle the hip belt of my pack...and cross the creek. When my shoes get wet, usually they are almost 100% dry by the time I put my gear back on, or are only minimally wet, since they are mostly waterproof anyway.

With the right footwear system, no doubt a lightweight backpacker can enjoy more of the scenery and adventure instead of worrying about a tire change.

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