Monday, October 27, 2014

My Journey with Backpacking Footwear

In this post, I wanted to talk about my experience with footwear while backpacking.  For me, footwear is still a learning experience, as I have not been fully satisfied with any of the footwear I've tried.  So let me walk you through my journey...

When I first started day hikes (other than as a kid) back in the mid to late '80s, I wore tennis shoes, cross trainers or running shoes.  They worked fine.

When I took up backpacking in the mid '90s, I followed the traditional guidance and started using some inexpensive hiking boots.  They seemed ok while on flat trails, but the first time I encountered significant elevation, I immediately got hotspots and blisters.  I had fit them like I did my day shoes--snugly!

I went to a local outfitter, up in the Adirondack's, and he advised me to make sure I had plenty of room for my toes and a snug heel.  I purchased a pare of Italian leather hiking boots (expensive) that were fantastic till they wore out a few years later.

After that, I bought a pair of LL Bean Gore-Tex Cresta Hikers (60 oz/pair).  Plenty of room in the toe box and a snug heel.  I wore them with a thick pair of wool socks and a sock liner.  Until recently, I've never had any problem with them.  My feet do seem to be getting a bit larger and wider, and they've seemed more snug recently.  The online community claims when Gore-Tex and/or leather gets wet, they take forever to dry out.  I've always keep them well oiled, and never had a problem with the leather getting wet.  To avoid getting water in them, I always kept my rain-pants overlapping the tops during rain.  For streams below the tops of the boots, I could just walk through it.  And up till now, I've only had to ford one river/stream that was deep enough to get water into them.  I took them off to wade across.  In snow, with gaiters or snow-shoes, they worked fantastic.  I never got cold or wet feet.  The traction was great on all surfaces except wet rocks, where they were so-so.

But over the past year, I've been reading a lot about ultralight backpacking.  That community was pushing the advantages of wearing trail runners.  Those included less energy to hike and less damage to the feet.  I began trying out some options on day hikes and over-nighters that I will discuss in a moment.

My last use of the leather hiking boots was on an 8 day trip to Isle Royale on Lake Superior in late May 2014.  NOAA was still showing snow on the island, and the ice had just cleared enough from the lakes that the ferries were running.  The forums indicated lots of roots and rocks on the trails.  I decided to play it 'safe' and wear the leather hikers.  I got two blisters and a hot spot, the first in years.  I also felt the effort of full day hiking in the heavy footwear.  And my feet were pretty dead feeling at the end of each day.

Some of my other reading had suggested minimalist footwear might be healthier for the feet than traditional over-cushioned, raised heel shoes.  So I tried some Vibram 5-Fingers.  But I didn't like the toe cups; they seemed to have seams that caught on the toe nails on my big toes.

So I purchased a pair of Vivobarefoot Synth Hikers (28 oz/pair).  These were zero drop shoes (no raised heel), had minimal cushion (really practically none), but had the traditional toe box.  I took them out on a 10 mile hike on a rocky Texas state park trail.  I felt every rock and pebble, and it slowed me down considerably.  I also had some mild heel pain for a couple of weeks afterward.  I decided these were not the footwear I wanted for hiking or backpacking.

However, they were comfortable for walking during the day and short hikes on good trail or pavement.  And they were a way to harden my feet for hiking and a way to get used to zero-drop shoes.  Since they were all black, I started wearing them to work!  I can get by without the dress shoes as long as I don't have a meeting.  The major drawback in office buildings is the tread on stairs.  You have to lift the foot fully (no sliding) and kind of walk up and down on the toes/balls of your feet.  It would be very easy to trip on stairs with these.

In recent years, I've used a pair of low-cut hiking shoes for short day hikes.  Most recently these were the Merrell Moab Ventilator (32 oz/pair).  They have a nice stiff sole, good for walking on rocks.  And they came in wide and were great in the toe box.  But they are petty stiff, you don't feel the ground with your feet, and they don't keep the water out like the Cresta hikers.  I really like these for everyday use, especially during travel where I'm not sure where I will be.  But they just don't seem to be the shoes I want to use backpacking.  I have worn them during travel as a backup to my regular backpacking footwear.

Recently, after reading a bunch of reviews, I ordered the Altra Lone Peaks 1.5 trail runners (23 oz/pair).  These have to be the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn.  They have zero drop, an extra-wide toe box, nice cushioning, and a drop-down velcro tab at the heel for attaching gaiters like Dirty Girl.  I've been using them on day hikes, over-nighters, and on a 6 day trek in Montana.  Except for the day when I forgot to put the insoles back in (I got a couple of hot spots that day), they've felt fantastic.  No blisters; no hot spots; and happy, nice feeling feet.

However, the Altra Lone Peaks are not perfect.  When I first used the Dirty Girl gaiters, the lace hooks tore up the soft laces.  I had to replace the laces with strong elastic laces (which work fine).  Also, in the first 100 miles, the white rubber at the toe separated from the red fabric on one of the shoes.  Since most of my hiking is on rocky trails, this might have happened earlier than it would for other hikers.  I glued the rubber toe back and took the shoes on my 6 day trek in Montana.  I did lots of water crossing, rock scrambling and bushwhacking.  Both toes are now separated.  One shoe has a chunk out of the toe rubber; the other has a split down the middle of the toe rubber.

On performance, while they felt good with general hiking, they really didn't handle wet rocks well.  I had minimal traction that made me pretty nervous in a lot of situations.  I slipped quite a bit.  They didn't dry out very quickly, but they didn't seem to hold a lot of moisture.  The wetness, in above freezing temperatures, didn't bother me.

My conclusions with this shoe was that they are pretty comfortable for good conditions, but the durability is poor and so is the traction.  If they fixed those drawbacks, this would be an ideal shoe.

Recently, I purchased a pair of the Altra Lone Peaks 2.0 shoes (26 oz/pair), and I'm hoping they will have addressed some of the shortcomings.  They seem to be a bit heavier duty shoe.  But I have yet to take them on the trail.  Realistically, I expect I will be visiting some stores this fall and winter to see how some of the other trail runners look.

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