Backpacking Footwear

| Comments (0) | Gear JMT
Probably the two pieces of backpacking gear where fit is most important are your pack and whatever you wear on your feet. In both cases, the gear is an interface between your body and a heavy load, so it's important to have something that works for you or you're likely to end up in serious discomfort. Back in the old days, everyone used to wear hiking boots but as lightweight backpacking has started to take off, it's become a lot more popular (and more practical) to wear something lighter, generally some sort of trail runner. I've always worn hiking boots but this time I decided to transition to trail runners. Since I already had experience with them, I decided to go with Inov-8 Roclite 295s. I've worn these for plenty of trail miles and I know they fit well and are comfortable, though they wear fast, so I bought a new pair and just lightly broke them in before my trip.

I had two major concerns about transitioning to a trail shoe: ankle protection and water resistance. One of the claimed benefits of a hiking boot is that the high top protects your ankles, but after my most recent trip to Emigrant Wilderness, my ankles were still pretty beat up in my boots so I figured trail shoes weren't likely to be much worse. A few short hikes with them seemed to confirm that. My second concern was water resistance. Like many hiking boots, mine are Gore-Tex lined and so waterproof at least until you step into water above the top of the boot. The Inov-8s are largely mesh and so not water resistant at all. I considered getting a Gore-Tex trail shoe, but the problem with those is that they don't drain and since a low shoe increases the chance you'll step into water above the top of the shoe, I figured better to have mesh shoe that drains fast. I also brought a pair of VFFs for stream crossings and use as a camp shoe.

As far as socks go, standard procedure is to wear two pairs: a liner sock and a thick hiking sock, but with a shoe this light I decided to skip that and just wear Injinji Tetrasoks. I've worn these for plenty of runs and races and know they're comfortable and wanted to give my feet some space to breathe. I initially brought two pairs of Injinjis and one of hiking socks as a backup, but I never wore the hiking socks and traded them in for Injinjis at Muir Trail Ranch.

Overall, this system worked out moderately well. While I was initially worried about the water issue, it turned out not to be a problem. On day 4 or so I stepped ankle deep in a stream and it just turned out not to be that bad. My feet dried quickly and I was comfortable enough that I didn't feel like I needed a water shoe. Unlike other trips I've done, my feet didn't feel horribly beaten up at the end of the day and I found myself just wearing the Inov-8s without socks and unlaced to walk around camp. I never wore the VFFs and when I got to Muir Trail Ranch I shipped them home: no point in carrying an extra 300g of useless shoe. The Injinjis got dirty fast but I was able to wash them in streams and keep them from getting too filthy.

I said I was reasonably comfortable, but I did experience two problems. First, by day 7 or so, due to some combination of rocky terrain forcing constant pronation and supination, fatigue, and maybe just being poked by the occasional rock was starting to wear on me and the outside of both feet started to hurt in mid-metatarsal. I was worried this would be trip-ending but keeping a high load of naproxen and wrapping a couple of strips of tape around each foot seemed to relieve the pain enough that I only got occasional twinges if I really stepped wrong. This was uncomfortable but not fatal and after the 9th day I was no longer seriously worried about this killing the trip—two weeks later my right foot still hurts though, so I'll have to see how long it takes to recover. It's hard to know if this would be a problem in hiking boots, since it only happened after a week or so and I've never been out that long before.

The second problem is that the Injinjis wear fast and by days 9 and 10 the pair I was wearing had gotten so threadbare that I got a blister on the ball of my right foot. This was my only blister the entire trip and I just drained it and kept going, so overall this was very minor. Still, it serves as a reminder that you need to pay attention to your sock wear and in the future I might bring one more extra pair of socks.

All things considered, I don't think I'd go back to boots. They're less comfortable for short trips at least and the weight penalty is just too extreme. However, I might try out other trail shoes or experiment to see why I started to develop foot problems towards the end. I should also mention that I beat up the Inov-8s pretty badly—200-300 miles is about normal for a trail shoe and the soles on these had worn pretty far down and the synthetic leather part of the uppers was starting to peel off the mesh. I suspect another week and they might have started to fall apart on me. Even as things were, I had to replace the Engo patches that stopped me from getting heel blisters. I'm not complaining here: it's just something you would need to keep an eye on if you were doing a lot of backpacking in lightweight shoes.

Leave a comment