Pacific Crest Trail. Camino de Santiago. Appalachian Trail. Shikoku. The list is long and so are the miles you will be putting on your feet. If you are preparing for any of these amazing long distance treks, chances are you have wondered what you should be wearing on your feet. I can tell you from experience, that if you don’t take care of your feet, you will be forced to finish your adventure early.
The options seem to be endless: thick hiking boots, hiking shoes, trail running shoes, waterproof boots, sandals, low ankle, high ankle, tennis shoes, no shoes …. and on and on and on. This topic is also hotly debated on forums and in the reviews of popular brands. I can only give you my experience, and what works for me. If you disagree, and have experience hiking long distances, please add your expertise to the conversation by commenting below.
So what is the best option? For me, without a doubt, I recommend trail running shoes. I don’t recommend hiking boots, unless you have particularly weak ankles. On the Camino de Santiago (a 500 mile trek) I did not get one blister. Not a single blister. My wife, who was also wearing trail running shoes, got 1 blister the first day. That was it. I had many physical setbacks, but make no mistake, none of them had to do with what I was wearing on my feet. While on the trail, I spent many a break, watching so many who chose stiff hiking boots, thread needles through dozens of oozing blisters.
According to the experts at REI, “Trail-running shoes are built differently from road-running shoes. They’re made to address 2 key needs of off-road runners. Grip on rugged terrain: Trail-running-shoe outsoles offer deeper lugs and more aggressive tread patterns to boost your stability. Foot protection: Trail runners feature a stiffer sole and hidden plates to shield feet from bruising that can occur due to impact on rocks and roots. Most trail-running shoes also include stiff, protective toe counters on the front to prevent toe injuries.”
After I finished the Camino de Santiago, a good friend of mine headed off to spend 5 months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. He chose the same trail running shoes that I did. His shoes did split in half, after a few months, but he replaced them, and still, no blisters. For my trek I bought these Brooks Cascadia Trail-Running Shoes and loved them, but I believe any type of trail running shoe would be a good choice.
Here are some recent comments on popular outdoor forums that support my point of view:
“After reading a lot of info on the website about shoes I decided to take Hiking Boots when I hiked the Camino in late March. As far as I was concerned it was the biggest mistake I made in reference to gear.” –Camino de Santiago Forum
“I walked in trailrunners last year against most peoples advise (including the staff at outdoor shops, they are taught religiously to only sell boots). Anyways, I didnt have any blisters or footproblems whatsoever on the way. Most people who had big problems wore boots and more than one pair was shipped home along the way.”-WhiteBlaze.net
“I think that most pilgrims would find that rough terrain hiking boots would be too much, though if they are broken in and flexible, they might not cause blisters. The difficult decision is deciding in advance if boots will be a problem or a benefit. I suspect that the trend will be to lighter boots/shoes.” –Camino de Santiago Forum
Does this mean hiking boots or shoes are not a good choice? In the end your choice of shoes is 100% dependent you. Do you feel you need a more waterproof option? Then get a waterproofed shoe. Trail running shoes usually do not keep the rain out. Need ankle support? Then get a pair of hiking boots that support your ankles. Trail running shoes do not provide ankle support. Just be sure to break the hiking boots in as much as possible during training hikes. At the end of the day, there is no brand that will work for everyone and anyone that states differently should be listened to with caution.
If you have spent hours researching options on the web and find yourself frustrated, then remember this, I met several people on the Camino de Santiago, who were walking barefoot:)