Experienced hikers often develop strong preferences regarding hiking and backpacking footwear. I am one who has done a lot of experimenting in the past and will continue to do so. I have experimented with all kinds of hiking footwear on and off-trail (except for moccasins and going barefoot). This includes heavy climbing boots, high-top hunting boots, trail shoes, running shoes and sport sandals. Each pair of low-cut trail shoes I purchase gets progressively lighter than the previous pair.

I have found sandals to be great around camp, for crossing streams and for providing variety for my tired, booted feet. To my surprise, I have also found that sandals work well on most trails for both day hiking and serious backpacking. As an experiment, I have put in 250-300 miles wearing sandals while carrying 35-45 pound packs. I remember vividly my first experience carrying a heavy pack while challenged to wear sandals—humping our camp on the steep and rough trail from Marmot Lake to Home Sweet Home deep in the Olympic Mountains. I was amazed at how well they worked. All of my preconceptions vanished in this one experience. I would regularly wear sandals on the trail except I have also discovered two things in my experimentation: lightweight trail shoes are just as light as sandals and I can easily replace the standard footbed in the trail shoes with my corrective orthotics.

Over the years, my favorite combination of footwear for backpacking with a heavier pack was a mid-height, medium-weight hiking boot and a sport sandal. This preference was based on two things: a weak left ankle from being sprained too many times and a love for off-trail travel. As I have gotten older, my packs have gotten lighter. Taking both boots and sandals is a luxury that is no longer acceptable. My experiments with lightweight trail shoes, as an alternative, have been more than positive. They seem to work well in a variety of conditions including moderate off-trail conditions as well as in cold and wet weather. Both super lightweight and heavier duty trail shoes are becoming my preferred, but not exclusive, choice of hiking footwear. However, I do not plan to not throw out either my hiking boots or my sandals; they are still the best option for some trips. As insurance, I am doing more pre-hike conditioning of my ankles and lower legs. I am also using trekking poles for balance and stability. As my feet and ankles get stronger, I will experiment with even lighter and more flexible trail shoes. I have been experimenting using trail shoes with snowshoes. I also plan to experiment with thin, lightweight racing flats developed for runners. Who knows, I might give moccasins or other minimalist hiking footwear (e.g., Vibram Five-Fingers) and maybe even bare feet a try one of these days.

Regarding gaiters (yes, they are can be an important part of one’s hiking footwear system), I have experimented with several kinds of gaiters (long, short, mid-height, waterproof, breathable, waterproof and breathable). From this experimenting I have come to the following conclusions:

—   I generally go without gaiters most of the time, but often have a light pair (1-2 ounces) in my pack to put on if conditions change.

—   Instead of gaiters, I buy my pants slightly long which means there is little chance for debris to get inside my hiking footwear.

—   When I wear shorts, I find that little debris gets into my shoes, but my feet and socks can get quite dusty. But washing feet and socks when the opportunity presents itself provides a good break from hiking and can feel very refreshing. It also great for tired feet.

—   Waterproof and breathable gaiters are generally not (not breathable enough). My feet sweat a lot and my pants and socks can get quite wet from heavy exercise.

—   If I know I will need gaiters later in the day (e.g., getting into deep snow or wading through wet brush), I wait to put them on until really needed.

—   If it is raining heavily, it works better to put my rain pants on over my gaiters.

If you haven’t done much experimenting with hiking footwear and would like to review an in depth article on the pros and cons some of the options, click on the following:  Boots, Shoes, Sandals or Bare Feet?

A final and more philosophical note on the subject of hiking footwear. In our culture, we tend to live mostly in boxes. Most of us live, learn, work, drive, walk and recreate in box-like structures. We are usually born in a box (i.e., house or hospital) and often prefer to be buried in a box. I suspect that these boxes give us a heightened sense of comfort and security in an insecure world. Putting heavier boots on our feet is an extension of this same mentality. The more time I spend in backcountry wilderness areas, the more I want to think “outside the box” and extricate myself from  “cultural boxes” of various kinds. My selection of hiking footwear (foot boxes?) is an extension of this same “get out of the box” philosophy.


Experimenting with Hiking Footwear