“If you want to forget all your other troubles, wear too tight shoes.” ~The Houghton Line
I get asked about backpacking footwear all the time and the question is almost always the same. Hikers want to know if it’s really okay to backpack in running shoes and how light their packs need to be before they can make the switch.
For many of us, it’s been drilled into our heads since day one that backpackers wear boots. That’s just what you do. You need the toughness and the ankle support and the water protection, right?
That’s why it blew my mind a few years back when I learned that thru-hikers cover thousands of trail miles every year in running shoes!
When I get asked this question now, after many years and thousands of my own trail miles (both with and without boots), I feel very confident in saying: Ditch the boots and don’t look back.
Here are five reasons why:
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1. Weight On Your Feet Is Costly
The more weight you carry, the more energy you expend carrying it. That part is simple. But weight carried on your feet is actually much more significant.
Weight on your feet will zap 4-6 times more energy than weight on your back. So, swapping that 3-pound pair of boots for a 1-pound pair of running shoes will be the energy saving equivalent of removing 8-12 pounds from your pack. Seriously? Seriously. It’s science.
2. Blisters Are The Pits
Rigid, hard-soled boots don’t flex with your feet and they won’t let your tootsies breathe. Your feet will be soft from soaking in sweaty boots all day and that makes them more vulnerable to blisters.
That’s why even a well broken-in pair of boots can cause blisters over a long day on the trail. And if you’ve ever experienced bad blisters, you already know, blisters are the pits.
Most boots claim to be waterproof and most hikers think that’s a good thing. But waterproof boots won’t keep your feet dry. It’s as simple as that.
- Your feet will be wet with sweat because they can’t breathe.
- Waterproof boots only provide short-term protection from rain. When it rains, water will run down your legs and into your boots.
- Even the highest quality waterproof boots will develop tiny holes over time that slowly let water in during prolonged rain.
- Waterproof treatments are not permanent and will need to be refreshed after a while.
Gaiters and rain pants (women’s here) can help delay swamping your boots, but if it rains for long enough, it’s inevitable that your feet will eventually get wet. And when boots get wet, they get heavy. Very heavy. They also take forever to dry out. So don’t get sucked into the “waterproof” hype.
4. Ankle Support Is A Myth
Okay, maybe myth isn’t the right word. But ankle support isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Ankle support is primarily a phrase that sells boots.
We all have it baked into our minds that boots provide ankle support, and that’s what’s going to keep us from getting injured – which, by the way, is among the top fears of wilderness travelers. But there isn’t actually much evidence to back that up.
Most research says that if you want to prevent ankle injuries, you should focus on strengthening and stretching your ankles. If you’re a healthy, active person without nagging ankle issues, you don’t really need any extra ankle support while hiking.
Furthermore, boots will tire your legs quicker and make your footwork clumsier. Both of which will put you at much greater risk of other injuries.
True story: I was recently contacted by a new boot company claiming to make boots with better ankle support. They proudly stated, “out of XXX boots sold, we’ve only had 9 customers report ankle injuries!” Moral of the story: even special new ankle support boots can’t prevent injuries.
5. Boots Are Demanding
Boots are expensive, they take a long time to break in, and they need to be maintained to keep their form. That’s a whole lot of hassle for a tool that’s going to tear up your feet and waste your energy.
Wouldn’t a light, cost-effective alternative that you can wear straight out of the box be better? I sure think so.
Don’t get me wrong. I own a fantastic pair of boots (check out our lists of the best men’s and women’s hiking boots to see our top picks) that have lasted for many years. I use them for snowy winter hikes and they’re an excellent tool. I just don’t wear boots on my 3-season backpacking trips anymore, and I don’t think I ever will again.