It comes in many variations, but one of the #1 questions I see on the forums is, “What are the best shoes for thru hiking?”.
To me, asking that question is like asking, “What prescription of eyeglasses should I get?”. What style, which brand, and what size of shoe to get is VERY specific to the individual. How can a stranger on a Facebook forum answer that for you? So, if you are looking to the answer to that question here, I apologize. You won’t find it here (although, read til the end for some suggestions on the most popular shoe styles on the trail).
What you will find here are some lessons I HAVE learned about shoe selection for long distance hiking. It is based on my experience as a multiple-trail long distance hiker, an outdoor retail employee, and a person with foot issues. Here are 6 pieces of wisdom I feel comfortable telling anyone I care about who is getting into long-distance hiking.
1. Seek a professional. Whatever style of footwear you decide on (boots, hiking shoes, trail runners), have someone who is knowledgeable look at your foot. Most reputable hiking or running stores have at least one of these employees on hand. Do you have a narrow or wide forefoot and heel? Do you have a high or low arch? Do you pronate or supinate? What is your pack weight? How strong are your ankles? These are all questions that should come up. Even if you spend full retail on a few pairs of shoes to make sure they are the right shoe, it will be worth it in the long run. It’s your feet. You will be on your feet a lot. Don’t skimp here.
2. Consider orthotics. Shoe companies’ reps are the first people to tell you that the insoles that come with a shoe are the LAST thing the company thinks about. A good pair of orthotics can: make sure you fit in the shoe properly, make sure your arch is supported, make sure your foot does not slide forward or backward in a shoe (a major source of blisters), prolong the life of the shoe. Again, a professional can help you with this.
3. Don’t buy too many pairs in advance of your first long distance hike. It seems like stocking up is a good idea, especially if you find a deal. The problem is, you will be VERY LUCKY to find the perfect shoe for your hike before you have gotten at least a couple hundred miles into long distance hiking. Even if you have backpacked a lot. Even if you run a lot. Some people wear the same shoe size their whole life and then start the PCT and have to go up 2 sizes. It’s really hard to know. Stock up on Zappos or REI gift cards, but not shoes.
4. Lighter weight is almost always the better bet (to an extent). Some people never embrace the trail runner. But almost every long distance hiker I have seen [in the west] with any mileage under their belt will tell you that lighter is almost always better. You will feel less fatigued, they will dry easier, and you won’t have a break in period.
5. Don’t wait for the soles to wear out. Too many thru hikers fall prey to this. But, by the time the lugs on the soles of your shoes have worn flat, the midsoles of your shoes (the main support for your feet, knees, hips, back, neck) is long GONE. Don’t use the soles to judge whether you need to replace your shoes. Your WHOLE BODY will thank you if you replace your shoes every 400-700 miles (depending on the shoe, your pack weight, and your body type). Money is tight and shoes are expensive. I know. But, this could end your hike. Or even your hiking career. If you are starting to have foot, knee, or back pain and your shoes are over 400 miles, consider at least sending them home (for later) and trying a new pair. Chances are, you will feel better instantly.
6. Once you are confident that you have found the perfect shoe, buy as many as you can afford. Next year, that shoe company will likely change your shoe. And, it is almost never as good as it was. They will fit different or wear faster. Find them lightly used on EBay. Find them on sale. Get discount codes from brand ambassadors. But stock up!
All that said, here is a little specific shoe reccos. These are some of the most popular styles on the trail.
It took me 10 years of long distance hiking to find my perfect shoe, and here it is. Topo Athletic Terraventure
This is why:
- Neutral shoe (doesn’t compensate for runners who tend to roll on their foot to the inside), light weight (low fatigue)
- Durable (I get about 600 miles out of them instead of 300 miles I was getting out of the previous brand)
- Inexpensive (they retail for $20-$60 less than the comparable trail runners),
- Large toe box (super comfy in the toes, especially when wearing toe socks
- Not “zero drop” (this seems like more of a trend that my feet did not approve of with a pack on–even though I had been wearing zero drop for running for a long time)
- Small heel (I have a wide forefoot, but I don’t want my heel to slide around and blister). Again, this is the shoe that works for ME.
- Well-made–not just a box on the inside, but actually has the shape of a foot (=less blisters)
If you have a narrower foot and you want more cushion, check out Brooks Cascadia. If you are an ultralight backpacker with strong feet and a wide forefoot, check out Altra Lone Peak 2.5 or 3.0. If you have a wide foot and you would like a bit more stability, check out the Merrill Moab Ventilator, which also comes in a mid-height shoe if you are toting around a heavier pack.