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Hiking footwear. boots vs. trail runners, waterproof or not waterproof?

When I was younger, I always wore heavy leather hiking boots.  I loved big leather boots.  They made me feel invincible.  The problem is, weight on your feet matters more than weight on you back, and then there is this whole growing old thing.

First step, I just started buying boots that weren't all leather.  Then I started looking for boots that weighed under three pounds.  Then I met Dave, who is my current hiking partner.  I'm currently waiting for him to get back from the CDT.  We talk gear a lot.  Apparently, what is big with long trail hikers, especially the AT, is trail runners (shoes) that dry quickly.  His current shoe of choice is the Altra.

I'm a footwear guy, so I now have more boots and shoes than I could wear out in several lifetimes.  I have shoes and boots still in their boxes and never worn.  Here were some of my considerations, when I was shopping: On the one hand, running shoes are lighter, cooler, often have better shock absorption, give better foot articulation, and are just more comfortable.  On the other, boots offer some ankle protection on rocky sections, keep debris out better and, if waterproof, can keep your feet dry when rock hopping across a stream.

I'm currently using trail runners on some hikes and light boots (around 2 pounds or less) on others.  I don't think waterproofing on trail runners makes a lot of sense since water comes over the top so easily.  Waterproofing just holds the water in.  But on boots, I tend do go for waterproofing because on most stream crossings, the rocks I step on are only barely submerged, so a waterproof boot can keep my feet dry.

Don't think there is a one shoe that does it all.  I'm inclined to use boots in the spring and on rocky hikes, and trail runners in summer and fall, on trails I won't twist my ankle.  And then, all it takes is one hike to change which way I'm leaning.

Sorry this is so long.  Like I said, I'm into footwear.  I have a hard time passing up a bargain too.

I’ve always worn boots, but in the past year or so I’ve been wearing low hiking shoes more often for moderate trails. Right now my shoe of choice is the non-waterproof Oboz Sawtooth - I don’t have anything against waterproofing, I just wanted to spend as little as possible. What they lack in structure and ankle protection is somewhat offset by their being more nimble and providing a better feel for the trail than boots give. But I do feel the rocks by the end of the day, which isn’t the case with boots.

My current hiking boots are Lowa Camino GTX, and in another few months I’ll be wearing them almost exclusively because the mountains will be icy and spikes place a lot of extra leverage on ankles. I have strong ankles but would just as soon let the boots take some of the stress. 

I'm in NC, and we get moderate snow. I switched to Salomon trail runners about 5 years ago and hope I never have to switch back. For stream crossing, I remove my socks and put them back on after the crossing. Takes longer in winter, but they dry quick. I used to switch to boots for cold weather or snow, but no more. I now wear a pear of neoprene scuba socks with a thin liner. Impressively warm. Not for everyone, but it's a great fit for me.

I too grew up with the clodhopper boots. But as far as waterproofness goes, it has a downside: no amount of waterproofing short of an impermeable barrier will prevent your feet from getting wet in the long run, and the more resistant your footwear is to allowing water in, the more resistant it will be to allowing water *out*.

Consider that it may be best to wear the lightest shoes possible for the conditions you will face, avoid waterproofing, and accept the possibility of wet feet, knowing your footwear will dry faster if it does get wet.

I did a thru-hike of the AT in 2011 using Asolo boots (no longer made) and used trail runners (La Spotiva Wildcats) for the PCT in 17. Each one has their own pros and cons. I think the general school of thought now is lighter and more breathable shoe is preferred to heavier more structured boot. To me it is really biome dependent. I would never wear boots in the desert and I would prefer not to have shoes during my winter trips. 

You're not the only one with a footwear addiction.

Porters in the Himalayas haul very heavy loads over very crude trails, often barefoot.  I could never do that, my feet were never tough enough to endure the rigors of such activity.

In my youth I could sometimes hike in tennis shoes, that is when not hauling a massive pack!  But my feet are not as strong or tough as they used to be.  Trail bed and pack weight dictate my footware.  Trails consisting of sharp rock underfoot require a stiff sole to protect the foot from bruising.  High Sierra trails above treeline are an example.   Hauling a heavy pack requires better arch support.  Dry camping in the desert where one must carry all their water are an example.  Since most of my hiking is mostly in these environs and venues, I like a medium boot with a shank in the sole to help support my foot as well as protect it from rock bruises.  If I had trail runners or other light footware its use would probably be limited to day hikes. 


It's a matter of personal preference. I find boots to be much more comfortable.

October 25, 2021
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