This is actually a rather fun subject for me – and in my book Ultralight and Comfortable the politically incorrect guide to backpacking, I really play on this subject a lot. Here is an excerpt from the book:
Ever hike 20 miles with boots on? Backpack or not, boots are a bitch on any feet. They say you need to break in the boots first; the truth is you have to break in your feet and body to the boots. You have to get used to the idea of your feet cooking, wringing out your socks from sweat, avoiding water at all possible costs. You have to start loving and accepting blisters, double socks, tape and god knows what else. The first time I went on a long hike with boots on, I thought the bastard who invented boots was a masochist. I wanted to murder that fucker.
Now, I can’t really say that I disagree with this excerpt, but my book was made for a very specific reason; to take a piss on the traditional hiking philosophy and to open peoples eyes to the stupidity of the reasoning behind those gear choices. With that said, I myself from time to time do use boots, under very specific hiking conditions.
So am I completely against boots? No, of course not. I just don’t think that they are worth the hassle, warmth and discomfort and in most cases they are not needed. Here is a rundown of why boots are in most cases the worst choice for a long hike:
- Boots are horribly uncomfortable
- Boots get extremely hot, extremely quick and stay that way
- Boots cut off blood circulation to your feet
- When boots get wet, they stay wet
- You will get blisters from boots
- You will get back pain
- When moving over rocky terrain – your ankles and feet need flexibility, not being strapped in and binded like a Chinese stepchild.
- When crossing rivers and streams, the boots must come off. No walking through those bad boys like a boss
- You will hate your life after one day of hiking
- After two days of hiking in boots the nearest cliff may seem like a better option than one more day on the trail
“But I need ankle support!” No, shut up and sit down. You need flexibility and movement to get better grip and strengthen the muscles in your knees, ankles and feet. Your feet need to be able to work like they were meant to, your natural movements, the way your body was created, using the flow and movement of all your muscles in unison. Boots hinder your movement and often create much bigger problems for you in the form of muscle pain, blisters and broken soul.
With this said, boots have their place in certain conditions and treks. Often much shorter distances, in freezing cold weather where snow will be abundant, in trails where ice cold ankle high water will be the norm, and when you decide to trek with a heavy pack. If you are a traditional hiker and all that entails (the 40-70 lbs packs) then boots are probably your best choice (As the weight of the pack as a habit of compressing the trail runners which in turn hurts like hell on feet). Or as I wrote in my book
The problem of course, is if you are carrying 40 pounds /20 kilos on your back, YOU NEED BOOTS. Because not only should your back be miserable, your legs burn and your soul be shattered; your feet of course, should be even worse off!
When I prefer to use boots: Ice cold days in thick snow.
More blisters? Yes, plain and simple. Boots attract blisters. There are numorous ways in which boots will help you gather blisters and I will only list a few here. For one, once your feet get hot, the moisture builds up and your feet become soft – which in turn makes your feet much more prone to blisters. You can try to counter this horrible hot feet syndrom by making your feet even hotter and doubling up on your socks. But that is more horrible than it actually sounds. Also, because your feet are strapped in boots, it is absolutely essential that your boots are a perfect fit and that you really tighten them down. Because if there is even a little play in them, your feet will slide around creating once again, more blisters. Going uphill? no problem, your ankles need blisters as well – and with boots on, your guranteed the priviledge. Downhill? Even better! The constant rubbing will create blisters in spots you never knew existed.
With mesh trail runners your feet will get wet, but will often dry rather quickly meaning that moisture bound blisters are very rare. An added bonus is not having to be scared shitless of every stream, river and downpour. Having to stop and take your shoes off everytime there is a small stream or river – you just plow on through and keep walking. In all my treks I have only ever gotten one or two blisters using running shoes, it’s so rare in fact that I can’t actually recall them. Granted I’m not doing 5000 kilometer treks at a time, but maybe just 100-200 at a time.
Drying out my shoes after a long, wet days hikes. Difference is that these shoes will be dry within hours. Boots might take days to completely dry out.
I also find that trail runners give me better grip on a trail as my feet form around rocks and cliffs instead of my feet just being pegs that I stick in the ground. This also gives me the ability to have a very clear idea of what I am getting myself into as my feet work as an extra sensory transmitter, I simply feel closer to my surroundings. As the muscles in my feet, ankles and knees have gotten stronger because of the trail runners, I also find that I rarely if ever have any muscle pain after a long days hike.
Are there negatives to trail runners?
Of course. For one they are not as durable as boots. Don’t get me wrong boots fall apart just the same, but take a little longer to do so. I believe boots tend to last longer mainly because they are not used on the same distances or as long and hard as trail runners. I have had my boots for 5 years now. While that might seem like a long time, I haven’t actually gone further than perhaps a total of 150 kilometers in them.
The one real disadvantage I have found with trail runners is that when I stub my toes, it hurts like hell. It’s not unusual for me to sit down and curse, loudly, when the top of my toes meet an immovable rock. I can’t say I have this problem when wearing boots. This of course could easily be countered by buying trail runners that have some toe and heel guard. But, I have very mesh shoes that are more like sandals than anything else – so I only have myself to blame.
Don’t buy Goretex or “waterproof” trail runners. These have the same disadvantages as boots. They don’t keep water out (as your feet will sweat) and they don’t dry, ever. The shoes may or may not be breathable, but after 5 minutes of hiking you won’t care. Your feet will be burning up and sweating.
And lastly, don’t confuse running shoes with Trail runners. These are completely different shoes altogether – the title of this article is a little misleading. Running shoes usually have a bit more padding and insulation on the sides and top: This means they don’t try very well. Trail runners on the other hand usually have mesh and thick treads. They are meant to grip gravel and rock and dry quickly.
When boots can be preferable:
- In snow and cold hiking
- Long trails in ankle high water
- Shorter trails with extremely heavy packs (I leave out longer trails because you won’t be doing longer trails with a heavy pack)
- When you have a heavy pack (heavy excluding consumeables)
I believe that Boots like many of the gear used by traditional hikers in a great insulator for ignorance. They are for people who are slightly scared of the outdoors, who don’t have a lot of experience and prefer big and heavy because it makes them feel safe. Why big double walled tent, head to toe gore-tex rain gear and massive green backpack? Because the outdoors are scary. There are of course certain conditions when boots are preferable ( I have been on more than one trip where I prayed to god that a pair of boots would appear out of nowhere), and for some people, boots are the only option.
However, once the initial fear of being in the wild dissipates, it will leave room to questions such as “is the water really that scary?” – why not just plow through? Or “do I really need all this shit with me? “. With knowledge comes a desire to simplify and expand. I believe that trail runners for most people, are the next obvious choice in the evolution of the camper into a backpacker. One step closer to being “in the wild” instead of just an observer at an aquarium.
My Haglöfs LIM low mesh trail runners after 700 kilometers of hiking. Still holding strong and ready for atleast another 300.