This is a new edition on my now two-year-old first take regarding shoes. First of all, you don’t need even shoes. There are many who hike and run in sandals.
Years ago, when running shoes got clunky once again, the barefoot movement was born. There are still runners doing 100 milers in sandals and it works for them, so it might as well work for you. Even younger folks hike on triple crown trails or remote routes like the Hayduke in sandals.
Hiking in sandals has many advantages compared to shoes. Your feet get air, there are less changes for blisters, because less material can cause friction and your feet will dry after stream crossings quicker. For the desserts, on the PCT and the CDT, sandals are a good choice. Yes, there are snakes, but you have a problem if you step into a snake with trail-runners also.
Then there is the question of weight. The less weight you have on your feet the better. Folks who walk in sandals tend to prefer lightweight, thin sandals, not overbuilt Tevas. Mainly, sandals are just a protection against cuts or sharp stones.
However, you should be confident in hiking with sandals and have a routine in eating miles with them. There are toe socks from injinji for example, because otherwise you could get a problem with the temperatures in the early morning or later in the evening.
You should test your shoes before setting out on a thru-hike. Do as many long hikes as you can and test as many different shoes as you can beforehand. Play with brands and even more important, with different concepts. It can be a painful experience otherwise.
You can change your shoes, you even have to, if you do 2000 miles, but unless you have endless financial resources at hand, this can get annoying quickly. And if you are not lucky, after two bad choices you will go insane.
Popular for hiking are Altras. They have a super wide toe-box and zero-drop. For older hikers, this can be a no-go because normally in running shoes, you have a difference between heel and toe of several millimeters. If you are older and your achilles-tendon or your calf muscles are no longer extremely flexible, you can run into nasty problems. Especially if you didn’t had time to get your feet and legs used to them before your thru-hike.
I had also other problems with Altras. They are soft and offer no support in no direction. For hiking all day everyday this is a good thing. If there is no structure, there is nothing that can annoy you. However, I could not get them to sit stable on my feet. We have steep in- and declines here, if you hike on a smoother path, they may work for you.
Altra was recently bought by TNF, the biggest outdoor brand worldwide. This will give Altra access to better building techniques as they are not top on the line at the moment. Trending are no-seam-uppers, something Altra could not offer so far.
I also tested max-cushion shoes from Hoka One One. They simply turned the barefoot concept into the opposite by offering as much cushion as possible. Examples from the past showed that they were used successfully for thru-hiking. They use all kind of tricks to make their platform extremely stable. The bottom of the outer sole is much wider than the shoe.
It is nearly impossible to twist your ankle with Hokas, unless your foot gets captured in a tree root or similar and you fall down anyways. However, Hokas can generate knee pain, because they block the self-balancing capabilities of your feet. Everything gets damped down.
As fresh as they may look, as much do they try to compensate the weight of their foamy sole with less material everywhere. The outer sole is often not one rubber piece (Challenger ATR & Speedgoat), so if you rush through a scree field, small stones basically cut the rubber from the shoes.
The recent Challenger ATR has a thin tongue with hard edges. To have these edges pressing into your feed when declining, is not a pleasant experience.
It is possible to be fast with Hokas. They developed their Speedgoat with Karl Meltzer. Until 2017, he was holder of the FKT on the AT as he improved the time of Scott Jurek. Faster was only Mr Stringbean who used Brooks.
Some years ago, the Brooks Cascadia was extremely popular for thru-hiking. The sole is thick, they have a special pivot system and are not overly flexible. They have a pointy toe box. Which is a terrible idea for hiking. Most people spread their toes out when they hike. If your toes get pressed together because your shoes are too narrow, you get horrible shin splints.
My shin muscle gets like blocked when I have shin splints. This is a serious security problem. Good luck when you are out on the trail and you can’t lift your feet anymore. Meltzer had shin splints on his thru-run, but he has more than twenty years of experience in running 100-mile-races. If you have less, it’s a good idea to stay put in a hostel until your shins have recovered.
Hikers like Mr Jupiter no longer do their 4000-plus-mile hikes with traditional trail-runners, instead they use even lighter and more flexible shoes.
For his yo-yo on the PCT in 2018, Jupiter bought several pairs of Mt10v4 minimus from New Balance (discontinued). These shoes are designed to simulate a barefoot experience just with more grip than you would have barefoot.
Why should you use trail-runners, minimal shoes or even sandals to do a long hike? Depending on the speed you think you will be able to do, boots lock out the power of your ankle. Trail running races are seldom won with boots. Stability can be an issue, but unfortunately, if you don’t have the stability to hike in trail runners, I would suggest training stability, for example by cleaning your teeth by standing on one leg only or with special exercises.
Ask a specialist and move your thru-hike back one year. You risk tearing your tendons, and this will mean years to recover.
There are special cases: Chaunce claims that boots helped her to maintain higher mileage since they reduced her foot pain on the PCT.
Boots can also help, if you have a lot of natural padding and you need all the stability you can get. Hiking is one of the most efficient all you can eat diet, but you are putting your health at risk, if you head out with massive overweight. Although Second chance has successfully demonstrated, that even with a massive overweight hiking can be beneficial. He started slow but hiked an entire season on the PCT in 2019.
You will have a much better experience if you reduce your weight before attempting a thru-hike.
I suggest Aqua-Fit. You strengthen all your walking abilities with no pressure on your joints.
Shoes and boots with a waterproof lining can only be recommended for your 40-minute-stroll through snow, puddles or through wet grass in the summer. For thru-hiking they are a horrible idea. They just don’t dry fast enough when they get wet.
If you have problems hiking in snow, have a look at gore-tex socks or help yourself with zip-loc bags. It is not true, that you will die within 10 minutes by hiking in snow with non-waterproof shoes. Depending on the outside temperature up to 10 hours in snow are no problem, especially in spring. I did it, and I am still alive & well.
I tested the G-Series shoe from Inov-8 on the PCT in Washington in 2018. They claim 50 % increased durability. The shoe was wrecked after 500 miles. The outer sole didn’t hold up but otherwise they were not even bad.
From what I have seen on the PCT in 2018, 75 % of all long-distance folks wear Altras. 50 % of day-hikers too. I joined the Altra camp for more than 1000 miles, with the Timp and the Lone Peak.
However, in 2020 Altra hasn’t improved a lot in durability.