Give your feet a break
The old adage that "one pound on the foot equals five pounds on the back" is worth remembering. When backpacking we walk long distances, often wearing very heavy boots that we have to lift with every step. The result? After 20 km your legs will know very well the weight of your boots.
Ultralighters, on the other hand, often talk about floating along the trail, and part of the secret to this is light footwear. With less on your feet (along with less in your pack) you'll find you can walk faster and further, and at the end of the day you'll be less likely feel exhausted. The miles / kilometers really do tend to fly by.
So how do we achieve this? By radically changing our footwear for the trail. Put aside those weighty boots. Forget those heavy leather hiking shoes. What we're interested in is trail runners – designed initially for trail runners (surprise!), many of these light weight shoes are designed to be rugged and grippy, and perfectly suited to hiking once you accept a slightly different approach, which we'll get into in a moment. What kind of weights are we talking about? A typical, fairly sturdy pair of trail runners might weigh about 310g / 11 oz per shoe. Some more extreme pairs weigh 200g / 7 oz. Hyper-minimal pairs even less.
Boots vs. Shoes vs. Trail Runners
It's not uncommon for the venerable hiking boot – the mainstay of traditional backpacking – to weigh around 1 kg / 35 oz per boot. Following the 5:1 ratio outlined above, that would mean you're "carrying" an equivalent total additional weight of 10 kg / 22 lb – or almost double the weight of a typical ultralight backpacker's base pack weight. You can start to see the reasoning for wearing lighter shoes: with a lighter pack, you simply don't need heavy shoes.
The most common argument in defence of boots is that they offer better ankle support. While they undoubtedly provide more support than trail runners, the support they give is a little overrated. Soft leather doesn't offer much resistance, and conversely the tougher the leather, the harder it is to walk. Plastic telemark ski boots give truly excellent ankle support, but would you want to walk 10 km in them? You also have to honestly ask yourself whether you really need the kind of protection that high boots give on the kind of trails you hike – especially in the warmer seasons. In many cases, flexibility of movement is more of an advantage than limited support.
Traditional hiking shoes – lighter, shorter, but still heavy – offer similar protection, but very little in the way of ankle support (even if this is claimed, it is rarely true). Even a lightish pair weighing around 500g / 1 lb 1 oz per boot puts an "equivalent" 5 kg / 11 lb on your back. And that 5 kg can certainly be felt after a good day's hiking. I would argue that it's far easier to make the transition to trail runners from hiking shoes than from hiking boots, so if you commonly wear hiking shoes, you're halfway there.
Now, I know what you might be thinking... those trail runners look really flimsy – there's no way you can walk long distances in them! It's true, they do look lightweight – they are lightweight – but it's important to remember that not all shoes are created equally. We should bear in mind that trail running as an activity has different requirements compared to backpacking; the loads carried are vastly different for one thing (see Ryan Jordan's article at Backpacking LIght for more info). So when choosing trail runners, we're ideally looking for a design that can withstand a different set of rigours. Some manufacturers are aware that their shoes are worn by hikers, and you'll find certain models that are clearly a little more sturdy and offer more protection than others, so it's quite easy to find shoes that fit your personal needs.
But don't just take my word for it – take a look at Jörgen Johanssen's excellent interview with Chris Townsend on his footwear choices, from which the following revealing quote is taken:
"For traversing steep, rugged terrain you need strong flexible ankles and light, flexible footwear. Doing exercises to strengthen your ankles is better than splinting them in heavy, rigid boots."
Strong ankles will give you vastly greater support than rigid boots, and the best way to strengthen your ankles is to exercise them in flexible footwear that allows your muscles and legs to develop (rather than restricting their use and giving a false sense of security).
The biggest downside to light weight shoes is that they inevitably wear out faster (the average life of a trial runner is typically 500–800 km, depending on trail conditions). But people like Chris, Jörgen, and Andrew Skurka have hiked thousands of miles in trail runners, across vast mountain ranges, along long distance trails, and sometimes even in deep winter (we'll touch on that briefly). If you're an occasional backpacker, they are more than durable for your needs, and will probably last you a couple of years if not more.
A Glossary Interlude
Before we get much further, it might help to very briefly clarify some of the terms used in describing shoes. Different manufacturers and reviewers use different terms, so it is of use to highlight these should you choose to seek out more info online.
- Sole: The underside of the shoe that comes into contact with the ground. This may seem obvious, but there's a distinction between the sole (and the material it's made of) and the...
- Lugs / Cleats / Tread: This can get a bit confusing, as lugs and cleats are sometimes used interchangably for both the tread on the sole, and the holes/clips used to thread the laces. In this article, I use lugs, cleats and tread to refer only to the sticky outy bits (or lack of them) on the sole. I don't talk about the threading system here at all, but if I did I'd use the term "eyelets".
- Shank / Flexibility: The shank defines the rigidity/flexibility of the sole. Wikipedia defines it as "part of the supportive structure between the insole and outsole. The presence of a shank is crucial to the functionality of mountaineering boots as they diminish the load incurred by the wearer's feet and calves over the course of an ascent."
- Midsole / cushioning: This usually takes the form of a foam cushioning layer over the shank. The more cushioning there is, the less you feel of the surface you are walking on. I would argue that for long distances and with a carried pack, some form of cushioning is preferable to none (barefoot trail runners, for example, have no cushioning), but too much can reduce your "foot sense" – your ability to assess how the shoe and your feet interact on different surfaces.
- Footbed / insole: The padding (or lack of) between foot and midsole that provides holding shape and additional cushioning for your foot (again, barefoot shoes have none). Note that some materials used for insoles soak up more water than others, and remain wetter longer than others. Ideally, insoles should be removable to aid in drying, and some people choose to purchase orthopedic insoles to help alleviate any problems with might have with their feet.
- Arch support: As part of the midsole/insole, traditional shoes have a mounded arch to "support" your foot arch. Why? Very good question. The "support" given to feet has received much criticism recently as we'll see, with many researchers claiming that it actually harms our feet. Hence, many trail runners and all minimal "barefoot" shoes forego the arch support and keep everything simple, letting the bones in your feet do what it they have evolved to do. If you have problems with your feet, you'll probably need to look at fitted insoles and other orthopedic assistance.
- Last: The last is essentially the shape of the shoe – the anatomical dimensions of the inside of the shoe which define it's narrowness/tightness etc.
- Toe box / toe splay / wiggle room: the amount that your toes are able to spread apart. Some shoes have narrow toe boxes that limit the amount your toes can move, which can lead to sores and blisters. In general, a broader toe box is better for a natural walking style, and more comfortable for backpacking. Some manufacturers today offer their shoes in a variety of fits for different feet.
- Heel cup: the shape of the shoe/insole around your heel, that "cups" it and keeps it in place.
- Drop / differential: The difference in height between the heel and the ball of the foot. Typically measured in millimeters. When you stand barefoot on the ground, your foot has zero drop, and you'll see that the more minimal the shoe, the smaller the drop, to the point of "zero drop" on minimal barefoot shoes (or gloves, as Merrell like to call them)
- Rand: The shoe rand is defined as "a strip of leather placed under the back part of a shoe or boot to make it level before the lifts of the heel are attached", however, it is also commonly used to describe the protective circumferential rubber, foam or plastic that goes around the upper, offering protection from scrapes and sharp, pointy sticks.
The issue of support
It is common for trail runners to offer very minimal support and/or cushioning inside the shoe, and many have a reduced drop (which you now know all about, thanks to the handy glossary above). The reason for this is clearly and persuasively argued: it results in stronger feet. For years shoe manufactures have applied "science" to the development of shoes that support our arches and cushion our feet. The results? Our feet have become less healthy and weaker.
Have a read of this NY Times article – You Walk Wrong – from which this quote is taken:
"It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement."
There is plenty more to read on this subject – check out the links at the end of the article.
Getting used to the limited pampering provided by many trial runners does take some time. It's best to wear them around the house or on local walks for a few weeks to acclimatise your feet to doing their job (footwork?) again. I made the mistake of going on a 32-mile hike in my first pair, and the resulting tendon pains were very unpleasant. Now, however, I wouldn't hike in anything else. In fact, "normal" shoes feel oddly uncomfortable, constricting and poking into my feet in odd places.
It would be untrue to say that trail runners provide no support whatsoever – they do so through the shape of the shoe, midsole, insole and heel cup. The point is more that the shoes are much simpler, and in being so they build up the strength of your feet, increasing flexibility and natural muscle support.
I have terribly splayed feed and look a bit ridiculous when I walk (abusive school nickname: "ten to two"), but I don't have any problems with my trail runners. If you do have problems with your feet, clearly you'll need to look at alternative insoles or other orthopedic help that will assist. Section Hiker has useful info on plantar fasciitis, for starters, as does his über-blogger stablemate Brian Green. Beyond that I'm regrettably no expert in foot conditions. Only you know what you need to make shoes comfortable, so please bear that in mind regarding any advice and recommendations made here; you're on your own two feet.
If you worry about having, or know you have weak ankles, or if you just feel a little uncertain on tricky ground and would prefer some support, smartpacker Jörgen Johanssen has a clever idea: try using ankle braces. Typically weighing around 150g, they are much lighter than boots and provide more appropriate support anyway. They will also allow you to use trail runners and still have some ankle support.
But the issue of support is not the main barrier most people hesitate at before crossing over to ultralight trail runners. For that, we need to get our feet wet.
Waterproof vs. non-waterproof
Let's cut to the chase: the idea of a waterproof shoe is a myth. It's a lie we've been sold by shoe manufacturers for years. There is no such thing as a waterproof hiking shoe or boot. All shoes will eventually succumb to water if enough of it is present, but worse, when your waterproof hiking shoes get wet (and I promise they will) they will stay wet. The lining of supposedly waterproof GoreTex shoes takes a long time to dry, and leather in particular, when soaked through, is heavy; the only option then is to hope you can dry them out by a fire, after which they become brittle and unpleasant to walk in. You can wax them all you like, but eventually, with enough rain or walking through marshland, they will still get wet, and you will end up with wet feet.
The solution? It's so easy. You're gong to kick yourself!
Let your feet get wet.
In an interview at The Big Outside, Andrew Skurka has this to say:
"'Waterproof' shoes don’t work, period. The manufacturers and the retailers are being very disingenuous with this label. In prolonged wet conditions, your feet are going to get wet. Water will trickle (or pour) in the top of the shoe, or the “waterproof” shoe fabric will fail, or your feet will get wet from the inside because of trapped perspiration. I tried many systems in an effort to keep to keep my feet dry, and eventually I embraced the reality of wet feet and learned how to mitigate the resulting effects. Dry out your feet at breaks and at night, and apply a waxy balm at night to help partially seal your skin against moisture."
We won't deal with the application of hydrophobic foot balms (such as Hydropel) in this article, as this was already covered in Part 9 - Stay Fresh With Less. We will, however, look at what it means to embrace wet feet.
One of the reasons GoreTex has become so ubiquitous is it's claimed breathability. While it does breath, it does not live up to the hype. Feet still get sweaty in GoreTex shoes, and over the course of a day's hiking, the amount of perspiration exceeds the breathability of the fabric, leaving that perspiration locked inside the shoe in your socks, so your feet get wet from the inside anyway. GoreTex's effectiveness is also reduced by wear, dirt, perspiration, and body oils.
Non-waterproof trail runners, on the other hand, have no waterproofing, and are typically built using a porous mesh fabric that lets water pass through – in and out – easily. Unlike GoreTex shoes, non-waterproof trail runners are completely breathable. Because the fabric is thin and porous, it remains aerated, any water that is absorbed by the material dries quickly. This is the fundamental principle behind non-waterproof footwear: yes, your feet get wet, but they dry quicker, and usually while you are walking.
Once you embrace the wet foot technique, you will find it incredibly liberating. You no longer have to worry about getting your shoes wet or keeping them dry. Remember stream crossings, and the rigmarole of taking off your shoes and crossing tentatively on tippy-toes over the river bed? With non-waterproof trail runners you just walk straight across, keeping your shoes on. Try it – it can be startlingly refreshing (in more than one way). On the other side your shoes will be wet and your feet might be a little cold, so what do you do?
Just keep walking.
After 30 seconds or so you'll find your feet are no longer cold, and much of the water has already been squished out the shoes. On a reasonably warm day, and with a decent pair of shoes, I'm willing to bet that after 30–60 minutes, your shoes will be well on their way to being dry again.
Another key to success with this technique is choosing the right socks.
I know what you're thinking – my socks will be wet, and hiking in wet shoes and socks gives you blisters. Actually this is another myth: hiking in poorly fitting, tight shoes gives you blisters, and socks wet from perspiration that cannot dry because your GoreTex shoes don't breath as well as advertised only exacerbates the problem.
The trick is to have a sock strategy for walking, being in camp, and sleeping. In Ultralight Makeover Part 8 - Dress Down we looked at clothing and sock choices, but I will reiterate this briefly here.
For hiking in trail runners you need a short, thin pair of quick-drying socks. The ideal sock would hold as little water as possible, and keep your foot warm. Generally speaking, merino is warmer but slower to dry, synthetic is quick to dry but not as warm – so personal preference will likely dictate which you choose.
As you hike, your feet generate heat that dries out the socks and shoes. However, sometimes the rain just keeps pouring down, or mother nature inconveniently places a river crossing just before you want to stop for the day, and you end up with wet feet in camp.
Drying your feet is vital to keeping them healthy while backpacking. So what do we do when we end up in camp with wet feet, wet shoes, and no wood for miles around to make a fire (apart from picking better campsites)?
A-ha! Fortunately, you packed a pair of waterproof socks with you! In camp, take off your shoes and wet socks, dry your feet, give them a bit of an airing, then slip on your cozy pair of waterproof socks – SealSkinz or GoreTex (this is where GoreTex is acceptable), whatever you prefer. With your dry feet safely ensconced within their waterproof socks, you can put your wet shoes back on – and keep your feet dry. In camp your now-limited exposure to water/rain will ensure that the shoes don't get any (or at least much) wetter, and the heat from your feet will begin to dry out the shoes some more.
At night, take off the waterproof socks, and slip on your warm, fluffy, sleeping socks that you packed and have kept safely in your waterproof stuff sack (you did this because you read the rest of Ultralight Makeover, so you are well-prepared).
In the morning, don't worry if your shoes are still wet. Don't even worry if your socks are wet. Your feet have had a good night's rest and are dry, warm, and raring to go. Once you're packed up and ready hit the trail, just put on yesterday's wet hiking socks and trail runners and get going. If you're lucky and the weather holds, before you know it your socks and shoes will be dry, and you'll have put another 5 km behind you. Stop and have a nibble of your GORP, and smile at the world with satisfaction at having beaten the elements by embracing wet feet.
One note: sometimes you read about people getting into non-waterproof trail runners who then buy a pair of waterproof socks to hike in. There is no logic in doing this: you might as well have a pair of waterproof shoes. Waterproof socks are going to get wet the minute you step in a stream. They are also not very comfortable to walk in over long distances, and when you do their waterproofness wears out a lot quicker. When they do get wet (and again, they will) you are stuck carrying a pair of heavy, wet, impossible to dry, so-called waterproof socks. Unless you are carrying multiple spare pairs of waterproof socks, you are doomed to having wet feet in camp, and putting your delicate slabs of meat at risk of a ghastly case of pruning. So, remember: waterproof socks are intended for in-camp use.
Talking of pruning, if you really are likely to be walking through swamps for days on end, you'll need to pay attention to minimising the effects of wet feet. Andrew Skurka has considerable experience of this, so check out his advice. You might think hiking in wellington boots is an option, but 100% waterproof means 100% non-breathable, and in the height of summer their total lack of breathability means perspiration collects inside the boot, wetting your feet. Additionally, their generally poor fit makes them an equally unpleasant option for long distances.
One alternative for very wet hiking is to wear a pair of neoprene socks. Neoprene is not waterproof, but is designed to be warm (it's wetsuit material). A thin pair of neoprene socks will keep your feet warmer in the long term if you're spending all day crossing streams or swamps. Dave Chenault has an excellent article on neoprene, as does Joe Newton.
In his excellent book Ultralight Backpackin' Tips, Mike Clelland suggests using two plastic bags – the free ones you get at the supermarket for fruit & veg – as an alternative to neoprene socks in wet conditions. This is essentially a cheapo vapour barrier liner system, the idea being that you wear a pair of dry socks, put the plastic bags over them, and then put on your shoes. No water will get in the bags (unless it pours over the top) and the non-breathable bags will keep your feet warm. Of course, over long distances, your feet will perspire more and the socks will eventually get wet, but it's a definitely an idea worth bearing in mind – especially in camp as an alternative to waterproof socks – as those plastic bags weigh next to nothing and are usually free.
The idea of allowing your feet and shoes to get wet might feel anathema to traditional backpacking sense at first, but trust me, once you've tried it, you'll be looking for streams to giddily splash your way through. And on a hot day, the chill of a stream maintained by your wet socks and shoes is very soothing for hot feet.
As Ultralight Makeover focuses on three-season hiking, and Vapor Barrier Liners are typically used in colder weather, I won't cover their use in detail in this article. In short, they make use of a 100% waterproof barrier between foot and show that keeps all water out, and all perspiration within, creating a kind of managed microclimate. It's a specialised technique mainly used in long distance winter trekking, and for more information, once again Mr. Skurka is your man.
Lacing & Fit
Another tip for comfortable walking in trail runners is to tie your laces loosely. The tighter your shoes, the more likely you will develop sores and blisters. Allow your feet and your shoes to breath by loosening those laces.
I've found that sizing up when buying shoes also helps. Over long distances, your feet tend to swell up a little, so it's best not to squeeze your feet into too tight shoes. By buying a pair that are one-size too large, you keep your feet relaxed, and have room for thicker waterproof or neoprene socks in camp.
Ideally, of course, you should try on shoes in the store. The fit of shoes varies a lot among manufacturers, and even between the models of one brand. Watch out for narrow toe boxes which can become uncomfortable over time.
The type of sole will affect the usefulness of the shoe. Not only the shoe grip (a.k.a. tread, lugs, or cleats) but the rubber material used to construct the sole. The deeper the lugs/cleats, the better the grip on muddy, slick surfaces, but the greater the potential for trail damage. At the other end of the scale, smoother soles (such as those found on Keen shoes and sandals) emphasise a tread that is gentler on the landscape, and better suited to sandier trails.
For general, well-trodden trail walking, a modest tread is suitable. If you're going to be walking on wet, slippery trails (lichen-covered rocks, tree stumps etc.) a softer, sticky rubber compound will work well with deep lugs to maintain a grip in precarious circumstances.
Similarly, the shank, which affects the flex of the sole, also plays a role. General trail shoes tend to have a firmer, more rigid, shank. Deeply lugged soles are often more flexible, and barefoot-style shoes can pretty much be rolled up.
Minimal barefoot shoes are designed to help you feel the ground beneath your feet, bringing you closer to the trail as it were. In general, I prefer a medium thickness midsole that gives me some trail feedback, but has a firm enough sole to protect me uneven, pointy rock gardens. I like to have a minimal, but present drop (the height differential from heel to ball of the foot, if you recall) of around 6mm, but some favour even less.
Hiking can be a rough business, and mesh is not the toughest material from which to build a shoe. To protect from the everyday scrapes and bangs, look for some form of circumferential padding (rand), usually in the form of a compound foam. This acts as a buffer between you and the twigs and branches that you inevitably encounter when off trail. It doesn't need to cover the entire upper, just the edges around the sole – that way there is still plenty of exposed breathable mesh for water to escape.
Beyond trail runners - minimal footwear
The latest trend among runners is for minimal footwear – that is, shoes with as little as possible between your foot and whatever you're running on. These shoes are supremely light (around 150 - 200g / 5 - 7 oz per shoe), with a minimal drop of 0 to 4mm. Most are designed to be worn without socks, which makes them an interesting choice for hiking – no need to worry about wet socks anyway, although they might be too tight to fit a pair of waterproof Sealskinz in.
The grip / tread ranges from barely anything (e.g. inov-8 Bare XF-210) to grippy lugs (e.g. inov-8 Bare Grip 200), and the shoe designs go from the traditional (like Merrell's Trail Gloves) to the Planet of the Apes (Vibram's Five Fingers). For more info, check out Barefoot Jake's blog or irunfar.com. Don't go jumping in feet first though - John Roan at Mountain Ultralight shows why.
Want to go one further than that? How about totally barefoot hiking? Forget the shoes altogether, and just goau natural. While it's certainly not for everyone (i.e. it's not for me) there is something of a growing movement out there, and advocates swear by it.
I tend to think that barefoot shoes are not really suited to backpacking. They are designed for runners who travel with only a bottle of water, not hikers with backpacks who are likely to venture onto all kinds of uneven terrain.
Sandals, of course, are a perfectly viable alternative to shoes, and ideal in some climates. Beware though – some sandals weigh more than hiking shoes. I have a pair of Chacos which, while nice, are surprisingly heavy. Unfortunately the weather is rarely warm enough in Lapland for me to wear them very often. Many barefoot hikers favor a simple pair of flip-flop style sandals.
Another stalwart of traditional backing is the gaiter – typified by a long, ideally breathable tube of material that wraps around your leg and covers your shoe, it's purpose to keep out dirt, moisture, or snow in winter. For three-season ultralight hiking, you don't need a full-length gaiter. A short, ankle-high gaiter will suffice and help keep sand and grit out of your trail runners. This is smart as mesh shoes tend to let in a lot of dirt and sand which can wear out the shoes faster, and cause abrasions and blisters on your feet.
Dirty Girl make a range of very good "spandexy, unisexy" gaiters in weird and wonderful designs which are extremely popular. They attach with a bit of velcro to the heel and a hook on the foremost lace. Integral Designs eVent Shortie Gaiters are another option, and inov-8 make one designed to integrate with their shoes.
All this is well and good, but what if I just want a pair of light GoreTex boots?
Fair enough. Nobody is forcing you to adopt the wet-foot technique. There are plenty of light weight GoreTex boots out there. The inov-8 Roclite 286 might fit your requirements, coming in at just 286g / 10 oz per boot. (The clever among you will have no doubt figured out inov-8s shoe naming strategy by now.)
Anotehr alternative is the Merrell Moab Mid GTX, coming in at 15 oz / 435g per boot (also for women).
The La Sportiva FC 3.0 (mens / womens) comes recommended by Andrew Skurka (albeit for use in light snowy conditions) and at around 1 lb / 450g per boot it's reasonably light. La Sportiva's Explorer Mid GTX also looks even better, coming in around 16 oz / 450 g, which appears to be the weight for the pair, and if so that's quite impressive.
Incidentally, inov-8 once made an excellent, non-waterproof boot, the Roclite 370, but lack of demand forced them to discontinue it. It seems they were ahead of the times. One can only hope that they reintroduce something simiar in the near future. For nostagia's sake, check out David Lintern's review at SelfPowered. I probably shouldn't tell you, but you can occasionally still find them online. For the moment, for alternative non-waterproof boots try the Merrell Moab Ventilator (also for women), or Keen Voyageur Mids (also for women - yay!).
I have to say, though, that you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't give wet-foot hiking a try. And that's my last word on the matter.
What does Backpacking North use?
Like most people who have made the transition to lighter-weight backpacking, in the past I've used some seriously heavy boots. I was particularly proud when I purchased my Meindl Hiking Boots from a local store after first moving to Lapland. They were big. They were heavy (1112g / 39 oz per shoe). They were constructed of leather, metal, and fragments of neutron star. I could imagine myself stomping along the trails in all weather wearing these monster shoes. Nothing could stop me, because shoes maketh the man, and I was so very manly wearing them.
I also felt very tired at the end of the day, which I guess is not so manly. It was a joy to take them off and give my feet a rest.
When we moved to Minnesota we travelled as light as possible, so I didn't take them with me. For my first backpacking trip "Stateside" I needed a new pair of shoes, and found a pair of Vasque Wasatch GTX boots, which were made by Red Wing shoes – a local company! I thought they were lighter than the Meindls as they were at least shorter. But weighing them now I discover they are 905 g / 32 oz each. (Incidentally, I see Vasque now make trail runners, and this rather spiffy-looking pair of light weight snow boots - the Snow Junkies which were reviewed by smackpacker)
After hiking in over 30ºC / 86ºF temps in the BWCAW, I realised it was time for a change, and this coincided with my shift to ultralight (and the start of this blog, no less).
I looked at the online community and found that LaSportiva and inov-8 had the widest range of popular ultralight shoes (with New Balance and Montrail also contenders). I liked the look of the inov-8s (and, admittedly, that they were a British company – a very out of character moment of patriotism there) and ordered a pair of Roclite 295s.
Without a doubt, these absolutely transformed my hiking experience. Lightweight. Grippy. Breathable. Non-waterproof. They were perfect (admittedly, as mentioned above, I overdid it and ended up with tendonitis, but we all make mistakes). At 295 g (per shoe, for a medium size - my EU46s weigh 340g per shoe) - they are pretty light, and feature a sticky rubber sole that grips exceedingly well on wet surfaces, and a highly flexible Meta shank (i.e. not really there!) that allows free movement and trail sensitivity. The lugs are huge and great for muddy, rocky terrain.
I liked them so much I decided to get a pair of Terroc 330s to complement them for different trail types. The Terroc 330s were the de facto hiking shoe from inov-8, popular and proven among a huge amount of backpackers. While the 295s are great for slippery, muddy terrain, I find the 330s are better for harder, more compacted trails – the "endurance" sole is harder wearing, and the Terra shank much stiffer. The flatter tread / cleats have an odd tendency to pick up a lot of grit (the only thing I pick up with the 295s is my pace). Grip on wet surfaces (ie wood, roots) is ok, but not as great as the 295s. I wore the 330s on daily dog walks in the forest nearby mainly, and on trails that I knew were well-trodden.
However... like many shoe companies, inov-8 have a tendency to fiddle with the design each year instead of sticking with what works. Over the years I feel they dropped the ball further and further with each new version of their shoes, and when they adopted a non-mesh upper material that takes longer to dry, well, that was the final straw. Section Hiker Philip Werner has written that inov-8 have wrecked the Terrocs.
I read about inov-8 releasing a lighter shoe with a new sole – Tri-C, or triple compound – featuring not one, not two, but three (three!) types of rubber; grippy, hard, and medium. The Trailroc 255s promised the best of all worlds: one shoe to rule them all. But sadly I found this wasn't to be, and they ended up being more a jack of all trades, master of none. Unlike the 295s, which grip like a polar bear's fangs, the smaller lugs of the 255s left me feeling insecure on slippery rock and roots. They also have an "anatomic" (read: tighter) fit as opposed to the "comfort" fit of the others. There is a new version of the Trailroc 255 out now, which seems to share the same non-mesh material as the new 330s. You can read my comparison review of the three shoes here.
Eventually, following a adventure in Sarek National Park where the latest design of 295s gave me a crippling blister, I decided it was time to switch brands, and settled on a pair of LaSportiva Ultra Raptors. They weigh about the same, at 340g / 11 oz per shoe, but a much more hard wearing than the inov8s. The sole is thicker and firmer than the 295s, and I find this to be more comfortable over long distances. After a few day's hiking around the three borders of Finland / Norway / Sweden I didn't even have a hot spot on my feet. They drain well, dry fast (perhaps a touch slower than the 295s, but I can live with that), and seem to be more rugged.
As for socks, I've tried merino (DeFeet's Wooleator, as recommended by Surka), and while they were (unsurprisingly) a little slow to dry, I found them to be (surprisingly) cold when wet – unusual for merino, which has a reputation for maintaining warmth.
I much prefer Bridgedale X-Hale Speed Demon synthetics which are padded where you need padding, a dn thin everywhere else. As they are synthetic they're hydrophobic and dry very fast, yet are perfectly warm enough for three-season use, even in chilly Lapland.
Last but not least, following the Sarek blister incident, I invested in a pair of Dirty Girl gaiters (pink skull and crossbones, fwiw). They stop little bits of grit and dirt from entering the shoes through the mesh, thus preventing irritation.
What do others use?
The market for mesh trail runners and ultralight footwear has exploded in recent years. Whereas a few years ago I couldn't find anything other than heavy boots even in the better outdoor stores in Rovaniemi, today I can go to the supermarket and buy a pair of inov-8 X-Talon 212s (and believe me, I am very tempted, too). This is an incredible about face for the industry.
Because there are so many options to choose from now, it would be impossible and pointless to list them all. Instead I'll follow the same method as earlier editions of Ultralight Makeover, and select shoes that have proven their reliability or are popular with other bloggers. Note also that shoe models change annually, and are often redesigned, replaced or just plain removed from sale in the time it takes to write a sentence about it. It's very frustrating for your dedicated blogger, believe me.
You'd be forgiven for thinking I've been paid by inov-8 to write this article – unfortunately I haven't; it's just a fact that their shoes are very popular, particularly in the EU where they are based (at least until the UK makes up its mind and leaves in a bug huff because nobody listens to them anymore), and they have a wide range (perhaps too wide?) to choose from. Alongside inov-8, the other historically big trail runner manufacturers are La Sportiva and New Balance, both of which have a larger following in the Americas. Recent members of the gang include Merrell, Salomon, Salewa... you name them, everyone wants a piece of the mesh action.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the most beloved shoes among backpackers is the inov-8 Terroc 330. Built using inov-8s "comfort" last, they come recommended by Joe, Phil, and Colin Ibbotson who has worn them on long-distance hikes and come to a common conclusion that they are relatively short-lived for the price. I just saw Nick at The Mountain's Silhouette also has them, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. Remember, however, that inov-8's new materials are inferior to the old style mesh, and sadly the 330s can no longer be so highly recommended.
On the Backpacking Light forums the current top shoe is my favourite, the Roclite 295 (get them before they mess up the design of these, too!). The Terroc 330s also fare well, as do the Flyroc 310 and Roclite 315, the latter of which gets a thorough review from Stick.
La Sportiva Ultra Raptors are a popular choice. Philip Werner switched to them a few years ago, and the Big Outside calls them "outstanding".
Jaakko reviews the La Sportiva Wildcats, liking them apart from the grip. Hendrik liked his X-Talon 190s, but recently got a pair of Salomon Speedcross 3 (mens / womens) which also get a positive review.
Roger Caffin likes the New Balance 889 Multisports. To be honest I'm a touch suspicious of the amount of New Balance reviews over at Backpacking Light, but these look and sound like a reasonably good pair (they appear to be EOL though).
Brian Green calls the Altra Lone Peaks (also for the ladies)the most comfortable pair of trail runners he's ever worn. They're a zero drop, barefoot style shoe which Toe Salad also think is a great shoe, and Ryan Jordan described as "as close to an ideal backpacking shoe for the minimalist that I can find." In the comments below, Jeff Jacobs points out that the new, improved Lone Peak 1.5 (mens / womens) ups the ante even more, and included a built-in patch of velcro to accommodate gaiters such as Dirty Girls.
Speaking of gaiters, I know Joe at Thunder in the Night had a pair of Shorties, as does Stick, and I liked the look of Nielsen Brown Outdoor's saucy pair of Dirty Girls so much I bought my own pair. Dave C. declares his to be "bomber", which is more than can be said for the LaSportiva XCountry's in the same review. If you want more reviews, may I suggest you google "Dirty Girls" and see what you come up with.
Andrew Skurka on embracing wet feet and minimizing their effect
Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking (Backpacking Light - members only)
Fast and light shoulder-season footwear tips (Backpacking Light - members only)
Bedrock and Paradox on Backcountry footwear for the other three seasons
Sport Science on Barefoot Running
Society for Barefoot Living: A Case for Bare Feet
Jörgen's post on the weight on your feet
–– UPDATED 2017 ––