No particular shoe is going to save us from injury. There is no way around it: most injuries are caused by lack of fitness and experience and/or carrying extra weight on our bodies and in our packs. Sure, having a shoe that fits is important, but does that cost $130 a pop? I say expensive trail shoes are overrated and hyped-up. Let me tell you why trendy trail runners aren’t worth your money.
Once in a while, a great trail shoe comes along like the Brooks Cascadia 9 or La Sportiva Wildcat 3.0 where you may be able to stretch them as far as 1,000 miles. But in general, most trail shoes are created equal, giving you around 500 miles. When we do find an exception to the rule, it’s often short lived… as most brands will come out with a new model the following year.
It seems like shoes would be the last thing you’d want to be cheap yourself on for an extended hike. But really, is there a big difference? No trail runners that I’ve seen have had far superior traction or durability (without getting into a heavier hiking shoe/boot). From the minimalist to more cushioned models, the soles start to wear around the 300 mile mark. Not all terrain is forgiving on shoes; rocks and roots will be harder on your shoes compared to the desert. Fit and breathability are key factors not to be overlooked either. Some brands have wider toe boxes, others are more comfortable for slim feet. This comes down to getting the right size, and generally we go up a half size after a couple continuous weeks on our feet. For some people this also means investing in some good insoles. Light and breathable shoes give you more control on technical terrain, and help prevent major blisters caused by moisture. In the rain, rocks get slippery.. that’s how we gain more technical skill; relying on a shoe’s traction is a cop-out.
The real reason injuries happen on a long distance hike is because we are asking our bodies to make a major transition. Going from your desk job to walking 20-30 miles a day doesn’t come without some pain. Shin splints, ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis.. not any of your gear’s fault. Look to the weight in your pack and baseline fitness levels first. Find a stretching routine.
Let’s bring Goretex into the conversation here for a second. Why exactly would we need “waterproof” shoes? They cost more, don’t breathe well, and your feet won’t stay dry in extended wet conditions. The worst part? They STAY wet. After a day of rain or mud, we want nothing more than our shoes to dry out overnight. A lighter trail running shoe often will, but Goretex material takes longer. It’s the same argument many people, myself included, have against hiking in boots. Hiking guru Andrew Skurka goes into the Goretex hype in detail in this spot-on piece.
So, take arguably the most popular thru-hiking shoe right now, the Altra Lone Peaks, and let’s look at the numbers. If you get roughly 500 miles per shoe on a 2,500 mile hike, you’d need five pairs. At $120 each for the Lone Peak 3.0’s, you’re looking at $600 total just on shoes alone for a hike. That’s going to eat a big chunk of your budget. To compare, I started trolling REI Garage for clearance trail shoes ranging between $40-65. That brings my total budget on shoes for the same hike to about $200. I’ve seen people take this further by hiking exclusively in Walmart Starters at $15 a piece. A friend of mine hiked 700 miles on a pair through the Sierra Nevadas, and writes about his experience on New England’s tough AT terrain here.
My point is this: Let your body, feet in particular, learn how to hike everyday. Don’t expect a pair of shoes to make a difference in whether you make it to the end or not. Step back from the hype and gear chit chat and find shoes that allow you to drink that extra beer in town or splurge for a hotel room in bad weather. It’s not what’s on your feet that matters.