Shoes, boots, sandals, oh my.
A little bit about what I used on my feet on my PCT hike.
I guess I should start from inside the shoes, with socks.
I tried a variety of socks. Thick socks, thin socks, single layer socks, double layer socks, regular socks, toe socks.
Feet are important while hiking, but until we're hiking big miles, day after day, we tend to take our feet for granted, or at least I did.
Footwear that work for day to day activities back home may not work so well on the trail.
For socks, I ended up wearing two pair. An inner toe sock, and the thinnest Darn Tough running sock that I could find over the toe sock.
Toe socks, in case you don't know, are socks that have individual toes, like gloves for your feet.
I found that the toe socks helped prevent blisters between my toes. Those seemed to happen because of friction, and that was exacerbated by dirt that filtered through my shoes and socks. The toes socks took the abuse instead of my skin.
Big toe blister pre-toe socks.
Blister on the toe next to the big toe. Again, pre-toe socks
I used thin socks because thick socks took up too much room in the shoes, and I didn't want to have to buy even larger shoes, plus the "padding" in thicker socks really didn't hold up and just pilled up or flattened out.
Generally I wore short, ankle socks. The socks were really just to absorb friction between my shoes and feet. Later in the trail, when I switched to boots, I wore slightly taller outer socks to work with the boots, but still stuck to thin socks.
For shoes, I started with Altra Lone Peak shoes. These did not work at all for me. Lots of other hikers used them, and seemed happy with their choice, but for me, I could never find a lacing technique that would keep my heels from slipping up and down on every step.
This heel slippage led to large blisters on my heels, and the fabric inside the heels of the shoes actually tore, basically making the shoes unusable. Later in the hike I did find a pair of abandoned Lone Peaks that had the heel completely cut away, so perhaps someone else had the same issue.
I changed shoes to La Sportiva Wildcats and was much happier with those. My heels stayed put and all was well with the world. The downside to these is that they are exceptionally well ventilated. I mean, the top material of the shoe is a very porous mesh material. While this is good for letting your feet breath, it is not so good at keeping your feet clean. So, every night my feet were quite dirty, as the dust of the trail filtered through my shoes and socks and deposited itself on my feet.
So, every night, and often at our lunch breaks, I would use a wet wipe to clean my feet. I also used wet wipes to clean the rest of me every night, but feet generally took priority.
Lunch break, shoes off, socks off, insoles pulled out of shoes. Dump sand and dust out of shoes, let everything air out.
At the end of the day, I would remove the insoles from the shoes, shake out anything that had gotten in, and undo the laces as much as possible, opening up the shoes to let them air out overnight. The shoes would always be wet from sweat, and it always felt better to put on dry shoes in the morning.
Even with the better fitting shoes, I did still get blisters. At one point I was dealing with blisters and still wanted to hike, so I experimented with hiking in sandals. I have a nice, although heavy, pair of Chaco sandals. I used those, but still wore socks. It might look silly, but with so much sand and gravel on the trails, the socks provide friction protection for your feet. Plus, those sandal straps that are nice and soft on your feet, will quickly become saturated with salt from your sweat and become stiff and uncomfortable as they rub against the soft skin of the tops of your feet.
The sandals were okay, but they don't provide the cushion or support of a regular shoe. If I were carrying less weight, or perhaps if I was hiking a trail where it was more humid, sandals might be a good option. Here in the dry West, sandals let your feet dry out, and the few people I met who were committed to hiking in their sandals had to carry products to hydrate their feet to keep them from cracking. Lots of ventilation equals excessively dry feet.
But, sandals were good for camp shoes. Especially lighter ones than the Chacos. I carried a pair of Bedrock sandals to use in camp. Also useful for water crossings.
Camp sandals, minimally hike-able in a pinch.
Share Bear carried a pair of ultra light water shoes for creek crossings in the Sierras. They seemed to work well enough. I can't remember if she also used them for camp shoes.
Share Bear putting on her water shoes at a creek crossing.
One of the most annoying things involving shoes, is getting a pebble or bit of rock of stick or whatever in them. What the normal reaction to that? Yeah, stop and take the shoe off and shake the offending object out.
You can't be doing that while hiking. Well, you could, but it's a whole big production when you're carrying a backpack and it breaks your rhythm and uses energy unnecessarily.
So, the solution? Gaiters. I used lightweight low height gaiters from Dirty Girl Gaiters. Yep, a specialty vendor that just makes gaiters. These are lycra gaiters that are just to keep dirt and rocks and whatnot out of your shoes, while still being very breathable so your feet don't sweat too much. They worked great, although as part of holding them down, you have to put a piece of velcro on the heel of the shoes that you are using. Not a big deal, although the self adhesive velcro doesn't last. Super Glue between the velcro and the shoe keeps everything in place.
Later in the trail, when things were getting wet and cold in Washington, I switched to boots because I was tired of wet feet. I tried on a few pair and ended up with a pair of Solomon boots (hey, they make good ski boots, why not hiking boots?) that promised to be waterproof and breathable thanks to the marketing giant that is Gore-Tex. They did their job reasonably well, combined with some much more serious gaiters to fend off wet trailside bushes. The boots I got are light weight for full boots, being more based on running shoes than old full grain leather boots.
I don't have a great shot of the boots in action, but this shows a bit of why I changed from trail runners to waterproof boots.
One accessory that we all carried in the mountains were Micro-Spikes. These are rubber and metal cages that fit around your shoe and provide metal teeth on the bottom to grip snow and ice. If you have to cross a snow field or some ice, these provide some extra security. They do take some time and effort to put on, so quite often I'd skip them for short patches of snow, or if the snow was fairly level or had a good trail stomped into it from other hikers.
One thing that shoes do much better than boots is drying. If your footwear gets wet, shoes are much more likely to dry at least somewhat overnight than boots. But in general that's not a huge issue. And once you are hiking, if your socks are mostly dry, then the heat from your feet while hiking will help drying the socks and shoes as you walk. Having shoes or boots that hold your feet with a minimum of slippage will help reduce blisters, as will socks that stay in place so any friction is taken by them instead of your skin.
Obviously, what worked for my feet isn't going to work for everyone.
Mighty Mouse was happy with her Solomon trail runners and also her (I think) Brooks Cascadia shoes.
Although I think the Solomons had a tendency to grow a hole by the pinky toe, and the Brooks would tear in the flex zone of the toes.
I did have one of my La Sportivas that had the outer mesh tear open along the whole length of the shoe, but one failure among a few pairs of the things while hiking hundreds of miles per pair is acceptable to me.
That's not good... thankfully there was an inner layer that held together.
That's one thing. Any pair of shoes that relies on foam for cushioning isn't going to last for the whole trail. I can't remember how many miles I got out of each pair of shoes, but 3-400 miles would be acceptable to me. and each time I changed to a new pair, I could immediately feel the difference. Hiking in shoes that are worn down punishes your feet.
Interestingly, the juggernauts of athletic shoes, Nike and Adidas has almost no representation among the hikers that I met on the trail. I'm not sure why that is, especially considering that Nike might be considered to be the pioneers of the trail running shoe, with their Lava Domes, a pair of which I had in middle school. I suspect that the smaller companies might listen to their customers a bit more closely and be willing to change shoe designs more quickly to fix customer reported issues. Plus, long distance hikers tend to be a little anti-establishment. It's never cool to be wearing the mega-corporation's products.