Shoes are one of the most important pieces of backpacking gear, even more so on a thru-hike. If you can’t keep your feet healthy and happy, you won’t be getting very far. In this post I will do a backpacking shoe review of I wore on my 2016 Pacific Crest Trail adventure.
Pair 1: Columbia Hiking Boots
Starting off I wore a pair of Columbia hiking boots that I had been using for some time before embarking. I don’t actually remember what model they were, but something similar to these Grand Canyon low cut hiking shoes. To prevent issues from the break in periods, I wanted to wear shoes that I already had experience with.
Many people say that their feet will swell during the early days of a thru-hike, especially going through the desert. Mine didn’t swell enough to go up a size in shoes, but they did make the shoes I had uncomfortably small. I found the breathability of these shoes to be pretty poor as well. Hiking through the scorching desert made my feet hot and sweaty. I was changing out my socks every couple of hours because my feet were getting so wet.
The sodden socks paired with the ill fitting hiking shoes created a perfect environment for the formation of blisters on my feet. While I am sure that this would occur with any shoe and a virgin thru-hike foot, the Columbia boots didn’t help one bit.
On the positive side, the overall construction of these shoes was good. Even though I had been using them as my goto hiking shoe for a year prior to embarking on the PCT, They still lasted a few hundred miles on trail. And while the Southern California desert trail wasn’t too challenging, the tread on these boots was pretty decent.
If I ever were to backpack through the desert again, I would also take some gaiters with me. Every now and then I would have to take my shoes off to empty out all of the tiny rocks and sand that collected in my shoes.
Pair 2: Merrell Moab Hiking Boots
To get a new pair of shoes I went to the REI in Northridge, out of Agua Dulce. I was originally going to buy a pair of Altra trail running shoes after seeing most of my fellow hikers wearing them. Unfortunately the store (ravaged by the heard ahead of me) was all out of stock. I settled on getting a pair of Gore-Tex waterproof Merrell Moab low cut hiking boots. The fit seemed okay, if not a little stiff at first. They also had Vibram soles that would give me good traction while hiking through the mountains.
I thought the waterproofing would be helpful in the upcoming wet Sierra section. Boy was I wrong. Not only were they merely water resistant, but once wet (which will happen in the Sierras) they took forever to dry out. My feet were constantly wet from all of the snow and stream crossings, and the shoes wouldn’t dry out, even overnight. This caused me to have a lot of foot issues including blistering and foul smells from the dampness. I will be avoiding any waterproof boots for backpacking in the future, opting for shoes that are quick to dry instead. I can always wear a pair of rubber boots if I need true waterproofing.
The Merrells lasted me all throughout the Sierra section and through Northern California. So they were definitely rugged enough to stand up to the rocky trails there. I eventually did start to get some tearing on the mesh parts of the shoe, and the tread had worn down to the point where I was slipping. It was around the time that I got to the border of Oregon that I wanted to get a new pair.
Pair 3: Chaco Sandals
My favorite shoes on the PCT weren’t shoes at all; they were sandals. Chaco sandals to be precise. I know it sounds crazy, but I did ~1200 miles in them.
After being evangelized by my hiking buddy, I decided to get them from an REI in Medford Oregon. The pair I got were the Chaco Z2 Colorado Sandal. When trying them on I instantly fell in love with the fit. They do not feel tight on your feet at all. In fact when perfectly adjusted it feels like you are wearing nothing at all. When you are walking it feels like the sole magically follows your foot around. The hard rubber bottoms may seem clunky and stiff at first. But over time they mold to your foot for a perfect fit.
When I got to camp at night I didn’t feel the necessity to take of my Chacos ASAP and let my feet air out like I had with my other shoes. I even got rid of the extra pair of flip flops I carried with me for town days as they were so comfortable and non constricting.
Surprisingly, I found these sandals to be much more resistant against toe stubs than any other shoe I wore. You would think that with the open design, you would be kicking rocks and breaking your foot all the time. Not the case. The hard rubber bottoms are great shock adsorbers for anything you may stub your toe on, causing your foot to bounce right off. Whereas other shoes I have worn tend to buckle in the front, transferring the blow right to your precious feet.
One issue that you will likely encounter if you go this route is your feet drying out too much. I ended up carrying lotion with me, and slathered my feet every night to prevent skin cracking.
They lasted amazingly, taking me farther than any other shoe I wore. I would have sported them all the way to the monument if they hadn’t suffered a catastrophic failure; leaving me limping for a few days to Mazama Washington. The sandal strap broke near the heel, causing it to flop around as I walked. In an attempted trail repair, I taped the sandal tightly to my foot like a stirrup. This repair just made everything worse, as the binding caused a painful injury to my tibialis anterior muscle (the one that goes along the top of your foot).
Injury aside, these were still my favorite shoes I wore on the PCT.
Pair 4: Altra Lone Peak Trail Runners
After breaking my Chaco sandals and injuring my foot, I desperately needed a new pair of shoes to bring me to the finish. Luckily there was a well stocked gear shop in Mazama, my last town stop on trail. I decided to go with a pair of Altra Lone Peak 3.0 trail running shoes. I wanted to start running after I was done with the trail, and figured now would be a good time to get some gear up to the task.
After wearing the trail runners for only a few minutes, I fell in love with them. They were like super lightweight clouds on my feet. The extra wide toe box felt great as well, providing a constriction free environment for my foot.
The tread on the Altras is pretty beefy too. Paired with the flexible sole, these are great for technical footwork like scrambling up rocks.
I only wore them for a hundred miles or so, but in that time a tiny rip formed in the mesh on the toe box. The durability of these shoes is pretty low, but this should be expected for a lightweight mostly mesh trail running shoe. If you are looking for a shoe on a budget, you probably don’t want these, as you could go through 5+ pairs on the PCT.
Socks are pretty much shoes right? I have to give a shout out to Darn Tough socks. Two pairs lasted me the entire trip. If that doesn’t say something about their fantastic build quality, I’m not sure what will. The high price may be shocking, but with a no hassle lifetime warranty it is well worth it. I have no plans of getting any other brand of socks.
Durability aside, these are also one of the most comfortable socks I have worn. The weight is perfect. Lightweight to not promote sweaty feet, yet heavy enough to keep them warm when it is cold. The cushioning and feel of the merino wool is also superb.
If you are looking to try a new sock out, or want something that will last a thru-hike, I wholeheartedly recommend Darn Toughs.
That sums up the backpacking shoes I wore on the PCT. It is hard to say what the best thru-hiking shoe out there is because there are so many variables between personal preference and terrain you will be on. I still wear my Altra Lone Peaks nearly every day, and use them whenever I go hiking, trail running, or backpacking. If I ever were to attempt another thru-hike, I would probably go for the Chaco sandals again, as long as I wasn’t going through snow in them.
What is your favorite pair of thru-hiking shoes? Let me know in the comments.