The first question most Pacific Crest Trail Facebook Year Groups ask is “Should I wear boots or shoes to complete the trail?” At 4,300kms in length, no one disputes you have a long way to walk. But they will debate ad nauseam over whether it’s better to lighten the weight of your footwear with shoes or stay with heavier, sturdy boots. The consensus, or current hiking trend, is that lightweight trail running shoes will give you the best chance of completing the trail.
Shoes it is, then. I have eliminated boots to reduce fatiguing my feet from carrying unnecessary weight, so finding suitable footwear should prove easier. W R O N G!
“You should try zero drop shoes – Altras. They’re the best!” are the most frequent comments from knowledgeable hikers. Most of these recommendations are coming from younger hikers with nimble, healthy feet. Can Altras live up to the hype? Will they work for an older foot?
Barefoot zero drop shoes strip back the extra ‘stuff’ you find on a pair of traditional running shoes. Barefoot, or minimalist shoes as we sometimes call them, protect your feet only from weather and harsh terrain. Heel-to-toe drop – the difference in millimetres, between the forefoot and the heel of the shoe – should have a zero drop in a proper barefoot shoe, just like your feet. Sometimes minimalist shoes are ‘low profile shoes’ which means they have a 4-7mm drop, significantly less than the 8-14mm drop of a traditional running shoe.
Another way to identify zero drop shoes is to try them on in a shop and look at yourself in a mirror. If they look clownish and appear to curl up at the front, they are zero drop. Shoes with drop look normal as we are familiar with the look of traditional supportive running shoes.
Who are they suitable for? Well, if you want to join the barefoot adventure, you need to understand what you are getting yourself into and what to expect. The Vivobarefoot blog does a good job of explaining this growing phenomenon in minimalist footwear here.
From my experience, I suggest young hikers or those with great feet are the best candidates. I have no wish to return to my former caveman days when walking barefoot was all the rage. Seriously, in my experience and from observing others, if you are old, have no metatarsal padding, suffer plantar fascia, flat feet, and have corns and bunions in weird and wonderful places, zero shoes may not be your best choice.
I refer you to the Well+Good site here for more information on the pros and cons of using zero drop shoes in the article The One Type of Running Shoes a Podiatrist Would *Never* Recommend by Zoe Weiner July 30, 2020.
Altra Zero Drop Running Shoes are the most popular hiking shoes on the Pacific Crest Trail, but that does not mean they are right for you. I saw a significant number of young hikers on the trail with crippling shin splints from wearing Altra shoes. Many had not given their feet time to adjust to this alternative way of walking, having transitioned from traditional running shoes with standard 7-9mm heel lift. Over time, their Achilles tendon has shortened and adjusted to this elevated support. If you want to wear Altras you need to work on lengthening this tendon first and allow plenty of time for practice hikes before risking a shin splint injury when out on a long-distance trail.
Personally, I have too many foot problems to consider Altras. There are plenty of other options out there with added heel support. The Hoka brand, for example, has even gone the other way, providing massive amounts of cloud-like cushioning. So much so it feels you lose touch with the ground beneath you.
Grippy, sticky rubber soles with aggressive lugs can counteract this suspended feeling and offer confidence on any terrain. Vibram soles, on many brands, still have an excellent reputation for providing sturdy soles with good grip in most conditions.
I walked with Merrell MOAB Ventilator shoes, but I have big feet, and migrating to Men’s Sizing meant a looser fit in the heel area in the larger size. Normally I can fit in the largest Women’s shoe, but you often have to go up 1 to 1 ½ sizes walking in the desert in summer because your feet will expand and swell significantly. A tight shoe, particularly those with smaller toe boxes, will encourage multiple blisters because the toes have nowhere to go. And if your toes hit the end of the toe box, especially during descents, you will lose toenails from constantly bruising them.
Notice my unique lacing method above that I used towards the end of the trail when I needed to widen the toe box even further to prevent horrendous blisters reforming on my pinkie toes.
Just a word of warning. If you are Women’s US10, the equivalent in Men’s sizing is US9. If you have to go up a full size and no Women’s US11 is available, usually the largest size in Women’s shoes, select a Men’s US10. So going one full size up to a Men’s Fitting is the same as your current sizing in a Women’s fitting. I hope this has not confused you. Only big-footed women need worry.
In summary, buying the right footwear will depend on your unique needs. People may suggest footwear that works for them, and if reviewed positively by many others, it might be worth trying the brand. But you do not know their foot configuration nor they yours, so try to avoid getting sucked into the recommendation vortex.
If you prefer boots and have a brand you find works for you, stick with them. If you want to transition to shoes, you can do this too.
Just pay particular attention to the shoe/boot’s overall width relative to your foot shape; toe box width if walking in hot climates to allow adequate room for expanding toes; adequate grip for expected trail conditions and desired durability. They often make trail running shoes of lightweight mesh uppers which breathe and drain well, but they are equally good at forming holes, tears and separating from the sole. Remember cost too. An expensive pair of boots may last the length of your trail, while ultralight runners may need more frequent replacement. In the end, the boots may prove the cheaper choice.
Finally, if you want to try zero drop shoes, test them thoroughly beforehand to see if they are right for your foot. You may become a permanent convert and that is perfectly okay, but resist the pressure to follow the crowd if you need more heel support. In the end, nobody cares what footwear gets you to the end. Just choose the footwear that will give you the best chance.