Thursday, May 3, 2018


Hiking boots or trail runners are as important to a backpacker as tires to a NASCAR driver. Like every other aspect of hiking you have to decide what works for you. I like to stay open-minded and try all sorts of innovative ideas and products. Sometimes it takes me thousands of miles to decide I don’t like something, but my feet always let me know. I don’t really enjoy a conversational relationship with my feet. If they are talking to me, that signals we have a problem. 
This blog has already established that I am as old as some of the rock layers in the Grand Canyon, so I have been through a complete evolutionary cycle of hiking footwear. During the 1960s it was so easy, you just strapped two pounds of leather boot to each foot. It gave you the feeling of a D9 Caterpillar dozer more than a NASCAR, but you didn’t have to worry about foot protection. Encased in layers of leather, a bear would have to chew on your foot for hours before actually finding bone. 
That was all upended by Ray Jardine when he brought up the fact that lifting those cement blocks a million times per day costs an exorbitant amount of calories. Ray suggested running shoes.  Most people missed an important fact in his epic book that changed backpacking forever. His ideas became known as the “Ray Way.” The important fact was losing 75% of your pack weight before switching to light-weight trail shoes. 
I was one of those people. The fact didn’t escape me completely, but going from 40+ lbs. of pack weight to 20+ lbs. seemed like plenty to me. I read his book several times, thinking all the way through each read, “This guys a quack.” He and his wife would eat cold corn pasta everyday for months at a time. That should be enough to get anyone committed. 
Quack or not, he made all of us think. He made all of us question every piece of gear. He turned us all into gram weenies. 
So, my first seismic move into the world of light-weight backpacking started below the ankle. I started the Continental Divide Trail in April of 1999 with, what I considered a light pack (20 lbs. of gear, and 10 lbs. of food.). I had special ordered a pair of size 11 Asics running shoes with a Vibran-like sole. Halfway through New Mexico I limped into the town of Grants. Two toenails on each foot had turned black and eventually fell off. I went to the nearby Walmart and bought the biggest, D9 Caterpillar, leather boots I could find. They were not the best quality, but four pair later I crossed into Canada and my feet loved me for it. 
This, of course, made me a little leery of buying into the “Ray Way,” or exposing my feet to the elements coddled only in ankle-high cloth.
This went on for ten years. I discovered that the best of boots only lasted me about 500 miles, so I continued buying cheap Walmart $20 boots that seemed to treat my feet just fine. Because Walmart buys whatever they can get a truckload price on, my choices were always sketchy. I finally switched to the luxuriously large toe box of the brand Keen. I still like ankle support and although Keen offers a low cut boot, I stuck with the mid-top, leather style. I hiked the 800 mile Arizona Trail in them and was convinced these were the new Holy Grail of boots. These worked for me for another half a decade and thousands of trail miles. 
The next move took me to where I am today in this evolutionary process, Altra Mid Lone Peak 3.5 hiking boots. This new discovery began as I started the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017. Many hikers were wearing Altra trail runners that looked like clown shoes. They were red, with an exaggerated toe box. The toe box was the first thing that caught my attention. Everyone was praising their experience in this footwear, but I was still suspicious. Remember my black toenails? They grew back, turned black, and fell off a couple times before I was normal again. Although I am close to being a light-weight backpacker at about 14 lbs. base weight, I am not going back to low-cut trail runners. Not only do you have to wear gaiters to keep rocks and dirt out, they offer no ankle support. No, I’m not falling for that scam again. But, I couldn’t get those clown shoes out of my mind. They seemed light, had almost all good reviews, the toe box was even larger than my Keens, and they were cheaper. I still didn’t pull the trigger. 

Then one day I noticed the shoe had grown up. It was now offered in a mid-size. Just what the doctor ordered. I was all in. I bought a pair and did a few hundred miles on the Arizona Trail to try them out. The toe guard on both boots began to separate. That bothered me, but the Arizona Trail is a rough neighborhood, I was abusing them. I glued the toe guards back in place and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail for a few hundred miles in what turned out to be very wet, cold, snowy conditions. The toe guard repair held, and the boots looked better than my past footwear choices, well past the 600 mile mark. They are as light as a slipper, dry quickly, and seem to baby my feet. 

At this point, I am completely satisfied with this new chapter in the life of my happy feet. I’ll be going back to the PCT to continue through the Sierra. I am confident that these boots would last me another 600 miles, but I am buying a new pair anyway. I feel they are a great investment, and a proven design. Like any smart NASCAR driver, you always want your pit crew to have a spare on hand.   —Keep Smilin’        

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