Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several people ask me what the beginning steps are for getting into backpacking. So I’ve decided to write a series of articles on the backpacking basics to help people get started.
First up is footwear. The main things to consider are: tread, stability, and waterproof level.
For some basic terrain, wearing tennis shoes on a hike will work just fine. As you encounter rougher conditions, you may want to switch to trail running shoes, light hikers, or boots. Trail runners are basically tennis shoes that have a grippier tread and are made from slightly hardier materials. Hiking boots have a thick rubber tread but less flexibility. And Light hikers are a midway between the two.
On really rocky terrain or wet terrain, I usually opt for boots or light hikers, because there is less likelihood of slipping. When I have to do a lot of scrambling or climbing, I opt for my trail runners because they have more flexibility and it’s easier for me to cram my foot into a hold.
Stability and protection
Hiking boots tend to have higher level of support because they lace up past your ankles. Whether or not you need this level of support is debatable. When I was on uneven, wet terrain, I liked hiking in my boots because I fell a lot and, with so much weight on my back, I wanted something that really took care of my ankles. Once I reached easier terrain, I switched to trail runners because they were lighter and I didn’t require as much support. One of the big benefits of being an ultra-light backpacker is that you can get away with using trail runners all the time.
The durability of the materials of your footwear is another thing to consider. Trail runners usually have mesh on them which is breathable but doesn’t take a beating. When I was in Northern Maine, I was grateful to have the extra protection of my leather boots. At one point, I actually found a hole in them where something had punctured the leather (perhaps on one of the hundreds of times I slipped on the wet roots), and I’m sure that if I had been wearing light hikers or trail runners, my foot would have been damaged.
Waterproofing for your shoes is a tricky issue. The more your shoes are waterproof, the less breathable they are. On my Appalachian Trail hike, I started with a pair of waterproof leather hiking boots. The terrain was pretty wet and muddy, so when I fell into puddles, I was able to keep my feet dry. The downside to my boots was that, while they are pretty lightweight when dry, they weigh about a 1000 lbs wet. Having waterproofing on your footwear is great, but if you are on a multi-day trip with a lot of rain, your feet are inevitably going to get wet. That same technology that keeps the water out will also keep the water in your boots. Shoes with less waterproofing ability tend to dry out faster. On the other hand, waterproof boots, even when they are wet, tend to be warmer, so if you are in colder conditions, you may want to opt for them anyways.
Choosing footwear is a tough decision. Luckily, there are a lot of great options out there. Light hikers try to incorporate the best of both worlds and are often a good middle ground between trail runners and boots. I opt for trail runners on easy terrain where I am not carrying too much weight, hiking boots for when I have a heavy load on rough terrain, and light hikers for anything in between.
Hope this helps. You can e-mail me if you have any questions.