A Physical Therapist’s Guide to Backcountry Footwear

[also available on the Podcast!]

Let’s say you are headed into the backcountry. Or maybe it’s an adventure anywhere that gets you on some natural terrain. This could be the mountains, woods, swamps, or even the local recreational trail. Here are some common questions. What kind of shoes should I wear? How can I prepare my feet for the journey? And what can I do to take care of my feet when I’m out there, especially if it’s for multiple days? In today’s missive I’ll address footwear selection, and then in a subsequent post I’ll cover foot conditioning and care.

When selecting footwear for the backcountry, you want to consider the terrain, your application, the weather, and the degree of substantialism you prefer in your shoes (minimalist versus maximalist). I’ll try to flesh out these points and appreciate how they interrelate.

Terrain dictates the purpose, at least to some extent, of a shoe or boot. For example, extended wading usually requires waders or hip boots, unless the water is quite warm. Glacier travel and ice climbing mandates a rigid mountaineering boot that is crampon-compatible. Swampy country in which you might not cover a lot of ground is a great place for rubber or muck boots. Riders on horseback who won’t be walking too much usually prefer riding or cowboy boots. And in really cold conditions, pac boots are the choice to keep your feet warm. Each of those are very specific  examples of purpose-driven footwear. However, backcountry travel in most circumstances (covering miles overland on foot) can be narrowed down further.

The footwear industry continues to evolve and impress us with backcountry footwear design. I’ll break the available selections down into 4 main categories: ultralight hiking and trail-running shoes, lightweight hybrid boots, midweight boots, and heavyweight boots. These classifications are reasonably definitive but we must respect that each level blends/bleeds/blurs into the other. In order to make this discussion flow (at least for me), I’ll line out each category and then come back to speak to specific considerations for each.

Ultralight Hiking and Trail Running Shoes: While these aren’t quite the same shoes, they are close enough for discussion purposes. Hiking shoes will usually be slightly more substantial than running shoes, but there is some crossover. Hikers, almost always low top in this category, have beefier soles and uppers, and often contain a shank to increase rigidity. The running shoes tend to be somewhat lighter, and usually are constructed with more mesh and thinner materials in the uppers. It’s in this category where the term minimalist is most avidly expressed. Zero-drop (no heel to forefoot differential in the midsole stack height) shoes with little cushioning or support and sock-like uppers, represent the lightest offerings.

Lightweight Hybrid Boots: These are available from many manufactures and they represent a crossover between the trail running shoe and a more traditional boot. These have often been termed “lightweight hikers” and there are also many hunting-specific offerings (although the camo paint job on some of these is total marketing BS). Usually having a 5-7 inch height, these boots provide a bit of ankle coverage if not much in the way of rigid support (which is a debatable necessity anyway) while still retaining the somewhat flexible outsole of the lower-top models.

Midweight Boots: This style of footwear gets into the traditional backpacking, hunting, and even work boot arena. The sole is usually more burly and the lasting and shank more rigid in many cases. Uppers can be synthetic, leather, or a mix of the two. Toe rands, external heel counter reinforcements, and heavier lacing/hardware are the norm. These run in the 6-8 inch height classification in most models.

Heavyweight Boots: Bomber, clodhopper, and shitstomper designations go with these boots. They are big, heavy, and sturdy. Rising 8-10 inches in height and having thick uppers (often all leather but synthetics/plastics are becoming increasingly more common) and full wrap-around rands. Both uninsulated and insulated (Thinsulate or similar) models exist.

There are some key features and benefits of each category.

Ultralight: Minimal weight, high breathability, and a natural, responsive feel are some of the popular characteristics in this class. These shoes allow for the most natural foot function and this freedom of movement typically normalizes force management up the kinetic chain. In other words, giving the foot less constraints tends to enhance an athletic and supple gait and not throw unnatural forces into the knees, hips, or back. Energy has to go somewhere…and if it isn’t dissipated as much in the foot and ankle, the rest of the body has to deal with it. Wearers of these shoes often state they really have a “feel” for the ground that is cat-like and the opposite of clunky.

Lightweight: Like a basketball high top with tread, or a slightly more protective version of a speed shoe, these are very popular with folks who like to go light and fast, but want just a bit more shoe on their foot. While the support characteristics of these shoes go up a notch from the low tops, their main contribution is that they offer a little more coverage and their higher uppers reduce debris infiltration into the shoe (we’ll talk gaiters later, gator). This class of shoe, like every other, offers waterproof/breathable membranes like GoreTex and it’s in this design where that performance begins to shine (more so than in the low top styles). The blended uppers of thin leather, suede, and synthetic materials don’t last as long as full leather, heavier models, but they usually require minimal to no break-in, as long as fit is optimal.

Midweight: Boots like these have been the standard all-around backcountry choice for many decades. They are very durable and long lasting, offering more true foot and ankle support for rough terrain, off-trail work. They are excellent for hauling heavy loads such as when packing base camps in or elk quarters out. The water-resistant systems work better in these boots, as there are usually less seams and thicker materials than in the lightweights. 

Heavyweight: These models shine when things get really steep and deep. They can help to reduce tendon fatigue on sidehills and provide additional stability when snow depth is at mid-shin level or higher. The insulated models are not as warm as pac boots (which are generally better for less mobile situations) but they can be quite valuable in winter hiking conditions. 

There are also potential drawbacks, or at least topics of debate for each shoe type as well.

Ultralight: While these shoes don’t require break-in, they do require build-up. In other words, you have to gradually build up your foot and leg strength to get the most out of these shoes in the backcountry. It seems like common sense, in that you would want to work up to going long distances and carrying loads in these slipper-like shoes, but that’s where people often go wrong. It takes some time for your tissues to “callus” to this freedom. One reason is that as modern humans, most of us have weak, atrophied feet from wearing overbuilt shoes. Just a caveat. Also, these shoes work best for backcountry travel that is mostly on-trail and with light loads. Your feet are going to get wet. Even if you wear gaiters, debris is going to work its way into these shoes. You can blow out a pair in one long trip. 

Lightweight: You might be tempted to think these “do it all” and they almost do for most situations. But they don’t hold up to really rough terrain and snowy conditions. This type of shoe/boot is generally a one-season throw-away for any serious hiker, backpacker, or hunter. 

Midweight: You’ll get several to many years of use out of these boots, but here’s the issue. Every time you put them on you’ll know you are booted up, and will probably be looking forward to the time you get to take them off. Sometimes you’ll feel overbooted for the situation. 

Heavyweight: These babies usually last a long time because you will only wear them for certain “extweem” (spelling intentional) situations. They often take a long time to break in and this process can be a challenge. No getting around it…these boots are heavy. There is always a tradeoff. More features equals more weight. And, the insulated models tend to pack out and get a little sloppier in fit after a season or two. This can be offset with thicker socks, but sometimes that’s not desirable.

If I add up my hiking, backpacking, hunting, and trail-running miles to date, I’m at about 50,000 miles. I excluded my track running, skiing, and cycling mileage because that doesn’t count in this circumstance. But I can honestly say I’ve got over 5 decades of dedicated backcountry locomotion into my feet and legs. Here’s how I use those aforementioned categories of footwear.

Ultralight: This is my preferred shoe for general workout training as well as summer trail hikes and runs. I’ll use the relatively minimalist models in the gym, on the soccer field, or at the track…as well as in the woods. 

Lightweight: I love these boots for late spring through early fall for all my backpacking and hunting trips. They are, for me, that perfect balance of nimbleness and protection. Interestingly, I prefer the models which are designed for hunting because they have softer, more flexible midsole/outsole profiles than the dedicated hikers. Manufacturers call it a “stalking” feature. I just like the way it feels all the time. I avoid the camo models because I despise this gimmick.

Midweight: Most of my backcountry travel is in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. If I’m going to be off-trail a lot, especially in inclement weather or for extended trips, I’ll use a boot of this configuration.

Heavyweight: Once the snow gets a bit deeper, I’ll go to these boots for mountain travel. The only exception is if I’m using snowshoes, where the midweight boots are my preference. Even in sub-zero temperatures, I’ll run the uninsulated models as long as I’m moving a lot. It’s rare that I’ll be on a snowmobile or out ice fishing, but if that’s the case (or similar) I’ll go to a pac boot.

Now that we’ve gone over the main types of backcountry footwear, let’s talk about related products.

Waterproof/breathable Membranes: GoreTex is the most familiar of these, but some companies also offer their proprietary version. As I mentioned before, this feature is available at every level. It tends to work best in the sturdier shoes which actually protect the membrane better. Also worth noting, most of these layers are sock-like and come in small-medium-large, as opposed to being custom fit to every size or last. Because of this feature, when you are in the high end of the size rating, such as a men’s size 10 at the upper limit of medium, the liner tends to work better and not get sloppy. Going up a size, to a men’s 11 can put you at the small end of the large booty, and it can get some slack in it over time. Also, these membranes work against you if you flood your boot from the inside, such as stepping in over your boot tops during a stream crossing. In this situation, they take almost forever to dry back out.

Waterproofing Treatments: These should actually be called water resistance enhancers. No boot of this type has the potential to be truly waterproof, although some get close. The only waterproof boot is a rubber one, and they suck for overland travel (no need to mince words here). You’ve got two types of treatments. Spray-on and rub-on options. The sprays can be applied to synthetics and don’t last very long, but they add a bit of repellency. The rubs include wax and oil based products that work best on full-grain leather. Some of these will soften leather but most also act as a preservative and help to prevent dry-out and cracking. Use of any of these products will be dependent upon the climate and moisture level in which you are hiking. 

Outsole Tread Configuration: Hiking boots are not unlike automobile tires. If we get away from the smooth profiles designed mainly for roads, we can look at lug size, shape, and spacing. Rock, mud, and snow each present a different traction challenge. Most high-end boots offer a design that is a compromise between these surfaces, but some will offer specific features for one style of terrain. Rock requires a stickier rubber compound that is more slip resistant. Mud demands deeper lugs with wider spacing. Snow needs tread that has less spacing but more angles for multidirectional grip. Designers continue to experiment in this area. Sometimes, in the all-around tread category, you’ll find one manufacturer’s interpretation to work best for your area and even your gait style (foot strike, pushoff, etc.)

Socks: Instead of a paragraph, this could be an entire article, or maybe even a book for someone whose knowledge is deeper than my own. That stated, the main thoughts with socks are material and thickness. You’ve got two main choices. Synthetic blends and wool blends. The synthetics are lighter, wick better, dry faster, usually more wear-resistant, and they retain shape better. They also tend to harbor bacterial growth and odor more. The wool blends, especially with merino wool, feel great against the skin, are warmer, and don’t get as stinky. A lot of this comes down to personal preference. The old school model of using a thin liner sock and a thicker sock still has some application, but most of us just run one high-tech sock these days. When you consider thickness, you are really looking at warmth and fit optimization within the shoe. I’ll usually run a thin sock or even no sock in minimalist training shoes, but for all other uses I go with a basic midweight sock, merino blend, over the calf height. I like simplicity. For serious winter enthusiasts, you may want to size up your boot ½ to 2 full sizes to accommodate thicker or extra socks and insoles if you really need to keep your feet warm.

There is one other area to consider with socks, and that’s specialized GoreTex or neoprene models for very wet conditions. These can allow you to wear ultralight or lightweight shoes and have semi-dri feet. This isn’t perfect but it does come into its own if you are on the tundra navigating hummocks or you find yourself in slushy conditions. 

Gaiters: Ahh, yes, gaiters are a magnificent piece of kit and most of the time a backcountry traveler should be wearing a pair. Probably the only exception is in dry country and when on mostly smooth trails. The low-top models are great when using ultralight shoes and they help to reduce both debris infiltration and saturation. Full-length models come in different weights and degrees of water repellency, but they are great for both keeping boots and pant legs dryer, and you more comfortable. A snug-fitting, water-resistant gaiter is a must for deeper stream crossings and snow travel. They also help to keep your calves warm and supple and may help reduce cramping and strains.

Orthotics: The elephant in the room, or maybe in your shoe. These are basically replacement insoles for shoes. The shoe industry typically saves a little money here by using inexpensive sockliners in most footwear. This is partly because they have learned that many people end up replacing them anyway. An orthotic is indeed a replacement insole, but it is also considered to be, in some cases, a medical or biomechanical device. Here’s where the debate comes in…first of all how much shoe do you need, and then how much additional “control” inside the shoe does anyone benefit from? I’ve waxed poetically on that before, and you can search the topic on the website for articles, podcasts, and videos on the topic. My main focus with orthotics is fit optimization. I look at three areas: volume, total contact, and shear reduction. For narrow or low volume feet, an orthotic can often fill in some space and improve fit. Total contact is basically having some mild contours in the insole to match foot shape and to improve the foot/shoe/ground interface. This is more helpful in a sturdy boot than in a minimalist shoe, which doesn’t need the help. Lastly, I like to find a topcover that reduces sliding and blister potential. Some of this depends on the sock you are using but I often find that a foam topcover works better for many clients than those made of cloth.

There are a couple of other styles of footwear I saved for last: Crocs, sandals, and insulated booties. I like Crocs for stream crossings and as a camp shoe. They are super light, can be attached to the outside of your pack, and offer some protection from rocks, etc. Sandals can perform the same purpose but I find them to be less protective and heavier in general. Hiking in sandals is popular in some deserts and jungles, and I understand that, but I’m not really doing that. I know some folks like to hike in the summer, even in the Northern Rockies, in sandals, and if it works for ya, great. Even though I’m an advocate for completely barefoot training in certain applications, I’m not in love with sandals for hiking. To each his own. Insulated booties are killer if you are a winter camper. Nuff said.

When I first started on this project, I thought I’d lump it all together. However, I realized that Part 1 was going to be best delivered by talking mainly about footwear. Up next in Part 2 I’ll address conditioning and care, which I think is an equally interesting topic. Thanks for joining me!

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