For as long as I can remember, I've been a boot guy. I grew up on a horse ranch where we wore boots for pretty much everything. It was common sense that if you're going to be outside doing anything, especially hiking, it required a boot. Joining the Marines further supported this personal mantra; we ran in boots, hiked in boots, and just flat out worked in boots. Why on earth would I ever change my ways? I'm a creature of habit so getting me out of this relationship with the "b" word, was going to be difficult.
For whatever reason, late in 2014 I became fascinated with the techniques behind thru-hiking. One of the major things I noticed right away was that long distance hikers have essentially given the boot to the boot (yes, that just happened). The vast majority choose to hike in lightweight trail running shoes or something very simlilar. Anything that has some tread, is lightweight, breathes well, and most importantly comfortable when you're putting 30 miles a day on your dogs. When I learned of this little nugget of a technique I was instantly intrigued. It made sense to me to hike in something that allows your foot to move like a running shoe does, isn't heavy, and is comfortable from the get. As I looked around the industry, a lot of people were starting to move towards trail running shoes for general backpacking and even hunting.
My concern with hiking in a low-cut running show was ankle support. What I've since learned is that unless you're carrying heavy loads of say 50 pounds or more, the ankle support isn't that necessary. Now, I have no idea how anyone can support this theory, but it sounded great to me and I kind of have a thing about my feet feeling small and nimble anyhow so I drank the juice these articles were serving.
I tried on a few pairs of trail runners and ultimately landed on the Salomon Speedcross models. Because thru-hikers plainly accept that their feet will be wet from time to time, I decided to purchase the non-GORE-TEX or weatherproof model. Being from the PNW, this was hard for me to do. I felt like I was going against every fiber in my body by purchasing something to hike in that is not at least somewhat waterproof. But, I figured thru-hikers knew better than I so I did it and went on a few day hikes in them and found that the feeling was incredible. Why would I ever want to wear a boot again? Was it really this good or was I making it up in my head? I probably was but nonetheless, I was hooked and ready to do my first backpacking trip.
The first trip taken in these new fangled shoes was going to be a hike around Mount St. Helens; an overnight 30 miler. Leading up to the hike I closely watched the weather forecast and saw that it was going to be wet and instantly began to second guess recent life choices. I was now getting anxious about the idea of hiking with wet feet all the way up until the drive to the mountain that morning. My solution was to secretly pack a pair of boots with me as backup just in case I couldn't follow through with the trail runners. Upon my arrival at the trailhead I swiftly wimped out. I couldn't do it! I couldn't bear the thought of wet feet this time around and sadly left my slipper-like trail runners in the back of the truck wishing they could join me on the trail. I swear I could hear them screaming at me as I walked away.
After the hike, I returned my shoes back to REI and replaced them with the GORE-TEX version. I figured if I wasn't willing to do the St. Helens hike in them then I should just pony up the extra few bones to get GORE-TEX protection. The only thing about this version of the shoe was that they were a little more stiff and were not exactly breathable in comparison to the originals. I figured it was worth it to have dry feet on the trail so I wore them out a couple times around the neighborhood to break them in a bit and soon found myself on trip into the backcountry in my new shoes.
Within a few miles of leaving the trailhead on this next trip, I did notice a difference in freedom of movement and overall comfort with these trail runners but it wasn't really anything mind blowing. Don't get me wrong, they felt great, but it just wasn't life changing. I decided I'd stick with these new shoes and keep hiking in them until I had a good reason not to. I have bad ankles from previous injuries in the military but had no problem managing a 50 lbs. pack up and down hills. Thinking back, I actually don't recall rolling an ankle once and I've hiked roughly 30 miles in them over some pretty rocky terrain. Not bad in my book for someone who can roll their ankle on what feels like a pebble (if you've ever rolled your ankles really badly to the point where they've been swollen and bruised, you know what I'm talking about. They just don't go back to normal after that).
Fast forward to the 2015 archery elk season in Washington. I made the decision that because the second day of my backpack hunt would be off trail in what could be some gnarly terrain, I would bring out the old hiking boots from the past couple of years for additional protection and support. Had I known at the time that my feet were going to feel like I was wearing cinder blocks after previously wearing trail running shoes most of the summer, I would have decided differently, but hind sight is 20/20 and I'm actually glad I swapped shoes for the trip. The reason being is I was blown away by the difference in overall comfort that the Speedcross shoes had previously provided me.
During the hike into camp on the first day with my regular hiking boots I didn't notice too much of a difference right way other than the feel of my foot being generally larger. After a few miles uphill this eventually evolved into me not feeling as nimble on the rocky terrain we were going up and really noticeable the following day when we were completely off trail. The only way I can describe it is that I just felt clunky and not as sure-footed as when I was wearing the Salomon's. The portion of forest my friend and I got ourselves into that second day was exhausting to walk through due to having to climb over a log every 20 feet or push through thick underbrush. I was tired after just a couple of miles and though my feet were fairly comfortable, I just didn't feel very agile in my boots. I kept wondering if I should have worn my trail shoes.
Later that week I headed back up to do a late afternoon hunt and I left the regular boots at home. The moment I stepped into the woods with my trail runners on I knew I would never again desire to wear a traditional boot. It was like I was moving through the forest barefoot or at least with some house slippers on (you get the idea). I was able to control the placement of my foot so as not to snap unnecessary sticks and felt much more comfortable overall. It was great to have the opportunity to really feel the contrast between a boot and a running shoe. That afternoon hunt had officially sold me on wearing trail running shoes in the backcountry. They were lighter, more comfortable, less bulky, and the tread on them was outstanding.
Though my Salomon Speedcross shoes will be my go-to footwear for the time being in the backcountry, I'll still continue to use a traditional boot when it's appropriate to do so such as in the snow, cold temperatures, or if I'm going to be doing any technical hikes up a mountain which requires a crampon of sorts. For the most part though, the idea of hiking or hunting in a trail runner is money. It was difficult for me to make the switch at first, but after feeling the difference this past summer, I now almost cringe at the thought of wearing a boot on a hike. The only downside for me is that I really love boots.
If you're on the fence about making the switch to a running shoe to hike or hunt in, go ahead and make the jump. If you're new to the idea of wearing a running shoe in the backcountry, I suggest you head to your local running store and try on a few shoes to see which ones feel right while imagining yourself on the side of a mountain walking as free and as nimble as a mountain goat. For me, the Salomon Speedcross fits my foot perfectly and has the tread I like. There are no doubt other shoes out there that would do the trick, but for now, I've found what works for me.
Thanks for taking the time to get to the end of this post. If you have any questions on my experience with switching from a boot to a shoe, drop me a note and we'll connect up on the matter.
Be safe out there and enjoy each and every step you take!