About 12 years or so ago I bumped into an older middle-aged couple on the John Muir Trail whose amazing, crazy-strong legs changed how I viewed backcountry footwear. I met them as we crossed a creek in opposite directions. I motioned for them to step across the log bridge first and as they did I couldn’t help but stare at their phenomenal legs: tan, rope-muscled, veiny—pretty much perfect. These people had to be in their late 60s, but jeez, those stems.
While staring I noticed they were wearing running shoes. Not even burly trail runners, but regular old—and I do mean old—Asics Gel runners. We started chatting and they informed me they were on their way to Mt. Whitney, finishing the last section of the JMT they’d yet to cross off their list. I expressed surprise that they’d chosen those shoes to wear on a fairly serious trek. They countered with equal surprise at my question: Why wouldn’t they wear the most comfortable shoes they could on long hike?
The sharp rocks, I pointed out. The slippery granite, the ankle-busting tree roots, I went on and on.
No blisters, they responded. Quick drying and light as feather, they said.
Then they cheerily walked away down the trail, magnificent calves flexing, perfectly comfortable running shoes padding silently along.
Years later, when I started taking backpacking seriously, I was inspired by this running shoe-wearing couple and I decided to ditch my hiking boots. I went out and bought a pair of trail-runners—a pair of since-discontinued Merrells. I was gradually switching to lightweight and ultralight gear anyway, so saving a pound or two on my feet made perfect sense. I’d read the quip numerous times about how a pound on your feet is like six pounds on your back. Or eight pounds maybe, I forget how it goes. Anyway, those Merrells worked so well, I went even lighter on my next couple pairs until finally I was wearing mesh running shoes on most summertime backcountry trips.
And yeah, they were very comfortable, they dried quickly, and sure, they were very light.
But as my pack weight lightened over the seasons, I started to care less about how much weight my feet were carrying. And, as I began to discover my own personal preferences as a backpacker, I started to miss the security and comfort of a well-fitting boot. More important, I finally realized that just because magazines and ultralight hiking experts proclaimed that trail-runners were the only choice for three-season backpacking, I didn’t actually have to agree.
So this year, I’m switching full-time back to boots. Sure, trail-runners are lighter than boots and absolutely work for long-distance backcountry treks, but for me, there’s something about lacing up an ankle-high boot that inspires confidence. I like tromping through low streams without my feet getting wet. I like seeing a gnarled, rocky section of trail and knowing that I won’t feel each and every rock and pebble through the feet, like I did with my lightweight trail-runners. Plus, hiking boots have become so incredibly light themselves that there’s much less of a weight penalty than there once was.
But even more importantly: I love knowing that the right pair of boots can stick with me for half a dozen years of expeditions, if not a decade. Or more. I’ve still got the first pair of decent hiking boots I bought over 12 years ago. They’re heavy, but functional. I’m having them re-soled in fact as I write this. In the years since I set them aside, I couldn’t tell you how many pairs of lightweight trail-runners I’ve chewed through. While they’ve been comfortable, they haven’t inspired the sort of connection with me that a well-worn pair of boots has.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to work on pumping up my calves.
Words by Justin Housman