Minimalist Shoes on the Appalachian Trail?
Hello Friends! I wish you a peaceful and inspiring 2023.
Regardless of our individual plans for the coming year, we are each on an amazing journey, and none of us knows our future. I am grateful to be part of this supportive community, and your feedback has been very helpful!
The Trek recently posted, The Top Footwear on the Appalachian Trail: 2022 Thru-Hiker Survey. There are many different paths to the top of the mountain, and for the past few years, both Paul and I have struggled to find the right shoes for our journey.
Finding the right shoes has been a recurring theme throughout our hiking endeavors, especially for myself. It is such a hot topic that Paul themed a birthday card he made me with shoe and sock choices.
In Pennsylvania, we have no shortage of rocks and roots to traverse over.
Support the ankle with a high-top boot or strengthen the ankle while leaving it more susceptible to injury?
We have bogs and mudscapes, stream crossings, and trails that do double duty as trickling springs.
Don a “quick drying shoe” or a “waterproof boot?”
Then there are socks…thinner or thicker? Crew or over-the-calf heavyweight?
These are first-world problems. Still, our feet connect us with the energy of the earth. Those of us who find enjoyment in hiking or even walking in our neighborhoods know how important that connection is to our well-being.
And as with most parts of our bodies, feet are easily overlooked unless something is going wrong with them.
Reasons for choosing minimalist shoes.
Bunions describe a misalignment of the big toe that causes pressure and inflammation in the joint. While there is a genetic component, improperly fitting shoes often exasperate this issue. Like many American women, I wore high heels throughout my 20s in an attempt to increase my attractiveness.
In my early 30s, the misshapen character of both of my feet became evident. It was at this time that I switched to minimalist shoes to help strengthen my feet, and the bunions have seemed to slow in their progression.
The philosophy behind minimalist shoes is that being barefoot (or as close to it as possible) strengthens the entire foot and ankle while encouraging improved posture. The soles of minimalist shoes have a zero drop, meaning no difference in height between the heel and the toe of the shoe.
Stack height describes the amount of material between the ground and the foot. Barefoot shoes have between three- and seven-millimeter stack height, whereas regular running shoes are usually between 9-29mm.
Paul and I both wear what would be considered barefoot shoes. Although we both like them, I theorize that they have lead to another specific foot issue arising during the cold winter months.
Fixing one issue leads to the emergence of another.
Chilblains describe inflammation of small blood vessels in the skin, typically in the toes or fingers. Blood vessels in the extremities get cold and rewarming the skin causes them to expand more quickly than nearby larger ones. This results in the bursting of the blood vessels.
Injury of the blood vessels is repaired by the body over the course of a few weeks. During that time they itch like crazy. The injured skin takes on a purplish appearance and stubbing a toe becomes ten times more painful.
During the cold months Paul and I are both plagued by chilblains. They greet us after longer winter hikes and daily neighborhood walks. Chilblains are supposedly an indication of poor circulation, most prevalent in the sedentary and the elderly. Neither Paul nor I are either of these, but something we do have in common is the wearing of low-stack minimalist shoes.
Keeping feet as warm and dry as possible is the best way to deal with chilblains. As we consider our early April start on the AT, minimalist shoes might not be the best choice.
So which shoes will I choose?
In the camp of minimalist shoes, I have acquired several pairs. These are my top contenders.
Vivobarefoot Tracker FG – Hiking Boot (2lbs)
Yes, these are hiking boots with a 6mm stack height. They do not absorb water and keep my feet relatively warm when paired with over-the-calf heavyweight socks. My choice for winter hiking locally, I had considered wearing my nicely broken in boots for the first month on the AT.
XeroShoes Aqua X Sport (13oz)
These are composed of a very thin, fast-drying material. With an 11-millimeter stack height, they have a similar sole to what was once my favorite shoe for day hiking, the TerraFlex II Trail Running and Hiking Shoe. The TerraFlexes are a definite no-go since their dense fabric absorbs water and becomes very heavy. They do not dry out for several days after getting wet, and then they smell like death.
Altra Lone Peak 6 (18oz)
After reading the Hiker Survey mentioned above, I went to The Appalachian Running Company and tried on the Altra Lone Peak 6. They were the only zero drop trail runner available to try on, and they were also on sale since the 7s had recently come out. With a 25mm stack height, I felt like I was walking on a cloud at the store and wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Still, I made the purchase, and these have become my new favorites.
I wore them for two recent day hikes, and my feet didn’t hurt at all afterward. My last hike was also quite wet and muddy. The fabric on the shoes seems quick-drying, and my socks were hardly damp afterward. I also did not acquire any new chilblains during those hikes.
What about Paul?
Paul is rather zealous about minimalist shoes. His current AT selection is the Vivobarefoot Primus Trail with a four-millimeter stack height. These are quick drying, and he likes the feel of being close to the earth. Still, he intends on trying out the Altras since the reality of hiking every day on such a low stack height might be the recipe for true discomfort.
If you are into minimalist hiking footwear or struggle with foot issues, feel free to share your thoughts and what works for you.
Next time I will share my perspective on health and holistic preparations for this great adventure. Until then, strap on your favorite shoes and go outside!
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