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.

Shoe struggles.

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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Comments 11

  • Sabina : Jan 4th

    I too am a committed “barefoot” shoe wearer, and struggle not with chilblains but water crossings. My favorites are also the TerraFlex II which are great in rocky terrain, but I’ve only used them in dry conditions, so thanks for your warning! I haven’t tried the Aqua X version but will consider them. Before Xeros, I was an early adopter of Altras which seem to be getting away from being zero drops, except for the Lone Peak. My next planned multi day hike entails many water crossings along with some approach climbing, and I think I’ll have to use my Altra’s which I like but don’t love. I’d love to be able to wear vivobarefoot shoes but your favorite ones, don’t work for me at all due to a very high instep. Shoes for long hikes are a complicated topic indeed! Thanks for sharing info.

    Reply
    • Laura Budde : Jan 5th

      Thank you for sharing, Sabina! I haven’t spent time on the trail yet with the Aqua X and am a little concerned about how they will hold up since their mesh fabric seems pretty flimsy. I like to bring sandals (Xero Shoes Aqua Cloud) to change into for foot submerging water crossings. It slows me down, but then my feet feel so happy when I reapply dry socks and shoes. It also depends how many water crossings you will have on the trail and your time frame, but if you can swing changing shoes I highly recommend it.

      I thought I had found my perfect hiking shoe for the AT with the TerraFlex II. Then we backpacked for four nights last October and rain on the first night saturated the ground and then my feet as we hiked. It only misted during the day but my shoes were sodden. I would wash my feet and apply dry socks at camp, but my shoes were very resistant to drying. Fresh socks just got soaked as soon as I put them in the shoes and I got some pretty mean hot spots. By the time we finished the trip the skin on my feet hurt quite a bit and my shoes stunk up the car all the way home. It took about a week for the shoes to dry out.

      But its all worth it!:) Have a great time on your trip!

      Laura

      Reply
  • Emily Anderson : Jan 5th

    Hello! I also have a difficult time with minimal footwear in cold weather so I thought I’d put my 2 cents in! I have really liked the xero shoes snow boots. They are very warm but still feel light and have better ground feel than altras. (Definitely warmer than altras also) They feel great for cold weather hiking and even for running. Potential drawbacks could possibly be too warm for what you are planning and I’m not sure about durability on a thru-hike. Mine are still in perfect shape but thru hiking is pretty extreme for shoes. I also have never completely wetted them. The waterproofing works well and they will not get wet from walking in ice or snow, but if you wore them all day in rain they’d probably get wet from the top down and maybe take a while to dry out. Anyway, something you or your partner could try!

    Reply
    • Laura Budde : Jan 5th

      Thank you for sharing, Emily!

      I like the ground feel as well and Xero Shoes Snow Boots sound like a really great option for my shoe menagerie. I agree that they might not work so well on the AT, but would be worth having for other trips.

      Thanks again!

      Laura

      Reply
      • Lamont : Jan 15th

        Hello. I dont do long hikes, but I do have the xero snow boots. Im living in Mi and i use them to take my dogs out on snowy day. i can say ive had these boots completely under snow and havent had my feet get remotely wet. hope this helps a little.

        Reply
        • Laura Budde : Jan 15th

          Lamont,

          Thank you for sharing your perspective on the xero snow boots! Nothing better than having dry feet after being in the snow. I’m pretty convinced to get them for Pittsburgh life and would even consider them if we were heading out earlier on the AT.

          Enjoy spending time outside this winter with your dogs! I bet they love it!

          Laura

          Reply
  • Scott : Jan 9th

    Thank you for this article! I go barefoot almost all the time and have been trying to sort out my backpacking footwear also. I’ve backpacked barefoot, but that really wasn’t sustainable. I tried Teva sandals, but had chafing issues with the straps and mud or grit from the trails. Currently my favorite is Luna sandals (Oso flacos) usually worn without socks, but I bring a pair of wool V-toe socks for cold weather or sun protection. I also found a pair of neoprene socks with a split toe that works with the Lunas in snow and cold. The sandals do tend to scoop snow under your toes though, so I wouldn’t recommend them as a solution if you are hiking in fresh or soft snow. The strap between your toes can chafe, especially in mud, but a piece of leukotape over that area of my foot provides good protection. I’d probably develop a callous there if I wore them regularly instead of going barefoot. I am looking for a minimalist boot for snow, but I have pretty wide feet and haven’t found any that are made wide enough yet. I’ll be curious to hear what your experiences are as you complete your hike.
    All the best, Scott

    Reply
    • Laura Budde : Jan 10th

      Thank you for sharing, Scott! It is helpful to hear your sandal experience especially.

      Evan’s Backpacking Videos https://www.youtube.com/user/TES56?app=desktop might be of interest to you as he hiked the AT in sandals. His YouTube videos were the first we watched when becoming interested in backpacking.

      In a previous comment, Emily mentioned the Xero Shoes Snow boots and they might be worth looking into.

      I look forward to keeping you posted!

      Laura

      Reply
  • Alison : Jan 14th

    My problem with barefoot shoes is that they do not have good traction. I am gearing up for my Tour du Mont Blanc this summer and wonder if I should invest in a more traditional hiking shoe.

    I have hiked in Vivos and now currently hike in Groundies Utah. With both, I slip on wet rocky terrain or tree roots. In the past, I have hiked in Salomons and do not think I had such the problem.

    Reply
    • Laura Budde : Jan 15th

      Thank you for sharing, Alison! I just looked at some shoe bottoms and the lugs on the Altras are much more pronounced than those on the vivos. That might be something to consider in a traditional hiking shoe.

      I hope you have an amazing time on your TMB!

      Laura

      Reply
    • Coco : Jun 6th

      Hi Alison! I’m currently struggling over whether to wear barefoot shoes for my upcoming Tour du Mont Blanc trip, would you mind sharing what shoes you wore for yours and how they felt? Thanks so much!

      Reply

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