Sole Searching: An Aspiring Thru-Hiker’s Quest for the Perfect Shoes
If there’s one piece of gear AT thru-hikers are opinionated about it’s shoes — and with good reason since it takes about five million steps to get from Georgia to Maine. All the other hardships on the trail – blazing heat, sweltering humidity, endless rocks and brutal climbs –- pale in comparison to the utter agony of hiking with aching feet. So choosing the right footwear isn’t just a matter of personal preference; it can be critical to a hike’s success. Which is how I’ve found myself on an endless — and increasingly discouraging — hunt for the ideal shoe.
These days there are plenty of footwear options, ranging from old-fashioned leather boots to ultra-light trail runners with high-tech grips. But after doing a lot of research, I decided trail runners would work best for me. They’re comfortable and lightweight. They dry quickly and provide a solid grip on slippery rocks. And most importantly, they have the soft mesh uppers I need to accommodate my hammertoes. They don’t last as long as boots, but comfort matters more than longevity to me. So, armed with a list of the most popular trail runners used by AT thru-hikers, I headed to an outfitter to check them out.
Unfortunately, none of the popular shoes felt good on my feet. Some weren’t bad, but they weren’t fabulous, either, certainly nothing I wanted to wear for months on end. Then I tried on a pair of Saucony Peregrines and was sold. They had a wonderfully roomy toe box, excellent tread for slick surfaces, and felt comfortable beyond belief. I bought them a full size larger than I normally wear and hit the trail. And they were great. I thought my shoe dilemma was solved.
Until I started having problems — a few odd twinges in my knees. Niggling heel pain after we’d finished our hikes. Weird tingling sensations in my arches (which had never caused me a bit of trouble in my life). Figuring I’d worn out the insoles after training all summer, I bought a new pair of shoes. But the problems grew more intense.
This worried me. A lot. I have totally normal arches. I’ve never had problems with my feet — so why was I developing these issues now? Was it my age? Was I training too hard and fast? Was it the pack weight I was now carrying? Or was the cause of my problem the shoes? I didn’t know. But when I researched my symptoms online, I discovered they might be signs of plantar fasciitis – a horror I knew I needed to avoid at any cost.
I went back to my list of shoes and started anew. But after trying them all on again, I concluded that none of them fit as well as the ones I already had. So I decided to swap out the original insoles for Superfeet (carbon) since so many hikers swear by them. But the heels felt hard. The arch felt too high, pushing against my foot. I tried breaking them in gradually, but the more I wore them, the more my arches ached. Worried that I was causing more damage, I sent them back.
I tried some Spenco insoles next (Total Support Thin). They felt good and didn’t bother my arches, but they didn’t solve my problems, either. And I had to resolve them quickly. I’ve seen the misery of plantar fasciitis. If I was developing that crippling condition, it could completely derail my hike.
Feeling panicked, I went to see a physical therapist. Luckily, the PT was an ultra-marathoner who understood my obsession and didn’t try to convince me not to hike. Instead she sent me home with a list of exercises and stretches designed to strengthen my legs and feet. It’s too soon to tell if they’ll make a difference, but in the meantime I’ve cut back on my other workouts. I’ve even dusted off my old yoga DVD to see if extra stretching will do the trick. If all that fails, I’ll consider getting some custom insoles or maybe start searching for shoes again.
Meanwhile, I’m trying not to get discouraged. I’m trying to reframe this problem in a positive light: better that I address any potential issues before the hike than end up with a major injury later and have to leave the trail. But I’d appreciate any advice or suggestions. Have you ever suffered with plantar fasciitis? Have you found anything that works? Will these exercises make a difference or is the problem really my shoes? Please help! I’ve heard so many conflicting opinions I don’t know what to believe, and I’m desperate to find a cure!
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.