Sole Searching: An Aspiring Thru-Hiker’s Quest for the Perfect Shoes

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John testing his Merrell 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.

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Saucony Peregrine 6 shoes with duct tape added

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.

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Spenco insoles (top), original Saucony insoles (bottom)

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!  

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A few of the exercises the PT prescribed

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Comments 16

  • Therese : Sep 28th

    Hi Gail
    As a runner for many, many years, I have avoided plantar fasciitis like the plague. I developed a minor case of it about a year ago and decreased my running and any activity which reminded me that I had the condition. It took several months to recover and I have not had a twinge of discomfort since. As terrible as it sounds, take up some other forms of exercise to increase your cardiovascular fitness, do what the PT says and be patient. You definitely do not want this to get chronic. It will cripple you on the AT. Good luck!!!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Sep 28th

      Thanks, Therese. My brother has had plantar fasciitis all his life, and I have seen the misery he’s gone through. It is DEFINITELY not something I want!!!! I’ve stopped running on the treadmill, cut back my hiking mileage drastically, and am doing the prescribed exercises religiously. I’m hoping that’s enough to nip this problem. I really, really don’t want it to get worse! Did you find that different shoes helped?

      Reply
  • Mary Ellen : Sep 28th

    I’ve had plantar fasciitis before when working a job where I was on my feet all day. Exercises and never wearing the same shoes two days in a row has helped a lot once I recovered. I realize that carrying different shoes is out of the question but maybe try a few different insoles to provide different support.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Sep 28th

      Mary Ellen, I’m glad to hear that the exercises worked. That’s interesting that wearing different shoes every day helped. I wonder why that is? Right now I am leaning toward getting custom insoles for the hike. Otherwise I feel as if I run the risk of hurting myself further by using the wrong ones. I’ll have to see how the next month goes.

      Reply
  • Karen : Sep 28th

    Gail – I’m a lover of running (think overnight relays of 200 miles – Ragnar) and have had Plantar Fasciitis twice in a five year period. The first time was intense and was solved with rest and a whole different shoe. I had been wearing my previous brand with no problems for 5 years (getting a new pair every 6 months or sooner). My PT told me that as people age (I’m now in the 50-55 age group) their feet change just enough to cause these problems. Kind of like wearing out our hips, knees, back, and all those other wonderful body parts that eventually fail. My PT also gave me wonderful exercises to do – do them!! They work!! But most of all – rest. The second time PF started to come my way I knew what was happening and was able to nip it in the bud. Perhaps trying some of those other shoes on the actual trail, and not just in the store, might help. If you have a RoadRunner Sports store near you, they have a wonderful exchange policy – try them for 60 days and return them for an exchange iif you don’t like them (as many times as you need to find the right pair). They carry all the light weight hiking shoes. Best Wishes to you! I look forward to reading your blog once you hit the trail.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Sep 28th

      Karen, thanks for the advice. So far (luckily) the plantar fasciitis I’ve had has been very mild, just the beginning stages. Like you said, I think it is due to my age and the increase in exercise. I’ve always been active, but I’m working out much harder now to prepare for the hike. I’m glad I caught it early, and hopefully I can keep it from getting worse. Unfortunately, we don’t have any good sports or running stores near here, so it makes trying on different shoes hard. There are some small outfitters in neighboring towns, but their selection is very limited. I might have to check out several places and then order some others online. I’ve ordered things from Road Runner Sports before, so I’ll check their website, too. It’s a hassle to have to return things, but I am determined to stave this off! My brother has had plantar fasciitis all his life, and it looks dreadful. I guess I’ve been lucky I haven’t had it before. By the way, my oldest son did a Ragnar event once with some people at work. He had a lot of fun.

      Reply
  • Kate : Sep 28th

    I have had plantar fasciitis for the past few years after walking around for a few days in shoes I didn’t realize were falling apart (the heel had collapsed), and then got a bone spur from trying to just power through the pain for almost a year. While I was recovering from the worst of it, I had to wear supportive insoles all the time, but now I’m able to wear zero drop shoes with no insoles. It actually doesn’t cause me any problems anymore as long as every single morning before I get out of bed, I do a hamstring stretch with my blanket around the ball of my foot and then write the alphabet with my toe. I had started out doing this only with the foot that had the plantar fasciitis, but that caused problems on the other side, so now I am sure to stretch both equally. You are on the right track since you got your pain looked at early, and I hope you are able to resolve it with exercises.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Sep 28th

      Wow, Kate. That’s so great that you were able to overcome it. It gives me hope that I might be able to nip this thing before it gets too bad, and maybe even keep my shoes. Thanks so much! I will check out that exercise, too.

      Reply
  • Kristi : Sep 28th

    You could try MAT (muscle activation technique). My husband has plantar fasciitis and MAT helped him immediately. https://muscleactivation.com/

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Sep 29th

      Thanks, Kristi! I’ll definitely look into that!

      Reply
  • Chelsea : Sep 29th

    Hey Gail!
    I know you have tons of people giving advice right now but I am a medical massage therapist and my fiancé is a rehab therapist and one thing we both deal with regularly are shoes and the injuries they can cause without proper knowledge before hand.
    I won’t go into a long winded explanation here (because it would make this comment too long) but after reading your post I really wanted to pass on some information about fixing the issues you are experiencing and hopefully helping you worthy your hike.

    PLEASE look into Katy Bowman. She is a biomechanist who specializes in proper human movement and focuses on feet and related injuries such ad hammer toes and plantar fasciitis. She has a lot of information on choosing shoes (you are on the right track) and curing these movement related injuries.
    The key: slow transition and proper movement.
    She has books, a blog, and a podcast all on the topic.

    Hope this helps and good luck with the hike!

    P.s not selling anything. Just wanted to pass on information. As a hiker and a medical massage therapist who has suffered from plantar fasciitis and shin splints…I can promise that this information can profoundly help!

    Reply
    • Chelsea : Sep 29th

      *enjoy your hike

      Sorry. Autocorrect issues.

      Reply
      • Chelsea : Sep 29th

        P.p.s – I also developed my plantar fasciitis and shin splints after transitioning into trail runners for everyday and hiking use. After some exercises I found through Katy Bowman (suggested to me by one of my professors)…both issues are completely resolved. I now wear Altra Loan Peaks pretty much all of the time with zero pain. Great shoes!

        Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Sep 29th

          Chelsea, I will certainly look into this. I’m willing to check out anything that might help because I really want to hike. So thank you! Did you find that the insoles or shoes made a difference?

          Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Sep 30th

      Chelsea, I went to her website last night and liked her posts. I’m going to get her book and see if it helps. Thanks for the tip!

      Reply
  • Tracy : Oct 3rd

    Try Brooks shoes. I’ve had issues w plantar fasciitis on and off, due to running and since swapping into Brooks I have not had an issue since. I look for their stability running shoes such as the Ravenna. I’ve never used any of their trail runners, but might be worth a look. Also as far as exercises, I use a tennis ball under foot while working at my desk stretches those muscles somehow but helps with the pain

    Reply

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