The Top Footwear on the Appalachian Trail: 2016 Thru-Hiker Survey

This is the third year in a row I have surveyed hikers about their footwear, and for the third time, it seems be the trickiest gear selection. Just take a look at some of the open-ended comments hikers provided:

“I loved real boots.” “If I did it over, I would do the whole trail in Chacos.” “Brooks Cascadias suck.” “Although Brooks Cascadias fit like a glove and I never got a blister, they wore out too quickly.” “I have a love-hate relationship with the XA Pros.” “Hated XA Pro 3D’s.”

Not one of the footwear types, brands, or models that was popular in our survey was optimal for everyone. Even when hikers rated high satisfaction with their shoes, they usually had some complaint or another.

As a former thru-hiker, I’m just going to tell y’all like it is.

No shoe will feel perfect because you are dodging rocks and roots every day for months, with 35 pounds of ramen on your back.

Your feet are going to hurt EVERY DAY, no matter what you do.

No matter your insoles, your socks, or your shoes, you will wake up most mornings with excruciating pain. You will hobble to the privy every morning, and hopefully, by the time you hobble back, the pain will be a dull throb that you can ignore.

No shoe will feel perfect because you are giving your feet hell every day for months.

If you find all this depressing or discouraging, go get inspired by some mountain porn and come back to this post later. If I haven’t scared you off yet, keep reading, or skip to the TL;DR at the bottom.

The hikers

For details on the demographics of the sample, check out my survey overview post. I’ll go ahead and mention that most of the hikers in the sample were northbound thru-hikers, and the average miles walked per day was 16. 

Footwear type
graph-initial-v-majority-type-footwear-2016

In our predominantly northbound sample, about half of hikers started with trail runners and half with hiking boots, but a third of hikers switched from boots to wearing trail runners for the majority of the hike. Note that a minority of backpackers wore hiking shoes at the start and throughout, while a few wore minimalist footwear by the end.

Satisfaction

Regarding the footwear hikers started with, they were more dissatisfied with hiking sturdier boots than with more flexible footwear.1  Still, most hikers (64.2%) were at least somewhat satisfied with the footwear they started with.

However, hikers were no more or less satisfied with the different types of footwear when it came to the type they ultimately used.2

The implication seems to be that many hikers start with heavier, sturdier hiking boots, but change to trail runners or hiking shoes that they are more satisfied with.

Changes in footwear type

Based on the data from 2014 and 2015, it was already clear that hikers tend to switch from hiking boots to trail runners or more lightweight shoes, but we weren’t sure why. It wasn’t clear whether hikers were switching seasonally, or if lighter weight shoes were preferred for other reasons.

When controlling for gender, younger hikers were more likely to wear trail runners. However, when also considering how far hikers walked, distance predicted using more lightweight footwear, and age did not.3 In other words, thru-hikers were more likely to be younger, and also more likely than section hikers to switch to more lightweight shoes (although nearly all hikers, regardless of footwear type, went through more than one pair).

why-thru-hikers-switched-footwear

As you can see in the pie chart, the majority hikers said they replaced their shoes purely because of wear and tear. In fact, on average, thru-hikers went through 3 pairs of shoes.

However, those who switched to a different type had varied reasons for doing this. Some made intentional, seasonal changes between boots and more flexible, lightweight shoes. A few said they changed types because their boots were too heavy, while a few changed to something more sturdy.

Replacements

I also looked at sheer number of pairs of shoes hikers went through, not just type of footwear they used or switched to. Unsurprisingly, the further hikers walked, the more pairs of shoes they went through. When controlling for distance hiked, women replaced their shoes more frequently than men, and less supportive shoes had to be replaced more frequently.4 Plenty of women only wore 2-3 pairs, but most of the hikers who went through 4 or 5 pairs were women. It isn’t clear why this is the case, but women planning thru-hikes may want to plan for more replacements.

For hikers making intentional seasonal changes between footwear types, it will be important to budget for multiple pairs. For hikers who are confident in sticking with one type of shoe the whole way, look into the warranty/replacement policy for that brand, because most outdoor brands will replace them for free if you purchased the shoes within the year.

Brands and Models

thru-hiker-favorite-footwear-brands

The Top Footwear Brands

  1. Salomon
  2. Brooks
  3. Altra
  4. Merrell
  5. Keen
  6. Vasque
  7. La Sportiva

As in years past, Salomon, Brooks, and Merrell were among the most popular footwear brands of AT long-distance hikers. Salomon was the top brand, as before, but Altra entered the running, from being worn by less than 4 percent of hikers last year, to over 12 percent this year.

Most Popular Hiking boots

salomon-x-ultra-trek-mens

Salomon X Ultra Trek – men’s

Most Popular Hiking Shoes

  • Low top versions of the Salomon X Ultra (non GTX version)
  • Low top versions of the Merrell Moav Ventilators, which comes in a Men’s and Women’s version

Most Popular Trail Runners

altra-lone-peak-3-0-womens

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 – women’s

  • The Altra Lone Peak 2.5 or 3.0, which has both men’s and women’s models
  • Brooks Cascadia 11, both the men’s and women’s models. Two years ago, we found the Cascadia 8’s and 9’s were highly popular, but there were many complaints about the Cascadia 10’s in our survey last year. This year, the Cascadia series was again one of the most popular, with most hikers wearing the newest model, Cascadia 11. We didn’t get the rate of complaints about the 11’s that we had about the 10’s.
  • The Salomon XA Pro 3D series, both the men’s and women’s models

Minimalist Footwear

Hardly any hikers wore shoes more minimalist than trail runners, but those who did wore Chaco sandals, Vibram Five Fingers, unspecified sandals, and one hiker went barefoot.

Socks

For the first time, we also asked hikers about their preferred sock brand.

graph-socks-2016

Most Popular Sock Brands

  1. Darn Tough
  2. Injinji Toe Socks
  3. SmartWool

By far the most popular brand was Darn Tough, which is known for its lifetime warranty. They will replace any pair of socks for free, no matter how old and worn out, if you just mail the pair back to them. I’ve heard that Smartwool, the third most popular brand, also has this policy, but that they don’t publicize it as much. Injinji toe socks also had a following as the second most popular brand. Although only worn by 2 percent of hikers, I will also give a shout-out to Farm to Feet, because of their efforts to use ethically-sourced, American materials and manufacturing.

Most hikers didn’t recall the model of their socks, and likely went through many pairs, so I didn’t report on specific sock models.

TL;DR

  • For many hikers, especially younger hikers, trail runners or hiking shoes are preferred over hiking boots.
  • Thru-hikers tend to change the type of shoe they wear seasonally, such as northbound thru-hikers starting with hiking boots and using trail runners in the summer.
  • More hikers wore lightweight footwear for the majority of their hike than wore hiking boots.
  • For these reasons, prospective thru-hikers who are used to wearing boots might consider breaking in a pair of trail runners to use for the warmer months of their hike. At least, I would recommend holding off on purchasing your replacement pairs of boots in case you decide to use a more lightweight shoe.
  • Although trail runners are preferred by many hikers, keep in mind they may wear out more rapidly than hiking boots.
  • It isn’t clear why women in our survey went through more pairs of shoes than men, but women planning a thru-hike might want to budget and plan to go through up to 4 or 5 pairs of shoes.
  • On average, thru-hikers go through 3 pairs of shoes, plus or minus 1. Consider this when budgeting, and look into the warranty/replacement policy for the shoes you buy.
  • Support small businesses and cottage industries when you can! If you aren’t sure where to start when selecting your footwear, try a boot from the the Salomon X Ultra series or Merrell Moab series, or trail runners from the Salomon XA Pro series, Altra Lone Peak series, or Brooks Cascadia 11’s.
  • About three-quarters of hikers use Darn Tough socks, which have a lifetime warranty for replacing them, regardless of wear.

¡Muchas Gracias!

CONGRATULATIONS and many thanks to the hikers who participated in the survey. Thanks also to Zach Davis for his assistance in creating the survey and getting the word out.

More By the Numbers

So far this year, I’ve written a general overview of long-distance hikers on the AT in 2016, as well as a post on backpacks. Up next will be sleeping bags, sleeping pads, shelter systems, and a post on stoves, food, water, and resupply.

Notes for the Nerds

  1. r = -.242, p = .001
  2. r = -.005, p = .949
  3. A linear regression was conducted predicting type of footwear worn for the majority of the hike. Age and Gender were entered in Block 1. Previous hiking experience was entered in Block 2. Distance hiked was entered in Block 3. Models 1 and 2 were not significant (p > .05), but Model 3 was (= .003). In Model 3, longer distance hiked (β= -.224, t(182) = -2.93, p = .004) predicted type of footwear worn for the majority of the hike.
  4. A linear regression was conducted predicting number of pairs of shoes worn. Age and Gender were entered in Block 1. Distance hiked and average miles per day were entered in Block 2. Initial shoe type/support level and initial satisfaction were entered in Block 3. Models 0 and 1 were not significant (p > .05), but Models 2 and 3 were (< .001). In Model 3, longer distance hiked (β= .509, t(180) = 6.60, p < .001), female gender (β = .196, t(180) = 2.84, p = .005), and less supportive footwear at the start of the hike (β = -.201, t(180) = -2.90, p = .004) predicted higher numbers of footwear replacements.

 

Affiliate Disclosure

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.

Comments 12

  • Katherine : Nov 17th

    Thank you for adding the increased size / swollen foot answer option!

    Reply
  • jeffrey schwartz : Nov 17th

    My selection is limited as I need a 13 wide shoe.

    Reply
  • Bushy Hartman : Nov 18th

    I use Aslo hiking boots they are so lightweight and warm for winter months. They are pricey but last a long time and well made. They have a special loop to tighten the heel area to keep the foot from sliding down on steep mountains.

    I tried Darn Tough socks but the toe seam caused a blister on my little toe so I had to wear them with Injini toe socks which are a hassle to out on. Now I use Wright double socks and no blisters.

    Reply
  • Karen : Nov 18th

    You seem to imply that people might be able to swap out shoes or boots within a year by taking advantage of a company’s warranty. Most warranties won’t cover wearcand tear. If it is a fit issue, the problem should be resolved fairly quickly, much sooner than a year… The soles of the shoes will still have plenty of tread on them. If it is a satisfaction iissue, again, the problem should be resolved long before the boots show much wear.

    Please don’t hint that folks can just get free replacements- it makes the costs higher for everyone else.

    Reply
  • TBR : Nov 18th

    These surveys are most interesting, this one in particular. I’ve always hoofed about wearing boots, but am considering going for trial runners for my next time in the woods.

    Reply
  • Carey Leviss : Nov 18th

    In my 2014 675 mile section hike, I wore trail runners uphill and boots downhill.

    Reply
  • High Life : Nov 20th

    As a 2016 through hiker, I agree with Karen. I hated hearing about people who put eight or nine hundred miles on a pair of shoes and then tried to scam new ones from the companies because “…they wore out too fast”. If you get that many miles out of a shoe – you got your money’s worth! You should thank the company by buying another pair.

    Reply
  • Northstar : Nov 20th

    If you break in your second pair of shoes pre-hike and have them sent down to you, be prepared for them to be too small cause your feet get bigger! That was my experience when I put trail runners on in Hot Springs. I wound up buying a bigger pair there and sending the too small ones home. My clever planning turned into a waste of 130 bucks!

    Reply
  • Gary : Nov 21st

    “It isn’t clear why women in our survey went through more pairs of shoes than men,”. I’ve often wondered why my wife’s closet has 5 times the amount of shoes than mine. A mystery that may never be solved 🙂

    Reply
  • some 2012 nobo : Nov 24th

    > Your feet are going to hurt EVERY DAY, no matter what you do.

    huh? after a few weeks of adjusting, my feet felt fine every day. i don’t remember anyone in my bubble ever complaining or mentioning their feet. obviously putting your feet up at the end of the day feels awesome, and it’s even better to put them in a cold stream. but i worry about giving potential thrus the advice of “your feet will hurt, deal with it”. foot pain is terrible and can lead to a lot of bad things if neglected.

    take care of yourselves!

    Reply
    • Haiku : Nov 27th

      Ditto here- knowing what type of shoes your feet like is a big help. My feet didn’t hurt on my hike- the biggest problem I had was that the Altra 2.5s I replaced my 1.0s with were massively wider. The new ones didn’t hurt my feet either, but I got blisters everywhere for a couple weeks while my feet got new calluses. I wish they made narrow sizes…might try the superiors on my thru next summer, I heard they were more narrow. Not a lot out there for people with AAA width feet who like zero drop (probably coz I’m the only person/alien? that has this problem).

      Reply
  • Don K. : Dec 4th

    Great article – thanks!

    Reply

What Do You Think?