The Top Footwear on the Appalachian Trail: 2023 Thru-Hiker Survey

In this third installment of the 2023 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike Survey we’re covering all things footwear. Picking shoes is one of the most personal gear choices when it comes to thru-hiking and everyone’s feet are different. Foot health and comfort are essential to an enjoyable journey, so it’s worth it for each individual to look around for what fits best. Yet despite the variability, there are still common styles, brands, and models among hikers. This is where we’ll dig into all of it. And spoiler, overall the trends this year remained similar to those of previous years.

We had a total of 409 responses this year. Thank you to everyone who filled out the survey! The data was collected from October through November of 2023 through our survey which was marketed using our social media platforms, Backpacker Radio, and TheTrek.co. Some responses from previous years were removed, and obvious mistakes in start and end dates were adjusted. No obvious duplicates were found.

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Footwear Style

The majority of hikers prefer trail runners over other types of footwear. The number of hikers in trail runners has generally increased slowly every year. Almost 80% of hikers started in trail runners, with only 13% in boots at the beginning of their thru-hikes. By the end, those numbers shifted to over 90% of hikers in trail runners and less than 5% in boots. Another 5% of hikers wore low-top hiking shoes, two hikers wore sandals, and one hiker wore a high-top trail runner for the majority of their hikes.

As we can see, the ongoing trend towards trail runners over hiking boots among AT hikers has grown significantly in the last decade. For the first time ever, 90% of hikers wore primarily trail runners. Although this growth has been slowing the past few years, that’s expected as trail runners have become the overwhelming majority — there isn’t much room to grow anymore!

Readers have asked that we compare a hiker’s age to their shoe type preference, so here it is! Somewhat disappointingly, there is no significant variation between age groups, and trail runners are still worn by the overwhelming majority no matter the age. What variations do exist between each age group could very well be attributed to the different sample sizes for each age group and are likely insignificant. It is interesting to note that the oldest age bracket is 100% in on trail runners.

READ NEXT — Boots vs. Trail Runners: Two Loyalists Compare and Contrast

Satisfaction

Now let’s take a look at how satisfied hikers were with their footwear choices. Similar to previous years, hikers in trail runners were more likely to be satisfied with their choice than those using any other type of shoe. 88% of respondents who started their hike in trail runners were satisfied with them, while only 72% of those who started in hiking boots were satisfied. However, the lower sample size in each footwear category other than trail runners makes it difficult to compare them directly.

Changes in Footwear Style

We asked hikers why they swapped out their footwear. Other than shoes simply wearing out, fit issues, pain, and blisters were the most common issues by far. After those, the most common issue was swollen feet. Others included intentional changes, like changing footwear for the season or switching out at a specific mileage. Other reasons were not intentional, including quality issues or needing more ankle support.

Replacements

Similar to previous years, when asked how many pairs of shoes they used during their thru-hikes, the majority of hikers went through 4 or 5, which equates to swapping shoes about every 300-400 miles. This follows the conventional advice to change shoes every 300 to 400 miles. This year, thru-hikers wearing hiking boots seemed to go through about the same number of pairs as those wearing trail runners. This sample size is very small, however.

Top Footwear on the Appalachian Trail: Brands and Models

As always, we asked hikers about their favorite brands and model of shoes they used on the AT this year. The top three models are no surprise, and have been top contenders for some time now. Echoing that dominance, all of the top brands have made the list previously. The three most popular models are listed below, followed by a list of all the popular brands and models.

First Place — Altra Lone Peak

Second Place — Altra Olympus

 

Third Place — Hoka One One Speedgoat

BrandModel# Primary Users
Altra162
Lone Peak85
Olympus66
HOKA ONE ONE75
Speedgoat61
Topo Athletic58
Ultraventure43
Brooks30
Cascadia27
Salomon26
Speedcross9
X Ultra8
Merrell13
Moab9
La Sportiva12
Ultra Raptor4
Saucony8
Peregrine6

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Socks

Like the most popular shoes, the favorite socks among thru-hikers haven’t changed much this year either. Darn Tough was again the dominant brand, with over 75% of hikers choosing their socks as their favorite. Major perk: Darn Tough provides a lifetime warranty and will replace any damaged pair if you send it back. Furthermore, it’s possible to trade in damaged Darn Tough socks for a new pair on the spot at many outfitters along the Appalachian Trail (clean, please wash them first). Their warranty has always made them a fan favorite.

  1. Darn Tough (307)
  2. Injinji (46)
  3. Smartwool (22)
  4. Farm to Feet (6)

Very few respondents remembered specific sock models. And because there are so many of them it was not possible to report this information.

33% of long-distance hikers in our survey wore sock liners. Injinji toe socks led this category by a landslide, with 122 out of 136 of those who wore liner socks using the brand. The only other brand of liner socks with more than one user was REI.

2023 Appalachian Trail Footwear Summary

  1. The percentage of hikers wearing trail runners increased over last year, from 86% to 91%. This continues the trending popularity of lightweight footwear over sturdier, heavier boots.
  2. While boots may still be preferable during the snowy sections, we recommend that hikers planning a thru-hike or a long section hike consider wearing lightweight, flexible shoes for the majority.
  3. In general, thru-hikers should plan to go through four to five pairs of trail runners or at least two to three pairs of boots.
  4. Altra remains the top trail runner brand, and the most popular model was again their Lone Peak. The Hoka Speedgoat rounded out the top three, and the rest of the popular models and brands have all made the list in previous years as well.
  5. Darn Tough, Injinji, and Smartwool socks were all well-represented on the AT, but Darn Tough was by far the most popular with 75% of respondents using them.
  6. Injinji is the leader in sock liners, and one-third of respondents wore sock liners regularly during their hike.

Thank You!

Congratulations to all the Appalachian Trail hikers this year — and a huge thank you to all of you who took the time to fill out the survey! Upcoming posts will detail AT hikers’ favorite backpacks, shelter systems, sleeping bags, and stoves/filters. To stay up to date on the latest survey posts, make sure to subscribe to our newsletter.

Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm.

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Comments 7

  • thetentman : Dec 29th

    None of the brands mentioned come even close to fitting me. So I read this with a jaundiced eye. It was an interesting synopsis. Unfortunately, my feet are size 12 4 E. New Balance used to fit, but a while ago they changed and no longer fit. Propet is the only brand that fits me now.

    Does anyone know of any other extra-wide brands?

    Reply
    • Ryan : Dec 29th

      For trail runners there isn’t a lot of 4e options if you can’t wear New Balance, I wear Merrell Moabs since there isn’t really anything else that will fit a truly wide foot, they are really not much heavier than a trail runner, and they last a bit longer.

      Reply
  • Bamboo Bob : Dec 29th

    I’ve been using Altra for the last few years. But I miss the Hard Rock and Bad Rock of years gone by made by Montrail.

    Reply
  • Matthew : Dec 29th

    I enjoy reading this every year it comes out. I don’t understand how folks wear trail runners in the White Mountains of NH. I have tried it and there just isn’t enough support on the ankles even with a light pack.

    I also don’t understand this Zero/low drop trend. I tried it out and my achilles tendon was barking at me. According to the podiatrist that I spoke with, shoes have heel to toe drop for a reason. Now, I bet most folks are using in insole which negates that zero drop and creates at least 4mm of heel to toe drop . . . maybe more . . . and they still believe that they are in “zero drop.”

    Reply
  • Jan : Jan 1st

    I’m 63. I wear boots almost daily, walking and when hiking. The once high feet arches are collapsing and boots provide the support I need. Even a cheap pair of boots provides better support and protection than most other types of footwear.

    Reply
  • SPARKS : Feb 7th

    What is wrong with hiking boots, I use 2 different brands (mainly) Sketchers and Merrell’s. Comfortable, use cover to eliminate trash in the boot, etc.

    Reply

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