The Top Footwear on the Appalachian Trail: 2018 AT Thru-Hiker Survey
Each year as part of The Trek’s annual thru-hiker survey, we ask hikers about the footwear they used, and this footwear data remains my favorite to analyze and write about. These surveys originated when several of us who write for the website were discussing our surprise that we saw so few traditional hiking boots on our thru-hikes, even though most of us had worn hiking boots until our first long-distance hike. I remember my excitement when Zach Davis surprised me with that first dataset on the Appalachian Trail hiker class of 2014, my hiker class. In the five years since then, the trail runner trend continues to grow, and some of the trends with brands and models have changed each year. For the details, keep reading, or skip to the TL;DR at the end. Here is the top footwear on the Appalachian Trail in 2018.
The Hiker Sample
Three hundred and ten hikers participated in the survey, all of whom had walked a section or thru-hike of the AT in 2018. Three quarters (75.9%) were thru-hikers and the rest were section hikers. For more details on the hiker demographics, check out our post with general information from the survey.
About two thirds of hikers (65%) started out wearing trail runners and a fifth began with hiking boots (20%). Ultimately, three-fourths (75%) ended up wearing trail runners and less than a third (29%) ended up wearing hiking boots. A small but relevant minority of hikers used moderate-support hiking shoes or used minimalist footwear like Chacos (less than 3% at the start and for the duration of the hike).
Each year we’ve seen a trend toward more and more hikers opting for trail runners instead of hiking boots. Any trends regarding minimal shoes (such as Barefoot brand, Crocs, or Chacos) are difficult to detect because such a small percentage of hikers use these shoes in the first place.
Similar to what we found last year, hikers who began with sturdier, heavier footwear were significantly less satisfied than those who began with more lightweight footwear. Also replicating last year’s findings, there was no significant difference between the type of footwear used for the majority of the hike and hiker satisfaction. This suggests that many of the hikers who start out with boots are ultimately more satisfied with trail runners, and hikers eventually switched to footwear that was more satisfactory for them.1
Changes in Footwear
In addition to surveying hikers on the footwear they used, we looked into reasons hikers preferred trail runners over hiking boots or shoes. We compiled the reasons they gave for replacing their footwear, and also analyzed what predicted hikers choosing lighter vs. sturdier footwear.
Based on our analysis, neither hikers’ age, sex, nor prior experience significantly predicted their preference for wearing lighter-weight shoes for the majority of the hike. Furthermore, going southbound, northbound, or flip-flopping didn’t significantly change a hiker’s likelihood of preferring lighter, less supportive shoes. The only significant predictor of switching to lighter shoes was how far the person hiked on the AT that year. This could mean that people who hiked farther decided to wear lighter shoes, but it could also mean that their footwear choice helped them succeed in hiking farther, or both.2
We asked hikers directly what their reasons were for replacing their footwear. These were their responses:
About one third (29.2%) of hikers had some sort of issues with their initial footwear, while the vast majority of replacements were simply because hikers wore through their shoes.
Additionally, we looked at whether age, sex, distance hiked, average miles hiked per day, type of footwear initially worn, and satisfaction with initial footwear as predictors of how many pairs of shoes a hiker went through on the AT. Unsurprisingly, hiking a longer distance significantly predicted how many pairs of shoes hikers went through. Accounting for distance hiked, hikers made more footwear replacements if they were female, they started with lighter footwear, and if they were less satisfied with their initial footwear.3
On average, hikers went through between three and four pairs of shoes (3.38 pairs). Looking at thru-hikers only, the average number of pairs of shoes worn was still between three and four (3.64 pairs). This is in accord with the conventional advice to replace boots and running shoes about every 500 miles.
Top Trail Runners and Boots on the Appalachian Trail in 2018
We asked hikers their favorite brands and series/models of footwear and socks. If they said they disliked every pair, their responses were removed before ranking the top brands and models. The count of how many surveyed hikers named this brand or series/model is in parentheses.
- Top trail runner: Altra Lone Peak (74), 3.5 version most popular (30)
- Top boot: Merrell Moab (32)
- Top socks: Darn Tough (205)
Thru-Hikers’ Favorite Boots and Trail Runners
Here are the raw numbers for the top trail runners and boots on the AT, broken down by brand and model. Again, these numbers only include what hikers used and liked. Worth noting, this is the first year since we’ve started doing these surveys that Altra has been the most popular brand among Appalachian Trail hikers, supplanting Salomon as the previous favorite.
1) Altra (94)
- Lone Peak series (74)
- Lone Peak 3.5 preferred (30)
- Lone Peak 3 preferred (5)
- Lone Peak 4 preferred (2)
- Superior (8)
- Olympus (6)
2) Salomon (45)
- XA Pro 3D (13)
- X Ultra, some Gore-Tex version, some original version (14)
3) Brooks (32)
- Brooks Cascadia series (26)
- Cascadia 12 (9)
- Cascadia 13 (3)
- Brooks Caldera (5)
4) Merrell (38)
- Moab (32)
5) Hoka One One (19)
- Speed Goat (7)
6) Oboz (19)
- Sawtooth (9)
7) La Sportiva (12)
- Ultra Raptor (3)
- Wildcat (3)
8) Keen (7)
- Targhee (5)
By far the most popular brand of socks worn by long-distance hikers was Darn Tough, worn by two thirds (66.2%) of hikers. Darn Tough provides a lifetime warranty, meaning they will replace any pair if you mail them the old pair.
A few people specified that they layered Darn Tough or Smartwool socks over Injinji socks, which are said to prevent blisters due to the toe sock design.
- Darn Tough (205)
- Injinji (38)
- Smartwool (22)
- Farm to Feet (7)
- Darn Tough layered over Injinji (7)
- Smartwool layered over Injinji (3)
- Wrightsock (3)
Very few people remembered sock models, and there are so many models that this information was not possible to report.
- Each year, hikers have increasingly opted to wear trail runners for the majority of the hike, rather than heavier, sturdier boots or shoes
- A few brave souls each year continue to wear minimal support footwear such as Crocs, Chacos, or Barefoot/Five Fingers types of footwear.
- While boots may still be preferable during the snowy sections, we recommend that hikers planning thrus or long sections should consider lightweight, more flexible shoes for the majority of their hikes.
- In general, thru-hikers should plan to go through three to four pairs of shoes.
- Salomon remains the most popular brand for hiking boots among AT long-distance hikers, but the most popular specific model of hiking boots was the Merrell Moab.
- The Altra Lone Peak series and the Brooks Cascadias were the most popular models for trail runners.
- Darn Tough, Injinji, and Smartwool socks were all well represented on the AT but Darn Tough were by far the most popular socks.
Many thanks to the hikers who participated in the survey! Congratulations to you all! I would never get this data or get these posts done if it weren’t for Zach Davis and Maggie Slepian—thanks to you both.
More from the Hiker Survey
Check out our previous post with general hiker information. Upcoming posts from this year’s survey will cover tents and hammocks, backpacks, sleeping bags and pads, and stoves/food/water. To stay updated on the subsequent hiker survey posts, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and sign up for the newsletter here.
Notes for the Nerds
- For starting footwear type and satisfaction, Pearson’s r = -.18, p = .002, N = 304. For majority footwear type and satisfaction, Pearson’s r = -.11, p = .070, N = 276.
- Footnote: A multivariate linear regression was conducted predicting type of footwear worn for the majority of the hike. Age, sex, prior experience, and direction of the hike were entered in Block 1. Distance hiked was entered in Block 2. The first model was not significant (Adjusted R2 = -.007, F = 0.592, df = 4 and 243, p = 0.669) but the second was (Adjusted R2 = .073, F = 4.896, df = 5 and 242, p < .001). In model 2, distance hiked was significant predictor of type of footwear (b = -.0007, t(242) = -4.681, p < .001).
- A multivariate linear regression was conducted predicting number of pairs of shoes worn. Predicting variables were age, sex, distance hiked, average miles hiked per day, type of footwear initially worn, and satisfaction with initial footwear. The overall model was significant (Adjusted R2 = 0.315, F = 23.67, df = 6 and 297, p < .001) Distance hiked (b = .001, t(290) = 10.12, p < .001), sex (b = -.271, t(290) = -2.16, p = .032), initial footwear type (b = -.150, t(290) = -2.29, p = .023), and satisfaction with initial footwear type (b = -.136, t(290) = -3.28, p = .001) significantly predicted number of footwear replacements.
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