AT Thru-Hikers Footwear by the Numbers

One of the many weird, but cool, things about hiking is that you are basically your own car.  Your food is like gasoline: it is more expensive the further north you go, and you always consume more than you expect you will need.  Your legs are the axles, your feet are the wheels, and your shoes are the tires.  I, for one, over-prepared where food and clothing were concerned, but I grossly underestimated the abuse my feet would undergo on the AT.  Consequently, I underestimated the efforts I should have made to take better care of them.  Specifically, I really didn’t put much thought into the footwear I chose (I just unearthed my four-year-old hiking boots from the garbage bag under my bed and went, “these trusty ole boys should work just fine”).

Among long distance hikers with more experience than I had, “boots or trail runners?” seems to be a common conversation topic.  In her post on winter-specific gear, Appalachian Trials writer Carlie Gentry pointed out that boots are better in the snow, even though she prefers trail runners in the summer.  During my own thru-hike, I saw die-hard enthusiasts of both.

In an effort to answer the “boots or trail runners” question and to help new backpackers weigh their options, the brilliant Zach Davis surveyed 107 AT backpackers from last year (including 77 thru-hikers and 20 hikers who walked over 1,000 miles).

Distance hiked

In addition to footwear type, the survey also asked about the brands of shoes hikers wore on the AT.

Shoe brands

The most popular brand was Salomon, worn by almost a quarter of AT thru-hikers, followed by Brooks and Merrell.  Nine percent of hikers in the survey wore more than one brand of shoes.

Almost half of the hikers surveyed said they hiked only in trail runners and almost a quarter said they hiked only in boots.  A few hiked exclusively in minimalist shoes (e.g. Chaco’s, Five Fingers, Crocs), but thirty percent said they switched between multiple shoe types.

I wanted to see whether these hikers switched intentionally (for example, if they planned to use boots in the cold months and trail runners in the summer) or if they switched out of eventual dissatisfaction with their first choice (like I had on my thru-hike).

Worn v Preferred 2

There was a significant difference between the types of footwear hikers wore and the types they eventually decided they liked best.  One “switcher” preferred Chaco’s, 11 percent of switchers, preferred just hiking boots, 37 percent preferred trail runners, and another 37 percent preferred to switch out their footwear according to the weather or terrain.

On an important side note, five hikers had so many foot problems and shoe switches that I just categorized them as Strugglin’ and excluded them from the analysis of footwear preference.  Although I removed them from the comparison, these strugglin’ hikers are notable; they demonstrated impressive determination, commitment, and badassery by pushing through that pain.

Clearly, the majority of changes in footwear type were unexpected or unplanned.  I’m sure that most of the surveyed hikers, like most AT thru-hikers I know, had never walked that far before, so they weren’t really sure what shoes would work best over time.  So, I wondered if the distance hikers walked was related to their footwear type.

Section v Thru Pref Footwear 3

There were no significant differences between section hikers and thru-hikers regarding the types of footwear they wore on the AT.  However, section hikers were significantly more likely to wear only boots, rather than both or just trail runners.  There was not a significant difference between section hikers and thru-hikers regarding preference for trail runners or for switching between both.  Not enough hikers in the sample wore minimalist shoes to make a comparison.

Based on this survey, it seems that trail runners are the most popular footwear type among long-distance hikers on the AT, although a substantial number also prefer traditional boots, while a minority of hikers prefer minimalist shoes or switching out their footwear according to the terrain, and a few suffered such foot pain and injury that no footwear type was sufficient.  It also seems that section hikers tend to stick to the traditional hiking boot more than thru-hikers do.  Trail runners appear to be the most popular option, especially for thru-hikers, but there are certainly good reasons for each preference.

Some of the most common reasons that the hikers in the survey preferred boots were that they offered better support on rocky terrain and that they were warmer during the cold months.  Several boot enthusiasts also thought that boots last longer, and some chose them because they were more conveniently available for circumstantial reasons.

Salomon XA Pro 3D

Salomon XA Pro 3D, from salomon.com

The most popular footwear brand overall was Salomon, and the most popular boot model was the XA Pro 3D, worn by 6.5 percent of the hikers in the survey.

Some of the most common reasons the surveyed hikers said they preferred trail runners were that they dried out faster than Gore-tex boots, they weighed less (my main reason for switching), they were cooler in the warm months, and they were more amenable to foot swelling (a frequent problem for thru-hikers that many of us had never experienced on shorter backpacking trips).

Brooks Cascadia 02

Brooks Cascadia 10’s, from REI.com

The most popular trail runner brand was Brooks, and the most popular models were the Brooks Cascadias, worn by 16.8 percent of the hikers in the survey.

Of the hikers who wore minimalist shoes, it seems that a few did this for temporary relief from blisters and/or swollen feet, although those who hiked exclusively in sandals or Crocs seemed to do so just to do something adventurous and different.

Implications for future long-distance hikers

To any of you currently preparing for your first long distance hike, the popular shoe brands and models are certainly good choices, but carefully consider the temperature, snow possibilities, and terrain types you expect to cover before choosing your footwear (and your other gear, for that matter).  Also, keep in mind that 1 in 20 of the hikers in our survey experienced severe foot problems and subsequent shoe problems.  If possible, I suggest testing out different shoe types and breaking in more than one pair of shoes before you set out.

Other popular footwear models

In addition to Brooks Cascadia and Salomon Salomon XA Pro 3D, other popular models included:

Limitations of the survey

It is possible that hikers with interesting footwear stories, particular difficulties, or particular enthusiasm for gear and footwear discussions were more likely to want to take the survey.  So, they may not be representative of Appalachian long-distance hikers more generally.  However, the variety of footwear types represented, the reasons for choosing them, and the brands represented seemed pretty similar to what I saw in my five months on the AT last year.

¡Muchas Gracias!

Many thanks to Zach Davis for creating and conducting this survey, and for giving me the opportunity to combine my love for stats and the AT.

Many thanks to all 107 hikers who took the survey. You guys rock! I saw many familiar trail names, including the Crocs-wearing southbounder – I’m glad to see you made it all the way in those!

Got any questions about what footwear to wear? What were your footwear experiences on the AT? Comment below.

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Comments 23

  • Cliff "smokin bear" Riley : Feb 17th

    although the solomans fit well, they did’t stick to rocks well, thus lots of slipping and falls.Wasn’t 50 miles outside Damascus and heel started tearing where as my merrels stuck like glue

    Reply
  • Melissa : Aug 23rd

    So, I’ve read some people purchase several pairs of their favorite trail shoe ahead of time and mailing. Do you recommend that to someone who has limited experience less than say, 100 miles backpacking experience? Should I start with what I love, and see what I want along the way? Buying as I go?

    Reply
    • Marci Weber : Aug 24th

      Hi Melissa,

      That’s a great question. In your situation, I would recommend just buying one pair of what you love, but making sure it has a good replacement policy. Most outdoor brands do, but even athletic brands may replace your shoes for free if they wear out fast enough. For instance, another thru-hiker I know had her Saucony trail runners replaced for free just because she burned through them so fast. On the downside, if you replace as you go, you won’t be able to break your shoes in ahead of time. So you may experience a bit of blistering the first few days with your new pair, even if the old pair was perfect for you. I hope that helps!

      Happy hiking,
      Mariposa

      Reply
  • Dudley Pacox : Aug 23rd

    No mention of my treasured A solo boots? Wtf, those boots saved my feet in the rocks and roots of Maine, Vermont, and NH.

    Reply
  • Karl : Sep 6th

    I have heard complaints about the Brooks Cascadian 10s not holding up as well as the 8s and 9s – something about the upper side deteriating after a short amount of time. I was wonering if you heard this complaint from any of the people that you surveyed that wore the Cascadian 10s.

    Reply
    • Marci Weber : Sep 9th

      Unfortunately, most people in our survey did not specify WHICH Cascadias they wore. Those who did wore 7’s, 8’s, and 9’s. No one specifically said 10’s (8 people did not say which model).

      No Cascadia-wearers in our survey mentioned an upper side problem, but I’m not sure any of them were wearing the 10’s. Most did not specify which number they were wearing. Those who did say had only worn 7’s, 8’s, and 9’s.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful!

      Mariposa

      Reply
  • Karl : Sep 6th

    Another question that would be interesting to hear answers to is if hikers used the original insoles or switched to other insoles like the Superfeet insoles that I have heard are popular with hikers.

    Reply
    • Marci Weber : Sep 9th

      That’s a really good question. If we have the chance to do another footwear survey for 2015 hikers, I will try to include it.

      – Mariposa

      Reply
  • Patches : Dec 5th

    go barefoot

    Reply
  • Pony : Jan 6th

    Love my Hoka Mafate Speeds for thru hiking.

    Reply
  • Karl Baker : Jan 9th

    Half way through a ten year section hike I ended up with an unconventional hiking boot that far surpassed anything I had come across. For the first five years I suffered blisters or wet feet, plus my dogs were always barking by the end of the day. I dreamed of walking on gel inserts, but my boots or running shoes would not accommodate another insert. Then somehow I came across the L.L.Bean Maine Hunting Shoe with the waxed-canvas upper. They were light, waterproof, and had room enough for a green Superfeet insert topped with a Dr.Scholl gel insert. They felt like heaven. During the next five years I never got a blister, never got wet feet, and never slipped off a rock with the boot’s gumshoe sole. In hot weather I used lightweight socks. In cold weather I used wool socks. Five years later, after more occasional hiking and working in the woods, they still are my favorite hiking boots. They haven’t worn out. When they do, L.L. Bean says they can replace the bottoms. The design dates back to 1912. Someone in Maine must have known what they were doing.

    Reply
  • Gina : Jan 12th

    I hiked the most of the AT in 1973 in Vasque mid height hiking boots, and had to quit because my SOCKS disappeared, and i had no means to get new ones. My feet got so hard that a miss-step cause one of my feet to crack lengthwise. time to go home! I am planning another go at it this year, and looking for boots… but I have to admit I am concerned about socks, and comparative mileage on boots. Do you have any mileage ratings on boots, or reviews of socks?

    Reply
  • Chris : Jan 20th

    On avg how many boots or shoes would you say a thru hiker will go through ? I’m headed NBO by April. I’ve got a pair of Asolos and 2 pairs of Keen mid Targhee ll. I am breaking them in now. I went a half size up to allow for swelling and room for the toe box. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Danner : Jul 20th

    Will you make the survey data available?

    Reply
  • Jacquelyne R Johnson : May 27th

    Got a dumb question, any body ever backpacked thru with a cat,? Never walked the trail yet, and promised my cat pumpkin blackwiskers could go with me.

    Reply
  • Jacquelyne R Johnson : May 27th

    Real quick, for the hiker who lost their socks, I once cut off the sleeve’s of a sweater, took thread about the thickness of embordery theard and wrapped one end of each sock round and round until I had a make-shift sock. There shall be a small ball of exsess sweater matteral, push the ball to where there’s comfort, this idea will keep you from frost bite

    Reply

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