How to Recycle Your Used Hiking Shoes

We All Create Waste

I’ve been guilty of throwing away fuel canisters that have half a boil left. I have stuffed endless mac and cheese boxes into dumpsters outside of small town grocery stores when I can’t find a recycling bin. At times I have purchased the cheaper product even when I know its not sustainably produced. Thru-hiking, like almost anything else, creates waste and has an impact on our environment. I have been thinking more critically about my role in this.

Recently, I’ve focused on hiking shoes. I have gotten a few new pairs for my upcoming trips (hopefully) on the Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail. While hiking, shoes support and protect your feet. You notice them each day, whether they are dry or wet, wearing out or new. But, eventually, you have to let them go. And this is what I am curious about. Is there a way to recycle shoes so we can reduce our impact even while hiking?

Turns out… there is!

Used Hiking shoe s on a muddy trail

Crunching the Numbers

Let’s break down the numbers for some perspective. Just because 2020 was a hectic year, let’s use 2019 data to guide us. According to the PCTA, in 2019, there were about 8,000 permits issued to hikers for the Pacific Crest Trail. About 1,000 people reported their completion of a full thru-hike that year. The data shows that about 4,000 people started the Appalachian Trail in 2019. Per the ATC, about 850 people reported that they finished it. In the same year, the CDT had about 160 completions listed. Who knows how many folks started or section hiked.  

Consider, for the sake of simplicity, that a hiker will switch out their shoes every 600 miles. Some folks do less and other folks have done much more. Many hike in boots, others in trail runners, others sandals. 

Taking all of those numbers into consideration, the PCT, at 2,660 miles, warrants about 4 pairs of shoes. The AT, at 2,190 miles, warrants about 3 pairs of shoes. And the CDT, at about 3,100, miles warrants about 5 pairs of shoes. If we are just looking at the number of shoes used by the people who reported their trail completion that year – the numbers add up like this:

 

Pacific Crest Trail – 4 pairs of shoes x 1,000 reported completions = 4,000 pairs
Appalachian Trail – 3 pairs of shoes x 850 reported completions = 2,550 pairs
Continental Divide Trail – 5 pairs of shoes x 160 reported completions = 800 pairs

 

That is an estimated – 7,350 pairs of shoes that may have been used just in 2019 while thru-hiking these three trails. Don’t forget, that is just the hikers that reported finishing.

So, if we add in the other 3,000 people from the AT and 7,000 people from the PCT, assuming they did a section or came off the trail within the first 500 miles, then that adds about another 10,000 pairs of shoes to the above number. I mean, they must have started with at least one pair, right? 

Further, this is just the information on the three long trails in the U.S.A. Not to mention folks doing other trails like the John Muir Trail, Superior Hiking Trail, Colorado Trail, Florida Trail, Arizona Trail, Long Trail and the list goes on and on. So, let’s just throw in another 2,500 pairs of shoes for good measure. 

That brings the total to about 20,000 pairs of shoes possibly used by hikers in 2019 alone! 

Used Hiking Shoes in Coastal Mud

 

The point is — we in the hiking community (and some folks that aren’t) — use an excessive amount of shoes!! Where do they all go? The landfill? Deep in your closet? A thrift store? 

 

What To Do With Your Used Hiking Shoes

With a little bit of effort, our used shoes can be a part of something positive. There are a couple of organizations I have found that have ways to recycle shoes. I encourage you to try and make time to do this. As we know, logistics can be tough on these trails and sending a pair of completely destroyed shoes somewhere other than the trash can be hard. 

Used Hiking shoes on brick path

Two ways to recycle or donate your used shoes:

Nike Reuse-a-Shoe via Nike Grind 

Nike Grind takes used shoes and uses them to make playgrounds, tracks, basketball courts and even other pairs of shoes. They accept shoes of any brand. They do not accept sandals, or any footwear with metal. For the majority of folks that hike in trail runners or lightweight boots I assume that Nike would accept them.

The website states that you can drop them off at a Nike retail store or you can mail them in to Nike GRIND directly. After a quick chat with a customer service representative the address to mail directly to is:

Rebound – GRIND, 199 Pearson Parkway, Lebanon, IN 46052

 

Soles4Souls 

Soles4Souls is an organization that collects and distributes “new and gently used” shoes to people in need. They believe that shoes play a vital role in health, education and employment. To donate your shoes to them you can find a drop off location or send them directly to Zappos via Zappos for Good. Zappos will send you a box, you can put up to 50 pounds in the box and then send it back – for free.

I know — it seems unlikely that any thru-hikers shoes would be “gently used” and sending them to Soles4Souls may not work. But, that old pair of running shoes from when you ran that marathon, 5k or Fun Run might still be in the back of your closet hoping for new life. And with a little bit of work, someone could greatly benefit from that pair of shoes. Maybe, as a long distance hiker you had to replace a pair of shoes early because they gave you blisters or your feet grew a size. You never know. Either way, it is beneficial to know that shoes can be donated and someone else can love them as much as you did. 

 

A Little Work for A Lot of Impact

Soles4Souls has an impact calculator for shoes. So, if 20,000 pairs of shoes were donated or recycled it would keep 25,000 pounds of textiles out of landfills. Why not have all those materials go to people in need or the construction of a new playground or basketball court for a community?

With a little bit of work we all can do this. With just one extra step, our shoes can be reused for something good. Long term, it’s vital for everyone to pitch in to reduce our impact on the environment. In fact, the very livelihood of hiking and backpacking depend on it.

Any ideas on what other things we can do to reduce our impact while hiking? 

Thanks for reading and keep spending time outside! Keep following along with my posts and read some others I have written in the past.

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 6

  • John : Jan 19th

    Recycling is a nice thought, but these programs are nothing more than greenwashing. Any successful recycling program needs to be easy for consumers to use and make sense economically. The current programs fail on both counts. Driving to a drop off site or mailing in old shoes is not exactly convenient and non-virgin materials reclamed in the recycling process costs more than sourcing of new material.

    Don’t forget that there are two “R”s, that come before recycle in the waste hierarchy – reduce and reuse. Let’s look at the “reduce”. It’s time to question why it’s necessary to go through so many pair of shoes on a hike. The answer is the UL spec war. Manufacturers will use materials that make a shoe look great on a comparison chart, but are barely fit for purpose. Take for example any Altra Lone Peak model for the last few years. The darling of thru hikers, but famous for quickly wearing out or falling apart. Other brands are equally as guilty. Manufacturers are only going to make what customers demand, so maybe it’s time for hikers (gram weenies and otherwise) to stop continuing to buy shoes that have to be replaced so often. I’m not saying it’s time to go back to 1980’s era Danner leather boots, but maybe it’s time to stop buying shoes who’s toe caps delaminate in the first 20 miles and soles wear down in 200 miles just to shave that extra few grams off or to win bragging rights on the trail.

    Reply
    • Jeff Podmayer : Jan 19th

      Hey John,
      Yes, I think you are right.
      Your thoughts are making me consider that the more fitting category for these programs would actually be “reuse”.
      Thanks for reading.

      Reply
      • John : Jan 22nd

        Thanks for the reply, Jeff. I’ve been working on the “white hat” side of the environmental/waste management industry for about 36 years. People come to think of recycling as a panacea, when in reality, a large portion of what is tossed in recycling bins winds up in landfills or incinerators. A lot of this is due to contaminated waste streams – aspirational recyclers feel better tossing something that is not actually recyclable in the blue bin. In reality, this may cause the whole load (bid, truck, or tip) to be rejected as contaminated and sent to a landfill. This is also why you should never bag your recycling unless specifically instructed to do so. Its also important to give your recyclables a

        A recycling pro-tip is to buy beverages in cans, not bottles. Recycling bottles takes almost as much energy as creating new glass. The process is the same – melt down raw materials/cullet. Aluminum cans are a different animal. Most of then energy in creating aluminum cans is used when refining the ore to get pure aluminum. Melting down recycled aluminum cans uses a tiny fraction of the energy required to refine aluminum oxide ores.

        Either way, the answer is to more from recycling up the waste hierarchy. (I hike in Keens…)

        Reply
        • John : Jan 22nd

          …give your recyclables a quick rinse.

          Reply
  • Liz S : Jan 19th

    Don’t throw your old shoes up in a tree. Please. The pollution alone from a burn is stupid. It’s not cute or fun either.

    Reply
  • Mary L. : Jun 19th

    Hey, Jeff! Thanks for posting their current address. They were in CA, then moved to Memphis. I once sent shoes unnecessarily to the first one. You’re right, Nike Grind is now in Indiana. I told them they need to post the new location as many of us don’t live near their stores. John’s right — do clean them up before sending.

    Reply

What Do You Think?