Your Most Important Piece of Gear

As a child there were three things I knew about hiking the Appalachian Trail:

  1. It is an incredibly long trail between Georgia and Maine where you sleep in tents and half wooden cottages.
  2. You get to eat a half gallon of ice cream at one point and can go somewhere else to pick buckets full of delicious blackberries.
  3. Your toenails will turn black and fall off.

That last one was courtesy of Wild, where the protagonist seems to be constantly losing her toenails throughout her hike. “4 nails me, 6 nails the PCT”, she’d say. This book, plus a documentary I’d seen about the AT, left me feeling pretty terrified for my feet. “Is a full bucket of delicious blackberries really worth all those nasty foot problems?” But I was young and people reassured me, “As long as you take good care of your feet, your most important piece of gear, you’ll be fine.”

How I imagined hiking the AT. Only this actually happened.

How I pictured someone on the AT might get their feet wet. Sadly I did actually fall in a creek.

“I guess I’ll just take those short Keen Targhee II boots I used last year hiking around New Zealand,” I said to my mom. The Salamon trail runners I’d ordered from Zappos without much research didn’t fit (unsurprisingly), and it was a week from my AT start date. I’d made a full spreadsheet of my gear and weighed everything down to the gram, yet I’d somehow neglected to research the “most important piece of gear”, my shoes. “I mean, I’d rather take the slightly worn lower ankle boots over the heavy, high ankle Vasques from high school that always give me blisters.”

To be fair, I’d attempted to research ‘trail runners vs. boots’ online, which turned out to be one of the more heated trail debates. Even visiting REI 3 different times left me with 3 totally different answers. I figured my Keens only had to last me 100 miles until Franklin, NC where I could visit an outfitter who was known for fitting hikers for shoes, and who would likely have a real answer for me. And they did!

Rob from Outdoor 76, he knows his shoes!

Photo by Laura Houston

Outdoor76 in Franklin was the best shoe fitting experience I have ever had. Blogger Laura Houston knows what I’m talking about. Before even looking at shoes, Rob, one of the co-owners, walked me through the make up of my foot, asked me all about my past issues & activities, and explained how they would determine which shoes to pull for me. As it turned out, my 8.5 shoe I’ve worn for years is a size too small. Thanks to my oddly short toes, I should actually be in a European size 41, or around a size 9.5. My mind was blown!

With this sizing in mind and my history with Brooks Ghost running shoes, he ultimately pulled down the Brooks Cascadia 8 trail runner for me to lace up. They felt really good, and with the additional inserts, I knew I’d found my perfect hiking shoe. Trail runners were a good option for me personally as I had a lighter pack (usually between 23 lbs and 33 lbs) and could get by without full ankle support. Aside from a little ankle soreness at the beginning which passed quickly, the Cascadias performed amazingly on all terrain and always dried quickly after rainy weather. I also used inserts that were molded to my feet and I’m happy to report they lasted me all the way to Mt. Katahdin. I might have even kept them if they didn’t smell so terrible… I mean, I did jump in a trail town dumpster to rescue them after forgetting to take them out of an old pair of shoes I tossed. That’s true love.

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 preset

Exhibit A: too distracted taking a picture to switch out insoles

Lucky for me at the time of my hike, the Cascadia 9s were recently released so all Cascadia 8 shoes were on extreme sale. Considering that I went through 3 pairs of them, it was really nice to do so at a slight discount. In fact, now I’m kicking myself for not buying a few more pairs! I really love my Brooks Cascadias and I would recommend them to any hiker who will carry a pack weighing less than about 35 lbs. I only experienced two blisters during my entire time wearing them, and definitely no toenail blackness! The only time my nails were colored was when I choose to paint them that way to hide the dirt. So not only did my trail runner hold up well on those Pennsylvania rocks, but they carried me all the way to Maine.

While things worked out for me, make sure you put a lot of effort into picking this piece of gear. If you can, definitely consult an expert (or, in my case, multiple experts). If you don’t believe me, check out how two of our Class of 2015 hikers felt about their boot picking experiences:

Corvettes, Silverados, and… Hiking Shoes? by Stacia Bennett

4.5 Hours For a Pair of Shoes: My Visit to Outdoor 76 by Laura Houston

Happy trails!

More recommended readingAT Thru-Hikers Footwear by the Numbers

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Comments 5

  • Frogmonkey : Feb 14th

    I stopped at Outdoor 76 as well. The shoes they set me up with fit pretty good and felt alright. Definitely a lot more room in the toes than any other trail runner I’ve hiked in. However, the soles weren’t grippy at all. I ended up sliding off almost any rock I stepped on that was just the tiniest bit slick. This didn’t make for happy hiking. Now I make sure my shoes not only feel good but also have grippy tread.

  • Ilse Dunbar : Oct 4th

    What insoles did you use? I have cascadias too and seem to pronate a little more on my right foot since I healed from a stress fracture. I have some super feet insoles and am thinking of switching them for the Brooks stock insoles.

  • Jared : Oct 4th

    If you go the Cascadia route, find the 8 or 9 online. The 10 has a design flaw that ends up with a tear all of the way across the top of your toes after a few hundred miles. Everyone out there this year had the same exact issue. Brooks would replace one pair but most people either switched to the older models or switched shoes entirely. Hopefully they fix this in the 11.

  • Nancy : Oct 5th

    It is SO important to find your own shoe guru and be fitted properly. No matter where you’re hiking the fit is essential–as my daughter learned the hard way just on a day hike on Mount Monadnock!!


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