The minimalist exercise movement and minimalist trail running shoes have taken the fitness world by storm. Some people view this switch to lighter-weight, simpler shoes as nothing more than the latest fad; others laud it as better for our bodies because it gets back to the basics of how our bodies were meant to move, starting with our foundation: our feet. To slake our thirst for a return to simpler times, when our ancestors supposedly ran barefoot – skin on dirt – manufacturers have delivered minimalist trail running shoes and other minimalist shoe models suited for pounding pavement.
As an avid hiker and backpacker, I wanted to know if my feet would survive a romp on a mountain trail in minimalist trail running shoes. Could I leave behind my clunky, heavy hiking boots? Could I switch to lighter-weight minimalist shoes for good, or just for certain trips? Outfitted with a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves, I put in hundreds of miles on the trail, and this is what I found: four tradeoffs between wearing hiking boots and minimalist trail running shoes for backpacking. The first three have to do with comfort; the last has to do with preparing yourself—your feet—for the trail.
1. Protection from dampness. When you are backpacking, it’s wise to keep yourself and your gear as dry as possible, especially gear and clothing that protects your head, hands, and feet, through which you can lose more body heat more quickly, especially as temperatures drop in the evening. Whereas a hiking boot with an average to thick sole will provide some distance between your foot and the terrain, minimalist trail running shoes by design don’t have a thick sole or much of an instep. This means that if you encounter water or mud on the trail, you’re more likely to get your feet wet or muddy wearing minimalist shoes. Minimalist trail running shoes might be a good choice for short day hikes, or on overnight backpacking trips where you know you’ll have ample hours of warmth to dry your feet and shoes before retiring for the night. That said, there are people who have a firm personal conviction about barefoot (minimalist) trail running shoes. In fact, I backpack with buddies who hike in minimalist trail running shoes exclusively, year-round, in all conditions. Somehow, they deal with having cold, wet feet with little complaining.
2. Protection from rocks and debris. Generally, minimalist trail running shoes are comfortable on most types of trail surfaces, even gravel. Through training (see the last point, below), your feet can become accustomed to the challenges of hills, changing terrain, uneven surfaces, and yes, even rocks. In fact, hiking in barefoot shoes, you might find that you feel a greater sense of control and connection with the ground because there is less manmade material beneath you to impede the sense of touch. When you do encounter the occasional sharp rock, the weight of a backpack can exacerbate any discomfort.
3. Lighter weight to help you go the distance. Minimalist trail running shoes can trim considerable weight from the load you are carrying on the trail. A pair of hiking boots might weigh 3 to 5 pounds, whereas minimalist trail shoes might weigh about a pound. Wearing minimalist shoes, you are carrying less weight on your feet. You may tire less quickly as a result, and have more energy to make it farther down the trail or higher up the mountain. This can make the overall backpacking experience more rewarding.
4. Training. Both hiking boots and minimalist trail running shoes require a break-in period. To avoid blisters or worse, it’s not wise to go twenty miles your first time out in either type of footwear. The training period for minimalist shoes may be longer and more gradual, though, simply because they are such a departure from the shoes and boots that most of us are accustomed to wearing.
Manufacturers of minimalist trail running shoes tell buyers that their feet need time to adjust to the shoes. In standard walking, running, or cross training shoes, the structure of the shoe provides considerable support, cushioning, rebound, and so on. But in minimalist shoes, your foot provides more of the support and absorbs more of the shock. As a result, you will feel like your feet are getting a workout. And they are. Body builders don’t bulk up after one day of working out with weights, and your feet won’t get used to barefoot shoes in a day. The switch takes time and patience, and your feet will be sore. It’s best to make the adjustment slowly and gradually.
The principle of gradual training applies to wearing minimalist trail running shoes for backpacking. Don’t suddenly sling a 40-pound pack on your back, a pair of minimalist shoes on your feet, and expect to have a great hike. Your feet need a good, long time, and many, many miles to adjust to carrying your own body weight, first. Then you can consider adding weight, starting with the weight of your empty pack. Eventually, your feet may be well trained enough to carry your full weight, with your full backpack, to the end of the trail, and the top of the mountain.
Because of where I do most of my backpacking (in northwest Washington State, where we have our share of rain, wet trails, and damp feet) and because I hike in inclement weather during the shoulder seasons and in snow, I wear my hiking boots on most overnight trips. This increases my chance of keeping my feet warm and dry and avoiding hypothermia. I do most of my day hikes and training hikes, though, in minimalist trail running shoes. Here’s to happy feet and happy trails!