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Transitioning to Trail Shoes

Inov8 Roclite 320 Trail Shoes

I don't think I'm going to be able to wear these trail shoes to the office, ever again.

We had very dirty weather this weekend in Boston, with 3 inches of driving rain and high winds. I stayed in town instead of heading up to New Hampshire in order to test out a bunch of new rain gear and get acclimated to walking in tail shoes in the rain.

Switching from boots to trail shoes is something I've avoided over the past couple of years, but it's become inevitable at this point. I'm off to boggy Scotland in just 8 weeks and there's no way I can hike 180 miles for 2 weeks in soaking wet leather boots.

This past year, for instance, I tried out 4 new pairs of boots: Inov8 370 Roclites, Asolo Flames, Asolo Fugitives and Keen Targhee Mids, trying to find a hiking boot that was better suited to very wet weather and stream crossings than my leather Asolo TPS 520s. None of them worked as well as the Inov-8 Roclite 320 trail running shoes (shown above) that I tested this weekend.

I've been wearing the Inov8 320s since New Years to work and at the gym. They're comfortable and have a pretty stiff last running through them that provides good support. This weekend however, I took them hiking in horizontally blowing, cold rain, while wearing a full pack.

It was not as bad as I expected. In fact, I think I am beginning to see why other hikers are so adamant about the switch from leather boots to trail shoes.

This realization dawned on me after I did a 5 stream crossings, fully immersing my shoes and lower legs in cold snow melt. With leather boots, doing something like this leads to days of misery.

At the time, I was wearing one layer of Smartwool Merino sock liners. Surprisingly, my feet warmed up after each immersion and I could see water being pumped out of my shoes with each step I took. It was a revelation.

I thought back to a comment that Phil Turner left on my blog a while back, about how he doesn't bother with Gore-tex socks when hiking in wet conditions in trail shoes. I can now understand why he said it and by god, it makes sense! Having thin wool socks appears to provide plenty of warmth because they dry out so quickly.

Except for one thing: cold weather. I'm a bit concerned what it will be like hiking all day, 15-20 miles, in cold wet conditions where my feet are continuously immersed or chilled by wind. So as a precaution, I'll pack some plastic bread bags in my emergency repair kit to use as vapor barrier socks if I get cold.

But even though I can understand the benefits of trail shoes, I'm still a little anxious about not wearing boots.

  • First, my style of walking relies heavily on using my boots as brakes on rocky and steep terrain. I'm going to have to learn a different set of hiking foot work techniques with softer trail shoes.
  • Second, my calf muscles are very used to having boots around. Having a flatter, lower sole is going to make me work those calf muscles in new ways. To avoid shin splits, I'm going to have to do a lot of walking in trail shoes, to develop a different set of muscles and movements.
  • Third, I'm still worried about plantar fasciitis. Is walking in a soft soled shoe going to inflame my fascia band? The truth is, walking in good boots and green superfeet insoles cured my PF and kept it from recurring for years. Will it come back if I hike long distance in a shoe that has more flex?

Time will tell. But what I have realized this weekend is that I need to invest myself in transitioning to trail shoes, for my Scotland trip and beyond. Change is good if it means not having to hike in wet boots.

So here's the plan: I hope to do lots of local hikes with a full pack in the woods near my house wearing trail shoes. By gradually increasing my mileage and varying the terrain I hike in, I should be able to learn a new set of hiking footwork that is more appropriate for a softer shoe. It will also help my develop the muscle tone required for hiking in a flatter shoe and get me in good hiking shape for the Challenge in May.

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17 comments

  1. PF is (more or less) caused by your arch collapsing and allowing the PF to get over stretched. The underlying problem is the underside of your foot (muscles, ligaments, etc) is underdeveloped/weak and not able to support your arch. Boots with arch support, insoles with arch support, etc. are a bandaid. They prevent the PF by supporting the arch for you but they don't cure the underlying weaknesses. A minimalist shoe will allow you to strengthen your foot components and should actually cure the problem instead of just bandaiding it.

  2. Congrats on transitioning back to trail shoes! Once one's pack weight is down the arguments for boots–protecting ankles, etc.–don't hold up. I've suffered from plantar fasciitis when running, but uneven hiking terrain does not seem to have the same effect. I would definitely massage your arches before and after hiking.

    As to hiking with wet feet, I can't say enough good things about Hydropel. It definitely helped me get through close to a week of perpetual rain on the AT last year when my feet should have been destroyed. Probably will also work well against thigh chafing. I believe Backpacking Light has a review.

    Always a pleasure to read your blog.

    —–Matt

  3. Hydopel is excellent for the feet, but poor for between the thighs, particularly if the skin is already irritated. The best solution for thighs there is zinc oxide. Sooths and protects. :-)

    I see your point about the twisted ankles. I haven't had an incident yet and thought this would be more of an issue, regardless of the lightweight pack.

    Walking in trail runners does require a slightly more vigilant level of foot placement than boots which might attribute to this.

  4. I've been using Superfeet inside my trail runners for 5 years now and don't leave home without 'em. When hiking I like to do calf stretches frequently just because it feels so good and helped me get over my PF when we first hiked the JMT.

    Good luck in Scotland.

    Best,

    Carl in San Diego

  5. Glad you gave it a go!

    You won't be alone on the TGO Challenge in your trail runners – Inov8 Terrocs and Roclites galore. I'm probably going to be wearing my slightly psychedelic New Balance 1100MDS shoes – they have small holes in the soles for maximum drainage and a wide enough toe box to accommodate my freakish hobbitesque feet.

    You'll also see many fully loaded 80 litre rucksacks on the Challenge too though – and no doubt some disparaging comments on your choice of footwear. All part of the fun.

  6. I bother with Gore-Tex socks while hiking in trail shoes. Dry warm feet I like. I also put up with wet socks sometimes. But the combination of a Gore-Tex sock and wool sock is hard to beat in my view. I have seen TGO Challengers with taped up feet from the pounding their feet took being wet all day in Inov-8 shoes and a light pack. Your feet – your choice. But the weight of a pair of Gore-Tex socks is not a lot.

    I used 320 at the weekend in the Lakes. Wet rock, bog, snow and more. I have used 345, 295, 315, 310. The 320 is stunning. After the weekend I said to my mate who walked with me they are the best Inov-8 shoe I have used.

  7. I went walking yesterday in more heavy rain. Temperatures were in the low 40's F and the trail was awash with water. 20 minutes into my hike, my feet were so cold that I thought about walking out to my car. Luckily, I had a pair of Gore-tex socks along and put them over my wet wool socks. My feet warmed up enough that I was able to finish the 5.6 mile hike despite several stream crossings. I've decided to wear the combination of merino wool liners and gore-tex socks for wet weather during the Challenge. Yay for testing in real conditions.

  8. When you see the porters in Nepal Solo-Khumbu busting 40 and 50kg loads while wearing cheap Chinese tennies or even flip flops, you begin to get curious about "what's enough shoe?" So the second time there I went several days in Teva sandals, switching back to (very lightweight) boots only when my feet got too cold somewhere above Namche Bazaar. Vaguely recall doing Tevas in the Presidentials after that, but obviously it wasn't as memorable.

  9. By the way, you know I'm glad you mentioned bread bags as VBL. Grocery store sacks also work well. But try to convince some armchair hikers and outdoorsmen that VBL (a) is worn directly next to the skin, and (b) works amazingly well. For the hands, try cheapo painters (poly) gloves sometime, with a thin fleece over-glove on the outside. My first experiment with that combo was a January day up Lion Head to the summit, sunny but -20F all the way up. My hands never once got cold. VBL is an amazing and counter-intuitive concept.

  10. I carry sterile latex gloves in my first aid kit for just that reason. Last ditch VBL. I was actually thinking about this over the weekend.

  11. Hi, Earlylite

    "A minimalist shoe will allow you to strengthen your foot components and should actually cure the problem instead of just bandaiding it."

    This is true if you build up slowly – as you seem to be doing. Too much too soon, a temptation in light footwear, will precipitate a PF attack.

    Walking trail shoes dry can be an issue. The stench becomes spectacular in short order. I'm experimenting with Gerlachs Gehwol Extra. It's had a good effect on my Keen sandals.

    Check some Scottish web cams before finally committing as we have had more snow than usual. If it's still there in May, which I doubt, it will be rock hard.

  12. I had problems with plantar fascitis, but Superfeet green insoles have resolved that. My plantar fascia still gets my attention when I think about it (like now), but it doesn't stop me from hiking.

    I wore Vasque Blur SL shoes on our week-long Sierra trek last summer. They breathe enough to get my toes dirty through my socks, so I'm not sure they would be a good choice for rainy hiking.

    The shoes were never a problem in the Sierras. I was concerned on a stretch of scree trail, but no problem, and they took a while to dry after river crossings, but I'd wear them again.

  13. Thanks for this. Have been working on transitioning to trail shoes. Pack weight is the reason I keep the boots on. Have used grocery bags to keep feet dry in wet boots. But they only last a day and how many bread bags do you want to carry? Andy Skurka, who hiked across country in athletic shoes, said no matter what you where you are going to get wet feet. In spite of that I am still planning on making it a goal to keep my feet dry, when I get the chance again.

  14. I made this transition about nine years ago, and I've never had a problem. Not once. I would never even consider hiking in boots again except under very special conditions (subzero temperatures, heavy mud, over smoldering ground, on continuous snow or ice, and so on).

    The only real issue for me is that I can't go far with wet feet and the resulting soft skin. There are waterproof socks but they either leak soon, or are next to impossible to dry, and they do get wet outside, and at least damp inside, so you have two sides to dry. I have some Hydropel but haven't given it a real test yet.

    I think that conditioning is important though. I worked up to it slowly, over about three months, starting with watching the ground at every step for a long time. I had really weak ankles that would flop over with no provocation at all, so this was a concern. I found that I had a lot of muscles in my feet and lower ankles that were previously unknown, but after a few hikes I could feel them getting stronger. Now I don't notice any more.

    I've also found that weight is not an issue. Boot uppers do not provide any kind of support, but will help a little if your ankle flops, or if you bang into something. That's all. I've carried a pack so heavy that I could barely stand, and had no problem with my shoes.

  15. David – I did a long hike this weekend in trail runners, including more stream crossings, and paid very close attention to the sensations in order to compare them those of wearing boots in similar conditions. It seems to me that the main difference between the two stems from a difference in the biomechanics of walking. When wearing trail runner you flex your ankles, calves, and shins considerably more than when wearing leather boots. It's tiring if you're not used to it, so I am gradually building up these muscles and I've started yoga again to keep them flexible and build them up.

    The biggest danger I've found is walking downhill with momentum. This is when I am most prone to an ankle twist. The key is to go slow and deliberately in order to avoid hazard.

    Having wet feet has not been the issue for me that it appears it is for you. I could use hydropel I suppose, but I've been finding that well broken in trail runners and merino liners are sufficient to keep the blisters at bay despite the fact that moisture softens my skin. In warm weather, my shoes and socks dry very quickly, as I am walking, but I have yet to test this system on a multi-day trek through cold wet weather.

  16. I've been enjoying hiking in trail running shoes for three decades now (started with first Nike ligh hikers). I wear lightweight coolmax or wool blend socks as they dry fastest whether from sweat, rain, or snow. I highly recommend going light.

    My favorite shoes the last few years have been Salomon XA Comps (basic, not goretex). My feet and I love them. Once you go light you'll never go back.

  17. Intersting. My walking is miles away from what you guys do. Only day long. I started boots in early 2000s. 2004 switched to trail shoes. I could walk miles in trail shoes on Dartmoor in wet shoes. No probs. Now I get blisters on a toe or two. Use Superfeet. Always have. Never get probs on dry ground. Only wet feet. A pain as never used to. Didnt walk much at all 2006 to 2011, I hope my feet toughen up and get back to the old days.

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