January 16th, 2013 by Carl
Hiking and backpacking boots in Alaska
A backpacking blog with no post about hiking boots? What gives?
Hiking boots are one of those subjects that are SO subjective that it’s invariably a much lengthier conversation than a blog post might, or should, be. Different boots fit different people well, and different boots fit different situations differently. I can suggest what works well for me, in situation x-y-z, and that pair of boots might be completely inappropriate for you in the same situation. or, they might be completely inappropriate for me in situation a-b-c.
So it’s extremely difficult to try to write a ‘general’ idea about boots. I’ll give it a shot.
Leather vs synthetic. The biggest question most start with is “leather boots versus synthetic”. Full leather boots will typically tend to be more durable, provide a little better ankle support (though I have doubts about how much), be heavier and more expensive. If you backpack off-trail a lot, carrying a heavy load, and want a pair of boots that will last a long time, my suggestion is a leather pair of boots. But, if you hike mostly on trail, don’t carry a big heavy pack very often, and don’t mind replacing your boots more frequently, synthetic boots are often a good choice.
For backpacking here in Alaska, a lot of the time we hike in rugged alpine terrain, where rocks come in all shapes and sizes, over scree, talus, moraine, sand, and so on. A leather boot holds up to that kind of wear much better than a synthetic boot will. But if the majority of your hiking is not in those kinds of conditions, a synthetic boot will certainly suffice. I’ve done countless trips with a lightweight pair of synthetic boots, and been just fine. I’ve also done a 12 day trip with brand new boots that were falling apart at the seams by the end of the trip. Stitching just doesn’t hold up awfully well when you’re loaded down with 60+lbs on your back walking over boulders the size of small cars.
Get your pack weight down, and synthetic boots are often a better choice. They’re lighter, which means less strain for you. A slightly less stiff sole will also allow your feet to ‘feel’ the ground beneath you a whole lot better, which can make you more stable. Some of my friends here hike only in tennis shoes/runners, or similar, and really like the connection between foot and the ground. But – and a bit caveat, imo – that’s not something I’d recommend to someone heading to Alaska for their first, or 2nd backpacking trip, who’s not used to off-trail travel,is not used to carrying 7-8 days worth of supplies, and who’s feet aren’t conditioned for it. That means most people.
Conditioning your feet is a big part of avoiding blisters. It’s not simply a case of getting boots that fit correctly; it’s also a matter of gradually building your feet up to 6-8 of hiking a day, for days on end, carrying a backpack, over trailless terrain. Get your feet in shape and build up to it; regardless which boots you wear.
A number of folks who hike here recommend avoiding waterproof boots/shoes, and prefer to just hike with wet feet. Part of the reckoning is that there’s no such thing as truly waterproof footwear for hiking. While that’s true, there’s no such thing as 100% waterproof raingear, either, but I’d much rather have good rain gear with me than none at all. So my preference is to buy a pair of boots lined with either Goretex or eVent, or similar, spray them with a good DWR before the season and hope for the best. Typically, by the end of a season the boots are substantially LESS waterproof than they were brand new.
But – I hike more than more people will in the summer, and I hike over pretty rugged terrain, all of which stresses stitching and lining material. And I can keep my feet dry for 6 hours of the day, I’d rather that than not at all.
Of note here; don’t buy a pair of synthetic boots that are NOT goretex lined and think you can spray a DWR coating over them and make them waterproof. You can’t; it’s not magic. If they don’t keep water out when they’re brand new, you’re not going to do anything short of putting them in a drybag that makes them waterproof. Don’t let your local salesman/woman tell you otherwise.
How much ankle support do you get from a few inches of material (be it leather or nylon)? Whatever your body weight is, add on 45lbs to it, and those boots start to seem a little less supportive. Sure, they might be better than low-cut runners, but I don’t think you’re going to save yourself a sprained ankle because you have leather boots over synthetic ones, or even low cut trail hikers. imo.
On the other hand, they DO provide substantially more support to the soles of your feet. A stiff, well shanked sole, can make a big difference to how sore your feet are at the end of the day carrying your pack.
Everything, though, is a tradeoff. Boots too stiff, and you’ll find your feet blister more easily. Particularly if you’re not used to them, and your feet aren’t in good shape.
One thing you WILL want for hiking in Alaska is good grip. A lot of the hiking here can be on difficult and challenging terrain. Steep grassy sidehills. Screen slopes, slick water and algae-covered rocks. Ice. Steep snow patches. And on. And on. So make sure your boots, whatever you choose, have good traction. An old worn pair of boots with a wornout sole are not your friend here.
In general, I like Vibram soles; I haven’t found any other sole that consistently performs as well. Either way, make sure your boots or shoes have a good, well-tracked sole before you head out on your Alaska adventure. And tread carefully.
The boots that fit my foot, and my gait, the best very probably won’t fit your feet, and your gait, the best. So spend a LOT of time trying on boots. Try a lot of different boots. When you find a pair that feel good, wear them for a good 5-10 minutes in-store. If the store aren’t OK with that, go to another store. 5-10 minutes is nothing when it comes to fitting your feet well.
I say ‘gait’ because it’s every bit as important as the shape and size of your foot. Whether your pronate, supinate, or any other kind of gait, how you walk will affect which boots work best for you as anything else might. So don’t buy X-Y-Z boots because your friend A-B-C told you they’re the best boots he’s ever worn. By all means, go try them out. And try them well. And if they work, buy yourself a pair. Just be sure to test them thoroughly.