Thru-Hike Shoe Review

“The Grinch hated Christmas – the whole Christmas season. Now, please don’t ask why; no one quite knows the reason. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. Or it could be that his head wasn’t screwed on just right,” Dr. Seuss.

The quickest way to hate hiking and the trail is to abuse your poor feet. If your feet cause you pain with each step you take, it makes it hard to enjoy the trail and your adventures. I spent countless hours experimenting with blister prevention methods, socks, insoles, and boots and this is what I found:

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Springer Mountain, Georgia to Damascus, Virginia (468 miles): Merrell Moab Waterproof Boots

Overall day hike rating (10/10). For the last five years I have relied on Merrell Woman’s Moab Waterproof boots for all of my spring, summer, and fall hiking and backpacking adventures in New England. For day hikes and weekend backpacking trips I would give these boots a 10/10. I love the tread of the boots, they provide me with a lot of stability on rocky terrain, and they are very comfortable. So it made sense to me to get a pair of them to start my AT thru-hike:

  • Merrell Moab Waterproof
  • Weight: 1 lb, 13 oz
  • Size: Women’s 10
  • MSRP: $110
  • Waterproof
  • 468 AT miles

Overall thru-hike rating (4/10). By the end of the second week I was convinced that low rise waterproof boots were a poor choice for thru-hiking. Even though the waterproof boots initially did a pretty good job out keeping water out of my boots, they did a much better job of trapping the water in. Whenever my boots got wet they then needed a night in town and a blow dryer or heater to dry them out. In addition to being a problem when the trail was consistently a 6 inch deep puddle, they were also problematic in the heat and humidity of the south where my sweat alone made my boots constantly wet or damp and my boots and my feet never really succeeded in completely drying out.

Foot Care/Socks:

By the end of the first week my feet hurt, I had some hot spots on my big toes and on my heals, and some soreness and numbness in the two littlest toes on both of feet. I experimented with moleskin, duct tape, blister band aids, and second skin to no avail. The wet conditions and the friction in my boots meant that the moleskin and duct tape had trouble staying in place, and the fancy new blister band-aids just dissolved/ground into my socks. By the time I got to Gatlinburg, TN (mile 207) I had a monstrous blister.

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Athletic tape ended up working the best for covering my hot spots and blisters. Unfortunately my feet still hurt, so I started experimenting with different sock combinations. I carried extra socks so that I could give my feet a new, drier pair of socks at midday everyday, and that helped. I ended up disliking my smartwool socks because they took forever to dry (they definitely didn’t dry overnight). I also disliked wearing socks with a separate liner… It meant that there were twice as many socks to lose and a lot of extra bulk in my shoes and in my pack. I finally settled on Wigwam’s Rebel Fusion Quarter and Wigwam’s Cool Lite Hiker Pro Quarter as my favorite hiking socks.

The real key to blister prevention was the discovery of anti-chafing sticks. If I coated my feet with Gold Bond Friction Defense or Band-Aid Friction Block I didn’t get blisters! After I realized that, I used it every day! Unfortunately my feet still hurt.

Insoles:

The next set of experiments I did was with insoles. I’d buy a pair, and then wear them for a couple of days to see if they helped my feet hurt less. I would then alternate stretches of trail with similar terrain to make sure it was the insoles and not the trail making my feet feel better or hurt more. I tried spenco insoles, I tried gel insoles, and I tried both the green and the blue superfeet. Nothing seemed to help.

Damascus, Virginia (468 miles) to Massie Gap, Virginia (mile 498.6): Salomon Trail-Running Shoes

My feet hurt so much that it was almost all I could do not to curl up in a ball and cry by the side of the trail. Having explored all of my other options, when I got to Damascus I purchased a pair of new boots:

  • Salomon XA Pro 3D Trail-Running Shoes
  • Weight: 1 lb, 8.7 oz
  • Size: Men’s 9.5
  • MSRP: $130
  • Not Waterproof
  • 31 AT Miles

Overall thru-hike rating (4/10). These shoes dried out incredibly quickly, but I noticed that the traction on them wasn’t as good as with the Merrell’s, and they didn’t provide me enough ankle stability. In the 400+ miles prior to trying the Solomen’s, I turned my ankle a total of twice. On the first day with the Solomen’s I turned my ankle 6 times. I was unimpressed. I switched back to my Merrell’s the next day, 0 ankle turns. I decided to try the Solomen’s one more time, 4 ankle turns. Boot experiments were much more expensive than sock experiments, but I wasn’t going to risk spraining my ankle by continuing to wear the Solomen’s.

Massie Gap, Virginia (mile 498.6) to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (1019.0): Oboz Sawtooth Low’s

After giving up on the Solomen’s, I purchased my next pair of shoes:

  • Oboz Sawtooth Low’s
  • Weight: 15.6 ounces
  • Size: Men’s 9
  • MSRP: $110
  • Not Waterproof
  • 520 AT miles

Overall thru-hike rating (7/10). Unfortunately the Oboz did not immediately alleviate my foot pain, even after trying them with all of the insole combinations that I had. They did dry out much much faster than the Merell Moab’s (though not as quickly as the Solomen’s), and they had much better stability and traction than the Solomen’s. In general, I would say that the stability was similar to the Merell’s but that the traction I got with them was worse. My biggest complaint with the Oboz was that they delaminated after hiking less than 100 miles. By the time I made it to Daleville, VA (mile 723.5) I had been using athletic tape to try to keep the soles on for the last 100 miles. After I spent a zero day getting cozy with my shoes and a bottle of rubber cement, the shoes managed to make it the rest of the way to Harper’s Ferry.

Orthotics: Foot Rx

Overall thru-hiking review (10/10). The thing that finally alleviated the pain in my feet was a pair of custom orthotics that I had made for me in Abingdon, VA by Cathy Miller, CPED at Foot Rx. Within a week my feet stopped bothering me! Not only that, the orthotics actually survived for the entire rest of the trip!!! Sure, they needed a little bit of athletic tape to help them out for the last 200 miles, but I was incredibly impressed by how well they held up!

Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (1019.0) to Tyringham, MA (1537.2): Vasque Velocity

The soles of my Oboz were flapping in the breeze when I got to Harper’s Ferry, so I purchased a new pair of shoes:

  • Vasque Velocity 2.0
  • Weight: 13.6 oz
  • Size: Men’s 9.5
  • MSRP: $119.15
  • Not Waterproof
  • 518 AT Miles

Overall thru-hike review (6/10). The thing that I didn’t like about the Vasque’s was the internal seamline that cut right across the top of my toes. This rubbed across my toes and gave me hot spots in all new places. For the first 3 weeks hiking in the Vasques I had to wrap my toes with athletic tape every day to protect them from that damn seam. Eventually my feet built up enough callouses across my toes that that issue resolved. By then, however, my feet had started fighting back and wearing out the fabric of the shoes. When I wandered into Massachusetts my toes had worn holes through the sides of the boots, the soles were delaminating (and had already been re-glued and taped back together), and some pieces of the tread were completely missing.

Tyringham, MA (1537.2) to Monson, ME (2071.4): Merrell Moab Ventillator

When I got to Tyringham, MA, I had tried a lot of boots and been dissatisfied with most of them. This time around I got a pair of:

  • Merrell Moab Ventillator
  • Weight: 1lb, 8 oz
  • Men’s size 9.5
  • MSRP: $90
  • Not Waterproof
  • 534 AT Miles

Overall thru-hike rating (9/10). They were comfortable, had great traction and stability, and impressive durability on some of the most rugged terrain on the AT. They did have some issues with delamination, and at mile 1840.5 I had to re-glue the soles. After that I thought the boots were going to last me to the end. Unfortunately, I tripped on a root as I was headed into Monson, Maine and it ripped all the way through the top fabric of my boot and down along the side. I wasn’t going to be able to finish the trail with them afterall.

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Monson, ME (2071.4) to Mount Katahdin, Maine (2185.9)

Seeing my boot predicament in Monson, my friend Hotshot’s dad gave me the boots off of his feet:

  • Merrel Moab Ventillator
  • Men’s size 10
  • 115+ AT Miles

His boots were half a size larger than mine, but fit me very comfortably and would definitely work. It took me a couple of days (and one spectacular tumble) to retrain my gait with the slightly larger shoe size, but other than that they didn’t cause me any trouble. By the time I reached Katahdin my boots began to delaminate again (not at the toe per usual, but along the inside arch), but I don’t know how much mileage they’d seen before I got my hands on them.

Post-Trail Assessment and Preparing for the PCT

Based on my experience on the trail, I would choose the Merrel Moab Ventillators for any future AT thru-hike and on the PCT am likely to use:

  • Merrel Moab Ventillator’s
  • Weight: 1 lb, 14 oz
  • Size: Men’s 10 Wide
  • MSRP: $90
  • Not Waterproof

However, upon returning from the trail, I have been in contact with Oboz and they have assured me that they have fixed the delamination problem that my old boots had had, and offered to send me a replacement pair of boots of  my choice. I have taken them up on their offer and am currently trying out a pair of:

  • Traverse (Dark Shadow)
  • Weight: 16.6 oz
  • Size: Men’s 9.5
  • MSRP: $125
  • Not Waterproof

If you are a thru-hiker, I recommend that you call them up and ask them about their thru-hiker program, which is truly awesome and has convinced me to consider their boots for my PCT thru-hike.

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The Aftermath

After returning home from the trail (and running the Marine Corps Marathon) my right foot started to experience significant pain whenever I put weight on it, specifically I had pain in the ball of my foot and radiating out into my middle toe. It hurt enough that I went in to a podiatrist who diagnosed me with Morton’s neuromas (click this link for a more research oriented article) in both feet (worse on my left foot) and 3rd metatarsal capsulitis in my left foot. In preparation for another 2600 miles of abuse, I’ve gotten new prescription orthotics (now on their third revision) as well as 2 sets of cortisone shots into the neuroma and 3rd metatarsal capsule of my left foot.

foot

In retrospect it seems likely that the foot pain I experienced as I hiked into Damascus, VA was from the same thing and was relieved when I switched to wider boots (the Oboz) and began using orthotics to redistribute the pressure across my foot. Having tight calves is thought to aggravate both issues, so I see lots of stretching in my future as I head out for the PCT.

Hopefully the insights I gained on the AT as well as all of the stretching, the cortisone, the orthotics, and the wider boots will help keep my feet happy on my new PCT adventures!

11 thoughts on “Thru-Hike Shoe Review

  1. I had to comment here since I was present at 2 of these shoe purchases and the enabler of the Abingdon orthodics. I hated watching you struggle with shoes. So glad you found a solution.

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    • It was pretty miserable there for a while. I just got the second cortisone shot in my foot yesterday, and this is the first day since November that my foot hasn’t hurt. I really wasn’t looking forward to having the kind of foot pain that I had in Damascus again on the PCT. Thank you for all of your help with finding and getting the shoes and orthotics. Oh, and feeding me and letting me use your shower and letting me hide from the rain and take my first zero day at your awesome house. You and your family were absolutely amazing!

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  2. Of course everyones feet are different, but I used 2 pair of Asolo Futurtive for my hike (sections over 4Y9D). These were std width and now wear wide. Always used liners and prepped my feet using TUF-FOOT for several weeks before hike. Good luck on PCT and hike on – Tattoo

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  3. Can I ask what shoe size you normally wear? I just got a pair of Moab’s in an 11 (I’m somewhere between 9.5 and 10 usually), and was wondering how your sizing worked, as I’ve heard that Merrell’s run small

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    • When I’m not on a thru-hike I typically wear a women’s size 10 in Moab’s as well as other shoes… While I’m thru-hiking I typically wear a Men’s size 10 in Moab’s, although I have recently switched to Men’s size 10 Altras.

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  4. Pingback: The Gear That Got Me Thru (PCT Gear List) | Patches Thru

  5. Thank you for writing about Thru-hiking and Morton’s Neuroma. I have a neuroma in my right foot and want to start the AT in early March. Right now, I feel most comfortable in Chacos, but I know I can’t wear those for the first couple months. I tried the Merrells, and my arch/heel area deters me from being comfortable in those. Right now, I’ve got Super Feet and Salomons/Cascadias. Everything hurts in every shoe, but these are the best. I am leery of getting cortisone shots, because they supposedly weaken the tendons in the foot over time. Do you think I should attempt the AT and hope that my toes go numb every day/pop aspirin before sleeping? I mean, how painful is it really? Should I try to get special orthotics before I go? Should I get cortisone shots at intervals along the way? I am planning on having the surgery next year when I’m done. This is the ONLY fear I have for AT completion. I’d really appreciate your advice having walked 1800+ miles on a neuroma!

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    • On the AT mine was really *really* painful after the first few hundred miles… enough to make me want to curl up in a ball on the side of the trail and cry… For me the combination of custom orthotics and shoes with a wide toe box were the key. There are some people that hiked the whole AT in Chacos… I could try to put you in touch with one of them if you’re considering doing that.

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      • Thank you, Patches! I got my first cortisone shot yesterday, and I have an appointment to get custom insoles in a week. I start the trail in late February, so my main concern is that first 500 miles, or so. After that, you know I’m switching to Chacos, at least for a portion of the day to start until my tendons adjust. I hiked a 14er in Colorado last July in the Chacos, and my ankles were definitely feeling it afterwards! I read WonderGimp’s blog. I don’t really want to be nicknamed for my Neuroma, even though it’s awesome she made it to the end. Do you have any suggestions for hiking shoes with wide toe boxes and tighter heels with a semi-rigid construction? I’m a supinator. My usual problem with wide-toes is that the heel is also wide and gives me mad blisters. If not, that’s okay! Thanks for the heads up, although I’m officially scared.

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      • Yeah, I have a similar problem… With more rigid-soled boots either the toebox is too narrow and the shoes aggravate my neuromas, or the heel is too loose and I get blisters… If I need to use a boot with a rigid or semi-rigid sole (for mountaineering or winter hiking) I choose to go with the loose heal and the wide toe box becayse my blisters always got better over time (when well cared for), but my neuromas just get worse and worse over time. (The cortisone shots definitely helped for my PCT thru-hike, and I didn’t have any issues with the tendons in my feet during the hike or afterwards).

        My advice: before purchasing your hiking boots, carefully feel the inside of the heel with your hand… some boots (like the Merrel Moab’s) seem to have an extra lip of padding between the heel and the achilles tendon on the back of the heel, and those inevitable cause extra “special” blister issues… some even have seams along the back of the heel that you can feel… avoid those like the plague! If you can feel a bump, edge, lip, or seem with your hand, your heal will feel it too! When I have to use shoes with a stiff sole and a heel that is too wide, custom orthotics can help provide a more rigid/structured heel cup which helps. Bring your boots with you when you get the custom orthotics made if you can and pay attention to the way the orthotics fit into the heel of the shoe… if you’re not careful you’ll end up with blisters along the junction between the shoe and your rigid insoles/orthotics! I wear socks with two layers to try to reduce friction, but I still have problems with blisters/hot spots on my heels until my heels have broken into the shoes (in the battle of shoe vs. heel the shoe usually wins… toes vs. shoes is closer to 50/50 because my toes will eventually wear holes through the fabric of the toebox, which is actually a good thing… I want my toes to win). During the miles where my heel is “breaking-in” I wrap it fairly elaborately with athletic tape to protect it and prevent blisters. In cold/wet conditions I may also use a friction-block/anti-chaffing stick and coat my entire foot with it to help prevent blisters and trench foot.

        I haven’t found the perfect balance of wide toebox and narrow ankle in rigid or semi-rigid soled hiking boots yet, but for both trail shoes and running shoes I use Altra’s and love them!

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