For all of you planning your gear setup for a John Muir Trail or Pacific Crest Trail thru hike in 2017, the time to get your footwear dialed in is right now! I’ve already created complimentary posts detailing my thorough John Muir Trail preparation, but like to compile an annual list for footwear, my favorite gear category. In 2015, I hiked the John Muir Trail in 11 days, and have a great understanding of what it takes to complete a successful thru hike. I also get to explore the Eastern Sierra quite frequently, as I live fairly close. I’ve never completed a thru hike of the PCT, but get to hike sections here in Southern California quite regularly, as the trailheads are only a few miles from where I live. To get started, let’s lay out the factors that helped determine my choice of footwear picks for the JMT and PCT for 2017:
- It’s a mostly non-technical trail, with snow and ice over high passes in late spring and early summer. This will be especially important this year with the high snow pack.
- The High Sierra has a lot of granite, so shoes need to be durable and protective
- It will be warm in the summer months with varying amounts of snow on passes
- There will be stream crossings and thunderstorms (expect more stream crossings this year with all of the snow melt)
- Most hikers will cover 15-30 miles a day
- On long and hot days, your feet will swell and skin will dehydrate
- Many hikers carry a pack with a base weight of 20-35 lbs.
Given these conditions, I can rule out any option that is a boot and/or has Gore-Tex. Why? Boots are way too heavy and do not breathe well. This will cause blistering and other foot problems. Gore-Tex (GTX), from my anecdotal accounts alongside many others, drenches your feet from the inside out. Not only does GTX trap heat into your shoe or boot, if you do get them wet, good luck drying them out. It could take days. If you’ve ever been in prolonged rain with GTX boots on, you’ll know they will eventually get wet. I don’t want to go too far on this point, but GTX is sold like crazy, and doesn’t do what people think it does.
Now that we’ve ruled a few choices out, here is what I do look for.
- Lightweight: under 14 oz.
- Breathable: must let feet breathe and dry quickly
- Forefoot Protection: Must protect my feet from the rocky trail
- Low Drop: I like a 4-8mm drop for stability
- Durable: Shoe must be able to handle 400 miles per pair
- Comfortable: No hot spots or rubbing points, with a nearly seamless interior upper
- Stable: Not necessarily with inserts or built in support, but I’m not a fan of narrow or flimsy shoes with a pack on
- Drainage: With thunderstorms and stream crossings, I need the shoes to drain and dry quickly
- Affordable: When you factor in the amount of miles a hiker will cover on the PCT, and/or the number of miles a hiker will cover on the JMT including training, the price of a shoe is important. The price of trail shoes has gone up recently, with some shoes sold for prices that can’t be justified for what they offer.
- Availability: This is more of an issue for those on the PCT and not on the JMT. JMT hikers only need one pair of shoes for the actual hike, and probably one or two for their training miles. PCT hikers are going to need at least 3-6 pairs while they’re hiking the actual trail. Some hikers will buy all of their shoes ahead of time and ship them to resupply points. For those that don’t, they need to be able to find shoes in their size at places like REI on their days away from the trail.
1.) Altra Lone Peak 3.0 (3.5 in July 2017)
I think it’s safe to say that the Altra Lone Peak was the most popular trail shoe on the JMT and PCT in 2016. The Lone Peak 3.0 has a lot to like in it’s lightweight package, with a wide toebox, a zero drop heel-to-toe offset, and comfort that goes the distance.
Pros: Foot shaped toebox, breathable and dries quickly, value at $120, zero drop, stone guard, available at almost all shoe outlets
Cons: Outsole durability is not the best
*Keep an eye out for the Altra Lone Peak 3.5 coming out this summer
2.) Brooks Cascadia 12
The Brooks Cascadia was the king of the JMT and PCT before the Altra Lone Peak’s jumped in to steal the crown. A large part of this was due to serious durability issues found in the uppers of the Cascadia 10 and 11. The Cascadia 12 comes with a brand new upper, a redesigned outsole, a wider fitting toebox, and a new pivot midsole system.
Pros: Forefoot rockplate, durable outsoles, stable midsole for heavy packs, available at almost all outlets
Cons: Outsoles are a little slick on smooth or wet surfaces, toe box is a tad narrow
Similar Alternatives: Brooks Mazama (Less Cushion)
3.) Nike Wildhorse 4
The Nike Wildhorse 3 was my favorite shoe of 2016, and the Nike Wildhorse 4 looks to be in the running for 2017. The Wildhorse has a comfortable upper with a wide toe box, a plush and supportive Phylon midsole, and a durable and grippy outsole. At $110 they offer the best value on this entire list. So, why are they at #3? The Wildhorse a pretty difficult shoe to find in stores and is not available at REI. This is a great options for JMT hikers, but maybe not so much for PCT hikers.
Pros: Value at $110, wide toe box, durable outsole, dries very quickly
Cons: Not sold in many brick and mortar stores
Similar Alternatives: Nike Terra Kiger 4 (Less Cushion)
4.) Salomon XA Pro 3D
The Salomon XA Pro 3D was my choice of shoe when I hiked the John Muir Trail in 2015. This is the closest to a boot any of the shoes on this list are going to get. Make no mistake about it, the XA Pro 3D is built like a tank. My major complaint about the XA Pro 3D back in 2015, was the slick outsole. Salomon has changed that for 2017, with a new Wet Traction Contragrip outsole. I have been testing this new version for 2017, and they are pretty amazing. The downside to this shoe is that it is quite heavy, doesn’t breath or dry well, and has a highly structured toebox that could cause problems. Still, for carrying a heavy pack over mountain terrain, few shoes keep your feet protected like the XA Pro 3D.
Pros: Stable, durable, highly protective, boot-like, wide availability
Cons: Heavy, drains and dries slowly
5.) La Sportiva Akasha
The La Sportiva Akyra was my second favorite shoe behind the Nike Wildhorse 3 last year. With Hoka pushing high cushioned shoes in the trail running world, the max midsole shoes never really took off for hikers and backpackers due to the ankle rolling risk of a high platform. The Akasha is one of the few high cushioned shoes that comes in a stable platform. The Akasha has the La Sportiva FriXion Red outsole, and is the best of the bunch on this list. The Akasha outsole sticks to everything and works on just about any trail.
Pros: Stable cushion, best grip and traction of any outsole, highly durable, available at REI, wide toe box
Cons: Runs hot, high platform is not ideal for heavy packs
Similar Alternatives: Salomon Sense Pro Max
6.) Brooks Caldera
The Brooks Caldera is a brand new model in the brooks lineup. Think of this as a more cushioned Cascadia with a softer midsole as well. The Caldera the perfect high mileage shoe for the thru-hiker how packs light and logs big days on the trail.
Pros: High cushion, great outsole,
Cons: Too much volume in the upper, unstable under heavy loads
7.) La Sportiva Akyra
The Akyra is newest model from La Sportiva and what looks to be an evolution of the Ultra Raptor. The Akyra is a super stable shoe that feels more like a hiking shoe than a trail running shoe. There is no rock plate, but the midsole provides ample protection. I’m really liking this shoe so far, but wish the toebox was a little wider. These shoes have the same incredible FriXion Red outsole compound as the Akashas, but with a different tread pattern.
Pros: Stable, cushioned, durable, FriXion Red outsole
Cons: Narrow toe box
8.) Saucony Peregrine 7
The Saucony Peregrine 7 is a protective trail shoe in a lightweight package. It’s 4mm drop is the lowest on the list outside of Altra’s zero drop.
Pros: Protection, 4mm drop
Cons: Heel fit (could be personal to me)
Similar Alternatives: Saucony ISO Exodus
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