The time to start testing and dialing in your finalized John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail gear list is now! Finding the right tent, backpack, clothes, and trekking poles can be tough, but nothing seems to give prospective hikers more issues than footwear. Like tires on a car, your shoes and trekking poles are the only pieces of gear that come into contact with the actual trail. You’ll be relying heavily on your footwear over many miles to provide grip, traction, comfort, and protection. Choosing the wrong pair for your feet can easily make for an early exit from the trail. I hope to help you prevent such occurrences with this list. Here are the 14 best pairs of trail shoes for the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in 2018!
To get started, let’s lay out the factors that helped determine my choice of footwear picks for the JMT and PCT in 2018:
- It’s a mostly non-technical trail, with possible snow and ice over high passes in late spring and early summer. This will be especially important this year with the late storms we’ve been getting through March.
- The Sierra Nevada mountain range has a lot of granite, so shoes need to be durable and offer good underfoot protection.
- It will be warm in the summer months.
- There will be stream crossings and thunderstorms. Expect powerful flows at stream crossings this year with all of the late snow.
- Most hikers will cover 15-30 miles a day, so all-day comfort is very important.
- On long and hot days, your feet will swell and your skin will dehydrate.
- Many hikers will carry a pack with a base weight of 20-35 lbs. Hiking with a lighter pack will make your trail shoes much more comfortable. Pack light!
Given these conditions, I can rule out any option that is a hightop boot and/or has Gore-Tex. Why? Boots are too heavy and most 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. GTX will trap heat into your shoe or boot, causing you to sweat through your socks. If you get GTX footwear wet, good luck drying them out. It could take days. GTX might keep water out, but it will also keep it in. 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. Skip it.
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 with a rockplate and/or ample cushion
- Low Drop: I like a 4-8mm drop for stability
- Fit: I prefer shoes with a foot shaped toe box and no slop in the heel or midfoot
- My Foot: My foot is not your foot! Try on multiple shoes and go with the one that fits your foot shape.
- Durable: Shoe must be able to handle 400 miles per pair or more
- 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 zero days.
New for 2018!
I’ve broken down my recommendations into four main categories: traditional shoes, stability shoes, max cushion shoes, and minimal shoes. The order in which I’ve ranked these selections is how a relative newcomer to hiking in trail shoes should look at the list. For those with experience, and those that already know what they like, feel free to jump ahead to the section of your preference.
I consider a traditional shoe to have around 20mm of cushion in the forefoot of the midsole, a neutral platform, and a standard outsole. Traditional used to mean a 10-12mm drop in the midsole as well, but the popularity of low drop and zero drop shoes are starting to change that.
1.) Altra Lone Peak 3.5 (4)
Drop: 0mm (20mm to 20mm)
Weight: 10.2 oz
The Altra Lone Peak is the king of the JMT and PCT. That title was once held by the Brooks Cascadia, but the Cascadia’s had some fit and durability issues for model years 2015 and 2016. The Lone Peaks have gotten better with each version and have spread like wildfire on the trail. The Lone Peak is now on version 3.5, with a slightly updated v4 due out this summer. The Lone Peak offers adequate underfoot protection with 20mm of cushion and a stone guard. I wish the outsole was a little grippier, but the harder compound makes the 3.5 more durable than previous models. If you’re looking for a trail shoe that fits and feels like a slipper, the Lone Peak is for you.
Best For: Hikers and fastpackers prone to blisters and foot swelling.
Pros: Wide toebox, comfortable fit, affordable, wide availability
Cons: Zero drop platform requires an adjustment period
2.) Brooks Cascadia 12 (13)
Drop: 10mm (27mm to 17mm)
Weight: 12 oz
The Cascadia may have lost it’s PCT/JMT crown to the Altra Lone Peak, but it’s still a very popular shoe. The 10mm drop platform offers a more familiar underfoot feel for many hikers, while keeping the feet protected with a very good rock plate. The Cascadia 10 and 11 had durability issues with the upper, but the 12 seems to have fixed that. The Cascadia is a bit too narrow for my foot, but my foot is a little wider than average. The Cascadia outsole is very durable, but a little slick on smooth or wet surfaces. If the Cascadia fits your foot, you’ll love the awesome protection and durability it provides.
Best For: Hikers and fastpackers seeking bombproof protection in a runable platform
Pros: Underfoot protection, wide availability
Cons: A little narrow
3.) Salomon XA Elevate
Drop: 8mm (26mm to 18mm)
Weight: 10.6 oz
As many of my readers know, the Salomon Sense Ride was one of my favorite shoes from 2017. I just can’t recommend it for the PCT and JMT because it lacks the underfoot protection I think is necessary. The Salomon XA Elevate provides the comfort and feel of the Sense Ride, but with way more protection. The XA Elevate is a “new” shoe from Salomon for 2018. The shoe isn’t completely new though, as it’s really just the Salomon XA Enduro without the bootie.
I just started wear testing the XA Enduro in January, and am liking it so far. The XA Enduro is narrow in the midfoot and toebox, but the underfoot ride and protection allow me to forgive that a little. The outsole is the star of the XA Enduro, using Salomon’s wet traction Contragrip and very well designed lug pattern.
Best For: Hikers and fastpackers with narrow feet seeking lots of protection without a stiff platform
Pros: Underfoot protection, smooth ride, incredible grip and traction from the outsole
Cons: Too narrow from the midfoot to the toebox
4.) Salomon S-LAB Ultra
Weight: 10.6 oz
Buy at Amazon
I just received the Salomon S-Lab Ultra last month, and I have to say that they are probably my favorite pair of trail shoes ever. So why aren’t they number one on the list? Well, they’re $180 and not very easy to find in stores. This is the shoe that Salomon athlete Francois D’haene wore for his win at UTMB 2017 and his 2017 FKT of the JMT. Fancois completed the JMT in 2 days, 19 hours, and 26 minutes wearing these shoes! The fit, comfort, and underfoot protection are unbeatable in this shoe. I can’t wait to start putting more miles in with them. If I were hiking the JMT tomorrow, this would hands-down be my shoe of choice.
Best For: Hikers and fastpackers with no budget limitations seeking the very best trail shoe on the market
Pros: Protection, comfort, fit, grip, traction
Cons: Price and availability
Stability shoes are very similar to the traditional shoes above, but are built on a much more rigid platform. Some of these stability shoes use a plastic shank or a midsole chassis to provide torsional support and structure. These shoes also have a ton of underfoot protection. Although stability shoes can be heavy, they’re my preferred shoe choice when hiking with a heavy pack and/or on highly technical terrain.
5.) La Sportiva Bushido
Drop: 6mm (26mm to 20mm)
Weight: 11 oz
The Bushido has been around for a while now, and it’s a tried and true model for La Sportiva. The Bushido offers just enough cushion for the long miles, and is built on a very stable and supportive platform. The Bushido has been my shoe of choice while hiking with my 35lbs son on my back (total 45lbs+ pack). Why? It offers all of the support and stability I need while carrying that much weight, and I have the utmost confidence that they’ll keep me upright on almost every trail condition. The Bushido has a low volume upper, but the fit works well for me.
Best For: Hikers seeking a stable shoe that hugs the foot and provides great underfoot protection
Pros: Stability, underfoot protection, grip, and traction
Cons: Low volume
6.) Adidas Terrex Swift R2
Weight: 13.6 oz
The Adidas Terrex Swift R2 is the most ‘boot-like’ shoe on this list. I wore and reviewed the original Adidas Terrex Swift R last year, and loved the massive amount of stability and support they provided on the most rugged trails I hike. For the Swift R2, Adidas has added a Continental Rubber outsole for improved traction on wet and smooth surfaces. The underfoot protection, midsole, and upper are mostly unchanged.
The thing to note about the Adidas Terrex Swift R2 is that like a boot, they require a break in period. The upper uses a stiff and highly protective fabric that needs time to feel right. That upper runs hot and doesn’t drain very well. The stiff midsole also needs around 20 miles before they flex with your foot.
Best For: Hikers seeking a trail shoe with boot-like protection and those patient enough to allow for a break in period
Pros: Maximum support, stability, and protection
Cons: Thick upper doesn’t breathe or drain well, long break in time
7.) Salomon X Ultra 3
Weight: 13 oz
If you’re looking for a stability shoe, and don’t know which one you’ll like, start with the Salomon X Ultra 3. The X Ultra 3 has a wide and accommodating fit, that will work for a wide variety of foot shapes. This shoe also has a plastic chassis through the heel to provide excellent support with a heavy pack on, and while hiking technical trail sections. The X Ultra 3 comes with a rugged and aggressive outsole that uses Salomon’s premium wet traction outsole compound. There is a lot to love about this shoe. The only real downside of the X Ultra 3 is that the heel fit is a little wide. This was really noticeable when new, but I’ve found the heel slip to go away as I’ve broken them in.
Best For: Hikers carrying heavier packs and looking for a burly and rugged trail shoe that can handle any and all trails
Pros: Stability, protection, rugged outsole, very durable, high value
Cons: Heel fit
8.) Salomon XA Pro 3D
Weight: 13 oz
Surprise, surprise! Another Salomon shoe! Much like the X Ultra 3, the XA Pro 3D will work for a lot of people. They offer a plastic support chassis and lots of stability elements. The XA Pro 3D and X Ultra 3 are similar shoes, but differ in some key areas. First, the X Ultra 3 has a more rugged outsole. The X Ultra 3 also has a wider and more accommodating fit. Finally, the X Ultra 3 has a flat insole platform, where the XA Pro 3D has a pronounced built-in arch bump.
The old Salomon XA Pro 3D is the shoe I wore on the JMT in 2015 and on Tour du Mont Blanc in 2014. Although I love the wet traction rubber on the outsole of this new version, the shoe is far too narrow for my liking now. If they fit your foot, they’re a great choice.
Best For: Hikers with narrow feet and carrying heavier packs that are looking for a burly and rugged trail shoe
Pros: Plastic 3D chassis support, durable, stable
Cons: Narrow fit, pronounced seams on the upper
9.) La Sportiva Akyra
Drop: 9mm (31mm to 22mm)
Weight: 13.4 oz
The La Sportiva Ultra Raptor was a stalwart on hiking trails for years, but it seems that La Sportiva is phasing it out of their rotation in favor of the new Akyra. The Akyra has all of the underfoot protection of the Ultra Raptor, but with a much more aggressive outsole and a better fitting upper. The Akyra upper is still a tad narrow in the toebox, but much better than the Ultra Raptor. The star of the Akyra is the FriXion Red outsole. The lug pattern and rubber compound provide an unbeatable package for rocky terrain. The only big issue I have with the Akyra is the lacing setup. There aren’t enough eyelets for the lacing in my opinion, so tension customization is limited.
Best For: Hikers looking for a rugged trail shoe with ample midsole cushion and a beefy outsole
Pros: Protective and comfortable midsole, superb outsole
In 2015, I hiked the John Muir Trail in 11 days, which gave me an understanding of what it takes to complete a successful thru hike. If you’re enjoying my shoe recommendations, you should check out my full John Muir Trail guide.
Max Cushion Shoes
Max cushion shoes have really grown in popularity in the past few years, especially for trail running. This popularity surge hasn’t been as pronounced in the hiking and backpacking community, as the soft midsoles and high stack heights on these shoes make for an unstable and possibly dangerous platform. Some hikers with ultra light packs have been able to take advantage of these shoes, but I wouldn’t recommend them for the average hiker. I’ve only tested two max cushion shoes that provide enough stability for me to recommend them, the La Sportiva Akasha and Salomon Sense Pro Max.
10.) La Sportiva Akasha
Drop: 6mm (31mm to 25mm)
Weight: 11.3 oz
The La Sportiva Akasha is an amazing shoe, and it was the shoe I wore most in 2016. Despite the high stack height of the midsole, the Akasha retains a great deal of stability by using a dense midsole compound and adding plastic stability elements in the heel. The upper on the Akasha is overbuilt, but it adds lateral stability and keeps my foot from sliding around. The Akasha uses the same FriXion red outsole compound found on the Akyra, but with a more aggressive tread pattern.
Best For: Hikers and fastpackers looking to add additional cushion for long days on the trail
Pros: Lots of cushion, dynamic outsole
Cons: Sidehill instability
11.) Salomon Sense Pro Max
Drop: 33mm (33mm to 27mm)
Weight: 10.4 oz
The Salomon Sense Pro Max is the other max cushion trail shoe I’ve worn that doesn’t make me feel like my ankles will roll over with a heavy pack on. The midsole uses Salomon’s new Vibe technology which is meant to reduce shock vibration on trail impact. It sounds like a gimmick, and it might be, but these shoes keep my legs feeling fresh on long days. I prefer them for day hikes with a light pack, but some might be able to make them work with a heavier pack on. The upper fit isn’t optimal for my foot (too much volume), but the midsole makes up for it. The outsole on the Sense Pro Max is not ideal for the JMT or PCT, as it’s not a full coverage design. To cut weight and increase flexibility, Salomon chose to have exposed EVA cutouts and use low profile lugs.
Best For: Slower hikers looking for comfort
Pros: Midsole keeps legs fresh
Cons: Outsole is not aggressive or protective enough
Minimal shoes are similar in design to the traditional shoe category, but offer less cushion underfoot in favor of ground feel and proprioception. Minimal shoes allow your feet and legs to do the work of providing support and stability. This is a shoe category I love for hiking and lightweight backpacking, but tend to avoid with a heavier pack on.
12.) Topo Terraventure
Drop: 3mm (21mm to 18mm)
Weight: 10 oz
Topo is a relatively new brand in the world of trail running, and I think their shoes will be a hit. All of their shoe models are built on a platform built to provide a natural fit and allow for natural movement. Altra has the natural foot shaped shoe market on lock down right now, so it’s good to see some competition. The Topo Terraventure is in between the minimal and traditional shoe categories, but I opted for minimal based on personal experience: the rock plate of the Terraventure isn’t as burly as I’d like to see for long thru-hikes. The comfort and fit of the upper is second to none though, and the performance of the midsole and outsole have been amazing. Make sure to check out the Terraventure if you’re looking for a more natural moving shoe.
Best For: Hikers and fastpackers looking for a seamless and comfortable fit that also want ground feel and proprioception
Pros: Great fit, high value at $110, comfort
Cons: Not enough underfoot protection
13.) Scarpa RS Spin
Weight: 9.4 oz
Buy at Scarpa NA
The Scarpa Spin RS is another shoe that could be in the traditional category for some as well. I’m placing it in the minimal category as I tried the original Scarpa Spin last year, and it just wasn’t enough shoe for me. I loved everything else about the Spin though. The Spin RS adds a full coverage outsole with a little more cushion. It has a Vibram Megagrip outsole with a rockplate in the forefoot. This could be a really great shoe for those that like to go light and fast. I should have a pair in for review by April.
Best For: Hikers and fastpackers geared towards speed looking for a bomb proof alpine rocket
14.) Astral TR1 Mesh/Trek
Weight: 9.8 oz
Astral is another new company in the world of trail shoes, and a brand I just discovered at Outdoor Retailer this winter. What caught my eye in regards to the Astral TR1 series of shoes is that they’re worn by record setting speed hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis. Jennifer Pharr Davis set the speed record for the AT back in 2011, and recently wore the TR1 Trek for the 1,275 mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail. I’m going to be testing a pair of the TR1 Mesh this spring, and the spec sheet has me excited. This shoe has a 0-drop, wide toe box, and a midsole top shank. The outsole isn’t the most aggressive, but reviewers seem to praise the traction on a variety of surfaces.
Best For: Hikers looking for a zero drop platform on a shoe with cushion and a great fit
Honorable Mention.) Nike Wildhorse 4
Weight: 10.7 oz
The Nike Wildhorse 3 was one of my favorite shoes of all time, but Nike’s update to the Wildhorse for v4 left me disappointed. That is the reason I’m adding this on as an honorable mention. The highly durable outsole, zoom air heel pad, forefoot rockplate, and Phylon midsole were carryovers from v3, but the changes to the upper for v4 were big. The more I wore the Wildhorse 4, the more I longed for the comfort of the Wildhorse 3. The Wildhorse 4 is still a great hiking shoe, they just didn’t work for me. The fabric around the heel collar was too stiff and rubbed my ankle. I also found the lacing system left a lot to be desired. Your miles may vary though.
Best For: Hikers and fastpackers looking for a trail shoe that fits and rides like a road running shoe with a wide toe box
Pros: Wide toebox, high value at $110, durable outsole
Cons: Comfort of the upper
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