Picking the right trail shoe is probably the most important gear decision you’ll need to make for a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It’s pretty easy to work with things like an ill sized pack, an uncomfortable hat, or a heavy pair of trekking poles. If you get your shoe pick wrong, you could be forced to battle blisters, foot fatigue, and possibly injuries that would force you off of the trail. In this post, I’m going to break down what I look for in an optimal Camino trail shoe based on my experience on the Camino Frances, Camino Portuguese, John Muir Trail, Tour du Mont Blanc, and many other hikes around the world. I will also provide you with my top ten picks that are available in 2019!
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 Camino. Let’s take a look at some facts about the many Camino de Santiago routes before we get started:
- It’s a non-technical trail that consists of asphalt, concrete, dirt roads, and single track. There is no scrambling, off trail hiking, or climbing required.
- Seasons matter. Daily temperature and weather will vary greatly depending on when you walk. It will be warm in the summer months, and wet in the winter months. You should expect rain year round though.
- Most hikers will cover 10-20 miles a day, so a shoe with all-day comfort is very important.
- On longer and hotter days, your feet will swell and your skin will dehydrate. It’s important to remember this when thinking about sizing and fit.
- Many hikers will carry a pack with a base weight of 8-20 lbs. Remember that hiking with a lighter pack will make your trail experience much more comfortable and enjoyable. Pack light!
- It’s often said that 1-pound on your feet is equal to 5-pounds on your back. For this reason and many others, I would suggest going with trail running shoes as opposed to heavy boots.
- Experience matters. Don’t leave home without training in your shoe of choice, logging at least 5 longer hikes in them.
- Nothing trumps training and fitness. It doesn’t matter how much time and money you spend picking up the perfect gear. If you’re not in shape physically and mentally, your odds of completing a pilgrimage walk will go down dramatically.
Given these trail conditions, I personally rule out any option that is a high top boot and/or has Gore-Tex. Why? Boots are too heavy, do not breathe well, and are not necessary for a simple and non-technical walking path like those found on the routes to Santiago. Boots are also more likely to cause blistering and other foot issues. This isn’t just my personal opinion either, it is one shared by many Camino hikers, as well as the vast majority of thru-hikers on trails like the JMT, PCT, CDT, and AT.
So why not shoes with Gore-Tex (GTX)? From my anecdotal experience alongside that of many others, GTX will drench your feet from the inside out. GTX will trap heat into your shoe or boot on hot days, causing you to sweat through your socks. What about in rain? 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 water in. If you’ve ever been in a prolonged downpour 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 most people think it does.
What I Look For
Now that we’ve ruled a few choices out, here are a few criteria I look for when selecting trail shoes.
- 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
- Lower 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 Shape: 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 upwards of 500 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 while wearing a pack
- Drainage: With thunderstorms and rain, I need the shoes to drain and dry quickly
- Availability: It’s important to be able to try on shoes to see what fits your foot best. For this reason I suggest going to stores like REI where you can try shoes on, or ordering online from places with easy return policies like Amazon or Zappos.
Okay, now that I’ve laid out how to pick a Camino trail shoe, here are my top 10 choices!
1.) Salomon Ultra Pro
Drop: 8mm (23mm to 15mm)
Weight: 10.4 oz
The Salomon Sense Ultra Pro has been my ‘Goldilocks’ trail shoe of the year so far. From upper to outsole, everything feels ‘just right’ for my feet. I’ve worn these on hikes and trail runs, and have yet to find anything that I don’t like about them. The Sense Ultra Pro is built on the same platform as the SLAB Sense Ultra (my Camino Portuguese shoe choice), and as much as I liked the SLAB Sense Ultra, the Sense Ultra Pro just has a superior overall fit.
Best For: Hikers and walkers looking for running shoe comfort with trail shoe performance.
Pros: Underfoot protection, smooth ride, incredible grip and traction from the outsole
Cons: None that I can mention
2.) 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 previous years. I think that the Sense Ride and the New Sense Ride 2 would be great choices for the Camino (it’s what Julia wore), but the XA Elevate edges it out. The Salomon XA Elevate provides the comfort and cushion of the Sense Ride, but with a lot more underfoot protection. The XA Elevate has a secure upper, stable midsole, and possible the best outsole on this entire list.
Best For: Hikers seeking lots of protection and stability without an overly stiff platform
Pros: Underfoot protection, smooth ride, incredible grip and traction from the outsole
Cons: Too narrow in the toebox for wider feet
3.) La Sportiva Bushido II
Drop: 6mm (28mm to 22mm)
Weight: 11 oz
The original Bushido has been one of my favorite and most used shoes for the past decade. La Sportiva just released the new Bushido II, which adds a few welcome refinements. The biggest change comes with more cushioning underfoot and a more comfortable upper. The rest of the shoe remains mostly unchanged. 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
4.) 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 too much on the high platform. The Akasha uses the same FriXion red outsole compound found on the LS Akyra and Bushido, but with a more aggressive tread pattern.
Best For: Hikers looking to add additional cushion for long days on the trail
Pros: Lots of cushion, dynamic outsole
Cons: Sidehill instability
5.) Hoka Speedgoat 3
Drop: 4mm (32mm to 28mm)
Weight: 9.80 oz
Buy at REI
I’m a very recent convert to the world of Hoka One One. For those unfamiliar, Hoka exploded on the trail running scene a few years ago with their max cushion shoes. Many friends and bloggers swore by Hokas, and praised the shoe’s ability to prevent foot and leg fatigue on longer outings. I tried a few early models of Hoka trail shoes and found them to be a little too sloppy and mushy for my use. That all changed for me this year when I tried the Speedgoat 2 and Evo Mafate. I use them primarily for trail running, but find them to be stable enough for hiking as well. If you’re suffering from foot fatigue or ailments like metatarsalgia, you’ll love these max cushion shoes. The new Speedgoat 3 has a precise and secure fit with a grippy outsole. The midsole is really soft though, so only go for these if you’re carrying a light pack.
Best For: Hikers looking for a max cushion shoe that still provides a secure fit and amazing traction
Pros: Lots of cushion, Vibram Mega Grip outsole
Cons: Instability for those with heavier packs and a narrow toe box
6.) Hoka Challenger ATR 5
Drop: 6mm (31mm to 26mm)
Weight: 9.7 oz
Buy at REI
You can read my section above for the Speedgoat 3 if you’re wondering why I’ve added max cushion trail shoes to a hiking list. The Challenger ATR 5 will give you a little more of a firm ride when compared to the Speedgoat 3 and much better fit in the toebox. The only downside is that it has more of a running shoe outsole.
Best For: Hikers looking for a max cushion shoe that still provides a secure fit
Pros: Lots of cushion and great fit
Cons: Sidehill instability and minimal grip on wet trails
7.) Altra Lone Peak 4
Drop: 0mm (25mm to 25mm)
Weight: 10.2 oz
The Altra Lone Peak is the king of the JMT, PCT, AT, and just about any other thru-hike you can mention. That title was once held by the Brooks Cascadia, but the Cascadia’s had some fit and durability issues in recent years. The Lone Peaks have gotten better with each version and have spread like wildfire on the trail due to the supreme comfort of their ‘foot shaped’ toe box. The Lone Peak offers adequate underfoot protection with 25mm of cushion and a stone guard. I wish the outsole was a little grippier on slick surfaces, but there aren’t many of those on a Camino walk. If you’re looking for a trail shoe that fits and feels like a slipper, the Lone Peak is for you. Just make sure to give yourself a few months to adjust to the 0-drop before embarking on your pilgrimage.
Best For: Hikers prone to blisters and foot swelling.
Pros: Wide toebox, comfortable fit, affordable, wide availability
Cons: Zero drop platform requires an adjustment period
8.) 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 in 2017, 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 which has 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. If you want a boot like protection with the fit of a trail shoe, this is the pick for you.
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
9.) Arc’teryx Norvan LD
Drop: 9mm (27mm to 18mm)
Weight: 11.1 oz
The Arc’teryx Norvan LD is a ‘long distance’ trail shoe built for all day comfort while still providing top-notch technical performance. The upper on this shoe is simple and effective, the midsole is firm and protective, and the outsole just never seems to fail me. I’ve been wearing the Norvan LD for hiking, backpacking, and trail running over the past few months and only have positive things to say. If you’re looking for a stable and protective ride, but don’t like the firmness of the Adidas Terrex Swift R2, make sure to give this shoe a try.
Best For: Hikers seeking a stable ride with maximum protection and durability
Pros: Maximum support, stability, and protection, and durability
Cons: A little stiff until well broken in
10.) Brooks Cascadia
Drop: 10mm (27mm to 17mm)
Weight: 12 oz
The Cascadia may have lost it’s thru-hike 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 and 13 seem to have moved past that issue. The Cascadia is a bit too narrow for my foot, but my midfoot 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 seeking bombproof protection on a runable platform
Pros: Underfoot protection and really nice comfort
Cons: A little narrow
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