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 2021!
*** It appears that the Covid related shutdowns will keep pilgrims out of Spain until at least Fall/Winter of 2021. Keep this in mind when planning your pilgrimage. That said, it is never too early to start your planning and preparation. ***
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!
The Altra Lone Peak is the king of the JMT, PCT, AT, and just about any other thru-hike you can mention. 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. The outsole has improved greatly with additional traction and durability over the past few years as well. 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
The Salomon Sense Ride is the perfect door-to-trail shoe option for Camino pilgrims. When you first try on the Sense Ride, you’ll notice it feels like a standard road running shoe, which is perfect for the asphalt and concrete of The Way. The Sense Ride adapts nicely on dirt paths and trails with a very competent outsole and stable midsole. If you’re looking for the comfort of a traditional running shoe with off-road ability, the Sense Ride is the shoe for you.
Best For: Hikers and walkers looking for running shoe comfort with trail shoe performance.
Pros: Smooth ride, incredible grip and traction from the outsole
Cons: Underfoot protection on rocky trails and cobblestone is lacking
The Hoka brand has taken off like wildfire over the past decade. What started as a strange super-cushion shoe, has transformed into one of the most popular options for trail, road, and casual wear. When I walked the Camino Portuguese in 2018, Hokas were everywhere, and their growth as a brand is sure to continue. The top model for Camino pilgrims is the Hoka Speedgoat, with a plush midsole, grippy Vibram outsole, and secure upper.
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
The Cascadia was the most popular shoe for thru-hikers a decade ago, but Brooks churned out a few duds with version 10-13. With v14, Brooks made some big changes to the shoe, and now on v15, the Cascadia is back to its best. The Cascadia has the feel of a comfortable road shoe, but with a very stable and well protected ride underfoot. The 8mm drop midsole offers max protection with a rock plate as well. This shoe will give pilgrims many comfortable miles on any surface The Way presents.
Best For: Hikers seeking bombproof protection on a runable platform
Pros: Underfoot protection and all-day nice comfort
Cons: A bit stiff in the midsole
I’ve been a fan of the Saucony Peregrine since its inception and almost chose v2 for my 2012 Camino Frances. The shoe has gone through quite a few changes since then, and is back to its best with v11. The Peregrine 11 has a comfortable and secure upper, stable midsole with a rockplate, and a grippy and aggressive outsole. With a 4mm drop, this shoe is a nice option for those struggling with the 0mm drop of the Lone Peak.
Best For: Hikers a stable, comfortable, and protective shoe
Pros: A shoe built for all-day comfort, great traction
Cons: A bit narrow
6. Hoka Challenger 6
Drop: 5mm (30mm to 25mm)
Weight: 9.6 oz
The Hoka Challenger is the less aggressive cousin to the Hoka Speedgoat. The Challenger has a more forgiving upper, a nice and plush midsole, and a less aggressive outsole. This shoe would be perfect on the Camino Portuguese Central route, where most days are covering cobblestone, concrete, and asphalt.
Best For: Hikers looking for a max cushion shoe with max comfort
Pros: Lots of cushion and comfortable fit
Cons: Sidehill instability and minimal grip on wet trails
7. Altra Olympus 4
Drop: 0mm (33mm to 33mm)
Weight: 12 oz
If you love the wide toebox and 0-drop of the Lone Peak, but want the max cushion of the Hoka Shoes, the Altra Olympus is the pick for you. The Olympus packs a massive 33mm of midsole under your feet, and comes with a Vibram Megagrip outsole. The upper is solid, but not the most secure.
Best For: Hikers seeking max protection and cushion on a zero drop wide fitting platform
Pros: Cushion, comfort, grippy outsole
Cons: Expensive, lacking stability
The original Bushido was one of my favorite and most used shoes for the past decade. La Sportiva released the new Bushido II a few years ago to improve on the original. The biggest change are 4mm of extra cushioning in the forefoot and a more comfortable upper. The rest of the shoe remains mostly unchanged. The Bushido offers just enough cushion for long miles, and is built on a very stable and supportive platform. The Bushido has been my shoe of choice while hiking with my 40lbs son on my back (total 45lbs+ pack) because of the confidence inspiring support and stability.
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
Of all the shoes on this list, the Salomon XA Pro 3D is the one I have the most experience with. This 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 these newer versions, the shoe is still a touch too narrow for my liking, and the over-the-toe lacing needs an update. They ride like a shoe, but offer boot like support and stability. If they fit your foot shape, they’re a great choice for those needing a burly and structured hiker.
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 lacing
The Altra Lone Peak gets a ton of love in hiking circles, but its popularity isn’t without a little dissent. For those that don’t love the Lone Peak, their issues usually stem from the 0-drop platform and/or the uppers lacking stability. The Topo Terraventure offers the wide toebox and anatomical fit of Altras, but with a 5mm drop and a secure feel and midfoot. The Terraventure also comes with a rockplate and grippy Vibram Megagrip outsole. Topo isn’t as well known as some of the other brands on this list, but they make some great shoes that will keep a pilgrim’s feet very happy.
Best For: Hikers seeking a wide toe box without the 0-drop of Altras
Pros: Comfort, price, and fit
Cons: Some hikers have noted durability concerns
One of the most popular hiking shoes over the past few years has been the Salomon X Ultra 3. In 2021, Salomon will be releasing a brand new and fully updated version of the X Ultra for v4. The upper looks to have a more secure and seam free Sensifit wrap. The midsole looks to remain the stable and protective ride of the v3, and the outsole also receives an update. I will post more info on this shoe as it becomes availble, but wanted to put it on the radar of Camino pilgrims.