It was 1985. I was clomping down a Colorado trail in my hiking boots. We called them “waffle stompers” for the pattern left by the heavy tread. I was proud of my waffle stompers, and the suffering I endured while wearing them was part and parcel of mountain adventure. We stopped at the side of the trail to rest our weary feet, and I vividly remember watching two climbers coming down the trail with their packs heavily laden with ropes and various implements of vertical fun. My eyes were immediately drawn to their feet. No waffle stompers! Instead they were wearing lightweight running shoes and it seemed they were floating down the trail instead of walking. The rest of the way down the trail, my feet felt as if they were clamped in a hot waffle iron, and I would have given anything for a pair of running shoes. After that I became a committed light shoe hiker.
Fast-forward 20 years. Adventure travel is mainstream. I'm heli-hiking in the Bugaboos. I’m wearing running shoes. Everyone else in the group is wearing new-school hiking boots that are lighter and more comfortable than my old waffle stompers. The marshy area we crossed earlier has my tennies squelching with ice cold water and my toes feeling weirdly numb and tender at the same time.
Then, while walking across a short scree field, the sound of a huge ice avalanche calving from a vertical glacier face in the distance catches our attention and we all stop to stand awestruck by the display of wilderness power. Then I take another step onto a sandy slope without paying attention, slip, and in trying to recover my shoes scoop up handfulls of gritty sand. So now I have wet, sandy socks and I looked with envy at my fellow hikers in their lightweight high-top boots.
Today, outdoor footwear companies make a shoe for every occasion, and I realize there is a place for all of them. Here’s a list of iconic mountain adventures and the footwear I choose for each one:
- Short day hikes in warm weather, like visiting Yosemite’s Vernal Falls: Ventilated running shoes with cotton socks.
- Long day hikes in warm weather like Canyonland’s Joint Trail: Sturdy, ventilated trail running shoes with thin synthetic socks.
- Rugged trail hikes in alpine areas like Peru’s Santa Cruz Trek: Gore-tex approach shoes with wool or synthetic socks.
- Off-trail hiking like CMH Summer Adventures: Light, high-top hiking boots with wool or synthetic socks.
- Early season, off-trail adventures like Rocky Mountain National Park’s Boulder Grand Pass, including snow fields and/or scree: All-leather high-top boot with wool or synthetic socks.
And, no matter what shoes I choose, I leave a pair of flip flops at the car, hut or lodge because my feet are always craving fresh air at the end of the day.
Do you have any footwear epics or opinions you'd like to share?
Photo by Topher Donahue