June 29, 2013

Why I Love (and sort of hate) My Gigantor Hiking Boots

One of the gear decisions I continued to debate over well into our Appalachian Trail hike was my choice in hiking footwear. You can find people who hike in just about anything, from thick, high ankled leather boots to trail runners (which wear a lot like sneakers), actual sneakers, sandals, crocs (I'll get to that in another post)... to just plain old barefoot (we only saw one barefoot day hiker out there, but click here for the story of Isis and Jackrabbit, sisters who yo-yo'ed the AT barefoot).

Before I get into the details of my roller-coaster footwear relationship (oh, the drama!), I should introduce you to the boots in question:
Source: Amazon.com

This is the Salomon Women's Quest 4D GTX Hiking Boot. Weighing in at about 2 pounds 9.5 ounces, these boots have GoreTex membranes, rubber toe caps, heel slings, shock-absorbing midsoles, and bracing ankle height. I chose them mainly for that last quality--I wanted to minimize my chances of ankle sprains (I once sprained an ankle stepping down a curb... how does that happen?). I wasn't so psyched about their weight, but REI (where we buy almost all of our gear) has such an open return policy that I figured I could give 'em some test runs before fully committing. The guy at REI put it this way: either you can have big heavy boots that protect your feet but add strain to your legs, or you can have lightweight trail-runners that are easy on your legs but are likely to strain your feet.

The second and biggest 'test run' I put them through was a hike in and out of the Grand Canyon (though the word 'test' seems to take away from how crazy intense that hike was). Via Bright Angel Trail, we headed into the canyon and down the river, then hiked up a ridiculous goat trail of scree to reach the plateau top where we camped two nights before hiking back out the same way (to read more about this trip, click here and here). This was, at the time, well beyond the longest hike I had ever done. The return hike took me something like 13 hours... nearly all of which was uphill. BUT! My feet didn't blister or hurt at all. I was totally sold on these boots. (I should also add that I traded out the insoles that came in these boots for Superfeet (the green kind, which provides extra arch support). At about $40/pair full retail, Superfeet can seem awfully expensive, but they really make an incredible difference.)

Alas... the love affair was cut short shortly into our AT hike. River crossings were common, so much so that it was a huge time suck to peel off shoes and socks before wading across (northbounders would laugh at newbie southbounders who stopped to do this, then plow through the river as though water wouldn't dare slow them down). We actually got extra crossings thanks to heavy rainfall. The GoreTex waterproofing that I had thought would be awesome for the wet east coast summer worked ridiculously well: after stepping into a river, there would be a wonderful moment of dry before [glug, glug] I felt the boots fill with water from the ankle. This was inevitable, but the problem was that once the water got in the waterproofing did such an excellent job that it never seemed to come out again. I could feel water sloshing from heels to toes as I walked, and ultimately would have to stop and take off my boots anyway to dump the water and wring out my socks.

Me crossing a river in Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness
I should mention, though, that even with the constant wet (once wet, neither the boots nor socks would dry out without a sunny zero day) I only got a couple of small blisters. Andy's feet, in the same type of trail runners he's wearing in that Grand Canyon photo, dried much more quickly but suffered much more wear and tear. Even still, I envied him. It would only take a short distance for his steps to squeeze the excess water out of his shoes. Sure his feet got wet when it rained, but I started each day with shoes so sopping wet that even dry socks would become damp as I laced my boots in the morning.

So in conclusion? I still love these boots for our arid Colorado home, but I have a hard time imagining heading into Maine's AT (or anywhere with water submersion) again with them. Trail runners will break down faster, but they're also a fraction of the cost (Andy's were around $70 on sale, whereas my boots were around $180, also on sale). On the other hand, for being on a trail so littered with roots and rocks I never once felt the pain of stubbing my toe thanks to massive rubber reinforcements, whereas Andy's trail runners provided little protection. Of course, our shoes are near the ends of the common hiking footwear spectrum--there are tons of options in between, and one of those is where I would need to fall to balance dry feet and solid support (trail runners just don't offer enough of this for me while carrying long distance gear). And there's really no way to know whether they'll work out aside from a nice solid hike.

A soggy, misty afternoon in Maine
More info?
For REI guides on choosing hiking footwear, click here (hiking boots) and here (trail runners).

And just to throw it out there, I did not use any sock liners (said to prevent blisters), and my socks were Smartwool PhD (I carried two pairs of these for hiking and a pair of Darn Tough socks for camp). Andy did the same for socks, but wore Brooks Cascadia trail runners.

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