I got a question the other day about footwear for backpacking, which reminded me that I haven’t gone on my rant about sneaker reviews yet. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I will probably never wear boots again, since I’ve backpacked over six thousand miles in all seasons with sneakers, but I didn’t say much about which sneakers I wear. Why not?
There are hundreds of reviews online for hundreds of models of trail running sneakers. I’ve used almost a dozen models of trail runners since hiking the Appalachian Trail, so I should have some opinions to throw into the ring. But the problem with writing reviews for sneakers is that the most important aspect of footwear is the fit, and since everyone has wildly different feet, the fit for one shoe will be completely different for you than it is for me. Therefore I can’t recommend any single model of trail runner.
But there are some factors that I find crucial in choosing new sneakers for backpacking. I tend to go with whatever brand I can get on the cheap, because sneakers wear out pretty regularly by 500 miles, and you just can’t fix them. These days, New Balance is my usual choice because I have access to factory outlets, where I can sometimes find a good pair of sneakers for $25 to $50. But my problem with New Balance is that they change models almost as often as I change socks, so I have to find a completely new model of sneaker every time I shop for them. It would be nice to have the same model stick around for a long time, just in case I find the perfect one.
Here’s a list of what I look for in sneakers for backpacking.
1: Light weight!
Of course, one of the main reasons to switch to sneakers is that they are lighter than boots. It just feels better to not lift up three-pound bricks attached to your feet for every step.
I want the upper fabric of my sneaker to be entirely mesh. No leather, no waterproof-breathable fabric (it’s never breathable enough), and no solid synthetic layer. Just mesh. I want sweat to evaporate quickly, and water to drain through the fabric in both directions. Wet feet aren’t that bad once you get used to them, and I find sweaty, hot feet to be much more uncomfortable. Feet that can breathe are happy feet.
Sneakers aren’t any less grippy on rock and trail than boots, which seems to be a common concern when switching to them. What’s more important to me is the cushion and stiffness of the sole. A stiffer sole usually blocks against poking rocks, and good cushion makes your feet less achy at the end of the day. Stiff and cushioned soles aren’t a necessity, though. They can be nice depending on the terrain, though.
It’s impossible to measure this in the store, but if I get a pair of sneakers and they fall apart in less than a hundred miles, I won’t buy another pair. One good indicator in the store is that the more frills and decoration you see on the shoe, the more points for failure. Simple construction tends to be more durable, as far as I’m concerned.
That’s all! Vague enough for you? That’s because, really, the only way to judge what footwear will work best for you is to go to the store and try on as many pairs of sneakers as you can until you get sick of it (or find your Cinderella Slipper).
Just for the record, even though I won’t recommend any specific sneaker for hiking, I’ve had good experiences with Vasque, Montrail, New Balance, and Keen in the past. Other hikers I know are crazy about Mizuno, Brooks, Merrell, Garmont, and Aasics. There are just too many varieties to recommend. Go find your favorite, and enjoy.