“When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the shoe leather has passed into the fiber of your body. I measure your health by the number of shoes and hats and clothes you have worn out.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is often said that each pound (0.45kg) on your feet equates to at least five pounds (2.3kg) on your back. Having hiked many miles in both heavy leather boots as well as lightweight running shoes, I can personally vouch for the veracity of this backpacking truism. That being the case, it can be argued that your choice of footwear ranks right alongside, or perhaps even in front of The Big Three, in terms of importance in your overall lightweight strategy.
Light is Not Always Right
Footwear represents the most individual-centric choice of your entire backpacking kit. Whilst initially it may feel great floating along the trail in a gossamer pair of running shoes, your joy could well be short lived, if you do not meet certain criteria which will enable you to backpack safely and comfortably in lightweight footwear. Factors such as individual foot type, injury history, pack and body weight and the dictates of the terrain in which you will be hiking, all take precedence over how much your footwear actually weighs when it comes to deciding on what footwear is right for you (see Footwear in GEAR section).
The “Big” Picture
The heavier that you and your pack are, the more cushioning and support you will likely require in order to bear the load safely. Put simply, if you’re in shape and carrying a lightweight pack (ie. something under 9kg/20lbs), the wearing of trail runners or running shoes becomes a viable option (barring pre-existing health concerns). If on the other hand you are carrying a heavy load, both in your pack (e.g. more than 20kg) and on your person (e.g. more than 15kg overweight), then the extended use of lightweight footwear can potentially lead to stress/repetition related injuries such as knee and achilles ailments.
Do your research and try on various models before making your purchase. If you are determined to go with lightweight footwear, the onus is on you to strengthen your ankles, improve your balance, shed any excess weight (see Fitness in HEALTH & SAFETY) and lighten your pack load. All of these points especially hold true if you have a history of foot or lower leg problems.
Socks are often deemed to be of secondary importance in the broader scheme of pack weight calculations. As a result, hikers are often surprised by how much of a weight difference there actually is between lightweight synthetic socks and the thicker, wooly models favoured by traditionalists.
For example, I often wear Wrightsocks (cool mesh model) when hiking in three season conditions. These socks weigh approximately 32 grams (size large) per pair. In comparison, a standard pair of crew length wool socks usually weigh somewhere in the vicinity of 100 grams. If you are carrying three pairs of socks (two for hiking; one for sleeping), then we are talking about a cumulative discrepancy of over 200 grams. That’s quite a bit of weight. The equivalent of four snickers bars or a midweight merino wool baselayer.
Unless you are hiking in below freezing winter temperatures, I recommend ankle and/or crew length synthetic or synthetic wool blend socks. In addition to being significantly lighter than traditional/thicker hiking socks, they wick better, dry quicker and take up considerably less volume in your pack.
Sports sandals can weigh as much as trail runners. We’re talking 600 or 700 grams. That’s a lot of weight. The equivalent of 12 to 14 snickers bars (my favourite yard stick) or three standard hiker dinners. Yet many people carry these sandals without giving it a second thought. Why?
1. To wear around camp: As an alternative, I recommend carrying Crocs or lightweight flipflops, which are generally half the weight or less. Personally, I go without any backup footwear.
2. River crossings (see River Crossings in SKILLS): If a crossing is that difficult that it requires footwear, chances are you should leave your hiking shoes on. They will provide you with better traction and protection than any hiking sandals will. If you don’t want to get your feet wet and the crossing is a relatively simple, just walk across in your socks. Once on the other side, change into a new pair. Unless you have a clear view of the river bed, crossing in bare feet is not advisable.
3. In case of emergency: Some people carry hiking sandals in case of blisters, swelling or on the odd chance that their shoes won’t last the duration of the hike. If you begin your walk with such an approach, then chances are you are wearing the wrong footwear from the outset. Well-fitting socks plus shoes that are appropriate for your individual needs as well as the conditions at hand, negate the need for heavy “backup” footwear.