Thru-Hikers Should Never Wear Boots on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails
There was silence at the other end of the telephone. I was talking to Warren Doyle, a legendary name on the Appalachian Trail (AT). He has hiked the entire trail 16 times, which puts him at around 35,000 trail miles and counting. In fact, he has spent more miles on the trail than any other human.
It was February, 2005. I was planning to attend his Appalachian Trail Institute class, in which he coaches aspiring thru-hikers on how to make it all the way from one end (Springer Mountain in north Georgia) of the AT to another (Mount Katahdin in northern Maine) in one hiking season. I had just informed him that I had bought a pair of Reichle boots at REI. I would soon learn the reason for this deafening silence.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering his track record, Doyle is an ultra-minimalist. In other words, he tries to get away with carrying as little weight as possible. “The trail is about discomfort, not comfort,” he is fond of saying. In fact, he has been known to go stretches of days in which he survived solely on Little Debbie cakes. As for shoes, he once went to an open house and bought five pairs of used sneakers for $6, and they carried him all 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine.
“You should never, ever wear boots,” he intoned. “They will cause your feet problems and slow you down.” This proved to be prescient advice. Doyle also advised us to buy a pair of shoes at least one size bigger than what we normally would. This was also correct. “Your feet become like kangaroos,” he said. “They stretch beyond imagination.” Fortunately, REI has a generous return policy; I switched out the boots for a pair of mid-cut trail running shoes made by Vasque. They worked wonderfully, as I went through three pairs on the AT (In the famous Pennysylvania rocks, you can expect your shoes to be demolished).
When I got to the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), Doyle’s advice was ringing in my head. However, I was told to wear low-cuts, instead of mid-cuts, on the PCT. This was also good advice. Unfortunately, REI did not carry size 15’s in their inventory. And because I thought at the time that REI was the center of the hiking universe, if they didn’t carry them, nobody did. This proved to be a costly error. I started off in the desert in a pair of Size 14’s, that fit snugly like dress shoes. ‘Maybe they’ll stretch’, I thought. As those of you who have read my PCT narrative, Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, this proved to be a huge blunder. The only thing that stretched was my feet; they felt like a furnace inside the snug shoes. Hot and moist is the perfect combination for blisters, and that’s what happened to me. In Idyllwild, California I was forced to take two weeks off the trail to let my feet heal. Finally, I found a pair of low-cut Vasque Blur, Size 15’s on the Dick’s Sporting Goods website and my shoe problems were solved for the next 2,500 miles.
So along with Warren Doyle’s dictum to never wear boots while thru-hiking, I would add, ‘Make sure your shoes are plenty large. You will be amazed how your feet stretch’.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as ‘The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago’ (2012).