Thru-Hikers Should Never Wear Boots on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails

Posted by on February 25, 2013 in Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Skywalker--Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, Skywalker--Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail | 1 comment

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).

1 Comment

  1. I tend to disagree… your article has no sound findings. Just the opinion of one person. Ever heard of Hike Your Own Hike.. Now if you wanted to write an article based on a piece of clothing, say cotton vs wool, you could make a statement, never wear cotton on the trail because of cotton non-moisture wicking ability and whereas if wool gets wet, it dries quicker and still insulates the body in cold weather
    But to try and address feet, whereas they come in different size, shape, etc… and to make a statement in your title, alerts me that you have no concept what-so-ever of footwear, trail conditions and various feet types.
    So you drank the dudes cool aid.. I don’t buy it and 40-50% of hikers do not either.. Bear in mind, I am making this statement in regards to the AT… as for the PCT, I agree trail runners are a better choice but to make the unsound statement to never wear boots is just hogwash..

    Also, for someone that claims to be an ultralight hiker and carries 6 pair of shoes in his pack is actually making a false claim.. He may pack light in other areas but this is silly.I find this person uneducated and would debate with him any given day. I am totally surprised you bought into this hype and posted such on the internet w/o doing some research first..
    And yes, always buy an half size bigger when doing long distance hikes (thru-hiking)… you should have learned this if you hiked the AT…

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