Shoes: What to Consider When Deciding

Whether you’re new to DC UL or you’ve been around a while, there’s no doubt that you’ve been a part of a conversation about shoes at one time or another. ULers love to talk about their shoes. Wide shoes, zero drop shoes, trail running shoes, waterproof shoes, and more shoes. After all, your feet do the most work to get you where you need to go, and it’s important that you stay comfortable and pain-free.

Wake early, walk far, travel light. This is the motto of DC UL, and certainly worth considering when choosing your footwear.

If you aren’t happy with your current shoes, try something different. Ask yourself what is important to you in a backpacking shoe.”

I’ve come to prefer trail running sneakers over boots or other hiking shoes. It’s all what you get used to, but in my experience, a sneaker feels a lot more agile, grippy, and comfortable than a boot or clunky shoe. I’ve also found that trail runners offer plenty of support. This post will mostly discuss trail running shoes and a few things to keep in mind when making a purchase.


If you have an especially wide foot, you may want to consider trying a brand that has wide sizes. Brooks, New Balance, and Oboz have wide sizes, while Topo and Altra are wide by default because they claim a foot-shaped toe box. As you cover greater distances, your foot may swell, and you’ll be grateful for the extra room afforded by a wide fit. You may also consider sizing up by a half-size, considering the beating your feet take when hiking over long distances. Experiment and see what feels best to you. It’s always better to try them on in-person than to order online, especially if you are buying for the first time.

Heel Drop

“Drop” refers to the angle or the difference in height between the heel of the foot and the ball of the foot. Traditionally, many shoes were made with a drop so that the heel of the foot sat higher than the forefoot, or ball of the foot. In the past decade or so, shoes like Vibram, Altra, Topo, and other minimalist shoes have introduced the zero drop, meaning there is no difference between the height of the heel and the height of the forefoot. Zero drop or minimalist shoes are shoes with a barefoot mentality, sometimes offering more support depending on the brand. 


I mentioned trail runners above. Some trail runners are pretty moderate on the texture on their soles, and some are go-big-or-go-home. Trail runners are an excellent choice because the knobbiness, or lugs, on their soles can allow for better grip. (Side note: I have hiked in and loved the Altra King MT shoe. Check out the lugs on these Altra King MTs!)

photo of altra king mt shoe
The Altra King MT is a mighty trail runner with a great, knobby sole and a lightweight upper.


A lot of trail runners and hiking shoes have GORE-TEX  or other waterproofing options. GORE-TEX is a proprietary, waterproof, breathable material that insulates the foot and protects it from getting wet. Waterproof shoes are generally warmer, so they make sense for cold weather, shallow snow, or light rain; however, without waterproof gaiters, water and snow or heavy rain can still enter from the top of the shoe. If your feet sweat excessively, one downside to waterproof shoes is that your feet will still get wet anyway.  

Overall, choosing your shoe comes down to your preference. You may try a shoe now, decide you don’t love it, and go with something else the next time. You may find a shoe you fall in love with and never change. 

What about me?

I hiked and ran for multiple seasons in the Altra Lone Peaks, and loved them. But, I experienced an injury (plantar fasciitis), and felt that a zero drop shoe may have contributed to it. The evidence on this correlation, however, is unclear (Knapik, et al., 2016. Perkins, et al., 2014), and many other people swear by these shoes.  In my opinion, I believe much of injury risk comes down to individual body mechanics. Many people love the Altra Lone Peaks, and in fact, if I were to take an informal poll of members, I wonder if the Lone Peaks might come out in or near the majority as a favorite.

a photo of an altra lone peak shoe
The Altra Lone Peak carried me for many miles on both trails and roads.

Today, my go-to shoe is the Brooks Cascadia. I started running in them oh-so-many years ago before I started backpacking and hiking in them. I’ve tried other types of shoes, but I keep going back to the Brooks Cascadia models. They’re a fun shoe with durability and good design, and they come in a waterproof model as well, the Brooks Cascadia GTX.

photo of brooks cascadia shoes
A previous version of women’s Brooks Cascadia trail running shoe.

I’ve come to prefer waterproof shoes for the winter and most of the shoulder seasons because they just feel cozier.

“After all, your feet do the most work to get you where you need to go, and it’s important that you stay comfortable and pain-free.”

If you aren’t happy with your current shoes, try something different. Ask yourself what is important to you in a backpacking shoe. Ask others what they like or have tried. Look for sales and deals on last year’s models. Then get out there and hike your hike.

What shoes do you love to hike in? What’s important to you when purchasing a backpacking shoe? There are many other brands other than what is mentioned here. What’s your favorite?

We’ll talk about things like socks, gaiters, and inserts in a future post. What would you like to hear about?

This post is the first in a series about feet and footwear accessories. Photos by Carrie P.

One thought on “Shoes: What to Consider When Deciding

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  1. Great stuff! I know my feet were happier when I started using shoes with a wider fit, and I don’t have wide feet. I wish more trail runners came with the gaiter trap that is on the Altras. The gaiter trap works soooo much better than stick-on velcro.


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