Is Minimalist Footwear Good for Long Distance Hiking?

The long distance hiker’s path to consistently lightweight, comfortable, durable, and supportive footwear has spanned decades.  It wasn’t long ago that the most nuanced advice on footwear was about how to best break in a pair of boots.  These days, boots are rarely seen on the hooves of long distance trail travelers.  Much more common are trail runners, which join the lightweight breathability of a sneaker with the ruggedness of a boot sole to create a shoe that dominates the market for thru-hikers.  And so far, evidence from Distancehiking’s 2013 long distance hiker survey (results from the AT are still coming in) supports this claim:

145 thru hikers from 2013 describe their primary footwear

Combining the results from low cuts and mid, trail runners were worn by 72% (105 of 145) of thru-hikers who responded to the survey.  Boots were worn by 19 of 145 thru hikers for a 13% piece of the stinky hiker pie.  Missing from the feet of long distance hikers?  Minimalist footwear.

Minimalist footwear has garnered quite a bit of attention these days.  And the buzz isn’t just from runners, but also from the hiking community, which has been discussing the merits and drawbacks on miminalist footwear all over the internet, from big commercial publications like Backpacker Magazine to online hiker forums. Check out this post at Backpackinglight.

Though the internet is full of discussion and interesting testimonials on minimalist footwear for long distance hiking, it’s hard to argue with the numbers.  Minimalist footwear just doesn’t seem to be taking hold.

Why would this be?  Due to lack of non-testimonial evidence, it’s hard to say, but in reading a few online discussions it would seem that hiker feet in minimalist shoes are getting beat up on sharp rocks and are quite tired.  On the other hand, there are also hikers who swear that minimalist footwear is the Best Thing Ever.

Perhaps it’s a matter of which kind of minimalist footwear is worn?  Are hikers less satisfied with the “5-finger” type of shoe and perfectly happy with a sneaker without a heel?

As the industry advances from minimalist footwear as a novel concept to minimalist footwear as a potentially serious moneymaker, we’ll start to see debates about the definition of “minimalist” and which shoes stick to the standard and which shoes don’t.  Can a shoe that looks and acts like a traditional trail runner, but with a lower heel, be considered minimalist or are there more specific standards?

Or perhaps minimalist shoes for long distance hiking will simply go the way of the Power Bar and leave thru hikers with nothing but dissatisfaction and a bad taste in the mouth.  Only time will tell.  Until we know for sure, long distance hikers will continue to vote with their feet.

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