Your shoes are the single most important piece of gear you will buy!  I'm going to let that sink in. Your shoes are the single most important piece of gear you will buy!  It doesn't matter if you do everything else right, the wrong shoes will make for a miserable hiking experience.

I've been plagued with a tragic deformity: bunions. This is an issue with the first joint of the big toe, and it makes shoe shopping a nightmare.  Buying online is a huge gamble.  My toe box needs to be wide, but my foot is not.  Hard material along the bunion won't stretch enough, but a hole will wear through soft material in no time.  Unfortunately, my fear of buying the wrong shoes caused me to turn a blind eye to the issue all together.  Suddenly, I was two weeks out from my start date without solution.  Frantic web searches commenced.  With thousands of options, it was easy to get lost in the sea of Top 10 articles.  There's so much competing information out there and terms like zero drop, air mesh, carbon rubber.  I was left with a bad taste.  Trail runners made me nervous.  I didn't think you could survive over 2000 miles without ankle support.  Leather boots were also definitely out; they would take too long to break in, irritate my bunions, and never dry.

I started to order different shoes online only to end up returning them the next day.  I was under the impression that I needed a men's mid height shoe with a wide toe box. I tried Men's Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mid and Men's UA Verge Mid boots. Ultimately, I ignored other styles because I was convinced I needed to amalgamate these arbitrary features into one super shoe. I wasted a week before realizing men's shoes would definitely not work for me.

Enter Hoka One One.  I found their Women's Tor Tech Mid Waterproof boot and thought it would be the perfect combination of stability, cushion, and room for my nagging bunions. This time, I went to REI to try them on before purchase. I was advised to buy a whole size larger than normal.  This seemed like a lot at first, but after only 2 weeks of hiking they fit perfectly.  Almost everyone's feet swell after continual abuse, but the amount differs greatly. Some hikers were wearing two whole sizes bigger by the end.  This is why I suggest purchasing replacement shoes along the way and not beforehand.  The Tor Techs worked great for the first 300 miles.  I was happy to have them while trudging through snow in the Smoky's. My feet stayed dry longer than my friends in trail runners, but they definitely took longer to dry out once saturated.  The constant dampness caused the inside to wear out, and before long I was wearing two heal sized holes on the inner medial wall of the boot.  Additionally, the ankle support generated a bruise on my right ankle that caused any slight misstep to leave me hobbling down trail in pain.  Otherwise, the structural integrity was intact.

In Damascus, I switched to the Hoka Challenger ATR 3. I finally hopped on the trail runner bandwagon, and I realized there was a reason everyone else was already wearing them. Trail runners dry fast.  The shoe was comfortable, light, and equipped with good tread.  They did take some getting used to because my ankles had been relying on the mid height support of the Tor Techs for so long.  After about 3 days I didn't even notice. Unfortunately, after 3 days my bunion started to wear a hole through the mesh.  By some miracle the Challengers lasted 400 miles and through fear of switching to a less comfortable shoe I bought a second pair.  The second pair were trashed after 300 miles, but I decided they would have to make it until I visited home in Connecticut.  After 500 miles of wear, the soles were destroyed, the tread was literally gone, and there wasn't much keeping my foot separate from the trail beneath it.
Some heal pain from the soft foam of the Challengers encouraged me to switch shoes a second time.  I wanted to see what all the hype was about with the Salomon Speedcross.  These were comfortable enough when I tried them on, but a truly wrong fit out on the trail.  First, they were far too narrow.  The side supports crossed directly over my bunion and allowed little room for the fabric to stretch.  Secondly, the heal is much firmer, higher, and less cushioned than the Hoka.  This allowed the soreness to subside from my heal, but the lack of comfort wasn't worth it.  I did however, hike with three guys who swore by their Speedcrosses.  If the shoe ends up being a proper fit they can easily go for 700 miles before needing to be replaced.

In Vermont, I found myself in another shoe dilemma.  I could either go back to the Challengers and risk needing two more pair to finish the trail ($260).  Or, I could spend $80 on a pair of Altra Lone Peak 3 trail runners. Altra shoes are both popular among thru-hikers and intimidating to try the first time.  They have zero-drop heal technology, which is supposed to allow your body to function as it normally would barefoot.  There is a lot of advice about transitioning gradually to the zero-drop to avoid injury.  I jumped right in there, wearing them for 10 miles the first day and 20 miles consistently after that. I felt like I had found foot freedom! The foot-shaped toe box provided enough space for my bunions without being too wide for the rest of my foot. The tread traversed the White Mountains and I summited Katahdin 500 miles later without any significant rips in the fabric.

If I were to begin this process over again, I would start at a local running store.  They will most likely have a large selection of trail runners to try on and a staff that can help properly measure your foot and make suggestions based on your stride. I would start looking for the right shoe before any other piece of equipment. Try not to let preconceived bias alter the search and choose the option that feel the least like a shoe and the most like a slipper. Lastly, I would put as many miles as possible on them before leaving for the trail. The only way to know if they work for you is to try.

Some other very popular options among thru-hikers were the Brooks Cascadia, New Balance Leadville v3, and Saucony Peregrine. Here's a link to an awesome comparison of all the top brands 

Recent posts

PSA: If you still use a Sawyer Squeeze, you’re doing it wrong!

PSA: If you still use a Sawyer Squeeze, you’re doing it wrong! I may ruffle some feathers with this post, but I’m going to keep it short and to the point. ...

Read more

Reasons to Ditch Your Spork Before Your Next Backpacking Trip

Reasons to ditch your spork before your next backpacking trip: Sporks as we know them have actually been around for centuries. They were used for eating terrapin and ice cream i...

Read more

Never Leave Behind the Z-Seat

Never Leave Behind the Z-Seat First thing’s first, what’s a Z-seat? A Z-seat is a piece of accordion-style, closed-cell foam manufactured by Therm-a-Rest. ...

Read more