Hiking & Backpacking, minimalist shoe style

June 12, 2013

ewa0lwOne of my favorite activities is to spend time where there are no roads, lots of sky, little trout and clean mountain water. When I first started backpacking over 25 years ago, I carried a lot of weight, typically 45 lbs for a 2-3 day trip. Then I got into mountain climbing and carried even more, up to 80 lbs. The weight not only took some of the fun out of the adventures but also started to cause undue wear and tear on my body.

Around 2000, I received new inspiration after reading Ray Jardine’s book, Beyond Backpacking. In it he describes how he and his wife backpacked thousands of miles carrying very little weight, sometimes as little as 7 lbs (not including food and water). The book inspired me to change my gear setup and eventually I settled on carrying about 18-22 lbs, for a 2-3 day trip. With all that less weight, I gave up the heavy leather hiking boots in favor for trail running shoes.

Then a few years ago the funny looking Vibram 5-finger shoes came into vogue. I tried them out and while I liked how they felt for everyday walking, I decided they weren’t for me for hiking or backpacking. Even with softer walking methods, the 5-fingers shoes were still too thin for the rocky terrain I was on and my feet hurt. They were however excellent in strengthening my feet.

Growing up I was diagnosed with flat feet and the wisdom of the day was to put my feet in tight-fitting shoes with high ankles. I was also told my a couple different specialists that unless either they cut my Achilles tendons or break both my femurs, my prognosis was to be in a wheelchair by the time I was 30. Fortunately, neither of those surgeries happened nor their prognosis. I think I was 32 when I last summited 12,000 foot Mt. Adams in Washington State and I’m still not in a wheelchair! In fact, I feel great.

The theory behind the 5-fingers and other minimalist shoes is to give feet a more natural environment to move in and they will strengthen and last longer. As a fascia specialist, I know that fascia that doesn’t move tends to get bound up and cause problems down the road, so in 2010, I decided to start running in either the 5-fingers or sometimes fully barefoot. I took some ChiRunning lessons and also practiced exercises the book, which helped me avoid injury. Doing so did strengthen a lot of the little used muscles in my feet and now they feel stronger than ever.

My wife was then raving about the New Balance Minimus line of shoes and I tried them out for hiking. They were great and just what I was looking for—wide toe box, thin sole (but not too thin) and fast drying. My feet got a good workout and I felt more connected to the ground I was walking on. I did some smaller test hikes and then in the fall of 2012, I went on a 28-mile backpack trip to a favorite area in Eastern Washington that I hadn’t been to in over 25 years. After about 9 miles, my feet felt really great, even better than they had ever felt in traditional thick-soled trail running shoes or leather boots. My feet were getting lots of good circulation due to the thin soles. I was really impressed by how good I felt, even my hips and back felt better than previous backpack trips. I attribute this to the more natural gait I was using (because of the way I have to walk in these shoes), which has less pounding on the joints in the body. About 10 miles in, I came upon something I hadn’t planned for: a 2-mile bushwhack. There had been a forest fire many years ago and the trail was basically non-existent. With my map, I knew the general route and it took me about 6 hours to crawl through the tall brush and fallen logs, all with a 25-lbs pack on and these Minimus shoes. It was not the sort of terrain these sort of shoes were designed for, but I made it through and back down the next day without too much trouble. The next day on the hike out, I ended up walking about 8 miles on a very mildly sprained ankle, which I bandaged up and felt fully recovered about 3 days after returning home. It was a lesson learned and I wasn’t too surprised since I had overextended the abilities of the shoes.

The point here, which is the much of the point of Beyond Backpacking, it is very possible to travel the backcountry with less weight. There are limits of the method and I don’t recommend rushing out to do a long trip doing so without testing your gear and personal skill level.

If you do decide to try these types of shoes for hiking or backpacking (there are lot of brands & styles available now), keep in mind of the terrain you’ll be on (don’t do it like I did!). They’re best suited for developed trails and maybe a little mud. They don’t do too well on much snow (your feet will get really cold) or off-trail use. You will be watching your steps more at first as you learn to step around the sharper rocks and roots that you used to step on before with thick-soled footwear. You also need to learn to walk differently and the best tips I have learned are three things: bend your knees more (provided it doesn’t cause pain), shorten your stride and most importantly, land on your whole foot, not the heel first. If you want to read more on the subject of walking or running with more ease, I recommend the books, ChiRunning or ChiWalking by Danny & Katherine Dryer.

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