Hiking shoes or trail runners?
This is THE debate in the long-distance hiking community, while day hikers hardly ever hear about it.
Traditionally, it was unthinkable to go into the mountains without a good pair of boots. You get the impression that only certain shoes are capable of pulling you up the mountain while protecting your feet.
Leather seems to be a must, as well as a high shaft that covers the ankle and a waterproof membrane to keep your toes dry.
With, of course, a thick lugged sole to grip like a gecko on the rocks.
But this century-old consensus has been overturned by the democratisation of long-distance hiking in the USA. Thousands of hikers set off each year on the very long and wild American trails, led by the AT/PCT/CDT, and they have gradually discarded their big boots for the shoes reserved for extreme runners: trail runners.
Small, light, made of canvas or mesh, these shoes have only one thing in common with hiking boots: an efficient lugged sole.
A radically different philosophy, durability is sacrificed for comfort, protection for lightness and waterproofing for quick drying.
Sacrifices and gains that go hand in hand with an ultra-light mindset.
But which shoe is right for you, and for the HexaTrek?
Hiking boots: the solid tradition
The big advantage of the classic hiking boot is its ability to never let you down.
Solidly built, made of leather, with a high shaft and generous amounts of foam to cover your foot and ankle, the "hiking boot" inspires confidence.
They can go on for miles without tiring, they allow you to throw your foot in the middle of thickets without risk, to attack scree slopes with ease and not to be afraid of getting stuck between two rocks.
Often equipped with waterproof protection, they allow you to cross small rivers, paths invaded by melting snow, snow, and other showers without worry. Pure protection, little Land Rover Defenders with feet.
And in Europe there are a lot of historical manufacturers and models.
But they are heavy, and their waterproofing is double-edged. On a long-distance walk like the HexaTrek, the weight of the equipment is essential, each gram will weigh several kilos after months of walking. And this is especially true of shoes, a mass that you have to lift off the ground a million times with each step to hope to see the finish line. Weight is critical here.
A waterproof shoe for the day is ideal. But after several days in the water, or during a storm where water seeps through the top of the shoe, or during a river crossing that is a little too deep, the shoe will get soaked. And then the waterproof membrane works against you by trapping the water inside, and the waterlogged leather won't help.
It takes several days, sometimes even a week of good weather, to get a dry shoe.
And 7 days of putting on a cold, wet shoe every morning is a big blow to morale...
Trail shoes: fragile comfort
The philosophy is completely reversed here.
Originally designed for runners who like to venture out onto mountain paths, trail runners offer the characteristics that are dear to running: lightness and ventilation.
Basically running shoes with studs. The grip is often identical to hiking boots, but less rigid to allow a better stride.
You lose confidence in the scree at the beginning, but you gain in efficiency when walking and you get used to the incredible agility that they allow. Some offer more or less rigid soles, with protection against rocks (rock plate) to be checked before falling for a model.
The uppers are almost always low, as ankle support is not essential. In fact, some specialists agree that the lower you walk in shoes, the more you naturally strengthen your ankle.
And that's also what the first few weeks of walking are for, to build up your trail legs. Finally, their light materials allow for excellent ventilation.
Of course, the slightest shower or tread in the high grass covered with dew will get your socks wet, but they will dry just as quickly. The advantage is that you almost never wake up with wet shoes to put on in the morning.
Now the main problem is their price and their fragility.
Because they are not designed with durability in mind, but lightness and comfort, they will struggle to go the distance. Most pairs will disintegrate after 1000km, or even before.
For the HexaTrek, that's no less than 3 to 4 pairs you could wear out. And when you know that the prices can go from 100 to 200 euros, it is a consequent budget...
As always, it's a personal choice.
If you have the budget and a light or ultra-light gear, the comfort of trail runners on a long distance is unbeatable, but it is an investment and logistics to have new pairs sent during your trek.
If you prefer peace of mind and don't mind a little extra pain, good old-fashioned boots still do the job. Beware though of heavy rain, waterproof trousers can help slow down the intrusion of water into the shoe, or river crossings which can ruin weeks of walking (not to mention the explosion of blisters from walking with wet feet).
There is no wrong answer, but many passionate opinions!
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