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Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking
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Maia Jordan
(maia) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking on 10/23/2012 16:32:11 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking on 10/23/2012 21:50:24 MDT Print View

I appreciate the reasoning on zero drop or even negative drop for backpacking, but my experience is that a modest heel, 6-9mm, gives me endless pain free miles. When I switch to zero drop I start to get joint pain after a week or so. Not entirely sure why this is because I am not doing heel strikes.

As a former wearer of the Inov-8 295, I would note that the TrailRoc would be be an improvement (whenever model you choose).

Differential goes from + to either ++ or +++ depending on model
Toe splay goes from ++ to +++
weight drops


Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
joint pain / zero drop on 10/23/2012 21:57:43 MDT Print View

Mark -- I concur. When I first started wearing zero drop shoes, I experienced quite a bit of calf pain high in the calf, where the tops of my calves attached to the back of the knee. But the pain radiated into the knee joints (both legs, but more so on my left, which is the foot that pronates more).

It never went away until a summer where I spent the entire summer in zero drop shoes (even for casual use), and regularly hiked in them 5-10 miles a day 3 or so times a week, with lots of multi-day backpacking trips thrown in.

Now, I don't have that pain anymore, and wear zero drop shoes almost continuously.

Unfortunately, now it's winter, and I'm back in my Inov-8 288's, which are a far cry from zero drop, and I have some plantar and metatarsal pain from re-adapting to them. I might have to do some heal shaving on them.

Also: it's worth noting that if you have something that works, then it's going to be hard to argue for change. One "theory" upon which this whole minimalist shoe thing hinges, of course, is the longer term (over the course of many years) benefits to the joint system resulting from wearing this type of footwear, which is supposedly less taxing on the joints (due to the increase in total muscle fiber contributing to propulsion -> better stress distribution). I suppose biomechanically, there should be some merit to it but we just don't have long term data for us weekenders, and whether or not we'll see those benefits.

Finally, the Trailroc would certainly be an improvement. I just wanted to stick with shoes that I had first hand experience with, and I haven't tried the Trailrocs yet.

Edited by ryan on 10/23/2012 22:03:52 MDT.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Conditioning feet on 10/23/2012 22:01:44 MDT Print View

Very good article. I agree that conditioning plays a big role. When I had my feet toughened up I used minimal shoes successfully while hiking long distances with a pack. When my feet were not conditioned I got very beat up doing shorter distances with a light pack.

Edit - One problem with "edging" with light shoes is it can beat up you feet. If you have a snug but minimal shoe the rocks tend to poke through the side. This happens with my La Sportivas. They are great but they are a tad snug next to my small toe. I often get blisters in that area when I spend a lot of time on rocks.

Edited by Cameron on 10/23/2012 22:50:52 MDT.

Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - F

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking on 10/23/2012 22:56:40 MDT Print View

I love my vivobarefoot aquas without the insoles. I definitley think that stiffer shoes are better for most people, but I just can't hike in them.

Doug Hus
(Doug.H) - M

Locale: Ontario. Canada
Merrell Trail Glove on 10/24/2012 06:03:57 MDT Print View

How does the Merrell Trail Glove stack up? The Merrell Trail Glove seems to be the most common shoe in my neck of the woods.

Half of the shoes mentioned in this article I would have to mail order in, which leads to a variety of other (sizing) problems.

All the best,

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking on 10/24/2012 06:10:52 MDT Print View

Nothing in a size 15.

We're out there and need shoes too. Sigh.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re; minimalist footwear for backpacking on 10/24/2012 07:06:44 MDT Print View

Positive heel-toe delta! Never thought of that, but it makes sense. If for no other reason than when my feet hurt at the end of a long day it's always in the metatarsals.

My anecdotal experience has been that as I've moved towards ever more minimalist shoes over the past four years, my ability to hike long and fast in comfort over rough terrain has increased substantially. Based on that, I'm sold. Shoes which last summer felt barely adequate in the cushion department became the preferred norm this summer, for even the most rugged of treks. I can also no longer tolerate any form of arch support.

I do want to see minimalist shoes built much tougher. My X Countrys died from holes where the upper meets the sole under the instep, when the tread still had life. A light, zero drop shoe with a real tread and a full rand would be nice to see.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking on 10/24/2012 07:38:20 MDT Print View

Interesting read. I believe you might be in error about the biomechanics of walking with a backpack vs running, basic premises to this article.
I think you will find that forward leaning is natural to both activities, regardless of the speed. Indeed, the speed of forward movement results in total momentum for both activities being within about 10-20%. And, the same for impact.

*Running at a constant speed of 5mph leans your body forward allowing the body mass to be absorbed and propelled through each stride. This is around the minimum speed I can actually "run" at. (Opposed to jogging, or fast walking, which has some overlap in speed.)
*Backpacking at 3.5mph (assuming a 40lb load) also leans your body forward allowing your body and pack mass to be absorbed and propelled through each stride. (This is about as fast as I ever hike on a level, fairly good trail.)
Running: 160lb times 5mph is about a force of 800.
BPing: 200lb times 3.5mph is about a force of 700.
Not a lot of difference in actual momentum: 12-15%. The body responds to both by balancing the momentum the same way: leaning forward in both cases, and, naturally driving more weight to be carried on the more felxible/muscular balls of the feet.

A similar thing happens with impact under your third premise: Effect of Pack Weight on Impact. I'll leave the numbers as a simple excersize...

These really weaken your conclusion that "the ideal backpacking shoe may not be the same as the ideal barefoot running shoe." But, I agree with this conclusion 100%. Backpacking and running are two distinct activities as they effect footwear.

The reason the appropriate shoewear differs, I suspect, is simply and quite accuratly summed up in your second premise: "Runners run. Backpackers walk." Biometrically, these are different modes of locomotion with different requirements for optimizing footwear, as you succinctly outlined and alluded to through out the rest of the article. Well done!
And thanks!

Ben Crocker
(alexdrewreed) - M

Locale: Kentucky
Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking on 10/24/2012 08:05:06 MDT Print View

Really liked your article, Ryan. Lots of useful information and thoughts.

The one thing I would disagree with is your statement about pack weight making you lean forward less. Because your pack puts your center of gravity towards your back, I believe you have to lean forward more to keep from toppling over backwards.

One of my motivations for lower cushioning is the increased stability of having my foot closer to the ground. Backpacking terrain is typically uneven or unstable. I have had my share of rolled ankles; I have even had dislocations is the past. Ankle stability is increased when there is not a lot of distance between the ground and the distal end of your tib/fib.

Scott S
(sschloss1) - F

Locale: New England
A question on 10/24/2012 08:20:02 MDT Print View

A question for Ryan and everyone:

Are there any published studies that have looked at the biomechanics of minimalist shoes for walking or backpacking? I've never seen any, and until I do, I'm not putting much stock in the opinions or anecdotal results (that's all they are) of Ryan or anyone else. Everyone's feet and walking forms are different, and there is no reason to think that a single type of shoe will work for everyone.

But since we're sharing anecdotes on this thread: I've backpacked about 4000 miles--injury-free--over the last 5 years using cushioned trail runners with a big heel drop and custom orthotics that have a lot of arch support. I have no plans to switch to anything different until I hear from scientists that minimal shoes are really better.

Even in the running world (I run, too), the verdict is still out on the benefits and injury risks of barefoot-style running. I think it's even more premature to say that minimalist shoes are the way to go for backpacking. If you browse through journals of long-distance hikers, you can find lots of cases of long-distance hikers who started in Five Fingers or something similar and switched to traditional trail runners after a time.

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: A question on 10/24/2012 08:32:32 MDT Print View

I haven't seen any biomechanics studies of backpacking in minimalist shoes while backpacking... everything I have seen has been connected to running. There have been a number of studies (I don't have links handy, sorry) which did analysis over medical records comparing foot/joint heath with people who wore shoes and those who either didn't wear shoes or something extremely minimalist. The shoeless folks had significantly less foot and joint problems. Causation or correlation wasn't answered (e.g. maybe people started to wear shoes after they had problems as a way to reduce the symptoms).


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: A question on 10/24/2012 09:00:22 MDT Print View

"Are there any published studies that have looked at the biomechanics of minimalist shoes for walking or backpacking? I've never seen any, and until I do, I'm not putting much stock in the opinions or anecdotal results (that's all they are) of Ryan or anyone else. Everyone's feet and walking forms are different, and there is no reason to think that a single type of shoe will work for everyone."

The military did a LOT of this. Unfortunatly, most in inaccessable without directly asking. All of the web refrences to military stuff have been closed (mostly closed, anyway) for over the web access.

More generally:
This is an area I have done little reading on. My podiatrist had a couple books on gait and stride, running, walking, some others as they relate to posture, knees and foot development. Sometimes I can skim through before an appointment. I know several schools offer cousework on this, too. Mostly, medicin, physical theropy, podiatry, etc. Fortunatly, most of this is very old. Some dates back to the 1800's. You feet have changed little... Keep is there in these settings.
Start here:
Biomechanics of walking
Biomechanics of running
Estimation of Human Lower Extremity ... - Scientia Iranica will get you started, it's free. has a LOT of stuff, quite technical, though.
(usally free, sometimes difficult to access if you are a terrorist)

Jim Cowdery
(james.cowdery) - MLife

Locale: Central Florida
Running vs. Hiking on 10/24/2012 09:32:59 MDT Print View

When you refer to running does it mean running on improved flat surfaces or trail running?

Isn’t there a difference between hiking on an unimproved surface vs. running on an improved surface?

What are your reference points?

Thomas Fisher
kool-aid on 10/24/2012 09:56:16 MDT Print View


You're asking the wrong question. You should be wondering if you really need orthotics and cushioned shoes to hike injury free. These are technologies that are decades old, and largely unproven, even though the footwear industry is well capable of funding studies. Many studies show that they actually increase your chance of injury.

Why not explore the idea that millions of years of evolution created a foot that allows you to hike and run long distances without any protection or support? Or that with minimal protection, you can hike and run even further?

Granted, if you are injury free you risk injury through change. And going "minimal" is hard, and can be painful. But so is recovering from having any part of your body in an orthopedic cast, especially one you have been wearing all your life.

Those who are "drinking kook-aid" are actually those who wear the descendants of Bill Bowerman's invention. Show me studies that prove any of the injury preventive claims made by shoe companies. Prove to me that the foot is inherently inadequate for walking or running long distance. Then maybe I'll stop suggesting that others question the need for modern footwear.

Scott S
(sschloss1) - F

Locale: New England
Re: kool-aid on 10/24/2012 10:12:42 MDT Print View

Thomas, I don't want to get into this discussion again, so take it from someone who's taken many graduate courses in evolution: just because we evolved walking barefoot does not mean that shoes aren't better. That's why I want to see the studies.

Tjaard Breeuwer
(Tjaard) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota, USA
cushioning on 10/24/2012 10:44:10 MDT Print View


You mention the difference in impact between a runner and a backpacker and suggest the backpacker needs more cushioning.

There are two issues with that:
1 Does cushioning actually reduce impact? If I remember correctly, Born to Run cites a study of gymnasts landing, showing HIGHER impacts with more cushioned landings.

2 Some of the situations you describe seem to require more pressure distribution (rock plate) than impact(force) reduction.

The sharp scree field for example. We can safely assume that the hiker will stride more gently on a scree field, so the overall impact force is lower than on smooth trail,the problem is that the pointy rock concentrates the entire force in one small area creating high pressure. The solution to this need not be more cushioning, it can be a very hard plate spreading the force out over a larger area.

Thomas Fisher
Re: Re: kool-aid on 10/24/2012 10:48:14 MDT Print View

Do you mean studies that show your shoes are keeping you injury free? ;)

Joshua Welbaum

Locale: Northwest
Re: Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking on 10/24/2012 11:00:30 MDT Print View

I just took the New Balance shoes around Mount Rainier on the Wonderland Trail and they were great. Where I noticed any shortcomings it was when I was fatigued and coming downhill on to rocky ground.

Charles Potter

Locale: Northern Cal
Minimalist Footware on 10/24/2012 11:10:34 MDT Print View

Thanks for your frank article on this subject. For backpacking, I carry a pair of miminalist shoes purely for water crossings and for in camp. It's nice to have an "ultralight" tennis shoe rather than rely on crocs or oldfashioned tennis shoes. In the back of my mind, a third usage would be as an emergency shoe if something happened to my hiking shoes. I can see dumping the boots for beefier lowcut GTX hiking shoes (which I've done), or maybe even just regular running shoes, but minimalist shoes in the Sierras, I'll pass on the kool-aid. One last thought, I'm in my mid 40s, so maybe there is an age thing going on here with regards to ankle strenght, balance, tendons, etc. Maybe younger folks can handle the minimalist approach better than my age group can. Or, maybe I'm just old and weak in my own special way.