When Susan Payne was on a group hike in Acadia National Park this spring, one woman blew out the sole on her hiking boot. A half-hour later, she lost the other sole.

Others on the hike pulled out duct tape and made it all well, as only duct tape can. But the experience gave Payne pause.

“If we hadn’t been able to help her, she would have had a very painful and possibly dangerous descent down the mountain along some very rocky trails,” she said. “I’m wondering what the life expectancy is of hiking boots?”

The bigger question is: Who wears hiking boots anymore?

Not long ago, the most popular footwear found on the trail were above-the-ankle leather boots made in countries such as Germany, Austria or Italy.

But in the past decade or so, “trail runners” – which are little more than a beefed-up sneaker – have surged in popularity.

John Winters, a Maine Huts and Trails supervisor who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail three years ago, prefers trail runners because they’re light and comfortable. He said choosing a hiking shoe comes down to one simple, golden rule – it is a personal choice.

Trail runners have become immensely popular for hikers. They are lighter to wear and less expensive to buy. They also offer more comfort, but do not last as long as traditional leather boots.

“Don’t listen to anything anyone has to say, and get your feet in a pair of shoes or boots that work for you,” Winters said. “The same could be said for life. The minute you try to be someone else, it’s not worth it.”


Craig Dickstein swears by his 5.5-pound, custom-made leather Limmers from Intervale, New Hampshire.

Dickstein, 69, the overseer for the 55-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail near the Kennebec River, thru-hiked the AT in 2005 in his over-the-ankle leather boots because they fit perfectly, being custom made. But Dickson said since 2000 he’s seen far more hikers wearing trail runners.

“The bottom line is everyone does what is comfortable for them,” Dickstein said. “I need ankle support. That is my preference. But trail runners do look comfortable, and in some cases I wish I had a pair. My boots are significantly heavier. But I like the ankle support.”

Nicky Pizzo, the program manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, hiked in above-the-ankle leather boots for years before switching to trail runners. Pizzo, 46, now favors a low-cut, below-the-ankle version from Saloman.

“I’ve used a low-cut for the last 10 years,” Pizzo said. “I recommend those only to people who don’t need ankle support. If someone is new to hiking and carrying a backpack, I recommend ankle support. When you’re going over rocks and trails with a weight on your back, you need more support.”


Eddie O’Leary, 31, is a ridge runner for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy who patrols 30 miles of the AT in Maine. He used to wear leather boots. But when he prepared for his Appalachian Trail thru-hike last year, he tried on no fewer than 30 pair of hiking shoes and boots before he found a pair he loved – a Pearl Izumi trail runner.

O’Leary went through four pairs while thru-hiking the AT, but never wavered from his favorite model. And when Pearl Izumi stopped making the shoe, O’Leary bought five more pairs.

“Feet are probably the most important part of the body when hiking,” O’Leary said. “So it’s the most important gear you can have.”

He recommended trying on shoes at the end of the day, because feet swell, and even going up a size or two.

Amelia Klos, also a ridge runner on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, switched to a trail runner when she set out to thru-hike the AT last year. That didn’t work out so well for her.

Klos had hiked for years in Merrell’s very popular hiking boot: the Moab, which stands for “mother of all boots.” Wearing the trail runners, she ended up with knee problems.

After 100 miles, Klos switched back to the Moab – but went up a size before finding the perfect fit.

“When you measure my foot, it’s a size 9. But I use a women’s 11,” Klos said. “I have a ton of room. But a guy showed me some lacing techniques that allow me to tighten my boots so my foot doesn’t slip forward.”


Trail runners – which cost between $50 and $150 – do not last long. Avid hikers often must replace them.

O’Leary’s Pearl Izumi trail runners lasted about 600 miles before he had to use a new pair.

However, the idea of throwing out a hiking shoe may not be appealing to the casual hiker, when you consider leather boots cost anywhere from $150 to $1,050.

“I’m not the kind of person who would buy something and throw it out,” said Payne, 71, of Cape Elizabeth. “And I don’t hike that much.”

But leather boots also need to be updated, at least the soles.

For his AT thru-hike in 2005, Dickstein said he had to have his boots resoled twice – once before he left and once again 1,000 miles into the trail.

Klos, the trail runner near Gulf Hagus, said 500 miles is a common number she hears when hikers talk of needing new trail runners. And her Merrell low-cut boots are “just destroyed” at 1,000 miles.

In addition, with leather boots, Pizzo recommended checking them when they come out of storage, and not storing them anywhere that is too hot or too cold, to avoid dry rot. Also, be sure to use grease to preserve your boots, the same as you would with your bicycle.

To that end, Pizzo said you should check all your gear before going on any hike. And when you’re putting together your pack – be sure to throw in duct tape, just in case.

Klos carries duct tape on her trekking poles and has used it to save the busted boots of other hikers.

“What we do our first night before a trip is have folks bring out their gear,” said Pizzo, the AMC guide. “And we give them boots to wear at no charge if needed. If their boots are not going to make it, they won’t make it.”


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