Ask Me: Seeking Breathable Boots For Carrying a Heavy Backpack
You answer a lot questions from people who want lighter footwear so maybe you won’t mind another. I grew up carrying heavy packs in big, burly boots. Most of my gear was built up over the years with backcountry hunting in mind. I’ve steadily cut the weight of my gear down over the years out of necessity. I have an ultralight pack the first two or three days of a hunt, and then if luck is with us on us, I add 100 pounds of game carried out over as many as three trips. For this reason, my boots have never made the same journey towards lighter that my other gear has. I’ve always worn a burlier waterproof boot that can cushion my feet and give stability for going back and forth with heavy loads over mixed terrain.
Then I had a family and then we moved to Wisconsin.
A decade later I’ve found out that I love backpacking this beautiful state as much if not more than hunting trips out West. Maybe it’s who you are sharing the experience with, or maybe it’s a change in mindset, but reaching camp after cruising through rolling moraines and beautiful farm fields has its own unique charm and its own unique challenges. The vistas are less dramatic but no less beautiful (sadly they are disappearing even faster than their more rugged, high-adventure counterparts). It’s a way of enjoying the outdoors that I’m pleasantly surprised to discover I value.
What I don’t enjoy is the swamp my feet quickly become. Until I draw dreams tags for the Brooks Range, I think I can leave the Hanwags at home with the topo maps and camo and look for lighter boots.
I generally hike with a 40-pound pack for short trips. The pack can hit 50 if my oldest brings a friend or during shoulder seasons when weather conditions are in flux. I’m not interested in getting lighter, as absurd as that sounds. My family values the comforts that weight affords and I value the safety it provides. Plus, I have a lean, mean and light external frame suspension from my hunting days that would make the most-dyed-in-the-wool ultralighter doubt his whole worldview. It levitates anything under 80 pounds. Where I need a little extra love is on the bottoms of my feet. In desperation, I tried to wear New Balance hiking shoes on our most recent trip. After 15 miles, the midsoles just gave up and I had pretty bruised feet the remainder of the trip.
You’ve recommended so many good light shoes and a few of them seem plausible for the use I intend for them. I need:
• A well-designed, polyurethane midsole that can cushion 40 to 50 pounds.
• Durable—they won’t be seeing aggressive terrain, but they will see enough miles to make up for it.
• Lightweight—I finally want in on this! Under two pounds would be nice, but I can’t tell if it’s a pipe dream or not.
• Breathable—Preferably absent a waterproof lining.
Is there an ultralight, breathable shoe with a good, polyurethane midsole for a dad who doesn’t need the ankle support or waterproofing?
The Scarpa Vitamin appears to have the same dual-density sole construction as the Tech Ascent, and even looks to have an identical upper, just cut low. Is this accurate? If this were true it sounds like it could be perfect. I’ve just never bought “approach” shoes before. I suspect that if it was the same sole as the Tech Ascent, it would be sufficient for my average pack weight. How does this sound?
As an aside, you were the reason I decided to make outdoor experiences with my children and wife. Your site took a lot of the guesswork out of the process and your book is responsible for me discovering a dimension of being outdoors I had no idea was there. Your posts about Glacier National Park give me not only fond memories but great ideas for future trips once my kids are older. Thank you so much.
Thanks for writing and especially for such an informed question.
I wonder if you’ve seen some previous Ask Me posts from folks with similar questions, like this one about replacing old, heavy boots, and more recently, this one from someone who’s asking for footwear similar to what it sounds like you’re looking for. I’d probably give you a very similar answer, to be honest.
But I’d also include (as I did in a response to someone writing in the Comments section at the bottom of the story) the new Arc’teryx Alpha FL (non-waterproof) and Acrux2 FL GTX (with Gore-Tex). They both offer a lot of support for a low-cut shoe and look very well constructed (perhaps justifying the high price). The flip side of that support is a bit less forefoot flex than you’ll find in some slightly lighter low-cuts, but maybe that’s what you want in the midsole.
The Oboz Switchback is a non-waterproof with good support for a low-cut; although it’s not really designed for the kind of weight you carry, if your legs, ankles, and feet are strong enough, these shoes might work for you.
You should also consider the Salewa Alp Flow Mid GTX boots, which aren’t low-cut, but are very breathable for a boot with a membrane, and will be more durable than most low-cut shoes.
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You may find the Scarpa Tech Ascent, or any leather boots, too warm in Wisconsin’s hot summers (less so in, say, the northern Rockies of Glacier).
I’m not familiar with the Scarpa Vitamin. The PU midsole is a good sign, but doesn’t guarantee they’ll have good torsional rigidity (stiffness side to side so your feet and ankles don’t roll, especially with a heavy pack). I’d want to try them on and handle them before buying (unless you are buying with a guaranteed return policy). They also have a suede upper, which will make them warmer and less breathable than mesh uppers. I like approach-style shoes and boots (as the Tech Ascent are) because they have sticky soles but are often also supportive and comfortable for hiking with a pack.
My best tip for keeping feet dry when hiking in hot weather—and one of my tips for avoiding blisters—is to take off your shoes and socks at every opportunity to air our your feet.
My experience is that the goals of really light footwear (two lbs. or less) and really durable are not very compatible, and less so if you’re carrying a heavy pack. You’ll simply crush the midsole, which is often just EVA in those light shoes, and you’ll blow out the seams sooner carrying so much weight. Conversely, it is hard to find boots with good support that are also highly breathable, because that category tends to include a waterproof-breathable membrane, and the higher-end boots in that category will have leather uppers, which are more durable and comfortable but can be hotter. If you hike in a place with hot, humid summers, that exacerbates the problem.
Ultimately, your best solution may be finding shoes or lightweight boots that are highly breathable and reasonably durable, understanding that the cost of keeping your feet happy may simply be replacing your footwear more often because you’ll wear them out fast.
You may find my tips for buying the right boots helpful, and my stories:
“Why and When to Spend More on Gear: Part 1, Packs and Tents, and Part 2, Rain Jackets, Boots, and Sleeping Bags”
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun”
“Buying Gear? Read This First”
“5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear”
“Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?”
Good on you for getting your kids outdoors, keep it up. Those times are the best I’ve had with my family.
And keep in touch.
NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.
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