I’ve been reading your site for quite a while and appreciate your perspective. I’ve simultaneously been on an unsuccessful quest for the perfect backcountry shoes and finally thought to ask you for advice. I work as a backcountry botanist in wet, mountainous areas including Hawaii and the National Parks of Washington state (mostly North Cascades). This means that I spend much of my time both on and off-trail in rough and varied terrain. Generally, I don’t actually climb rock faces. While on trail, I usually also carry a heavy (50 lbs.+) backpack. Obviously, these demands seem to suggest a heavy, leather boot, period. But, over the past five years, those heavy-duty shoes just haven’t worked for me.
The best options I have found are TrekSta Alta GTX for off-trail work and straight up Chaco sandals with a toe strap for warm, clear trail miles (even with a heavy pack). I love the amount of freedom my foot muscles have with Chacos, and I can hike a 10+-mile day happily in them. However, the Chacos leave my toes exposed to sharp vegetation on an un-brushed trail, and they are too cold for temps below 45 degrees.
The Trekstas are fabulously durable (150+ off-trail days, 200+ trail miles and they are still going strong) and reasonably comfortable. But they are heavy, make my feet ache after 10 miles, don’t allow my ankles agency, and put too much of a barrier between my feet and the terrain. They also do not grip steep (35-degree or better) slopes (toe in) or talus chunks (smearing) as well as I would like.
I understand that many of the characteristics that I want are at odds with each other, but I hope I can find something that does a bit better than what I have.
Requirements of my perfect shoes:
• Comfortable on uneven terrain
• Low-cut (I prefer to use my ankle muscles for support and use gaiters)
• Waterproof (It rains all the time and I have to work off-trail anyway)
• Flexible forefoot/outsole (I spring off my toe with each step and will crack a stiff sole)
• Leather upper/durable (Must be able to resist tearing when poked from the side repeatedly with a sharp twig)
My feet have high arches, a normal width heal and a slightly wide toe box. Keen and Ahnu boots are fine, but too stiff and warm, and simply not durable enough for how I use boots. The Salewa Firetail EVO Gore-Tex shoes you reviewed seem like a great choice, but I’m worried they wouldn’t be sufficiently durable. I’ve never had a pair of shoes without a full-leather (or rubber) upper last more than a month or two on the job. The Scarpa Zen Pro shoes also seemed like a good choice to try on, but it’s been hard to find them in women’s sizes.
Thanks for reading through this whole email. I’d love to hear your thoughts on possible shoe options from trail runners to approach shoes.
You certainly present challenging criteria. I’m not sure I know of anything that meets your requirements, but here are a few suggestions:
The Salewa Firetail EVO GTX should be about as durable as any low-cut shoe I’ve used.
Another model that’s a comfortable mid-cut, not heavy, very breathable, and supportive, is the Salewa Alp Flow Mid GTX. Read my review.
I’ve also reviewed a pair of low-cuts with very good stability, support, and durability, one model not waterproof, the other waterproof-breathable: the Arc’teryx Acrux FL and Acrux2 FL GTX, worth a close look for your needs.
There’s now also a Scarpa Zen Pro Mid GTX, a waterproof boot that’s ankle-high, so while not a low-cut, it’s not very high cut. I think it otherwise meets your criteria.
Asolo has two new shoes/boots that may interest you, the low-cut, sticky-soled Magix (in men’s and women’s versions) and the mid-cut, leather, Gore-Tex men’s Triumph Gv and women’s Tacoma Gv. You’ll see in my review that I wore the Triumph on a very wet trek on the Dusky Track in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park; plus, they can be resoled without affecting the fit. The Magix aren’t waterproof, but are built for rugged terrain; read my review.
The Scarpa Tech Ascent meets most of your requirements, I think is lighter than the Treksta boots you used, and is an awesome boot. It is available in women’s sizes. But it’s not a low-cut.
The Oboz Bridger Mid BDry boots are similar and cheaper, and have a lot of support for their weight; but they’re mid-cut, and the Tech Ascent and Tacoma have stickier outsoles.
La Sportiva Hyper Mid GTX is light, waterproof, has good support for the weight, sticky outsoles, and is flexible. I’m sure you’d eventually trash them, but they may last as long as your Trekstas. They have a lot of seams in the uppers, which I find makes a boot more susceptible to wetting through, even when it has a waterproof-breathable membrane, than a boot with a full-leather upper. I don’t think you’ll find any shoes with fabric uppers, or really light shoes like trail runners, that would last very long in the conditions you put them through. The Salewa Firetail EVO GTX might be the closest match to what you want. I think they’d hold up pretty well, but how long they’d last in your unusual circumstances, I can’t predict.
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I hope that’s at least somewhat helpful. I’d love to hear where you end up in your quest for shoes. I’m a big fan of the North Cascades, BTW.
Thanks for the reply. Your suggestions look great and I hadn’t found all of those on my own. I think I’ll try to find a place to try some on and then go with whatever feels most comfortable. I’ll definitely keep you informed as to which of those options I end up with and most importantly, how they perform on and off-trail.
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