Gear Review – Footwear for September 2016 Superior Hiking Trail – Jessica

On my September 2016 hike of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) I knew I wanted waterproof footwear and I knew I wanted a shoe with more support and structure than my favorite go-to trail runners due to the extra weight of my pack. (Starting out, my pack was about 35 pounds with all my food. This is the heaviest pack I’ve carried to date.)

It has been over ten years since I attempted to wear a waterproof boot. My last pair was while working outdoors in Florida. I disliked the stiffness and never could appreciate the waterproof feature since the Florida heat meant I was swimming in my own sweat. I became a convert to lightweight trail runners and never looked back. But as we’ve expanded our shoe selection in our store, I’ve researched and re-examined my shoe choices.

I choose a pair of Salomon X Ultra Mid 2 with Gore-tex®. I could not have picked a better shoe for me or the trail conditions. This boot is sturdy yet lightweight on my feet. It provides extra support without hindering full movement of my ankle. I often feel ankle rolls can be worse in a boot or stiffer shoe. I had two bad ankle rolls in the seven days I was on the trail. I don’t think they were worse than if I had been wearing a low trail runner and I definitely believe I would have rolled my ankles more frequently in trail runners with the extra weight I carried. I know that I did in May wearing trail runners on the SHT and my pack was lighter then.

Before

Before

(I do what you may read several other people do with ankle rolls – I walk them off. I’m careful and slow but I’ve found this is the best method for me. No doctor or professional has ever suggested this and I’m not suggesting it for you.)

I got minimal blisters on my heels the first day of hiking. They popped on their own within 24 hours and the skin

After

After

hardened up. This is the best my feet have handled an extended hiking trip since I was sold my first pair of Salomon XA Pros on the Appalachian trail. While I’ve continued to wear XA Pros hiking, my blisters have gotten worse and worse. My hunch is that my feet have widened some in the past years. I still love XA Pros for running and day hiking, but the added pressure from a backpack causes problems.

And the Gore-tex® kept my feet DRY. I’m not sure if the SHT is notoriously wet or if 2016 was just a notoriously wet year. But regardless, there wasn’t a day on the trail I did not struggle with mud and flooded trail even if it hadn’t rained for days. This was a HUGE problem for me in May and a big reason why I researched new footwear.

Well, my feet stayed mostly dry. The one complaint people often have about Gore-tex® is that it is common to get sweaty feet. This was a problem I alleviated by changing my socks every few hours, tucking the sweaty pair inside out on the back of my pack so they could air out between wearings.

While I love the structure of the Salomon X Ultras, they did not have as much arch support as I am used to. That’s pretty common in boots and I was not surprised. So I grabbed a pair of my SOLE foot beds. I used the SOLE Active Medium foot bed and heated them in the oven per instructions to mold to my feet. I did not feel like there was ANY difference in the boot fit around the rest of my foot after I changed out the original insoles with my SOLEs. If you have a wider heel, you may find SOLE inserts pinch a bit but I haven’t heard any complaints from customers who have purchased them.

One other complaint we hear a lot with any boot is having problems keeping the laces tied. I’ve had this problem in the past, but I didn’t with the X Ultras by using a different method to tie my laces*. I went back to using “bunny ears” and added an extra pass through the “loop” before pulling them tight. This video is the best example I could find: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jgmmrnw4Jh8. Not only do my laces stay tied, but they will come undone easily when I pull on the ends. (Credit to Tom for learning this first and teaching it to me.)

*When searching for a video to share, I found a lot of other examples of foolproof shoe tying. So if you don’t like my example but suffer from laces coming untied, you’ve got options!

The last bit of my footwear was socks. I hiked with two pairs of socks by Darn Tough Vermont. Do I really have to say that? Do I wear any other socks?

Both pairs had the regular amount of cushion. One pair was a synthetic CoolMax® Microcrew pair to help with the Gore-tex® heat and one pair was the usual Merino wool.

CoolMax MicroCrew

CoolMax MicroCrew

I get asked a lot if the CoolMax® is superior to the Merino wool. And I never have a good answer. I don’t believe there is that much difference. Tom feels the CoolMax® dries faster which is part of the reason I chose to bring a pair.

A discontinued color. So I didn't feel bad snagging it from our clearance wall!

A discontinued color. So I didn’t feel bad snagging it from our clearance wall!

I felt like the CoolMax® socks did keep my feet dryer longer, but once they felt wet they felt worse on my feet. The Merino wool felt more comfortable even once I noticed I was sweating. I would not say one sock was much preferable over another during this trip. If it were really hot, I might prefer the CoolMax® . What I wouldn’t do is hike with less than 2 pairs. Being able to rotate socks and air my feet made the biggest difference. If it had been colder, I would have wanted a 3rd pair as “sleep socks”. As it was, I slept barefoot and that also helped my skin.

Overall, I was very pleased with my footwear choices for this hike. One luxury I did miss some nights were camp shoes – some sort of comfortable, lightweight sandal (Crocs are popular) to wear in camp and give my feet a rest. I passed on camp shoes because of the added weight, but I did think of them longingly when I had to shove my feet back into cold boots first thing in the morning!

I’ve continued to wear the X Ultras (with SOLE foot beds) as my shoe of choice on my morning walks and day hikes since this trip. I’m excited for the new 2017 design of the XA Pros, but I think the X Ultras have become my go-to backpacking shoe.