They say that social security is the “third rail” of politics. (The third rail on a train or subway is the one that transmits electrical power to the motor, so if you touch it—you’re toast). Footwear could very well be the “third rail” of hiking gear discussions. There are folks on the trail who will look with disgust at anyone wearing hiking boots as they float (effortlessly, they tell me!) along in their trail runners. The more traditional among us, at the same time, see only two types of trail runner wearers: those who have seriously sprained their ankles, and those who are about to.
So, let me get my position out right up front: wear what works for you. (There. Is that noncommittal enough?)
That said, I think both camps would agree with the following:
Whatever shoes or boots you decide to wear, make sure they are thoroughly tested for at least a dozen hikes over similar terrain and with similar loads. You must get this right. Footwear is NOT just a matter of comfort on the trail; it’s a matter of safety. A hiker with ruined feet, especially far from civilization and with bad weather moving in, is a hiker in danger. Your feet are as important in the wilderness as tires on a car or wings on an airplane, and your feet are defenseless without well-fitting, durable, boots or shoes.
Treat them well on the trail. True, good hiking footwear is designed to take some abuse, but limit it as much as possible. I always keep my boots in my tent (or in the vestibule). Why? Because there are critters out there who love to chew them. It’s cute when your puppy eats your slippers. It’s not so cute when a marmot, pika or chipmunk destroys a lace or chews a hole in your upper.
Understand that your choice of waterproof or non-waterproof footwear will affect the way you hike. Waterproof footwear does a good job of keeping VERY SHALLOW water and environmental dampness out of the inside of your boots or shoes. On the other hand, once the inside of those same boots or shoes becomes wet it will be far more difficult to get them dry, simply because that same waterproof layer which keeps water out, also keeps water in.
That means you will probably want to remove waterproof shoes or boots PRIOR to crossing a stream that is more than an inch or two deep. (Depending on the previous winter’s snowfall and time of year, you might encounter one such crossing a day, on the John Muir Trail, or one during the entire hike!)
Footwear without waterproofing will dry much more easily, but can also leave you with wet feet even if the only water on the trail is the occasional unavoidable puddle or even vegetation covered with dew.
Snow on the trail can make a difference as well. If the top of the accumulation falls beneath the tops of your waterproof boots, you’re in good shape. If the snow manages to work its way inside your boots from the top, because it’s a foot deep, that’s another situation, entirely.
I’m an ex-infantryman, so I’m a big believer in dry feet. I use waterproof boots and I keep their insides dry. Even if it rains, I put on rain pants. Going through a stream, my boots and socks are well away from the water.
Last, don’t scrimp on the socks. Get quality hiking socks and never—ever—buy cotton.
I’m not much for changing clothes on the trail, but socks are the exception. I always carry three pairs: one to wear, one to strap on the back of my pack, and one to sleep in. Each night I take the clean, dry pair off the back of my pack and put them in my tent. Afterwards, I soak my feet and wash the socks I wore that day. My liberally powdered feet are then slipped into my plush, comfy sleeping socks. The socks I wash that night spend the next day on the outside of my backpack, drying. The next morning I may be wearing the same shirt, the same pants—even the same underwear—but my socks are fresh!
Good hiking, Ray