John Muir Trail Gear: Footwear

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:

John Muir TrailWhatever 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


  1. John Ladd
    John Ladd July 10, 2012 at 4:17 am

    Gaiters are good with boots also since the main way good boots get wet is water entry at the top. Gaiters minimize water entry via snow, rain, etc. even a misstep in a stream will be less of a problem with gaiters if you get the foot back onto a rock quickly

  2. Ray
    Ray July 10, 2012 at 6:28 am

    Great point, John! Thanks!

  3. John
    John June 26, 2013 at 5:22 am

    Everyone’s going the trail and running shoe route the the JMT. For our trip this summer, I am surly looking at ultra light options. For example, an ultralight ULA Circuit pack, a very light Koppen 1p tent, super light and compact Suise Mtn Alps 30 degree bag that compresses unbelievably small.

    One light option I just can’t go along with are boots. I have chosen a pair of Sonoma Boot Company 6″ full grain Water-buffalo leather boots. I chose these because of the comfort, I went into the store, Workforce Boots, a local Sonoma County co., to buy some super lightweight Vasques. The shoe guy talked me out of it, explaining the differences in the boots. The minute I tried them on, I was sold. Yeah, they weigh a little more than the nylon boots on the market now, but the support you get from the Shockzone sole, and just overall quality, I believe, makes it worth the extra weight.

  4. Charles Terzian
    Charles Terzian May 15, 2014 at 8:56 am

    Thank you for the great review. We strive on selling our customers the best boots . The Sonoma Boot Co. was founded several years ago because of the boots on the market that did not meet our requirements for great work boots.. We found that the boots we developed for work were so comfortable that our customers would use them for hiking and hunting. A boot for all reasons. Again thank you for the review. Pass this on. We are a small company. We have been in the work boot business for 28 years and got mad at what the big name boot companies were making and decided to market our own boots that would meet our standards. Hence the Sonoma Boot Co was born and is going strong. This will be our 4th year with our own brand and we our pleased with the results. The customers speak for us as shown above. Thank you John
    Charlie President of Sonoma Boot CO.

  5. Eric
    Eric May 1, 2015 at 10:04 am

    The sock idea is great. So far I’ve switched out every day, letting my “yesterday pair” hang on the pack to dry out, but introducing a third pair is smart. You’re totally right: you can screw around with a lot of things except for wet feet.

    One thing I’d add in regards to trailer runners is that while I love them, they have serious limitations in nasty weather. When the weather turns gross (rain+mud, snow+slush+mud, freezing conditions), there’s really nothing better than boots and wool socks. They don’t have to be your dad’s 10lb full grain leather monsters from 1950.

    I love wearing my trail runners in all kinds of conditions, but when it comes to long trips in the fall (or anything in the winter), or anything where there’s a chance of bad conditions, I stick with rather lightweight over-the-ankle waterproof/breathable boots.

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