Recommended footwear for high routes, Alaska, and early-season conditions

What is the optimal backpacking footwear for high routes, Alaska, and early-season conditions? Each year I field this question from dozens of clients, so here I’d like to provide a list of proven winners (and a few losers). These recommendations are relevant to anyone planning a trip to similar locations or in similar conditions, whether it be private or guided.

Footwear is extremely personal, and what works for me or for another backpacker will not necessarily work for you. My recommendation is to try on a half-dozen pairs at a well stocked local retailer, or order multiple pairs from an online retailer and keep only the pair that fits and feels best.

Expected conditions

High routes, Alaska, and early-season conditions place very similar demands on footwear. Key requirements include:

  • Durable materials and construction, to withstand extensive abrasion from rocks and brush, plus perhaps constant wetness;
  • Aggressive and sticky outsole, for good purchase on rock and vegetation, sometimes slick and often uneven;
  • Semi-stiff underfoot carriage, for easier edging on steep slopes and sidehills, and for efficient kicking of steps in spring snow;
  • Breathable/non-waterproof upper, so that they expel water quickly after creek crossings, dry out relatively quickly, and prevent the foot from overheating; and,
  • Stability on uneven ground, by having a low-to-moderate stack height to lower the foot’s center of gravity.
Gathering client feedback about their footwear choices while waiting for our bush plane at Circle Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska. Photo: Dave Eitemiller.

Recommended footwear

In order of approximate last width, from narrowest to widest:

La Sportiva Bushido II ($130, 10.5 oz) is my personal longtime favorite — it checks all the necessary boxes and has little room for improvement. However, it has a very narrow last — the narrowest in La Sportiva’s entire line, in fact — so it’ll be confining for those with average and wide feet. My full review.

After 315 demanding miles, the Bushido II still had some life left. The uppers were mostly intact, and the outsoles had some rubber left.

Salomon X Alpine Pro ($160, 10.9 oz) is my second pick. Versus the Bushido, it’s more cushioned, less stiff, and a bit roomier. For me, it excels on adventure runs and trail hikes, less so for technical off-trail backpacking trips. But for many others, it will be more comfortable than the Bushido. The Quick Laces may fray in gritty environments. My full review.

The Salomon X Alpine Pro is the most agile Salomon option. It’s marginally wider, more cushioned, and less stiff than the Bushido.

Salomon X-Ultra 3 ($120, 13 oz) is the top pick of Dave Eitemiller, one of our guides who has used them in Alaska and on high routes in the Winds, Yosemite, and Colorado Rockies. For him, the Bushido are simply too narrow. The X-Ultra 3 has an aggressive and hard-wearing outsole, and a durable upper with a bit more padding than the aforementioned models. Like the X Alpine Pro, they feature Quick Laces.

The Salomon X Ultra 3 has an excellent outsole. This pair was used for the Wind River High Route and a hard 7-day trip in the Brooks Range, and still had life left.

La Sportiva Ultra Raptor ($130, 12 oz) fit and perform similarly to the X-Ultras. The upper feels almost boot-like, with a lot of structure and protection that can be can be unforgiving on feet if the fit is not quite right. The outsole is very sticky, but the smaller lugs wear quickly and are not as well suited for mud and vegetation.

The Ultra Raptor are very durable and protective, but may be unforgiving on feet.

Salomon XA Pro 3D ($130, 13 oz) has one serious flaw: its insoles absorb water, and when wet they fold underfoot like an accordion. But this can be overcome, and otherwise they’re a good choice: they’re made well, and have good edging and traction. The fit is perhaps marginally wider than the Ultra Raptor and X-Ultra.

So long as you replace the insole of the XA Pro 3D, they’re a fine selection.

La Sportiva Mutant ($135, 10.7 oz) are the least rigid of this group, and among the widest. The laces should be swapped out immediately (at least for the 2019 production pairs), but otherwise the durability is very good. The burrito-style lacing system was universally applauded — it creates a sock-like fit.

The Mutant fit wide and are less rigid than other models, but they hold up well, have a sticky outsole, and fit like a glove.

La Sportiva Akyra ($140, 11.3 oz) is perhaps the burliest model on this page, with a very durable upper, very aggressive outsole, and very stiff carriage. It’s best suited for technical hiking and scrambling in drier environments — its dry time is exorbitantly slow. Fit is medium/wide. For more details, read this review from u/LowellOlson.

Justin Simoni in the Akyra on Copper Mine Peak, one of the highest points on the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, looking across the Sierra towards Mt Whitney.

Prospects

The shoes below look and sound promising, based on paper specs and reader feedback (see the comments at the bottom of this page, and read this r/UL thread). But I’ll reserve judgement until using or seeing them in the field first-hand.

  • Altra King Mountain
  • Inov-8 Trailroc and Roclite
  • La Sportiva Akasha
  • Scarpa Neutron

Lowa Innox Pro Lo ($175, 12.5 oz) is the most scaled-down version of the Innox, which is also available as a waterproof low-cut, mid-cut, and waterproof mid-cut. I recently received a pair, specifically to test them out for this application, but have no feedback yet.

Trail shoes that don’t make the cut

Conventional on-trail itineraries put both different and fewer demands on footwear. For example, more midsole cushioning and a wider toebox gives more all-day comfort, and the materials and construction need not be as bomber.

Altra Lone Peak 4.5 ($125, 10.5 oz) is the unofficial footwear of thru-hikers, who appreciate its extra wide toebox and generously cushioned 25mm stack height when putting in long days on well maintained trails. But the Lone Peak falters off-trail — the toebox is too wide for precise lateral control, and the midsole is too soft for holding edges. The Lone Peak 4.0 and 4.5 are more durable than their predecessors, but still lacking for these conditions.

For off-trail terrain, the Lone Peak are too soft and too wide, and they still don’t have adequate durability. After one week in the Brooks Range.

La Sportiva Wildcat ($110, 12.4 oz) is the all-mesh sibling of the Ultra Raptor, with which it shares the same last and outsole. It’s a fine trail shoe and the pinch-free upper is more comfortable than that of the Ultra Raptor, but it’s abrasion-resistance is sub-par.

The Wildcat, thrashed after just a week in Alaska

Brooks Cascadia 14 ($130, 10.7 oz) and Saucony Peregrine 10 ($120, 10.7 oz) are both time-tested trail running and backpacking shoes, but they’re less suitable for than other referenced models, lacking the durability and low-to-the-ground design. If you can’t find or test another model you like, stick with these, but don’t expect to wear them for another trip afterwards.

Leave a comment!

  • What shoes have (not) worked for you for high routes, Alaska, and early-season conditions?
  • What models are you curious about that are not on this list? I’ll try to speculate, or perhaps another reader can chime in.

Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content

This website is supported by affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors like Amazon or REI, at no cost to the reader.

33 Comments

  1. Wes Witt on March 26, 2020 at 9:27 am

    As a climber it is hard for me to imagine kicking steps with any of those shoes. When you say “efficient kicking of steps in spring snow”, your expected snow conditions must always be very soft snow.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 26, 2020 at 9:41 am

      This is not mountaineering. Spring snow in the Rockies and High Sierra is usually plenty soft by 8 or 9 AM, depending on slope aspect. If you want to get on steep snow earlier than that, then bring some traction.

  2. Ben on March 26, 2020 at 10:11 am

    The Akasha’s are excellent. They’re the most cushioned LS shoe I’ve used and feel relatively plush (not Salomon plush, but LS plush), and are still stiff underfoot with a solid toecap and durable materials. Only durability concern I have had is roughing up the fabric right behind the little toe (my foot bulges there and i tend to scrape that up a lot). Still only about half worn through in that spot after about 300 miles of rough trail/14er scrambling though. Everything else is dirty and beaten up but otherwise unharmed. Tread down to about 1/3 thickness in the most worn areas. Still sticky.

  3. Tyler on March 26, 2020 at 10:32 am

    I’ve been training for Alaska in a pair of Altra King MT 2 and I’ve been impressed so far. I’ve used both the 1 and 1.5 iterations in the past and thought those were pretty mediocre. This latest design has been great: sticky outsole, durable upper, excellent drainage, low stack. I run primarily in Altra Superiors and the King MT 2 feels like a more rigid, secure, and less squishy version of the Superior. The fit is very similar between the two, which means it fits differently than the Lone Peak.

    I can’t seem to find a pair of La Sportiva or Salomon that fit my feet, which has been frustrating.

    • Ben on March 26, 2020 at 11:29 am

      Scarpa and LS often fit different kinds of feet. Could also try Dynafit. In my experience Salomon has lots of different fits, but I dunno. The new Speedcross 5’s are magic (not the most optimal for scrambling, but they still work, and they are definitely optimal for off trail mixed mud/rock/undergrowth).

  4. Edwin Supple on March 26, 2020 at 10:58 am

    I’ve had a pair each of Altra King Mountain 1 and 1.5s. The grip was very good on both. The toebox is roomy but I was still happy enough doing light scrambling in them. I did find them to wear out extremely quickly. Both pairs developed holes in the front of the shoe near the upper/lower seam that let rocks, dirt, twigs, etc. in within maybe 250 miles of mostly on-trail travel. I switched back to Cascadias for my latest pair of shoes for more durability of the upper. I would not recommend the King Mountains for off-trail use just due to the lack of durability.

  5. Aria Mildice on March 26, 2020 at 11:40 am

    I have a bit of a love hate relationship with the King Mt 2. I’ve worn them for maybe 400+ miles and they are definitely falling apart at this point. In terms of fit, they are narrower and lower volume than the Lone Peak, but I did need to go a full size up on length (which is typical for me in any Altras). For comfort, they have a low stack height, and fairly little cushioning compared to other shoes I’ve worn off trail (Peregrine 6, 7, 8, ISO, Lone Peak 3.5, Salomon Sense Pro 3, etc). I didnt find this to be an issue, and the nearly full length rock plate adds some extra protection. I really like the velcro strap, and feel like it comfortably locks your foot in, and helps with the usual high-volume feel with Altras. I can’t really speak to how fast they dry…I hike in the desert and don’t think I’ve even hiked with these in the rain or snow…I would assume they dry fast based on the venting and low profile mesh, tongue, and padding.

    My main issue was durability. Granted 400 miles is more than I expected, but the Vibram Litebase Megagrip soles have been the biggest failure. Holes in the flat areas between lugs in the sole go down all the way through the rubber to the rock plate/midsole under both the heel and big toe. This means that the plastic rock plate will stick out of the rubber, tearing itself further on each step. The upper has been surprisingly durable, the mesh is lightweight and only has holes in high wear areas like next to the pinky toe. I did cover all the seams with aqua seal before using these, and that helped a bunch with durability! The only seams which are starting to come apart are on the toe box/guard.

    These have primarily been worn for off trails trips in very rocky, steep, a d sharply vegetated terrain in the Grand Canyon and Guadalupe Mountains, including lots of caving, canyoneering, backpacking, day hiking, and a thru hike of the Guadalupe Ridge Trail.

  6. Mark W. on March 26, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    Have you ever tried Topo Athletic Shoes (Ultraventure, Terraventure)?

    • Andrew Skurka on March 26, 2020 at 12:08 pm

      I have not, and I don’t think I’ve seen any of my clients with them either.

      • Mark W. on March 31, 2020 at 2:26 am

        Topos are also having quite a wide toe box and a low heel, but they seem to be stiffer and sturdier built than the Altras, and may thus offer more control (in the steep) and wear resistance. Founded only in 2013, they’re not very well known yet. I’d like to test them.

    • Cathy James on March 27, 2020 at 4:47 pm

      Would you use the same criteria for shoes for hinge-season trips in the New Hampshire White Mountains? Or are western high routes so much more demanding that you would be comfortable with one of the “thru-hiker shoes” instead?

      I like the fit and feel of the Keen trail shoes I bought from REI, but they have not held up in durability even on typical trails in northern New England.

      (I’m wondering if a high route is even possible to define in the East…)

      • Andrew Skurka on March 27, 2020 at 5:01 pm

        What’s “hinge-season”?

        The northeast is definitely tough on shoes — lots of rocks, roots, mud, water. So all of these shoes would work pretty well for that area.

        But typically you’re following trails, and some of these shoes can be a little thin for extensive trail hiking (especially rocky trails). So maybe look at some of the more cushioned suggestions.

        • Cathy on March 28, 2020 at 10:41 am

          “Hinge-season” is a term I picked up from Chip Rawlins in Complete Walker 4. It refers to the time that things are shifting from late-winter to early-spring, or from late-fall to early-winter. It’s the time when you are on the edge of “3-season” backpacking, but not in full winter conditions.

          I definitely prefer more cushioned shoes, as well as thick socks. And I agree that northeastern mountain hiking is hard on shoes, even on the trails.

  7. Giulia on March 26, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    Does anyone have info/experience with TopoAthletic shoes? On paper it seems like the Terraventure 2 would be the most suited for backpacking but I’d be curious about other models as well..
    Thanks Andrew for the great list!

    • Chris on March 27, 2020 at 8:03 am

      Due to bunions I have to have the Altra style wide toe box; and coming from a mountaineering/climbing background I prefer to use trails only as transport to more interesting terrain. Also, low effort/high miles really hurts my feet.

      In other words, I just deal with all the shortcomings of the Altra, such as wobbly, imprecise, overly soft, poor thread and durability. And it’s not that bad. Trailrunners are trailrunners. Once decided on that type of footwear it’s all the same, more or less. Experience and familiarity on rock and ice makes up for a lot of gear compromises too.

  8. BradR on March 26, 2020 at 2:32 pm

    I used the Solomon XA Pro 3D’s for a decade until they updated the tongue a few years ago and it annoyed me enough to try other shoes. I settled on the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor and they fit like a glove. My only complaint is the outsole wears VERY fast on granite, and they feel less stable than the Solomons (though I think the stack height is the same which is odd). I’ve tried the Bushido’s but they just didn’t fit my feet right – they seem to be narrow overall but wider in the heel than the Ultra Raptors as my heels get blisters in the Bushido’s and not the Raptors. I have a very narrow heel and the Raptors work well with that.

    That’s a nice list of shoes overall. I’ve used the Solomons in Brooks Range (wet feet for 11 days) and off trail in the Sierra, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wind River, and the Ultra Raptors on the Wind River High Route, in Wrangell St. Elias, and a section of the Sierra High Route. I’m planning on wearing them on the Southern Sierra High Route in August if we’re able to travel by then.

  9. Matt Shafter on March 26, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    Andy,

    Another vote for the Topo Mtn Racer. It will eat up hard side hilling and the vibram grip is very good. I think it’s a good option for for people that need the toebox width but also has a strong upper.

  10. Brady on March 26, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    As far as prospects for inov-8, I’l lean towards the Roclite over the Trailroc. I like running in the Trailroc but the lugs are quite small and I feel you’d have some issues with mesh durability upfront. Super comfortable, just not a lot of protection with the mesh. Roclite is a little more structured with an outsole more capable for off trail mud and vegetation.

  11. Brady on March 26, 2020 at 5:09 pm

    Love my Lone Peaks, but 100% agree that they’re not off-trail material (as much as I’d like them to be). I’m excited to see what you think of the Lowa’s, as they look pretty much like an ideal shoe for me but I haven’t quite had enough reason to buy them yet.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 26, 2020 at 5:11 pm

      If you love the LP’s I don’t think you’ll like the Lowas, which fit me (like Mr. Bushido me) well in the toebox and perhaps a little loosely around the midfoot and heel.

      • Brady on March 28, 2020 at 2:29 pm

        Interesting. The LP’s are my go-to for long non-technical trail days when my feet have a tendency to swell up, but my favorite trail running shoes of all time are the Salomon Sense Pro line because I like the precision of the fit. That’s a quality I feel like I need in anything I’m taking off trail (too much sliding around in Altras), so the Lowas may still end up with a place in my closet. I think I might be in a bit of a minority who loves the ultra-wide and ultra-narrow, just at different times.

  12. E on March 27, 2020 at 4:50 am

    Great list!

    I love the bushido’s, I have a semi wide foot, but i relace the shoes and skip the first and sometimes second rung of the shoe (works for me), and for how narrow it is, my feet seem fine. Though, I have not used these for long distance hiking (i usually use sandals on trails, or wider toe box) so I have not experienced my feet swelling and I probably wont use them if they do swell to a size bigger.
    But off trail, they are my go to shoe!

  13. Dave C on March 27, 2020 at 12:09 pm

    Like other the King MTs (1.5) worked well until the uppers developed sudden, near catastrophic rips. Never had tears large enough to sew up shoes in the field with anything else.

    Using an older Adidas at the moment (closest current thing seems to be the Agravic XT) and so far so good. All conditions traction on par with Bushido, good dry time and durability. A hair wider overall but still fairly skinny.

  14. Neil Lacey on March 27, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    Used the Lone Peak 4 mid-mesh on my PCT hike last year, they fit my wide feet, zero blisters. Got about 500 miles per pair … but the rocks/lava hurt. Salomon, La Sportiva just don’t fit my wide forefoot, which gets wider with the miles. Still searching for alternatives

    • Neil Lacey on March 28, 2020 at 3:00 pm

      BTW I also have a very narrow heel (triangle feet) and can get a lot of friction on steep uphills, the mid helped lock down the heel.
      I wonder why we don’t see a wide forefoot option from other brands, not enough market share?

  15. Lowell Olson on March 27, 2020 at 6:16 pm

    I updated my post with more info. Hopefully it is useful to others.

    La Sportiva is coming out with the TX Guide. Almost by default this should be added to your list. The only question will be sizing and if it follows La Sportiva’s general narrow fit.

  16. Katherine on March 27, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    The Bushidos didn’t fit me well (I checked the size on my order history and I had sized-up plenty) and I’ve never liked the feel of Salomon’s lace-up system. But all of these suggestions are either La Sportiva or Salomon, so I’m not sure what to try. In general Brooks fits me well.

    • Lowell Olson on March 27, 2020 at 7:01 pm

      The Bushido’s are really, really narrow. They’re known as being representative of narrow shoes.

      The Akyra, Wildcat, and XA Pro 3d will fit a foot with more volume. Guaranteed.

      Innov-8 fits a more voluminous foot as well. Depends how far down the rabbit hole of ordering, returning, and fine tuning you want to go.

      • Katherine Kane on March 27, 2020 at 7:07 pm

        Thanks Lowell. fyi, I have narrow, low volume feet…it’s the bony back of of my heel that gets me. Anything that curves in too much at the too of the heel rubs wrong.

  17. Dieter H. on March 28, 2020 at 10:49 am

    No experience in North America, but for off-trail backpacking in northern Scandinavia, Scotland and the Pyrenees I’ve used:

    – Adidas Terrex Swift R2: Very burly but stiff uppers and stiff chassis, wide fit throughout, excellent grip on wet and soft ground (mud, moss, grass, tundra), durable outsoles, dense outer fabric keeps out most mud and debris, slow to dry, slightly harsh cushioning under heels, high stack, wide fit around heel can cause slippage, quicklace system less durable than Salomon’s.

    – Salomon Outpath: Wide fit around forefoot, narrow fit around heel, durable and dense upper fabric keeps out mud and debris, stiff and sharp edge on outsoles improves edging in snow, seems to dry faster than Terrex Swift, low volume fit around midfoot not great for high arches, Ortholite insoles absorb a lot of water, good all-round grip pattern but better on rock than on soft soil.

    – Salomon XA Pro 3D: Wide fit around forefoot, narrow around heel, open mesh lets in lots of debris and wind, lots of vulnerable stitching around forefoot, shallow lug pattern provides poor grip on soft or loose soil, better for on-trail hiking.

  18. Michael on March 28, 2020 at 7:54 pm

    I have liked the Inov-8 Roclite 315 (except the first pair before they redesigned didn’t hold up). Had 2 more pairs after that (and still have one of those). They no longer make the 315 (at least not non-WP) so I now use the 295. I bought enough of those to hopefully last my lifetime. I wear them everyday as well (all black works well enough for business casual)!

  19. Jesse on March 29, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    Topo Athletic is definitely worth looking into. I’d recommend the Ultraventure. The Terraventure 2 is worth looking into also. As someone with wider feet, none of the suggested/ recommendations work for me. Salomon & La Sportiva shoes are uncomfortable for my foot profile.

  20. Amber on April 6, 2020 at 6:56 pm

    Slightly off topic, but a word of warning: I do most of my hiking around the Ozarks, usually in a ‘light hiker’ style boot (that’s not the warning – wait for it). I didn’t have any experience hiking in trail runners, but boots made creek crossings a real pain. I knew enough to know you were supposed to take a gradual approach to a zero drop shoe, but I found a great deal on a ‘used once’ pair of Altra’s and thought, ‘surely those few millimeters can’t make THAT much of a difference!’ I was wrong. They were easily the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn, but I began experiencing knee pain, which I’d never had before. I’m not 100% sure it was the shoe, but I thought I’d throw that out there for those who want to make the switch to trail runners. If I could do it over, I’d pick something with a heel to toe drop that I was used to and transition to zero drop, as recommended, if that’s the type of shoe I still wanted to try.

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