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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Update (Aug 2020), per Anthony S: “The XA Pro 3D and the XA Pro 3D v8 are meaningfully different. Salomon replaced the plastic lacing grommets with fabric webbing loops, which failed on me after three hard days. Off-camber moves like talus and the like placed too much stress on the webbing and began to abrate through it.”
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.
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.
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, whereas footwear optimized for off-trail footwear will have a stiff-ish midsole and tapered toebox for edging and precise control, footwear better suited for on-trail hiking will have generous cushioning and a wider toebox for more all-day comfort. Also, on-trail hiking does no require the materials and construction to 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.
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.
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.
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