Minimalist shoes in technical terrain

Executive summary: minimalist shoes will help you move faster and safer in technical terrain, but have a substantial transition period and come with several significant and perhaps irrevocable downsides.

DSC02757M photo.

Before preceding further we must define terms.  Minimalist shoes can be broadly defined as those with well under 10mm of delta, and well under 20mm of padding at the thickest point.  Technical terrain is walking where you have to, at least a little, always worry about each footfall lest injury result.

IMG_0771The dreaded scree over dirtpack.

The idea behind minimalist shoes is that your feet and legs respond better to the stresses of hiking with minimal mediation between them and the terrain.  If this is in fact the case, there is no reason why their benefits would not be even more significant in technical terrain.

IMG_0666A Chinese Wall hiccup, Bob Marshall country.

My experience over the last three years has shown this to be the case.  With minimalist footwear and the proper conditioning, I do tough trips faster and my feet and legs recover quicker.  Rather than illuminate the endless and endlessly personal sub-merits of this approach, I’ll outline some of the reasons why it might not work for you.

First, your feet, legs, and core will need to proper strong for this to be safe.  Wearing light and flexible shoes in savage terrain demands more from your body, especially connective tissue.  This is not a strength which can won with a single, 3 month training plan, and looking cool with the right shoes is not cool if you strain your meniscus 10 hours from the nearest trail.  If you currently use boots or heavy trail runners for this stuff, give yourself a few years to make the transition.

Second, you’ll be using different, much more delicate, techniques.  M, above wearing Trail Gloves, is a good example.  With mountain boots, the dreaded Glacier scree over rock-hard dirt can be sorted by kicking steps.  With minimalist shoes, you’ll be smearing your way across on embedded rocks and minute weaknesses.  Once your body gets there this is faster, but you’ll get slapped around along the journey to enlightenment.

Third, you won’t be able to use crampons.  Microspikes work with the burlier minimalist shoes, like my X Countrys, but the KTS and K10 crampons are marginal and traditional flexible 10 point crampons are out.  To get them to fit you’ll have to crush your feet, making them cold, and they’ll still try to rotate off your feet when you need them most.  Obviously, kicking steps is out.  For routes with ~2% steep snow I reckon the time cutting steps is more than made up for with speed on dirt, but at some point the amount of crampon use will reach a point that burlier shoes are wise. Very minimal shoes, like Trail Gloves, barely have enough structure to make Microspikes acceptable.

Fourth, your shoes will get thrashed.  All minimalist trail shoes I’ve ever seen buy lightness with light fabrics, and 30 miles of off-trail beating may get you some good holes.  Often aquaseal can keep the shoes alive for quite a while, but if setting off for a particularly long and rugged trek, light shoes may leave you stranded with a catastrophic shoe failure.  This isn’t a necessary feature of these shoes, just a burden foisted upon us hikers by trail runners and their excessively manicured (getamountainbikeyabums) paths.


Go too far down this path and you may have the problem I have currently: I’ve become so accustomed to the efficiency of minimalist shoes that in spite of the expense, I rarely want to wear anything else.  They just work too damn well.  So be warned.


11 responses to “Minimalist shoes in technical terrain”

  1. Have to agree with you on the minimalist approach shoe. For years I have used shoes similar to the La Sportiva Boulder X but have recently switched to the LS Xplorer. Because it breathes better and because the sole is more sensitive under foot. Just got back a couple of hours ago from climbing Wham Ridge on Vestal and wouldn’t have wanted anything else on my feet, especially with the nasty decent.

  2. It goes without saying that I agree with you on this one too. I would also add that you can work on building foot strength all day by wearing ultra-thin soled shoes for everything else when you are not hiking. It has been a practice I have followed for years, and believe that it helps foot/leg development all-around.

    1. This is why I wear 3-4″ heels almost all the time when I’m not hiking. Builds great ankle strength and heels usually have ultra-thin soles with no support…

      never realized I was actually on the far front end of barefoot running strategy :)

      1. LOL! And, as an added bonus, those high heels provide excellent training for navigating those precarious descents!

  3. Lovely read. I would just add. The whole focus should turn to the individual, not the footwear. I have notice all my neurological paths increased, well as balance and core strength. Like anything outdoors, when you take away anything from your gears construction, it becomes less durable. So I am here by demanding, that all footwear retail price be dropped by at least 50%. Since we all know the wholesaler has a 200% markup. This will make the user much more happy when their footwear lasts a few weeks on rough terrain, before getting holes.

    1. I wish that would happen, but am not optimistic. Once the fad settles out in a few years I think minimal shoes with off-trail tread will stick around, but remain a niche market. Small quantities make for small margins.

  4. Eh, this is a fun read especially because you called my shoe choice on Day 1 of our trip last week something close to maximal. Little did I know you’d just written a blog post about the benefits of minimalist shoes and that was, thus, something of a judgement, maybe? :)

    I like to think that fast movement over any/all kind(s) of terrain has to do more with physical fitness, one’s ability in predicting how a substrate will “behave” under one’s particular means of tackling/mass, and one’s skill in negotiating the actual substrate than it has to do with the kinds of shoes on one’s feet. For instance, I have nearly zero skills/abilities in crossing rivers that are thigh deep so I nearly screwed the pooch on that one last week. No shoe choice would have helped me there, just skills and the confidence borne of them (and maybe a diving weight belt).

    That said, some shoes for certain suck on certain kinds of terrain, yep. Don’t bring road shoes on technical terrain unless you’re looking for unnecessary, silly challenges. But I’d rather have folks wearing the shoes that keep their bodies the healthiest, the longest than pushing the minimal envelope on what seems little more than principle. I believe that some bodies are made for minimalism, and others aren’t. And I believe the odds of an acute injury, like a broken toe or torn ankle ligament, add additional risk-management issues, especially if folks are out and about in the backcountry where they’d have problems with self-extrication. I’d rather encourage people to wear the shoes that make them feel good so that they can climb more mountains, more often and get stronger, better, safer, smarter at doing so.

    That said, it was fun walking behind you last week and watching your heels drop all the way to your ground on your zero-drop shoes. :)

  5. Those X Countrys have 4mm of delta. Or did when new, anyway. Given that five years ago I was all about Vitesses and Hardrocks, it’s fun to contemplate the depth of that transition.

    I don’t disagree with you, especially on the practicality and safety issues (best shoe is one that fits and you own now), but do find the argument that some people are made for XXX shoe unconvincing. It’s empirically unproveable, for one. Better to say that some people have been less predisposed than others to unsupportive shoes by the first however many decades of their walking around in the world. I know a few folks with ankles whose ligaments are silly putty due to various maladies, some perhaps irreperably so. For them it’s boots or nothing.

    Any yes, those XT Wings make your calves look fat. ;)

    1. Empirical proof? Your arguments are as lacking in empirical proof as mine. Present emergent research is totally divided on what kinds of shoes are “best” for our feet; this type of research hasn’t been around long enough for any theory develop. The only data trend that’s emerging so far is that the spectrum of human biomechanics for walking and running is pretty big.

      It’s my assumption that these biomechanical deviations, be it folks’ differences in genetics-given biomechanical function or the result of the modifications made to biomechanics as a result of life (such as your examples of a shod childhood or injuries that have permanently loosened ligaments), are the reasons why two people can put on the same shoes and have one think it feels good and the other say, “It hurts my X.”

      Until science gives me theory that I’m going to destroy my sesamoid bones or something similar by wearing what I’m wearing, I’m probably going to keep using shoes with very little cushioning and a heel-toe drop of between 8 and 13 millimeters. I’ve got thousands of miles of anecdotal evidence telling me my feet are happiest in these sorts of shoes. And, I’m also probably going to tell people to wear what keeps their feet happiest in the “long run,” too.

      1. My point was that to trace the suitability of a given shoe type back to genetics, you’d have to run a 30+ year longitudinal study starting at age 4, with a large enough n to weed out a huge number of variations and still maintain statistical significance. Possible, but unlikely to happen. Big sample size, significant results, interesting results: you only get two. Somewhat off topic, but this is an area where the capabilities of empiricism are overstated.

  6. Great post. All I know is I freaking love lifting weights and running hill sprints in 5 fingers. I don’t hike in them though.

    Missed the blog. Haven’t checked in in a long time. KILLER photos Dave.

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