Shoe weight matters. Read all this stuff if you haven’t recently, the most singular point being that the guy with the lightest shoes was the only one who made it all 1000k. When I was just getting into serious backpacking, about a decade ago, I got the idea that one ought to have a footwear system that was sub 1 pound all up. With size 11.5 feet and the need for durable shoes this is not yet realistic, at least not with gaiters and insulating socks, but the ideal is a good totem to keep you honest.
All of which begs the question of what you want in a shoe for serious (big miles, off trail, etc) hiking? Over at BPL RJ recently published an elegant piece about epistemic issues (“As you immerse yourself in an area of study, defining it becomes more nuanced and complex – and irrelevant.”) in ultralight hiking, concluding that “…ultralight backpacking is a practice centered around the idea that one should solve a problem using as little as possible, but that which is used to solve the problem should be as effective as possible.” For me that has involved taking the last decade plus to increase my knowledge and my hiking strength, and drill down with ever more precision into what I needed for consecutive days of tough hiking. Durable uppers for one, with some protection, and a stiff, low, and not overly padded sole with little if any drop, and an aggressive sole pattern.
I’ve been interested in Astral’s shoes since their beginning, and with the number of zero drop or close hiking shoes dwindling with the swings in market fashion I bought a pair of Brewers last month, to try out specifically as a hiking shoe. The Brewer is intended to be a general boating shoe, with a style and performance that lets it cross over (quite heavily I would suspect) into lifestyle wear. The sole is sticky, but non-marking, for example, and as M noted the fat toe and contrasting stitching gives you the air of being on a July trip out to Orcas Island.
The twist on evaluating such a shoe today is that I currently hike fewer miles per month than any time in the past decade, or even two. Backpacking is a demanding activity, and pushing backpacking into more intense realms strips back both illusions concerning the functionality of items, and the many ways in which fitness was previously padding out inadequacies in both gear and technique.
I want to press the Brewers as far as I can as a hiking shoe because the midsole is low (17mm stack) and fairly stiff, while the upper is close to as minimalist as a shoe gets. There is no heal counter (which will allow for further exploration of the extent to which this is necessary), and very little padding. One can fold the heel flat and use the shoes as slip ons. The toe box is broad and Altra-esque, while the tread pattern is largely positive, to maximize contact on slick rocks, but with a grid of large cut outs, enough to clear mild mud and grip in loose soil. The tread isn’t ideal for Montana hiking, in that it isn’t ideal in steep loose soil and really struggles in mud, but it is more than serviceable. It’d be an ideal tread pattern for the Colorado Plateau. The lack of heel counter has not been noticeable, save for a few occasions when mud or deadfall pulled the shoe a bit down on my heel, and I had to wrestle it back on. It is curious that the shoe could fit this loose and have that degree of movement not really be noticeable even in severe terrain, evidence I suppose that a shoe like this moves with you. Further pluses are the thick laces, which have been exceptional at staying tied in the face of bushwacking, better than anything else I’ve used.
The one serious downside has been the lack of padding and/or foot protection in the upper. The recent traverse reminded me how un-sticky limestone talus can be, with the sides of my toes taking a few good hits and pinches that made me wince at my choice of footwear. The lack of padding does, moreso than the little drains in the toe and heel, make the Brewer dry as fast (and weigh as little) as it does, but there are costs. The naked fabric low on the upper is also an obvious future failure point, barring the intervention of more aquaseal My next shoe purchase will likely be the TR1 Merge, to maintain all the virtues of the Brewer and get more foot protection and durability. A note on sizing: I would consider the Brewer quite short, and bought 12s to get the same room for socks and foot swelling I normally get from 11.5s.
The Brewers appeal to me a great deal, both because they fit my preferences, as because they’re such a lean design. You can feel the seams in the upper if you get the lacing tension wrong, and they beg to be worn with slightly thicker socks, to pad things out a hair, though on the aformentioned traverse I used uber-thin 100% synthetic cycling socks, and I don’t think a thicker sock would have added that much of a comfort margin. At the end of 3 days and 60 miles (20 packrafting, ~15 of the 40 foot miles off trail) I was quite done in, and burlier shoes probably would have taken the edge off. At the same time, it was nice to know exactly how tired I was, and to know how I could appreciate the shoes even more with sharper legs.
RJ also published another piece, about building lifetime hiking fitness, where he recommends a quiver of hiking shoes to train weaknesses as well as provide rest. In the hiking realm, the Brewers are an outstanding training shoe, one that provides enough structure and protection for demanding hiking, without anything at all that coddles or supports more than needed. By that definition, a minimalist hiking shoe indeed.