Finding the best hiking boots for the John Muir Trail

In Featured, Gear, Hiking by RobertBallard3 Comments

A good pair of boots gives a feeling of comfort like few other things. A comfort like that of a home cooked meal after your first semester at college. Or that of squeaking by with that passing grade that you probably didn’t deserve. A poor pair of boots, on the other hand, gives an incessant displeasure like that of a repeatedly bit cheek.

As I have been preparing for the John Muir Trail, finding the right pair of boots has been one of my primary concerns. Now, I don’t know about you, but boots, along with down jackets and backpacks seem to multiply in my apartment. A couple of years ago I had one Patagonia Nano Jacket. Last time I looked in my closet, it was sitting there happily with another of the same model in a different color. Nestled nearby was a Northface parka, an adidas parka, and an extremely warm and puffy Mammut jacket that is one size too big (that one was a great deal and I reasoned that I could wear it comfortably over my normal down jacket for extra warmth).

Likewise, my mountain footwear seems to proliferate like rabbits in the depths of my closet. My old Asolo boots, my trusty partners for a number of years, were officially retired when the soles decided to part ways with the rest of the boot mid hike and had to be Frankensteined back together with medical tape. Since that retirement I have acquired a pair of heavy three-season North face boots. A couple pairs of trail runners, both Solomon and La Sportiva, have also somehow come into my possession.

So which shoes?

I have gone over the virtues and failings of each pair of these in my head countless times as I get closer to my departure date. But, I had yet to reach any happy decision on which to use. The North Face are hardy and tough, but weigh more than my backpack and are decidedly not as water resistant as they claim. The Solomons are great to run in, but are bulkier than I prefer and just not as comfortable as I’d like for a pair of shoes to walk around in for two straight weeks.

The Sportivas, the Helios 2.0 to be exact, are probably my favorite of the three. They are light, comfortable, breathable, and while not water resistant, the mesh dries so quickly you forget that you walked through a stream a few minutes prior. The Helios also boast a soft, sticky rubber sole that is great for boulder hopping. However, this sticky rubber comes at a cost of being burned through at an incredible pace — I ran through the soles of my first pair in just a couple of months; probably not an ideal characteristic of shoes that you want to span the length of the Sierra Nevada.

Adding a new pair to the mix.

Now, here at College Outside, I write and take photos to share my love of the outdoors and the adventures I have there. I want to help reach other students who have the same loves that I do. Maybe I can spread a little knowledge while learning from others. However, I don’t mind some of the other perks too. So, when I was asked if I wanted to sample some adidas Outdoor gear and write a review of the product, I jumped at the chance. Knowing that my quest for the perfect JMT boot was far from being accomplished, I asked for a pair of boots. About a week later, I checked my mail and, like a kid on Christmas day, I ripped open the package. I marveled at my new, shiny blue adidas Terrex Fast GTX Surrounds.

They are pretty. A navy blue upper handsomely accented with grey, they are a nice modern touch on the classic hiking boot, and something that I’d be proud sporting anywhere shy of a black tie affair. As soon as I picked them up I was amazed at how light they were. The second thing I noticed was their solid, rugged sole and reinforced toe box and heel. The speed laces unhook off one side of the top clip of the boot. This makes getting into and out of the mid length boot significantly easier. All looked good, but how did they perform?

Putting them to the test.

A couple days after receiving my new boots, I put them to the test of hiking Mt. San Jacinto, a 10,800 ft peak here in SoCal. I can honestly say that my initial awe was not dampened on this first expedition, but enhanced. Once the speed laces were pulled, my feet felt locked into the boots; they fit snugly, but without pressure on either my toes or the sides of my feet. The light weight makes hiking in these boots a pleasure, and I didn’t feel the gravitational strain I had grown accustomed to in my old Asolos or North Face boots. While they aren’t quite as light as the Helios, they outperformed them in several areas for the type of hiking I do most.

First off, my ankles have a bad habit of rolling when I hike on rough terrain. The tendons have become loose enough that it’s more of an annoyance than a real pain. I am happy to report that the reinforced ankle make this habit a thing of the past. Secondly, the low ankle of the Helios, while great for general use and comfort, led to a shoe brimming with pebbles anytime a scree field needs to be crossed. The adidas, like any boot used without gaiters, will allow in a few pebbles, but it is much less a problem than in the Sportivas. After a good twelve mile day, my feet didn’t hurt and no blisters had formed. I’m sure some more miles will mold these boots to my feet a bit. But as far as comfort, there really isn’t too much room for improvement.

And reluctantly doing more testing…

The following weekend I took my new boots up to the Sierras for a bit more rigorous testing. This was a backpacking and fly fishing trip, and I am happy to report the boots performed admirably once again. The rugged soles and uppers of the boots were unscathed after three days of abuse through the Sierras.

I was most surprised at their performance while I was fishing. The large snowpack this past winter has left the streams of the Sierras flooded over their banks, a thankful condition after years of brutal drought. However, for the fly fisherman, this entails wading through meadows of water to get to the fishing. I fished one afternoon in such conditions, in four or five inches of water most of the time. My feet were bone dry through the whole ordeal!

I have enough experience to take any manufacturer’s claim of “waterproof” with a grain of salt. But, I am pleased to say that adidas stood up to their word. The gore-tex outer layer of the boot does its job. Plus, the fully connected tongue ensures that water won’t get into your boot until fully submerged.

These boots have more than met the challenges with which I have presented them. They’re a combination of all of the best features of my other boots and trail runners without their individual faults. I am happy to say that I will use them for my through hike of the John Muir Trail; in fact, I can’t imagine doing it with any other boot.

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