Once upon a time, low-cut shoes were called "sneakers" and used for tennis, and backpackers wore something from a cow that weighed nearly as much. How times have changed.
Unless you're heading into serious weather or walking on trick ankles, today's low-cut hiking shoes are the way to go. They're supportive, cool, and comfortable, so you'll hike faster and farther with less fatigue. All you have to do is find the model that fits your feet and favorite trails. Our six field testers--three men and three women--logged 2,400 miles in evaluating more than a dozen new models; our top five picks, all of which have a Gore-Tex XCR waterproof/breathable membrane, follow in order of overall performance.
TESTERS: Kari Bodnarchuk, Jane Brison, Jonathan Dorn, Michael Lanza, Annette McGivney, David Ports
RATING SCALE: 5 = perfect gear; 1 = save your money
Lafuma Active Raid GTX XCR OVERALL 3.8
Rain, sand, mud, or snow--nothing slowed this all-around top performer.
"Versatile" is the word that kept cropping up on our testers' evaluation forms. The Raid is supportive enough for hiking with 35 to 40 pounds, yet light enough for fastpacking, talus-hopping, even short-distance running. Several distinctive features allow this shoe to multitask. First, each lace has two cord locks for adjusting ankle and forefoot volume independently, which allows a precision fit whatever your foot shape, and gives late-day swollen toes breathing room without forfeiting ankle support. A slightly higher collar provides better-than-average ankle buttressing and protection from trail grit. Finally, a curvaceous rocker bottom permits a sneakerlike stride.
We subjected these shoes to wet snow in the Bitterroots and mud in Hells Canyon--and never got damp socks, thanks to the Gore-Tex XCR liner (a feature on all of our test shoes). The unisex sizing fit both men and women surprisingly well, though wide-footed men should go up a half-size. Traction was reliable on snow, wet rocks, packed dirt, and pea gravel. And durable construction details such as double stitching and reinforced toes should keep these shoes kicking for several hundred miles. Our "sole" beef: so-so underfoot protection and torsional stability, especially for heavier hikers. $110; 2 lbs.; men's 6-12 (women should go down a size) (800) 514-4807; www.lafuma.com.
Garmont Eclipse XCR OVERALL 3.7
For big-load backpacking, this burly shoe is the best choice here.
Picture a Hummer convertible, and you've got the Eclipse: built to go over anything, or through it. The chassis is stiffer and more supportive than any other shoe we evaluated in this class; testers carried 40-plus pounds for days on the Appalachian Trail and in the North Cascades, and negotiated miles of sharp, fossilized coral in the Azores. The broad platform offers excellent stability on trail, but gets a bit tippy on uneven terrain like talus. No other shoe offers as much padding in the tongue, and testers appreciated how its asymmetrical shape folded comfortably over their ankles. Waterproofing is good--our feet stayed dry through hours of rain and puddles. Solid construction, including a reinforced toe and heel and tough nubuck/synthetic upper, guarantees years of hard use.
The tradeoffs? The Eclipse is a heavier and stiffer shoe than true fastpackers will want, and it has this field's least breathable upper. Traction was so-so on loose gravel and steep downhills due to the absence of a pronounced heel cut. Lastly, it required more break-in time than other models, though the Eclipse was very comfortable after that. Best for medium- to high-volume feet and wide heels. $130; 2 lbs. 5 oz.; men's 8-13, 14, women's 5-11 (802) 658-8322; www.garmontusa.com.
Merrell Chameleon II XCR OVERALL 3.6
Balance dayhiking comfort and backpacking support with a switch-hitter.
This agile low-top earned a permanent spot in our editor-in-chief's footwear closet after he dayhiked the 26-mile Devil's Path in New York's Catskills--16,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and a torturous trifecta of rocky ground, polished roots, and innumerable steep scrambles. "These shoes nailed every step of it," he says. "My feet felt so good after 13 hours that I half-jogged the last 2 miles to the car."
The Chameleon succeeds by combining good forefoot flex (for fast, comfortable striding) with midfoot and torsional rigidity (for arch support). While the shoe isn't as stiff as the Garmont and Vasque models, it has better support, cushioning, and underfoot protection than the Lafuma and Montrail. It's equally adept at dayhikes with 20 pounds or backpacking with 40. The shoes stayed dry through rainstorms, and breathed surprisingly well for a mostly leather upper. The dot-pattern outsoles stuck to rock whether dry or wet, but slipped on gravelly trails and mud. We expect at least a few seasons of hard use.
The negatives: Only three of six testers gave fit a thumbs up--testers with low-volume feet and two of three women had problems--and the shoe is relatively heavy. Best for medium- to high-volume feet. $110; 2 lbs. 6 oz.; men's 7-12, 13, 14, 15, women's 5-11 (888) 637-7001; www.merrellboot.com.
Montrail Mountain Mist XCR OVERALL 3.5
This nimble trail runner ably crosses over to moderate backpacking duty.
Surprise, surprise: Here's a hardy trail runner--the best in this pack at moving fast--that's also great for dayhiking, backpacking, even scrambling off-trail. One tester took these straight out of the box on a 6-day trip in California's Trinity Alps and found them comfortable from the first step. Versatile, too: "They handled snowfields, steep, muddy hillsides, and slippery rocks, all with a 40-pound pack." This review's lightest shoe marries plush cushioning and excellent torsional stability with good forefoot flex and rocker. Some of us carried 40 pounds comfortably, thanks in part to a plastic exoskeleton that supports feet from the laces to the ankle. Credit also goes to gel cushioning in the forefoot and a full-length plastic midsole plate.
Waterproofing proved reliable, and breathability is among the best in the bunch. In fact, the shoes never felt damp during back-to-back 16-mile summer dayhikes in Glacier National Park. But the toebox's tight fit was uncomfortable for some testers, and while the snug collar keeps out sand and stones, it's so snug you have to force your foot through. Also, after a few hundred miles, seams and toe rands on some testers' shoes began to unravel. Best for narrow, low-volume feet. $125; 1 lb. 15 oz.; men's 7-12, 13, 14, 15, women's 5-11 (800) 647-0224; www.montrail.com.
Vasque Breeze Low XCR OVERALL 3.3
For narrow-footed hikers, this durable shoe offers excellent support.
The favorite of two of our female testers, the Breeze's stiffness and support with 40-pound loads ranks among the best in the test, outdone--but just barely--by only Garmont and Merrell. From the Desert Southwest to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, we tramped through boggy tundra, crossed countless streams, ventured onto harsh off-trail terrain, and dealt with steady rain and hot sun, among other climatic challenges. The verdict: The Breeze is unfailingly waterproof, as durable as any, and blessed with highly breathable leather/mesh uppers. The outsole offered superior traction on all surfaces, especially on downhills thanks to its sharp heel brake. But the shoe's narrow last pinched (and sometimes blistered) the toes of testers with average to wide feet, and our third female tester found the heel too roomy. It's also the heaviest shoe we tested, and the stiff sole requires more break-in time. $125; 2 lbs. 8 oz.; men's 7-12, 13, 14, 15, women's 5-11 (800) 224-4453; www.vasque.com.