This article is the second part in a multi-part series. If you haven't already done so, I highly recommend reading part 1 first.

Standing on the beach - Cape Chignecto National Park

How the Ultralight Approach Addresses the Conventional Problems


The muscles of the foot and leg are more than enough to support the rigors of backpacking. Wearing rigid footwear is not unlike wearing a cast, it causes the foot muscles to atrophy because the body relies on the structure of the shoe for support. Having full flexibility of the feet and ankles is essential to absorbing shock and preventing injury.

Proper support comes from properly conditioned feet and legs. The way we achieve that conditioning is by using lightweight, flexible trail shoes.


Better stability is achieved by having more contact with the ground and better feel of the terrain under foot. Using lightweight, flexible footwear allows the foot to mold to the terrain. Your body can sense what is under foot and automatically adjust balance and gait as required by the terrain. This prevents instability and provides a stable platform on which to move. No teeter-totter effect means no surprises.


Your footwear should mold to your foot, not the other way around. Soft, flexible, mesh uppers will provide the most comfort over the long haul, giving your feet the room they need to expand and move through diverse trail conditions.

Your body is built like a spring. Using all of your joints, muscles, and tendons in flexion to absorb shock will provide a soft ride, unequalled by foam cushioning. It will take a load off your joints too. Using lightweight footwear with less cushioning will cause you to step lighter and put less stress on the body.


Ultralight backpacking philosophy assumes that no matter how hard you try, your feet will get wet... so just let them get wet! Having footwear that dries quickly means that when the water is gone, your feet will dry out in short order. Trail shoes constructed with lightweight mesh uppers will actually pump the water out on each step, so your feet don't sit in pools of water.

This is where sock selection is also important. When wearing lightweight footwear, only wear socks as thick as you need for warmth, otherwise thinner is better. The lighter-weight the sock, the cooler they will keep your feet and the quicker they will dry.

Energy Expenditure

Why expend more energy than you need to? Lightweight footwear means you will be more nimble on your feet, you will can travel faster, farther, and recover quicker.


The goal should be to move towards increasingly minimal footwear. Two things will need to take place in order for that to happen: your feet will need to get stronger, and you will need to gain more confidence and experience. This can take time, so be patient with the process. You certainly don't want to sustain an injury by going too minimal too fast, or in the wrong conditions.

Eventually you will reach a point where you know your limits and cannot scale back any more. This is the place you want to be for maximum effectiveness.

Principles of Footwear Selection

When selecting lightweight footwear suitable for backpacking, these are thing things you need to consider:


The uppers should be constructed out of a flexible, quick-drying fabric. Lightweight mesh works best.


The more elevated the heel, the more it will promote an unnatural gait (heavy heel striking) which can lead to excessive shock on the body. Select a shoe with as little heel raise as possible, completely flat being most preferable (somewhat rare, but that is slowly changing).

Midsole (Cushioning)

Cushioning, while helpful in some ways, is detrimental in others. Ideally, you want as little as you can get away with. As you add cushioning, you add instability and potentially increase impact forces on the body. It will take time and experience to learn how little you can get away with.


You want as flexible a shoe as you can handle while still maintaining the durability and protection you need. This is especially important for the uppers as it will give you the most comfort, room for your feet to expand, and help prevent blisters.


The outsole should be as flexible as is comfortable for the terrain you will be traveling on. As you become accustomed to more minimalist shoes, you want to try to progress to more flexible soles. Of course there is a limit, and that limit will largely be based on the terrain you typically travel. A lot of stiffness isn't needed, just enough to take the edge off the rocks.

Another element of the outsole to consider is the tread. If you are going to be spending most of your time on packed trails, then a mild trail grip is fine. If you are going to be spending lots of time off trail or in muddy conditions, then a more aggressive sole is better.


Having a little extra room in your shoes is a good thing. Feet will expand after several long days on the trail; giving them the space they need is important for long-term comfort. Shoes that fit snug in the store will likely feel too small in the backcountry, so sizing up a half-size (or more) can be helpful. On the flip-side, too much room will cause a sloppy fit. Making sure that the fit can be effectively adjusted with the laces is important in this regard.

A note for people with wide feet: shoes with a midsole that wraps up the sides of the shoe (i.e. cups the foot) will be less comfortable than those that don't. I have found that this cupped fit can press uncomfortably into the sides of my feet when they expand under load.


All of the above properties need to be balanced with durability. Yes, you could in theory go backpacking wearing thin dance slippers, but how long would they last? Finding the right balance between comfort, minimalism, and durability is something you will have to explore to see what works best for you in the environments you travel.

A couple of things to look out for:

  • Shoes with little or no toe rand and minimal abrasion resistance around the bottom edge (where the upper meets the sole) will wear out quicker on rough terrain.
  • Shoes with lots of exposed stitching should have the stitching painted with Seam Grip to prevent the threads from getting cut by rocks and roots.

Other Considerations

When it comes to socks (I am a huge fan of ToeSocks), merino or synthetic, appropriately thick for the weather conditions is all that is required. Thick, heavy socks with extra cushioning are not necessary and will hinder dry time.

A short lightweight gaiter can be very helpful to keep debris out of your shoe, or snow and slush in the spring. (More on this in a future article).

For travelling in shoulder season conditions (i.e. spring/fall) when it is cold and wet, waterproof socks can be a useful tool. They also can be beneficial in camp after changing into dry socks - you can wear them with your wet shoes for camp activities (like trips to the bathroom). (More on this in a future article).

Categories of Minimalist Footwear

Although there isn't an industry standard for categorizing footwear, for the purposes of these articles we will categorize them as follows:

  1. Minimalist Trail: Shoes in this category have no raised heel, very little cushioning (if any), and an outsole that is adequate for hard packed trails.
  2. Cushioned Minimalist Trail: Shoes in this category may have a slight raised heel (typically 4 mm or less), some cushioning (typically 10 mm or less), and an outsole that is adequate for hard packed trails.
  3. Transition Trail: Shoes that fall into this category often have an elevated heel (usually more than 4 mm), cushioning (typically greater than 10 mm), and an outsole that is adequate for hard packed trails. They are usually stiffer and less sensitive to rocks due to the nature of their construciton.
  4. Minimalist Off-road: Same as the minimalist trail category, but with an aggressive outsole adequate for loose soil, mud, and tundra.
  5. Cushioned Minimalist Off-road: Same as the cushioned minimalist trail category, but with an aggressive outsole adequate for loose soil, mud, and tundra. Footwear in this category may have a built-in rock plate, but often still retains quite a bit of flexibility.
  6. Transition Off-road: Same as the transition trail category, but with an aggressive outsole adequate for loose soil, mud, and tundra. Footwear in this category usually has some form of rock plate, and can sometimes be quite stiff.

There of course are many categories/models of shoes that are much beefier than what is described on this list, but since this is an aritcle about minimalist shoes, they are not included.

Use Cases

What type of footwear is best suited for a particular type of terrain is a question I am asked frequently. There are a lot of factors involved in answering that question, but this chart is deisgned to give an overview of what I think works best for a variety of conditions.

Minimalist Trail Cushioned Minimalist Trail Transition Trail Minimalist Off-road Cushioned Minimalist Off-road Transition Off-road
Hard-packed trails *** *** ** * ** **
Rocky trails ** *** *** ** ** **
Off-road, dirt, mud, tundra, etc. ** ** * *** *** **
Off-road gravel, rocks, talus, etc. * ** ** * *** ***

In addition to the above recommendations, another factor to consider is your level of experience with minimalist footwear. If you are a barefoot vetran, then chances are you can handle a minimalist trail shoe in all conditions. If however you are a minimalist newbie, you may want to use a cushioned or transition trail shoe until you feel comfortable with having less on your feet.

Minimalist Trail Cushioned Minimalist Trail Transition Trail Minimalist Off-road Cushioned Minimalist Off-road Transition Off-road
Minimalist newbie * ** *** * ** ***
Minimalist novice ** *** ** ** *** **
Minimalist expert *** *** ** *** *** **


The best footwear for minimizing injury and maximizing comfort for wilderness travel are quick-drying, lightweight trail runners. The full benefits of this system will be realized as you gain strength, experience, and progress towards more minimal footwear. Like everything else with ultralight backpacking, finding the right balance that works best for you and the conditions you travel in will take time, and experience.

If I can encourage you with one thing, it would be to see how minimal you can go... it may take some time and some work, but you might surprise yourself.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I outline specific makes/models of shoes that fit these criteria.