Each year, dozens of my guiding clients ask me what footwear is optimal for backpacking at high elevation, in upper latitudes, and during early-season conditions. In this article, I’ll provide a list of proven winners (and a few losers). These recommendations are relevant to anyone planning trips to similar locations or places with similar conditions.
Footwear is extremely personal, and what works for me or for another backpacker will not necessarily work for you. I suggest trying on a half dozen pairs at a well-stocked local retailer or ordering multiple pairs online and keeping only the pair that fits and feels best. All the shoes I discuss here are trail runners, not traditional hiking boots. Trail-running shoes are typically more comfortable straight out of the box. The breathable varieties don’t absorb as much water, dry out more quickly, and tend to prevent that unpleasant feeling of wet feet in hot boots. They’re also lighter, so you can move more easily and with more agility. The most common pushback against trail-running shoes is that they don’t provide ankle support. Based on my experience, I think it’s farcical that boots actually do (unless you’re hiking in ski boots).
Features to Look For
High-elevation routes, places at extreme latitudes (like Alaska), and early-season conditions place very similar demands on footwear. Durable materials and construction are necessary to withstand extensive abrasion from rocks and brush, plus perhaps constant wetness. An aggressive and sticky outsole will allow for good purchase on slick rocks and uneven vegetation. A semi-stiff underfoot carriage will make edging on steep slopes and kicking steps in spring snow easier. A breathable, non-waterproof upper will expel water quickly after creek crossings, dry out faster, and prevent the foot from overheating. To provide stability on uneven ground, look for a low to moderate stack height to bring down the foot’s center of gravity.
Recommendations for Extreme Conditions
In order of approximate last width, from narrowest to widest:
La Sportiva Bushido II ($130, 10.5 ounces)
The La Sportiva Bushido II is my personal longtime favorite. It checks all the aforementioned boxes and needs little improvement. However, it has a very narrow last—the narrowest in La Sportiva’s entire line—so it’ll be confining for those with average and wide feet. You can read my full review here.
Salomon X Alpine Pro ($160, 10.9 ounces)
Salomon’s X Alpine Pro is my second choice. Compared with the Bushido, it’s more cushioned, less stiff, and a bit roomier. It excels on adventure runs and trail hikes but is less suited to technical off-trail backpacking trips. Other users may find it cushier than the Bushido. One critique: the thin, cinchable Quicklaces may fray in gritty environments. Read my full review here.
Salomon X-Ultra 3 ($120, 13 ounces)
The X-Ultra 3 is the top pick of Dave Eitemiller, one of my company’s guides, who has used them in Alaska and on high routes in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, Yosemite, and the Colorado Rockies. For him, the Bushido is simply too narrow. The X-Ultra 3 has an aggressive and hard-wearing outsole and a durable upper with slightly more padding than the aforementioned models. Like the X Alpine Pro, these shoes feature Quicklaces.
La Sportiva Ultra Raptor ($130, 12 ounces)
The Ultra Raptor fits and performs similarly to the X-Ultra. The upper feels almost boot-like, with a lot of structure and protection that can be can be unforgiving if the fit is not quite right. The outsole is very sticky, but the smaller lugs wear quickly and are not as well suited for mud and vegetation.
Salomon XA Pro 3D ($130, 13 ounces)
The XA Pro 3D has one serious flaw: its insoles absorb water, and when wet, they fold underfoot like an accordion. But this can be overcome easily by replacing the stock insoles. Otherwise, they’re a good choice: they’re made well and have good edging and traction. The fit is perhaps marginally wider than the Ultra Raptor and X-Ultra.
La Sportiva Mutant ($135, 10.7 ounces)
The Mutant is the least rigid of this group and among the widest. Because the laces fray quickly, they should be swapped out immediately (just grab some others of similar thickness from an older pair of shoes, as long as they’re in decent shape), but otherwise the shoe’s durability is very good. The burrito-style lacing system creates a comfortable, socklike fit.
La Sportiva Akyra ($140, 11.3 ounces)
The La Sportiva Akyra is the burliest model of this review, with a durable upper, an aggressive outsole, and a stiff carriage. It’s best suited for technical hiking and scrambling in drier environments (note: its dry time is exorbitantly long). The fit is medium-wide. For more information, read this detailed review from Reddit user u/LowellOlson.
Not Recommended for Off-Trail
Conventional on-trail itineraries put both different and fewer demands on shoes. For example, whereas footwear optimized for off-trail treks and trips will have a stiffish midsole and tapered toe box for edging and precise control, footwear better suited for on-trail hiking will have generous cushioning and a wider toe box for more all-day comfort. Also, on-trail hiking does not require the materials and construction to be as bomber. The following options are better suited to this less demanding environment.
Altra Lone Peak 4.5 ($125, 10.5 ounces)
The Altra Lone Peak 4.5 is a favorite of thru-hikers, who appreciate its extra-wide toe box and generously cushioned 25-millimeter stack height when putting in long days on well-maintained trails. But the Lone Peak falters off-trail—the toe box is too wide for precise lateral control, and the midsole is too soft to hold edges. The Lone Peak 4.0 and 4.5 are more durable than their predecessors but still lacking for these conditions.
La Sportiva Wildcat ($110, 12.4 ounces)
The Wildcat is the all-mesh sibling of the Ultra Raptor, sharing its last and outsole. It’s a fine trail shoe, and the pinch-free upper is more comfortable than that of the Ultra Raptor, but its abrasion resistance is subpar.
The Brooks Cascadia 14 ($130, 10.7 ounces) and the Saucony Peregrine 10 ($120, 10.7 ounces) are both time-tested trail-running and backpacking shoes, but they’re less suitable for extreme conditions than my recommended models, lacking durability and low-to-the-ground design. If you can’t find or test another model you like, these may work for you, but don’t expect them to last for more than one trip.