Footwear review part 1: Keen Targhee II Mid Hiking Boots
If you’ve been following my 2013 JMT trail journal, by this point you may be thinking that I was doing something really stupid with my feet. You’re mostly right.
Let’s talk about the shoes I used on the trail in 2012 and 2013, why I won’t be using them again, and what shoes I’m testing out now.
[Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, or a shoe professional. Please do your own research on footwear, and take everything I say with however many grains of salt float your boat. This is a this-worked-for-me story, not here’s-what-you-should-do advice. I bought all shoes with my own money, and the links are for your reference, not affiliate links.]
We’ll start by rewinding to my 2012 JMT section hike. I had never owned hiking-specific footwear before this trip; I’d always hiked in running shoes. Turns out I didn’t really want hiking boots, but I didn’t know that at the time.
My first mistake was starting and ending my shoe shopping at REI. I’m an REI member, and a huge fan of the store for finding many types of outdoor gear and apparel, but every time I make the mistake of talking to them about shoes, I rapidly wish I had never opened my mouth, or had just lied about what I was doing. This has been my experience — maybe your local REI is super awesome at knowing what kinds of shoes work for different people with different hiking styles. I did run into a saleswoman once who was wearing leather bags on her feet for footwear (don’t remember the brand), but even she didn’t recommend trail runners for hiking at all. As always, YMMV.
So the salesman asks me what activity I need shoes for. I say that I’ll be backpacking in the High Sierras for 6 days, and the fellow immediately directs me to the heavy duty full height leather hiking boots. I try a few styles on, and feel like I have cement blocks strapped to my feet.
Toss me off a pier, and I’d sink straight to the bottom. Bye bye Alice.
I tell the salesman I’d like something lighter, and he disapprovingly points me towards the mid height hiking boots. I asked about the hiking shoes (rugged like boots, but low cut like shoes), and the clerk says something along the lines of “you’d be just asking to roll an ankle in those.”
Now, I’ve had ankle injuries before (1 break, 2 sprains, all on the right), so I certainly care about not hurting them further. I try on the mid boots, find them tolerably lighter than the tall ones, and walk off with the pair that fits the shape of my foot the best — Keen’s Targhee II Mid Hiking Boot — in my current shoe size of 8.5. I at least knew enough to get the non-gortex version, again over the protests of the staff. Quick reason — non-gortex shoes dry TONS faster. The fellow who’d been assisting me warned me that those boots wouldn’t hold up to the massive load I’d need to be carrying to hike for 6 days in the Sierras.
Screw that guy. Those boots sucked for me.
Okay, okay, so the boots were good for what they were. They held up really well; I can’t find any visible damage on them other than scuffing and dirt after 2 seasons of use (on that hike, then on a farm). And sure, I didn’t roll my ankle on the hike (too bad negative evidence proves nothing). I also didn’t get any blisters, which was sincerely great.
So what was wrong with them for me?
- They felt like cement blocks strapped to my feet by Day 2.
- The mid height rubbed at the back of my heels/ankles, causing painful irritated patches.
- My ankle flexibility was highly reduced.
- I couldn’t feel the ground AT ALL.
Each boot weighs a pound (16.30 oz to be precise) and over time, I just got tired of lugging all that heft around.
What did I do wrong when buying these? Many, many things.
I procrastinated in shopping, so didn’t have time for a real shakedown trial of the boots before the big hike. EVERY guide to buying hiking footwear tells you to get them early and test them out multiple times; I assumed this was to physically break in the material of the boots so they fit you better, maybe a holdover from leather days. It’s not — it’s so you can learn how they feel over time, rather than just in the store. This is super important. Don’t be me and skip it. I had done a 3 mile hike in the boots before the 6 day trip → NOT ENOUGH. BAD IDEA.
The next thing I did wrong was not researching footwear options before going to a store. I could have learned via the interwebs that some hikers use trail runners instead of hiking boots (this hiker, for example), and considered the nuances of this option and how it might work for me.
The most important thing I neglected, though, was listening to my gut. REI wanted to sell me something, and they didn’t want me to sue them or be upset if I got an injury — they have a vested interest in sticking to the status quo, which I can understand. However, REI the Store wasn’t the one going on the hike, I was. Instead of listening to my instincts (this boot makes me feel clumsy! it’s wearisome!), I acceded to the salesman’s opinions.
Who knows if the dude was even a hiker at all? Even if he was, everyone has different preferences. I have a friend who love love loves her full leather tall hiking boots, and is planning to get the same pair again when they wear out. Doesn’t mean that’s the only right option for me too though.
There is this culture of “you’ll see” that surrounds activities with some level of risk or selectivity. I encountered it when I was planning my wedding: do things the same way someone else did, or “you’ll see, you’ll wish you had”.
Guess what? I DIDN’T SEE.
That fear mongering attitude is such nonsense. How about instead, you do you, and I do me, mkay? HYOH.
So why do I dwell on it? Well, because the specter of “expert advice” hovers over my gear decisions. Some days I still have to actively work to tune that voice out, and rely instead on my own research and experience.
Oddly enough, given my condescension-laden shopping experience, this is preaching to the choir to thru-hikers, who (based on my online research) seem to have near universally adopted the walk-in-trail-runners approach. Are you listening, REI? Get up to speed already.
At the end of the day, for me it’s about resisting fear mongering, and taking responsibility for my choices. I’m not making light of the real dangers of being out in the wilderness, far from medical attention, in the habitat of strong animals, and at the mercy of the elements. Shit can go wrong, and does. I’m not going to target my choices for highly unlikely events though. The averages, the 80% circumstances, those are where I aim.
And the rest of the time, the slippery slopes that could use grippy treads, the rocky boulder fields that could turn an ankle? For those times, I can slow down and pay more attention to foot placement. I can use more brain, and rely less on the equipment. I can learn what greater risks I may be taking on, and think through possible outcomes ahead of time.
If I were traversing a snow field, climbing a mountain, or bushwhacking through prickly terrain, I would definitely look into sturdier boots. Hiking a popular trail in the summer in the Western US?
There’s a silver lining to this story — turns out the Keens were great farming shoes (at least until I grew out of them).