Scandinavia is generally considered to be Europe’s wildest country. Besides being vast and remote, it is also not famous for its fine weather; North-Atlantic depressions bring wet and windy weather throughout the year, the fjords of Southern Norway are amongst the wettest places on the continent. It is not surprising most multi-day hikers bring bomb-proof gear and walk the endless plateaus and deep moorlands with very high and heavy footwear. Besides, Norwegians do not seem to care too much about the weight of their backpack – for most of them it was incomprehensible I had not brought a fishing rod or a second or even third pair of shoes.
One encounters very few people with ultralight gear up north – I met 3 during my four-month walk (funny enough they were all Belgians). I got a lot of questions about my MLD Cricket tent on the way, but what I got most questions, perplexed faces and even hostile reactions about was my footwear. In the paragraphs below, I will try to answer the question whether I was an idiot or not trying to walk the length Scandinavia with trailrunning shoes.
Shoes: Inov8 Flyroc 310
Convinced by the positive experiences of others, I switched from classic mountain boots to trailrunners last year. I choose for the Inov8 Flyroc 310 for because they had good reviews in terms of walking comfort, grip and durability. I had a good test during an 8-day trip to the Alps in autumn 2011 and a few walks in the Belgian Ardennes last winter and spring, which made me decide to use them for my big trip. I bought 3 pairs, of which I reinforced all seams with AquaSeal and SeamGrip prior to departure for increased durability.
The Flyroc’s have a good heel lock and a spacious toe-box. There is a fender at the toes, but not at the sides of the shoe. The main seam runs longitudinal around the shoe (note the difference with for example the Roclite 315 with fenders all around the shoe and transverse seams).The body mainly consists of mesh, offering high breathability. The out-of-the-box weight of my shoes (UK size 9.5) was 744g per pair (Inov8’s 620g claim for UK size 8 appears to be a bit optimistic). I bought mine at wiggle.co.uk for 72£ per pair.
Walking comfort and grip are excellent, although the latter obviously gradually diminishes with decreasing sole profile. When wet, the shoes dry completely in about half a day to a day (depending on the weather conditions) while walking dry terrain.
I replaced my trailrunners after 600-900km of walking:
– First pair: Total of about 600km, some boulders and scree during trip in the Alps, mostly hard surface in Ardennes and first week of Transscandinavia trip, mostly snow up to Finse. Important reduction of sole profile, particularly in area ball of the foot (see picture). 1cm hole in mesh (top) after 500km – although little bushwhacking.
– Second pair: Total of about 700km (≈100km snow, 100km gravel/asphalt, 150km peat/bogs, 100km bushwhacking, 250km trails). Less sole profile loss. 1cm holes in mesh (top+side) after 500-600km. Toe fender ripped off after 600km. 2 junctures shoelaces ripped off after about 600km.
– Third pair: Total of about 800km (≈150km gravel/asphalt, 50km peat/bogs, 100km bushwhacking, 500km trails and off-trail tundra). Important reduction of sole profile, mainly near ball of the foot, important decrease of grip on muddy terrain. 1cm hole in mesh (side) after about 700km. Broken longitudinal seam inside right foot after only 350km (did not get worse afterwards). 1 juncture shoelace about to rip upon replacement.
– Fourth pair: Only 250km of walking at end of trip, too early for review.
So the weak zones appear to be the mesh (obvious when bushwhacking), the shoelace junctures and the longitudinal seams (could become problematic when often walking on scree and boulders). The sole wears rather quickly – 1000km seems appears to be a maximum on Scandinavian terrain, this will probably be less on rougher surfaces. On these kind of surfaces, I would opt for a more robust model with transverse seams and a fender all the way around the shoe, like the Roclite 315.
Socks: Sealskinz + Gore Bike Wear GTX-socks
As my shoes were not waterproof at all, I tried to keep my feet dry with my socks.
I started the trip with Sealskinz Thin Mid-lenght socks socks. Sealskinz socks consist of a merino wool inner layer, a waterproof and breathable membrane, and a Coolmax or Merino wool outer layer. The fit of the socks is excellent and they feel very comfortable to walk with. The weight of a M pair is 78g, and they go for 25£ a pair at Wiggle.
However, they are not as waterproof as Sealskinz claims. The membrane is very easily punctured (some sand, small stones and twigs will inevitably enter your shoes), and mine made water after only 3 days of use. After 10 days they were as leak as a regular Smartwool sock (I did not even have to put them inside-out to dry the inside). My conclusion is that Sealskinz socks may be ok for bikers or water sports, but, although comfortable, they are not at all suited for heavy duty use on the trail.
Four weeks into my trip, I switched to Gore Bike Wear GTX socks combined with liner socks, which weigh 74g per pair when dry and go for a pricey 40£ at Amazon. The GTX-socks were waterproof at first, but abrasion of the outer layer went relatively quickly and the first small punctures in the GTX-membrane appeared after about 200km. This caused some water leakage in very wet terrain, although my feet remained more or less dry on most days. After about 350km, punctures were so numerous that wet terrain inevitably meant wet feet, and after 600-700km, large holes appeared in my socks. My second pair lasted even less long, with large holes already appearing after 300-400km. The zone of the ball of the foot again proved to be the most vulnerable. As the GTX-socks are not very comfortable to walk with (they have very little cushioning and feel stiff) I combined them with cheap polyester liner socks, which on average lasted about 300-400km before holes started to appear.
If you want to increase the longevity of your socks, the key will be to keep dirt, sand and twigs out of your shoes. My gaiters protected me from dirt from the upside, but when using mesh trailrunners some will also enter through the mesh. And even if your gaiters cover all of the mesh, sand and pebbles will enter while, for example, wading rivers (supposing you do this with your trailrunners, but without pants and gaiters). Once you have sand inside your shoes, it is very hard to efficiently clean them on the trail. It is almost impossible to eliminate all these factors on a long thru-hike where time and speed are important, and I am tempted to say that your socks will rapidly wear and your feet will inevitably get wet on the terrain one typically encounters when walking off-trail in the Nordics. If you want to replace your GTX-socks every 300km, you will spend a lot of money. On the other hand, as I will discuss below, regular hiking boots will not be a solution on this terrain.
Ok, so your feet will get wet. On a very long trip like this one, a good feet hygiene will be essential to prevent trench feet, fungi and bacterial infections. I washed my liner socks every second day and tried to air my feet during my lunch break every day. I tried to wash my feet every evening (although I skipped some because of foul weather), and carried Lamisil gel to prevent fungal growth between my toes. Despite all this, I often walked with immersion feet with the skin of the sole showing a ‘perforated’ texture, the first stage of trench feet. Only because of good hygiene and because my luck of never having blisters, I could prevent it from getting worse.
Packrafting: 3mm Neoprene socks
During episodes with long packrafting sections my feet hygiene became better, even though temperatures gradually decreased to around-freezing in late August and September. I bought my Neoprene socks from the cheap Triboard brand at the local Decathlon store. They kept my feet warm down to about 0-5°C (at lower temps I would now opt for 5mm Neoprene), are more comfortable than shoes while packrafting and will import less dirt into the boat when entering it.
Myths and facts about trailrunners and walking boots
In the ultralight community, a main reason to choose for trailrunners if because they are way lighter than classic hiking boots. And, one will add, ‘weight difference at your feet is five times as important as weight difference in your backpack’. For example, my 1980g-per-pair B/C full leather Hanwag hiking boots would resemble about 6kg extra in my backpack compared to my 744g-per-pair Flyroc 310’s. Lighter, more flexible shoes will evidently reduce fatigue and increase speed, allowing to walk longer and faster. But on the internet people always juggle with ‘dry’ weights… and the real world is not so dry!
If I had not used trailrunners, I would not have opted for B/C-shoes with a stiff sole, but rather high, flexible A/B shoes with ankle protection like the Meindl Tessin Identity. The weights mentioned bellow are calculated by calculating with the 990g/660g ratio between my B/C Hanwags and UK size 9 Tessin Identities.
First case: dry terrain. Shoes and socks will be dry for both combi’s
– Flyroc 310: 744g shoe weight + 74g Gore-Tex socks + 24g liner socks = 842g
– Tessin Identity: 1320g shoe weight + 88g Smartwool socks = 1408g (+566g)
Case 2: Moderately wet terrain: Flyroc’s and socks will get wet, Tessin identities only wet on outside
– Flyroc 310: 1000g shoe weight + 100g Gore-Tex socks + 40g liner socks = 1140g
– Tessin Identity: 1360g shoe weight + 88g Smartwool socks = 1448g (+328g)
Case 3: Very wet terrain: all combi’s wet
– Flyroc 310: 1000g shoe weight + 100g Gore-Tex socks + 40g liner socks = 1140g
– Tessin Identity: 1560g shoe weight + 134g Smartwool socks = 1694g (+554g)
There will always be a weight difference, but on moderately wet terrain, of which there is a lot in Scandinavia, this difference will nearly be halved. Plus, your feet will be dry in the boots. On the other hand, trailrunners are clearly the best pick on dry or very wet terrain. They will also dry quicker than boots, and the inside will dry while walking while boots with very poor ventilation will stay wet.
It is not so hard to get wet feet in Scandinavia. Drying them again could be more difficult.
Trailrunners are generally considered to be cheaper than walking boots. But there is also a difference in durability. My walking boots generally last about 1500km, my trailrunners about 750km. Let’s do the maths for my trip (about 2200km of walking):
Trailrunners: 3 pairs of shoes (90€/pair), 2 pairs of GTX-socks (50€/pair), 1 pair of Sealskinz socks (30€/pair), 6 pairs of liner socks (3€/pair) = 418€
Walking boots: 1,5 pairs of shoes (210€/pair), 2 pairs of Smartwool socks (20€/pair) = 355€
Trailrunners are the most expensive option! Note that, if you want to replace your GTX-socks every 400km, you will end up above 500€.
Other things to consider
Fatigue: Not only because of their weight, but also because of their softer sole and more flexible materials, I could walk more kilometers and more hours a day than I used to with classic boots. As I had to cover longer daily distances than on my previous trips to make the entire distance within 4 months, this was an important factor in my choice for trailrunners. Near the end of my trip I easily covered 30-35km per day, even off-trail. I don’t think I would have made it all the way north by the end of September on boots.
Physical injuries: A very important aspect. Generally, people think you will easily get injuries when walking on trailrunners because of the lack of ankle support. This is only partly true. Although people with ankle problems better pick high boots, the heel lock is another important parameter controlling ankle support, and is independent of the shaft height. But the ankles are not the only stress point to consider. Because of their high shaft, locked ankle and stiff soles, I tended to have nagging knees by the end of long stages on rough terrain when using boots as much of the rotation movements of the feet is passed to the knees. I never experienced this on trailrunners.
River wadings: If you want to keep the inside of your boots dry, you will need to carry a second pair of footwear, typically also your camp shoes, for river wadings. Typically those will be sandals of Crocs which offer very little support and protection. I felt much more confident wading rivers with trailrunners.
If I were to make this trip again, I think I would choose for trailrunners again, but with regular Smartwool socks instead of desperately trying to keep my feet dry with expensive GTX-socks. Only in near-freezing temperatures I would now consider GTX-socks. Light walking boots (European A/B class) could be a good alternative on dry and moderately wet sections and in colder weather, but will be heavy, very hard to dry and a bacterial factory once they get wet on the inside. In drier regions, I would now always choose for trailrunners, except when I expect very rough terrain (scree and boulderfields) where durability could become problematic and ankle support & protection insufficient.
Well, I’m sure you will have a lot of personal experiences, remarks and additions now! Feel free to comment.