3/25/16

505 of the Appalachian Trail's Roughest Miles in a Pair of Walmart Running Shoes that Cost $16.87

Blisters, plantar fasciitis, sprained ankles, torn muscles and tendons are all painful and good ways to bring a hiking trip to a grinding halt.  Can the right shoes or boots make the difference in preventing injury and pain?  If so, who would dare to skimp on footwear while undertaking a thru-hike? I did, and my only regret is not doing it earlier.

If you've thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail you have probably heard of or met, Warren Doyle.  If not, he leads thru-hiking trips with the support of a couple vehicles leap frogging north on the trail in sections, with Warren hiking each section southbound while the group hikes northbound. If you are hiking northbound you are likely to bump into Warren and company at some point, and I was fortunate to cross paths with Warren many times in 2015. He wasn't exactly what I expected. Having heard about a man that hiked the Appalachian Trail 16 times (prior to completing his 17th trip in 2015) I was surprised to see the lack of fancy equipment he used. His glasses were held together with tape, he was using an 70s era ski pole for a hiking stick, and had Frog Toggs rain gear and Starter running shoes, both from Walmart.

After a few conversations with Warren I couldn't help but ask about his Starter running shoes.  He said he bought several pairs at Walmart on clearance for $10 each. So when my second pair of New Balance Minimus 1010 trail runners (MSRP $110, ~$60 on eBay) fell apart to the point where flaps of Vibram were hindering my ability to walk, I decided if Walmart shoes work for Warren, they'd probably work for me.  I wasn't slack packing, but I did travel on the light side (13-18lbs depending on food & water) and my feet, though flat, were accustomed to minimalist footwear.  In the Rutland, VT Walmart I found a nice pair of Starter running shoes in bright orange for $16.87. Not on clearance, unfortunately. 

Out with the old red New Balance Minimus MT1010 trail runners and in with the orange Starter Mesh Jogger Running Shoe from Walmart.
The Starter running shoes far exceeded my expectations, lasting the rest of the trail, over 500 miles from Rutland to Katahdin and down, over the roughest and most difficult terrain on the Appalachian Trail.  Unlike what I saw from common $100+MSRP trail runners on the AT, the Starter shoes stayed together long enough to wear the soles through. The inner and outer sides of the toe box did tear fairly early, but stayed together enough to be functional, far better than my previous New Balance shoes. They are great on rocks, lightweight (19.1 oz a pair on my scale), and plenty comfortable.  They don't have as nice of a fit as the New Balance trail runners and the tread is fairly smooth, so not much traction in mud and snow.

The Starter running shoes after 500+ miles of hiking through New England
Reading the online reviews on the Walmart website of the same shoes I discovered I was not the only AT hiker that has used them with success. Here is a review from UriahP: 

Great Shoes...worthy of the Appalachian Trail 10/3/2014
5.0 stars by UriahP

I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (2,185 miles) in these shoes. While most thru-hikers were spending $150 for various pairs of trail shoes or boots and going through them just as quickly, I was able to hike the entire trail in just 7 pairs of these (or $120 in all!). The shoes don't have the longest-lasting outer sole, but their soles have great grip on wet, rocky terrain, as per the A.T. The mid-sole (which is also the outer sole) would compress after 300-400 miles, but keep in mind I was carrying a 25 to 30-pound load on my back (I weigh 165lbs, so about 190lbs with pack) and on my feet for 8-12 hours daily for five months! I suspect the shoes were never built with a long trail in mind, but they worked flawlessly. Now that I'm done with the trail, I'm running nearly daily in these, looking forward to the next hiking adventure. I'll be buying these again, no doubt. There's no sense in spending more.

I'm a bit lighter that UriahP and my pack weighed half as much, so I think I could have done the whole trail with 3 pairs ($50.61).  Maybe I would have treated myself to a fourth pair.

I generally do not like Walmart (or any kind of shopping).  I feel overwhelmed being in the stores, especially after days on the trail, and I much prefer the food selection at the local grocery store. I also can't ignore that the true cost of the $16.87 shoe is likely externalized in various ways.  However, for better or worse, Walmart is nearly impossible to avoid on a hiking or biking adventure in the U.S., and the reality is that both the Starter and New Balance shoes I used are made in China, but one costs 7x more than the other and doesn't hold up as well.

Part of me didn't want the Starter shoes to last. I wanted to believe that what you pay for is what you get and that a brand name trail runner that cost 5-10 times as much is as superior as the price tag suggests.  The experience has left me questioning everything the shoe industry and retailers have been telling me about fit, injury prevention, and quality.  They've lost my trust and I may never buy a hiking or running shoe that cost more than $16.87 again.  As Warren surely understands, the less money we spend on things we don't really need, the more time we have to be outside.



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