When flying somewhere with specific, serious wilderness exploits in mind you pack nothing but the most trusted backcountry footwear you own. Duh. Less obvious is what kind of footwear to pack on trips that involve only vague plans to “get out there and see some incredible stuff.” Or trips that aren’t limited to purely wilderness travel, with a bit of urbanity tossed in.
Big, clunky boots, even if lightweight, are a bit of a nightmare for light-packing travelers like myself who refuse to check a bag even on weeks-long trips.
So I recently decided to test out a pair of Lems Boulder Boots, a packable, minimalist shoe that can only be called a boot in the loosest possible sense of the word, on a trip to New Zealand and Australia. There’d be tramping and fishing through rugged South Island, NZ, and Tasmania, but also nights wandering hipster-chic Sydney.
I’d been using the Lems on short hikes in Northern California, but had never depended on them on rocky, root-bound trails miles and miles from a trailhead. But lured by their incredible ability to roll up into a donut, or compress down to about an inch in height, I couldn’t resist their packability. This was their chance to shine.
But first, the details. These are zero-drop, wide toe-box (think Altra-style toe boxes) minimalist shoes with no midsole. None. You get a nine millimeter rubber outsole and a three millimeter insole. That’s pretty much it for cushion.
The uppers are tough 1200d-nylon with leather toe and heel caps, with a band of leather along the eyelets and the ankle cuff (full-leather models are also available). They’re a mid-height shoe, with about a six-inch ankle.
The tread is a cross-hatched waffle pattern which provides adequate traction, and while I’ve never slipped while wearing these, I don’t always have total faith in them while on slick granite. They grip without feeling grippy, I suppose.
After at least a hundred miles in them, the tread and outsole still look great too, a bit of a surprise to be honest.
But anyway, can you hike in these things or what?
Yes, absolutely, though with two caveats. First: Do you like minimalist shoes? Then there’s a lot to like here. You feel in contact with the trail—something I love—without feeling unprotected. Rocks, roots, branches, soil, your feet will sense all of it, though not with that uncomfortable, princess and the pea kind of annoyance. At least not for me and my big flat size-12 clompers. There’s a sense of being more connected with the trail in these. A big bonus.
I’ve also been pleasantly surprised with a lack of foot fatigue in these after long trail days. I expected tired, sore feet as the miles piled up because of the lack of cushion. But that hasn’t happened. Though, again, I like minimalist shoes. Your mileage may vary.
Also, these aren’t backpackers. There’s little support in the ankle cuffs, though they’re great at protecting your ankles from branches, rocks, and sharp thorns. Adding extra weight to your back will only put more pressure on your feet and as comfortable as these are, I’d rather wear even trail runners when toting 25-plus pounds.
That said, I regularly wore a 10-pound pack filled with water and snacks with the Lems on my feet and had no issues. I knew I wouldn’t be tackling any multi-day overnighters, so this wasn’t a problem on my recent trip.
And, my goodness, the versatility and the way these things pack is something else. I’ve rolled them up and stuffed one in each of my pack’s side pockets. I’ve flattened them and stuffed them in the mesh pocket on the pack’s back. I thought I lost them once because they were squished down like little pancakes in the bottom of my backpack.
Plus, they look great, and you can wear them just as easily waltzing into a fancy beer place once you emerge from the backcountry, if that’s your thing. They’re darn close to being the one shoe you need to pack on a trip when you don’t know what to expect. The best kinds of trips, really.
$115 • BUY
We love these versatile travel shoes too!
Though heavier, burlier, and more backcountry capable than the Lems, the Oboz Crest Low are still travel-size friendly and comfortable on the trail and downtown. $150
The Arc’teryx Norvan VT trail runners are incredibly light and packable, comfortable, and sport tough a tough Vibram outsole. Great choice if they’re the only shoe you can pack. $170
Not as easy to pack as the Lems, but sturdier and more comfy, The North Face Ultra 110 are go anywhere low-cut hikers that look great too. $120