During a particularly unpleasant trip to my podiatrist a few months back, I winced as he deciphered x-rays of my jacked up feet. I’d struggled with plantar fasciitis for months (here’s a story about how to banish that injury to the dust bin) but this was confirmation the condition had an equally painful bedfellow: degenerative arthritis.
As a pretty active (and, ahem, fairly young) person, the news was upsetting, but there was a slice of hope, if bittersweet—I could continue all of my favorite outdoor pursuits as long as I switched to orthopedic footwear. Keyed in to the fact that I was busy envisioning amorphous, beige, velcro-strapped frankenshoes, my foot doc uttered what turned out to be a saving grace: “You might like Hokas.”
I had never worn a pair of Hoka One One shoes before, but I was familiar with their famously fluffy frame, a sort of luxury foot hotel complete with a wide toe box, soft sole, and a slight rocker shape meant to help your stride ease on through with a bit less effort. As it turns out, my guy was right—with a pair of Hoka Speedgoats laced to my feet, I was substantially more comfortable during trail runs and day hikes. One problem solved, then, but what was I going to wear for backpacks and peakbagging trips?
Well, my podiatrist would be pleased, because earlier this year, Hoka One One debuted a collection of hiking boots. Despite my experience with the Speedgoats, however, I was skeptical—would the brand’s iconic rocker shape and mega-cushion translate to effectively (and painlessly) covering big miles, carrying a heavy pack, and traveling across unforgiving terrain where underfoot sensitivity is key? I grabbed two very different pairs and hit the trails (and, um, the not-trails) to find out.
I eased into the Hoka hiking party with the Toa, a lightweight, waterproof, mid-top day hiker that tries to straddle the line between minimalist boot and maximalist runner. The brand positions this as a fastpacking shoe of sorts, the kind of thing you wear when you’re carrying just a little weight and want to move through the landscape with ease and speed.
Typically I’d wear a trail runner for these types of outings—something light, breathable, and nimble. But honestly, I’d probably ruin my Speedgoats if I did so—they just aren’t made for hauling weight. To my surprise, the Toas felt like a not-so-distant cousin. They were light enough (13.2 oz), comfortable straight from the box (the result of a thickly cushioned sole and heel wrap), and the moderately lugged Vibram Megagrip sole held across a variety of terrain, including gravel, sand, dirt, and mud. Even though the Toas don’t offer the same bouncy responsiveness as the Speedgoat (they’re hikers, after all—they’re not going to offer quite the same toe-off as a runner would), I still felt comfortable breaking into a short jog during one Sierra outing.
Honestly, the Toas would have become my new number one if not for a single feature—they’re waterproof. This would be a notch in the plus column for a lot of folks, but one of the main reasons I hike and backpack in trail runners is that I’m a prolific sweater and want a shoe that dries quickly when wet. Sure, the Toa does a stellar job of preventing water from getting inside, thanks to a waterproof eVent bootie liner (trust me, I tramped around in multiple water sources trying to break the seal), but I did find that my socks were slightly damp (and my toes slightly wrinkled) every time I removed my shoes following any hike over a few miles.
Enter the Hoka Arkali, a non-waterproof hiking and scrambling shoe. To be honest, I still haven’t come around to the aesthetics, something between an approach shoe and a basketball shoe, but the fit and performance more than make up for any misgivings over style. Much like the Toa, the Arkali felt comfortable from the first lace-up. It’s the same weight and features the same drop (only 4mm), but offers a more customizable fit with two velcro (velcro!) straps, one at the heel, and a fatter one at the ankle. Coupled with a stretchy tongue, the shoes hugged my feet and held their ground with zero slippage, even while crossing jagged talus and descending steep slabs.
Like the Toa, the Arkali is outfitted with a Vibram sole, though a more aggressive version, perfect for chewing through uneven terrain—I felt surefooted moving off-trail across downed logs, wet granite, steep gravelly slopes, and boulder-filled stream crossings. What’s more, the ankle strap features a stretchy pocket that hides the knot of your laces, which prevents them from becoming undone or getting tangled up in underbrush. And thankfully, so very thankfully, they are not waterproof. My feet were soaked through a few times while fighting through dewy brush, but they dried out quickly as I hiked.
As with most shoes that aren’t explicitly orthopedic, foot pain sufferers may want to consider replacing the insoles with something more therapeutic (I regretted leaving my favorite pair behind during one gnarly off-trail adventure). And though the brand touts the burliness of the Arkali’s toe cap, I stubbed the bejeezus out of my big toe during one rocky descent, since the actual cap doesn’t rise high enough on the underlying rubber rand to offer protection for anything other than a completely horizontal hit. But really, my gripes are minimal.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some peakbagging to do, arthritis be damned.
More comfy hikers we adore
Altras either work for your feet or they don’t but if you like a big wide toebox and no drop, you can’t beat the comfort. Thousands of thru-hikers can’t all be wrong. The Lone Peak are Altra’s rugged runner, with a rock plate and lots of grip. $120
For a more conventional shape, including an 8mm drop, the Salomon Sense Ride 2 offer a lightweight shoe that can handle running and backpacking. $120
The Brooks Cascadia is a hugely popular trail shoe for a reason. Tough and light, they comfortably log big miles. You can get them now for about $100.