Like most thru-hikers, I’m inherently skeptical of waterproof shoes for hiking. So, with a big amount of skepticism, I tried the new Altra “Better Than Waterproof” Neoshell Lone Peaks
My general footwear plan for a thru-hike is to go with a breathable trail runner (the Altra Lone Peaks)—not a waterproof shoe. Non-waterproof shoes not only are less expensive, but also dry out more quickly when you get your shoes soaked in a ford. Non-waterproof shoes also breathe better in general, keeping your feet from sweating (which eventually can lead to blisters, or at the very least, foot odor).
But, I will admit, I was very curious about the Neoshell Lone Peaks. I love the Lone Peaks for all my backpacking in general, and Neoshell is a waterproof breathable material that has never been used in shoes before. Plus, the shoes were free (thanks Altra!), so I figured I’d give it a shot.
Altra’s marketing video for the Neoshells
The first “thru-hike” I took the Neoshells on was a late October hike of the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood. Normally, October is past season for that hike, and I knew it was going to be very cold. Indeed, it snowed and there were 30 mph winds on the second day (of course, on the part that is above treeline and totally exposed). There are several glacial rivers that need to be forded, but the runoff was so low that my feet didn’t get wet from that.
My feet mostly got wet from rain and snow. I was hiking with a friend who wore Brooks Cascadias who told me her feet were warm while actively hiking, but were cold when we stopped moving. At the end of the hike (temps in the mid 30s to low 40s by that point), my feet were definitely still warm even when we were stopped. At the end of the trip, my friend’s feet were soaked. For me with the Neoshells, the inside of my shoes were about as dry as they would be if I were hiking on a non-rainy 80 degree day using my normal Lone Peaks. That’s to say, my feet must have sweat a little or otherwise some moisture to manage to get in, but it wasn’t noticeable except when I touched my sock with my hand. Note that I was not wearing gaiters at all on this trip.
The second hike thru-hike I took the Neoshells on was a late October/early November 200-mile, 10-day urban hike in Seattle. I knew this trip would be wet and cold, so the Neoshells were going to be the perfect shoe. My feet were super warm, even during the night hiking portions, and they never felt uncomfortably sweaty. Temps were in the 40s throughout the hike and being Seattle, it rained about half the days I was out. I brought my shoes inside a house every night and they were dry in the morning.
I took the Neoshells on a snowy dayhike near Denver in early December. Waterproof shoes are best used in cold, dry conditions, or for hiking in the snow that isn’t too wet or actively melting. Temps were in the high 20s/low 30s, but it was sunny. My feet stayed warm throughout the hike and did not sweat. I wasn’t wearing gaiters, but the snow generally wasn’t deep enough to get into the shoe.
I took the Neoshells on a 26 mile dayhike in the San Gabriel Mountains on the PCT in December. It was actually a mistake–I wore my Neoshells in the car on the way there because they are that comfortable. I had been planning to switch to the new Altra Olympus 2.0 with Vibram sole, but forgot to take my Neoshells off and just started hiking. There were a few patches of snow on the trail, but temps were in the high 60s. These temps were probably too warm for the Neoshells for most of the trip. My feet were not super sweaty (actually, wearing long underwear on that trip ended up being the bigger mistake), but they would’ve been a little happier if I’d just worn my normal Neoshells.
To test how the shoes would work in “lab like” conditions, I soaked the Neoshells in my kitchen sink until the shoe filled with water, then laid it out to dry outside. Pretty much short of going through a ford, I don’t think the shoes will ever get that wet, even walking in the rain all day on the AT. Sure enough, they filled up like buckets. After dumping the water out, I put them in the sun in 50 degree temps in a dry Western climate to see how long it would take.
I removed the insole and surprisingly, it dried in less than 20 minutes (Altra’s insoles tend to take a longer time to dry). The padding inside the shoe took longer—3 hours–but it was completely drenched. Dry time is pretty key for thru-hikers and backpackers (not at all important for dayhikers or runners or even urban thru-hikers who get to dry their shoes inside). Of course, on a thru-hike, even if your shoes did dry overnight, they’ll likely just get wet as soon as you walk half a mile…
A typical waterproof shoe warms feet by acting like a Vapor Barrier, The Neoshell fabric as the vapor barrier breathed better than the waterproof fabric used in the Salomon Men’s XA Pro 3D CS WP Trail Running Shoe, ( a shoe I used on a later season JMT thru-hike a few years ago). Both shoes kept my feet warm, but sweatiness is a factor that can cause potential problems beyond just feeling uncomfortable.
When I thru-ed the PCT, I used plastic bags as Vapor Barriers and they disintegrated after a day. My feet were painfully cold and that trip ended up with huge chaffing and painfully cold feet. On the CDT, I used waterproof socks over normal hiking socks and ended up with pruney-ness and chaffing caused from the sweat inside my otherwise warm feet.
On a thru-hike, I would highly consider using the Neoshell in areas like the San Juans on the CDT or the Sierras on the PCT—situations of walking through snow for long periods of time. The Neoshell could be a better solution to those other Vapor Barrier situations listed above. Although Neoshells are more expensive than normal Lone Peaks, they are still retail slightly cheaper than using normal Lone Peaks and waterproof socks together (I’ve bought the RBH Designs VprThem socks and SealSkinz Thin Mid-Length Waterproof Sock). If I were taking any waterproof shoe or sock-system for a thru-hike with at least a week of continuous snow walking, I would definitely use MLD Event Gaiters in conjunction.
On a side note, for me, the Neoshells are the most comfortable pair of Lone Peaks I’ve used in a while. The toe box and general width works really well for my feet, which is why I find myself still grabbing for them in temps over 50 degrees. I’ve read some complaints that it isn’t wide enough, but I really enjoy the sizing and fit.
I have about 400 miles on my Neoshells, and haven’t noticed any wear. It’s really weird. They look almost like they’re out of the box. Now, 200 of those miles are urban, but so far, the Neoshells are proving to be the most durable Altras I’ve tried.
Ultimately, a waterproof shoe—like a heavy down jacket or a 0 degree sleeping bag—is a very specific instrument that has time and place. That time and place is not a desert hike in August (as one less than clever reviewer did). But, for runners or even dayhikers, a waterproof shoe can be a viable option to keep feet warm in the winter. And for thru-hikers who may be facing a big snow year, the Neoshells could potentially offer a better answer than what has been out there.