If you’re hiking through the Grand Canyon with upwards of 40 pounds of gear on your back, you need a good pair of hiking boots. They distribute your load, give you support, and enable your feet to handle the burden.
If you’re day-packing with a light or no load or waltzing along the trail for the view, you need something else entirely—a hiking shoe. They’re lighter, cooler, more user-friendly, and generally cheaper.
If you’re a frequent Benosh reader, you may know I’m a fan of Merrell. By the time Wolverine bought Merrell in 2006, I was already in love with an original pair of Merrell’s Moab Ventilator hiking shoes. On the trail or whenever I could get by with it (e.g. not at work), they were my choice. With their mesh sides, wide Vibram sole and footbed, and good looks, they wore well…and served in the yard after their trail days were through.
Fast forward to 2010. The details have evolved on the Moab, but the core is still true. So I got another pair. Leather and mesh upper, a great, spongy tongue to keep our debris, and breathable lining atop an evolution of the Vibram sole—a great re-run of my old tried-and-trues.
But how was I to know that Keen, long a maker of great sandals, was cooking on their own take on the hiking shoe or that the good people of Keen would want us to check them out?
Cue the Butte by Keen. As previewed earlier, the Butte is a super light-weight, holier-than-thou hybrid between a hiking shoe and Keen’s great sandals. While plenty of shoes are ventilated, Keen has dispensed with the mesh cover many makers use and instead gave the Butte an open-air feel, wrapped in synthetic leather and “hydrophobic” mesh lining. While I’d think “hydrophobic” implies the Butte is scared of water, the mesh in fact is like a flexible, neoprene-like sock or coating inside the durable synthetic upper.
But how do they perform, you’re asking. Answer? Depends on what you’re doing. The Merrells are the heavyweights. At 1lb 8 oz, they’re no fly-weight hiking shoe (though they’re still far lighter than most boots). Also, their footbed is wider, and I feel more well planted on the trail in the far more padded Merrells. Vibram’s soles are top-notch…but I was disappointed to see that the grippy texture on the lugs wore down quickly. And like a few other Merrells I’ve tried, I’m not awed with the Moabs in the wet.
It’s hard to hold the wet-traction thing against the Moabs when comparing them to the Buttes…because I carefully stayed out of damp situations while wearing the gaping-hole Keens. The first thing you notice when going between the two is the Buttes’ near complete lack of padding. After the cushy Moabs, the Buttes are stark, Spartan fare for your feet. When teamed with too-short ankle socks, this turned into heel blisters I would never have received in the Moabs.
But then when the socks are right—note: Keen, we love you; send us some “sox”—the Buttes’ key characteristic comes to the fore: they’re missing something. What? 10.6 oz., according to the websites. Each. Want your car to handle better? Reduce un-sprung mass—the wheels, tires, and brakes. Want to handle better on the trail? “Add lightness” to your shoes. If the Moabs are planted 4×4 SUVs, the Buttes are dirt bikes.
Like so many things, the differences in these shoes make a clear-cut winner impossible to award. I like the Buttes’ static drawstring for speed…but the Moab’s traditional laces for customized fit. I like the Buttes’ open-air/rustic thing in the extreme heat (man, your feet do breathe a ton better), but the Moabs keep the trail debris out a little better. They’re also nearly the same price.
If your light hikes take you through hot, low-debris environments, the Keens are hard to beat. If the weather is cooler, damper, or grittier, I’d go with the Moabs. But as for me, I now have two highly favored hiking shoes. Ah, bliss.