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Lems Boulder Boots. Courtesy of Lems

We Tried It: Lems’ Lightweight, Packable Hiking Boots

This small Boulder company wants you to live flat, footloose, and pain-free.

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If I were a horse, I’d have what my dad—who is a large animal veterinarian—calls “bad conformation.” I over-pronate and have narrow, flat feet, a duck-footed gait, ankles prone to rolling and myriad back issues (I’m also single, so get in line, guys). Despite these issues, I can kick some serious ass on the trail and have the ability to scramble like a rock squirrel. I abandoned traditional, clunky hiking boots years ago in favor of (orthotic-amended) hiking shoes, because I backpack all over the world as a travel journalist, and at 5-foot-2, the less weight I have to haul around, the better.

When my Patagonia trail shoes succumbed to wear and tear two years ago, I was dismayed to discover they’d been discontinued. I’ve since wasted money on two other pairs of reputable hiking shoes, but for various reasons, they haven’t been a fit—literally. That issue, combined with acute onset SI joint dysfunction this summer has made hiking difficult. Then a trainer at my gym in Basalt told me about Lems Shoes.

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I was unfamiliar with the Boulder-based company, which was founded by former Purdue University decathlete Andrew Rademacher in 2011, but after I Googled them, I realized I’d seen a lot of people wearing Lems’ distinctive footwear. I was skeptical that “flat, flexible, boots designed to fit the natural shape of the human foot” would be suitable for hiking—let alone helping to offset my wonky composition—but the trainer, who has a background in biomechanics and exclusively wears Lems microfiber and open-mesh weave athletic shoes, urged me to give them a try. His opinion was that because Lems are designed to alleviate lower back strain, they’d be helpful for my SIJ issues.

Rademacher began experimenting with footwear design in 2008 while working at a local shoe store. After blowing his paychecks on purchasing and cutting up sneakers, and “running barefoot on golf courses, learning how the foot works in conjunction with different muscle groups,” he determined that the ideal shoe is indeed flat. Most footwear is elevated, with a high arch and constricting toe box, which “throws off the alignment of the spine and forces an unnatural heel strike.”

Rademacher’s last prototypes had zero-drop (meaning the heel is the same height at the ball of the foot) and were widest at the forefoot and toes, allowing for unrestricted movement. The resulting shoe promises to “promote healthy foot development, better balance, increased mobility in the feet, legs and back and help alleviate certain foot ailments such as bunions and hammertoes.”

Still dubious, I called Lems and asked if I could road-test a pair of their popular women’s Boulder Boots ($140). I chose the full-grain leather, water-resistant Russet model. Branded “the world’s most packable boot,” these babies weigh in at 9.9 ounces and roll up to fit into even the most petite daypack.

When I expressed concern about the wide toe-box design and potential traction issues (the patented air-injection rubber outsoles aren’t particularly thick or rugged-looking), director of marketing, Audrey Smith, assured me that she had worn her Boulder Boots in all types of terrain and they have excellent traction for dry hikes (they’re not designed as a high-performance boot for winter/icy conditions). I can now verify this after testing them on a steep trail; they can handle scree, slippery downhill descents, and smearing on fine-grained basalt as well as (or better) than any trail shoe or boot I’ve ever owned.

These boots feel like the world’s most supportive bedroom slippers. On the trail, you’ll feel some debris due to the thinner outsoles, but not in a way that’s uncomfortable or impedes movement. My ankles felt supported, my feet remained cool, and I was able to hop and scramble with ease. The wide toe-box didn’t create excessive movement or make me feel unstable. More important, I didn’t suffer any lower back pain as a result of my footwear. Plus they’re stylish—I get compliments every time I wear them, and they look great with everything from jeans and cargo pants to shorts.

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I’m so enthralled with my Boulder Boots that I’m taking them on an upcoming trip to Africa, where I’ll wear them on a walking/camping safari (the higher ankle collar will provide added protection from brush and malarial mosquitoes), followed by a five-day trek of South Africa’s rugged Wild Coast. They’re not suitable for hardcore mountaineering, but I’d wear them on any of my aforementioned global treks with confidence.

There are other reasons to buy Lems besides function. I love being able to support a small, family-owned Colorado company committed to producing a high-quality, affordable product with sustainable growth and an emphasis on “employee and consumer happiness.” From the bottom of my flat duck feet, thanks, Lems.

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