A New Shoe for the Trail: the Astral Aquanaut

In September Sunshine and I took a week-long backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. She’d visited the Park numerous times when she lived in Missoula, Montana after her second thru-hike on the A.T.. This was my first time in Glacier (and in Montana for that matter), and I was excited to see a new part of American wilderness. I was also excited to try out the Astral Aquanaut light hiking shoe on the trail. Astral is an outdoor gear company out of Asheville, North Carolina. I have long relied on their PFD’s for river adventures, and in recent years they’ve made a very successful entry into footwear. I used (and loved) their Brewer as my camp shoe while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The Aquanaut is the first dedicated hiking shoe that Astral has made, combining their design expertise in traction for water sports with a more rugged build for use on the trail. Here are my impressions after walking in the Aquanaut for 6 days in the back-country of Glacier.

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We started off from Kintla Lake in the Northwestern corner of the park. The first day we hiked under grey skies along the banks of Kintla Lake until the high peaks of Boulder Pass came into view. That evening at Upper Kintla campsite a cold front with rain blew in, marking the beginning of several days of wet, cool weather. Awaking that second morning and looking up a thousand feet to the pass, I had my doubts about how well we would handle a winter storm at elevation, but Sunshine was upbeat and her optimism got us motivated out of camp and up the trail. In the morning we walked a narrow, wooded trail crowded with dew-laden grass that soaked our feet. By the afternoon we were climbing a high mountain pass that was covered in melting snow. There was no keeping our feet dry on this day, and this was the first opportunity for the Aquanauts to shine. Built with lightweight, hydrophobic materials, the Aquanauts are very quick to dry out. After laying them out for one cool night in camp I was surprised to find them comfortably dry when I put them on the next morning.

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Lightness is a sort of obsession with Astral footwear–the Aquanauts weigh in at just over a pound, and that is a difference you can feel on your feet over the course of a 10-mile day. There are certainly trade-offs to the lightweight construction. For one thing, there is less foam padding built into the shoe, and some hikers may find that less comfortable than the cushy trail runners they’re used to. For me, the shoe proved to be very comfortable over the course of our hike, conforming to my foot and providing a good connection to the ground beneath me. In the wet conditions I was glad the Aquanauts did not have more foam cushioning built in that would retain water and result in clammy footwear. I was also impressed with their traction. Carrying a 45-pound pack over wet rock and scree slopes, the sticky Astral G.15 rubber inspired confidence and saved me from taking hard spills on the trail (except for that one time I slipped in snow coming through Boulder Pass).

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We descended the back side of Boulder Pass into one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever scene: snow-covered peaks towered over high, hanging valleys and streams of snow melt cascaded down the mountain on all sides. We spent the night at Hole-in-the-Wall campsite, camping a few hundred yards from a grizzly bear grazing on Huckleberries. The next day we made a short hike down through Brown Pass and camped beside the glacial blue waters of Lake Francis. Then we turned around and began retracing our steps over the Continental Divide and back towards our car.

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After six days of tough testing in the back-country I came away truly impressed with the Aquanauts. I don’t know if I could recommend this shoe for a long-distance thru-hike like the A.T.–I’ll leave it to others to test and report on how these shoes hold up under that kind of abuse–but for anything from an easy day-hike to a muti-day backpacking trip, I would recommend these shoes. Do be aware, the Aquanauts are not waterproof or insulated, so they are best suited to summer and shoulder season hiking when you want to keep your feet cool and dry. For me, I’m excited to see Astral produce such a quality hiking shoe on their first attempt, and I’m eager to see how they grow and improve it in the future.

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