Monday, April 30, 2018

Footwear: Go Light, Go Longer.

With the amount and variety of hiking gear available, sometimes choosing the right equipment can be a daunting task. We spend countless hours on the web comparing gear and prices, and reading reviews to find the perfect pack or sleeping bag or shelter. The options are limitless. Do we want an internal or external framed pack? Do we need a frame at all? What size? How many liters? What about a shelter? Should I buy a freestanding double-walled tent, or go with something lighter I have to stake out like a tarp? Do I need the footprint? What about bivy sacks and hammocks? I need a sleeping bag too. Should I buy down or synthetic? What about the temperature rating? Does it need to be water resistant? Should I get a quilt instead? 

The questions are many, and finding the answer that works for you can take a ton of research. 

When it comes to footwear however, that process is often times ignored. We already know what footwear we need, no doubt imbedded into our sub-consciousness from years on the trail… 

We need boots. Heavy high-topped leather boots with great traction, ankle support, and a Gortex membrane to keep our feet dry. Since we already know we need boots, buying them is much simpler. We walk into the outfitter and try some on. We pace around the shoe department and maybe make a few laps up and down the stairs. When one pair stands out above the rest as the most comfortable (or least uncomfortable), we fork over a couple hundred bucks and walk out the door. Done deal right? 

Not so much. 

Our feet hurt, and blisters are forming on our heels and toes. Instead of admitting defeat in our choice of footwear, we spend more time and money treating the symptoms. We buy expensive insoles. We use sock-liners, or better yet we double-up on heavy merino-wool socks. We apply moleskin at the start of the hike in the spots we’re blister prone. We take our boots off on breaks, and sometimes even stop mid-hike to change socks. We carry an extra pair of shoes so we can ditch the boots the moment we reach camp because our feet are screaming. In extreme cases we might take our boots back to the outfitter… and exchange them for other boots. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. I’ve been there. 

This is the way of the hiker; blisters, foot pain, and miserably sweaty feet… But it doesn’t have to be. There exists an effective yet simple alternative... 

Shoes. More and more, hiking shoes and trail runners are replacing boots as the footwear of choice for hikers. 

Most of the time when choosing new gear, weight is a prime consideration (if not, it should be). Even though our backpack is designed to carry 50 pounds, that doesn’t mean we want it to. We are all acutely aware of the pain inducing affects a heavy pack can have on the body… But what if I told you that weight on the feet is actually worse for you than weight on the back? You’ve probably heard the adage that 1 pound on your foot can equal 5 on your back. Well, in terms of energy expenditure, it’s basically true. A US Army study concluded that walking with one pound on the foot expends the same amount of energy as carrying 6 pounds on the back. When you realize that boots can weigh 2, 3, or even 4 pounds, that’s a ton of energy your body is needlessly burning with every step, and fatigue will come much quicker. In The Backpackers Handbook world re-known long distance hiker Chris Townsend writes, “That lighter footwear is less tiring seems indisputable.” 

Shoes aren’t only lighter, they are more comfortable. Thinner synthetic construction and an abundance of mesh ensure good airflow, reducing moisture and the chance of blistering. Flexible soles give your feet the freedom to move naturally, instead of being stuck in the same position for miles on end. The result is that your feet are comfortable longer, making those long hikes more doable than you ever thought. Again, Townsend writes that heavy boots, “make my feet ache after about 12 miles, and after 15 miles all I want to do is stop. Yet in running shoes I can cover twice the distance before my feet complain.” I had a similar experience. On a 12 mile day, hiking fast to beat the darkness, my feet were killing me in my boots. Every step was agony. The pain was so bad I just wanted to quit. I bought a pair of trail runners the next week. Later that summer on a 50 mile mountain trek in central Idaho I hiked faster, with no pain or blisters, all while carrying a much heavier load. I was sold. 

In my experience, the most common reason people say they prefer boots is the need for ankle support. It stands to reason that the rigid boot construction would provide more stability for the foot, and minimize the risk of ankle injury. I however have noticed a dramatic decrease in the amount of ankle problems since I switched to shoes. This is because I step more carefully in shoes, knowing my feet are potentially more vulnerable to slipping, sharp rocks, and other trail hazards. Indeed, it is this lack of protection that is the real trade-off. 

It all comes down to personal preference, and what your specific needs are on a given trip. I find boots still my footwear of choice hiking in snow, or multiple days of rain. The prevailing theory among shoe enthusiasts is that trail runners dry so quickly that getting them (and by default your feet) wet is not something to avoid, which is fine for a stream crossing on a sunny day, but if the forecast for your weekend trip is calling for non-stop rain, then you probably don’t want to spend that time with soaked feet. Like with any gear purchase, do your homework. There are many options between trail runners and heavy leather boots. Brands like Merrell, Keen, and Salomon offer shoes with the benefits of both: low-profile, synthetic materials, plenty of mesh, Vibram soles, and even Gortex. Again, do your research. There are tons of resources online, and lots of great books written by people with thousands of trail miles under their belts. Before you buy don’t forget to stop at your local outfitter and try some on. Pace around the shoe department, and maybe make a few laps up and down the stairs…

This article was modified from a story published a few years ago on the now defunct Mountain Blog. All the work is mine.