Sunday, June 20, 2021

What to wear while hiking - footwear

 Shoes, boots, sandals, oh my.

A little bit about what I used on my feet on my PCT hike.

I guess I should start from inside the shoes, with socks.

I tried a variety of socks. Thick socks, thin socks, single layer socks, double layer socks, regular socks, toe socks.

Feet are important while hiking, but until we're hiking big miles, day after day, we tend to take our feet for granted, or at least I did.

Footwear that work for day to day activities back home may not work so well on the trail.

For socks, I ended up wearing two pair. An inner toe sock, and the thinnest Darn Tough running sock that I could find over the toe sock.

Toe socks, in case you don't know, are socks that have individual toes, like gloves for your feet.

I found that the toe socks helped prevent blisters between my toes. Those seemed to happen because of friction, and that was exacerbated by dirt that filtered through my shoes and socks. The toes socks took the abuse instead of my skin.

Big toe blister pre-toe socks.

Blister on the toe next to the big toe. Again, pre-toe socks

I used thin socks because thick socks took up too much room in the shoes, and I didn't want to have to buy even larger shoes, plus the "padding" in thicker socks really didn't hold up and just pilled up or flattened out.

Generally I wore short, ankle socks. The socks were really just to absorb friction between my shoes and feet. Later in the trail, when I switched to boots, I wore slightly taller outer socks to work with the boots, but still stuck to thin socks.

For shoes, I started with Altra Lone Peak shoes. These did not work at all for me. Lots of other hikers used them, and seemed happy with their choice, but for me, I could never find a lacing technique that would keep my heels from slipping up and down on every step.

This heel slippage led to large blisters on my heels, and the fabric inside the heels of the shoes actually tore, basically making the shoes unusable. Later in the hike I did find a pair of abandoned Lone Peaks that had the heel completely cut away, so perhaps someone else had the same issue.

I changed shoes to La Sportiva Wildcats and was much happier with those. My heels stayed put and all was well with the world. The downside to these is that they are exceptionally well ventilated. I mean, the top material of the shoe is a very porous mesh material. While this is good for letting your feet breath, it is not so good at keeping your feet clean. So, every night my feet were quite dirty, as the dust of the trail filtered through my shoes and socks and deposited itself on my feet.

So, every night, and often at our lunch breaks, I would use a wet wipe to clean my feet. I also used wet wipes to clean the rest of me every night, but feet generally took priority.

Lunch break, shoes off, socks off, insoles pulled out of shoes. Dump sand and dust out of shoes, let everything air out. 

At the end of the day, I would remove the insoles from the shoes, shake out anything that had gotten in, and undo the laces as much as possible, opening up the shoes to let them air out overnight. The shoes would always be wet from sweat, and it always felt better to put on dry shoes in the morning.

Dirty toes.

Even with the better fitting shoes, I did still get blisters. At one point I was dealing with blisters and still wanted to hike, so I experimented with hiking in sandals. I have a nice, although heavy, pair of Chaco sandals. I used those, but still wore socks. It might look silly, but with so much sand and gravel on the trails, the socks provide friction protection for your feet. Plus, those sandal straps that are nice and soft on your feet, will quickly become saturated with salt from your sweat and become stiff and uncomfortable as they rub against the soft skin of the tops of your feet.

Hiking in sandals.

The sandals were okay, but they don't provide the cushion or support of a regular shoe. If I were carrying less weight, or perhaps if I was hiking a trail where it was more humid, sandals might be a good option. Here in the dry West, sandals let your feet dry out, and the few people I met who were committed to hiking in their sandals had to carry products to hydrate their feet to keep them from cracking. Lots of ventilation equals excessively dry feet.

But, sandals were good for camp shoes. Especially lighter ones than the Chacos. I carried a pair of Bedrock sandals to use in camp. Also useful for water crossings.

Camp sandals, minimally hike-able in a pinch.

Share Bear carried a pair of ultra light water shoes for creek crossings in the Sierras. They seemed to work well enough. I can't remember if she also used them for camp shoes.

Share Bear putting on her water shoes at a creek crossing.

One of the most annoying things involving shoes, is getting a pebble or bit of rock of stick or whatever in them. What the normal reaction to that? Yeah, stop and take the shoe off and shake the offending object out.

You can't be doing that while hiking. Well, you could, but it's a whole big production when you're carrying a backpack and it breaks your rhythm and uses energy unnecessarily.

So, the solution? Gaiters. I used lightweight low height gaiters from Dirty Girl Gaiters. Yep, a specialty vendor that just makes gaiters. These are lycra gaiters that are just to keep dirt and rocks and whatnot out of your shoes, while still being very breathable so your feet don't sweat too much. They worked great, although as part of holding them down, you have to put a piece of velcro on the heel of the shoes that you are using. Not a big deal, although the self adhesive velcro doesn't last. Super Glue between the velcro and the shoe keeps everything in place.

Later in the trail, when things were getting wet and cold in Washington, I switched to boots because I was tired of wet feet. I tried on a few pair and ended up with a pair of Solomon boots (hey, they make good ski boots, why not hiking boots?) that promised to be waterproof and breathable thanks to the marketing giant that is Gore-Tex. They did their job reasonably well, combined with some much more serious gaiters to fend off wet trailside bushes. The boots I got are light weight for full boots, being more based on running shoes than old full grain leather boots.

I don't have a great shot of the boots in action, but this shows a bit of why I changed from trail runners to waterproof boots.

One accessory that we all carried in the mountains were Micro-Spikes. These are rubber and metal cages that fit around your shoe and provide metal teeth on the bottom to grip snow and ice. If you have to cross a snow field or some ice, these provide some extra security. They do take some time and effort to put on, so quite often I'd skip them for short patches of snow, or if the snow was fairly level or had a good trail stomped into it from other hikers.

One thing that shoes do much better than boots is drying. If your footwear gets wet, shoes are much more likely to dry at least somewhat overnight than boots. But in general that's not a huge issue. And once you are hiking, if your socks are mostly dry, then the heat from your feet while hiking will help drying the socks and shoes as you walk. Having shoes or boots that hold your feet with a minimum of slippage will help reduce blisters, as will socks that stay in place so any friction is taken by them instead of your skin.

Obviously, what worked for my feet isn't going to work for everyone.

Mighty Mouse was happy with her Solomon trail runners and also her (I think) Brooks Cascadia shoes.

Although I think the Solomons had a tendency to grow a hole by the pinky toe, and the Brooks would tear in the flex zone of the toes.

I did have one of my La Sportivas that had the outer mesh tear open along the whole length of the shoe, but one failure among a few pairs of the things while hiking hundreds of miles per pair is acceptable to me.

That's not good... thankfully there was an inner layer that held together.

That's one thing. Any pair of shoes that relies on foam for cushioning isn't going to last for the whole trail. I can't remember how many miles I got out of each pair of shoes, but 3-400 miles would be acceptable to me. and each time I changed to a new pair, I could immediately feel the difference. Hiking in shoes that are worn down punishes your feet.

Interestingly, the juggernauts of athletic shoes, Nike and Adidas has almost no representation among the hikers that I met on the trail. I'm not sure why that is, especially considering that Nike might be considered to be the pioneers of the trail running shoe, with their Lava Domes, a pair of which I had in middle school. I suspect that the smaller companies might listen to their customers a bit more closely and be willing to change shoe designs more quickly to fix customer reported issues. Plus, long distance hikers tend to be a little anti-establishment. It's never cool to be wearing the mega-corporation's products.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Hiking Gear Reflections - backpack(s)

 Okay, so more musings on camping gear, this time backpacks.

Strangely enough, given my experimentations with tents, I only used one backpack for the entire PCT.

I did, however, use a couple belts, because while I started out with an XL hip belt on the pack, I ended up with a Medium.

The pack I used was a Unaweep from Seekoutside.

I think I might have seen one other person on the trail with a Seekoutside pack.

So, how'd I end up with that pack? I read a bunch of reviews of packs online, and liked the ones that I read about this pack.

However, at the time I was purchasing gear, the selection was limited, and the pack that I got was fine, but it had a big zipper on the pack bag that I didn't really want, but that's all they had. I was really buying the suspension system, the pack bag was a secondary consideration.

Why a zipper? I suppose that someone thought it was a good idea, with the zipper you can get to things in the bottom of the pack without unpacking everything.

Why didn't I want a big zipper on the side of the pack? Zippers aren't in general waterproof. So, if it's raining and there's a big zipper on the side of your pack, you're going to have to use a pack cover to keep the water out. And a pack cover is an extra piece of gear, taking up space and adding weight.

If you use the appropriate sealant on the seams and threads of the pack you can make it basically waterproof, especially on a pack like this one that is, in essence one big bag with a roll top closure, like the design of a dry bag that you'd use for a rafting trip.

But, since I had the zipper, I carried a pack cover.

There are a bunch of things that I looked for in a backpack. I actually have several different packs that I've accumulated over the years, but I wanted something new, and more focused in design.

Thing that I wanted:

- Reasonable weight - I didn't go for the lightest pack available, but didn't want to carry too much extra weight.

- Capable of carrying extra weight while remaining comfortable - Some days I carried over 12 liters of water, that's a lot of extra weight and some ultralight packs don't make for good carrying when the weight gets past a certain point.

- A single compartment - Some packs have a separate compartment on the bottom for a sleeping bag of whatever, I didn't want that. Basically a single big bag with a couple water bottle pockets sewn on is what I wanted. I got a zipper, but only because the pack bags without the zipper were out of stock. All my gear was in stuff sacks, so it was kind of self organizing, I didn't need the pack to have compartments that might or might not fit the stuff I was carrying, which did change from time to time.

- Simple pack bag closure system - a roll top with buckles is going to be more reliable long term than something with a zip. My bag had a zip on the side that I used a few times, but the top entry was a roll top that let you roll down more with a a smaller load, or just roll a couple times if you really had a lot of stuff inside the pack.

- A design that wasn't necessarily reliant on the stuff inside to support the shape of the pack - some of the lightest packs are reliant on the hiker using a specific type of sleeping pad, since the foam pad provides the structure of the pack when it is packed. I used an air inflated sleeping pad (although I added a foam pad towards the end for more insulation), so I wanted something that had structure on its own.

- External water bottle pockets that were reachable without taking the pack off - for the PCT, I think almost everyone uses water bottles, not camelbacks or other bladder systems. And the water bottles were almost always 1 liter Smartwater bottles. Yep, the disposable water bottles you might buy at the supermarket if you were into buying water at a huge markup for no good reason. I'll talk about why I used those bottles later, but between the Smartwater bottles and Gatorade bottles, that's pretty much all I used, and what I saw the most of on the trail. And the pack needs to have pockets that you can not only get a bottle out of, but put it back into. The pockets on my pack will each carry two Smartwater bottles, and that pockets are situated so that I can get the bottles out and put them back while walking. Very important.

- A couple small pockets either on the shoulder straps and/or the waist belt to hold snacks and a camera and phone - My pack didn't have any of these, so I found some very light pockets online and strapped them to the waist belt and shoulder straps. Sewn on pockets would have been nice, but these mostly worked. A bag of peanut M&Ms in the belt pocket is a great thing when you need a little bite but don't want to stop and take the pack off and dig around inside.

- A comfortable waist belt - Some ultralight packs don't have much of a belt, I wanted something that would kind of cup my hip bones, taking the weight of the pack. This might be a personal thing, but it's what I've found worked for older packs. Unfortunately waist belts with nice padding add weight, so some makers skip them in the interest of keeping the weight low.

- Some way to hold wet gear separated from stuff that needed to stay dry - My pack has an external pocket that clips onto the back of the pack bag. The pocket can hold stuff, plus bulky things can be stuffed between the pocket and the body of the pack. Some days my tents went there, when it was wet and I didn't want it to be inside the pack.

So, most of my older packs have a plethora of pockets and lots of corresponding zippers. As I mentioned above, zippers aren't particularly waterproof, and if used a lot when dirty, they tend to wear and possibly break, and when a zipper closure breaks, it's a pain to deal with.

The current trend in lightweight packs is toward packs that have as little structure as possible, or at least as lightweight a structure as possible.

The packs we used to use when canoeing had strong, rigid aluminum frames that the pack bag was pinned to. Other items like tents and sleeping bags and pads were then strapped above or below the pack bag. This basic design goes back a very long time, the old trappers and traders used external frame packs, albeit wooden ones, to carry outrageous loads. It's a proven design.

However, external frame packs tend toward being weighty by themselves. And when you are hiking, it's nicer to carry as little weight as possible.

Here's the only external frame pack that REI has on their web site.

I actually have an older version of this behemoth, the Dana Designs (they changed into Mystery Ranch at some point in time) Terraframe. It's heavy. REI lists the current one at nearly 6 pounds.

My pack is actually considered heavy compared to many others, at 3.4 pounds.

But, It'll carry basically any load that I can lift without collapsing on itself.

If I had more packing discipline, or I didn't need to occasionally carry crazy amounts of water, a lighter pack would have done fine.

I would have saved about a pound and a half with something like this:

But, you have to be more careful with packing, and how you distribute weight, and if you have to carry a bear canister, the size and shape of the bear can may make packing the rest of your gear awkward.

Basically, I like the extra room that my pack has. I have space to carry a lot of stuff, but I tried not to do too much of that. But toward the end of the trail, I was carrying bulky items like a fleece jacket, and that takes up a stupid amount of space in the pack if you're not wearing it. Which is why almost nobody uses fleece jackets on the trail, but that's a topic for a different post.

So, I used a weirdo external frame pack designed by people who typically design hunting packs meant to carry dead animal parts. What did the sane backpackers use? Well, obviously, not that.

Let's look at Mighty Mouse's pack.

That's a ULA Circuit, which I'm pretty sure is what she has.

It's also right around 2 pounds, a very nice weight.

It obviously works for her. She bought it for her 2014 PCT attempt, and kept it for all of this hike without any problems, or at least nothing major.

And lot of other people used ULA packs. I'd say they were one of the most used packs.

But, packs are very individual things, and there are lots of makers out there. On the trail, there were lots of different packs being used. Most people seemed happy with theirs, although there were a couple that had issues.

Would a pack from REI work? Sure, but most of those are meant to survive a level of abuse that most PCT hikers aren't going to give their equipment, and thus end up weighing more than needed. Interestingly, the gear that PCT hikers use is quite often going to require gentle treatment. The fabrics used in the packs, and the tents are thinner and more delicate than what you'd use in something designed for a Boy Scout. So, the packs from small makers like ULA or Gossamer Gear or Hyperlite are in general going to be a little delicate. They'll last for their intended use, but you're not going to want to drag them across rocks too much, or toss them down without looking out for pointy things.

I might have carried an extra pound or so in pack weight, but I didn't mind that because I felt that the comfort and carrying capacity afforded by the frame and a good waist belt were worth it.