Backcountry footwear for the other 3 seasons; revised

This post, written back when B&P was new to wordpress and to me being more serious about content, has endured as one of my most read.  Save a few updates about specific gear, and some more evolved thoughts about foot conditioning, the text is as relevant today as it was in 2010.  For those who may have missed it, that original post is presented, with modest revision and update, below the videos.

The exception is stiffer shoes and even boots for heavier loads, a subject on which my views are evolving.  Since this trip I’ve had a left pinkie toe which has been sporadically numb, and I’ve been periodically enjoying the quite stiff Trango TRK, whose occasional use has as of this writing made that numbness go away.  My views here are not categorically different, insofar as I still think the claims which have traditionally accompanied boots are incorrect, but they are definitely evolving with the different experience of carrying more heavy loads, and most likely of aging.

Above, the trip that started it all, and below, the latest iteration where I really felt like I had things dialed. This year was faster, easier, and far more relaxed. 2010 still has the worst conditions I’ve been in, probably ever.  My personal evolution between these two trips has been huge, though largely one of refinement only.

As regular readers know, I spend a fair amount of time worrying about shoes. When going into the backcountry, your feet are the most important part of your system, and often the weakest link. On most of the big trips I’ve done in the wilderness over the last eight years, sore and/or torn up feet tend to slow me down long before conditions or metabolic or muscular fatigue. More recently this has become less and less the case, but building foot strength that exceeds leg strength on a 35 mile day, especially on harder surfaces, is a multi-year project.  Many folks just won’t have the time or inclination to get there, and thus need to pre-plan for every possible advantage.  I’m hard pressed to think of anyone from the last five years of the Bob Open for whom foot issues were not the primary slowing factor.

Preemptive foot care is vital, as getting anything beyond trivial maladies to heal while on the go is difficult. Footwear is also one of the few “no fail” pieces of backcountry gear. A torn raincoat, punctured thermarest, or ripped sleeping bag would be a nuisance, but not life threatening, and field repairable. Catastrophic shoe (or backpack) failure has the potential to seriously ruin your day. This article is written around the assumption that preemptive foot care and bomber footwear are interrelated prolegomena to backcountry enjoyment.

It is also written using an inversion of the usual definition of three season backcountry travel, which is typically summer conditions, expanded backwards into spring and forwards into fall either via geography or picking especially kind periods of weather. Assembling a functional footwear system when daytime temps rarely fall below freezing and funky precip is rare becomes an easy exercise. Today I am rather interested in hiking during mountain shoulder seasons, and full winter conditions elsewhere. Between summer, the time of trail runners and light socks only, and full winter, where deep snow and cold call for skis and plastic double boots, lies the most challenging and perhaps most interesting backcountry conditions. The following are guidelines I use for outfitting my feet for the Bob Marshall in October or May, and the Smokies or southern Utah in January. Strong opinions will be rife, so proceed with caution.

Principle #1: Wear light, non-waterproof trail shoes that fit well and provide optimal traction for the expected terrain.
Underlying axoims:
-it is foolhardy to go into the woods without good balance and strong joints
-fit trumps all
-your feet will get wet anyway, and that’s not a big deal

High, heavy boots are not an effective or sustainable primary safety mechanism in the backcountry.  If your physiology and load would seem to dictate heavy boots, lighten your pack and strengthen your legs. Do balance exercises, take a hard yoga class, slackline. You’ll need that good balance and those quick reflexes to avoid the inevitable slips and falls when you find ice under snow or when talus moves unexpectedly, so you might as well benefit by having lighter, quicker, and happier feet. There’s compelling evidence that ankle support and pronation control devices, rather than abrogating strain and preventing serious injury, merely transfer it elsewhere. Stiff trail shoes may save you from bruising a feet if you land poorly on a pointy rock, but at the expense of turning your ankle. Strong legs first. Most people will find that stiffer soles and more support generally will be desirable as pack weight goes up, but the threshold at which I’ve found that to become relevant (~40 pounds) should be in the current gear climate quite rare.

Shoes must fit. Bring your sock combos (plural, to be discussed below) to the store when trying on shoes. Aim for a locked in heel with the thinnest rig, while not having your forefoot pinched with the widest. The width of the shoe should huge your midfoot closely, so that side slop on rough terrain is minimized. Forward of the joints your toes should have plenty of room to wiggle without touching the shoe in any direction, and with your thickest shock combo you should at least a full centimeter of space in front of your longest toe. Take the time to get this right, even though it can be a huge pain in the ass. Bear in mind that when feet swell (and they will!), they do so sideways and up primarily. You should have slack left in the laces to ease up, and ideally a bit (but not too much) room left in side to side volume. A tricky balancing act. It is better to get a good fit at the expense of other desired traits than vice versa.

I’ve come to strongly prefer low to the ground, more flexible shoes. Thicker EVA may feel nice for the first 20 miles, but after that it does little to delay foot fatigue, and the decrease in stride efficiency it gives may well do the opposite. One thing that will save your feet over the long run is a moderately stiff, ideally full length nylon rock plate. They’ll spread out of the force of pointy stuff and drastically reduce point tenderness and the resulting physical and mental fatigue (insofar as the two can be meaningfully distinguished).  This sort of support is far more effective over the long term than foam cushioning.  Those transitioning from bigger footwear will need to give themselves appropriate accomodation. Start with dayhikes and lighter loads, ramp up the training just like anything else.

If fit gives you options, pick your tread well. Just as with mountain bike tires, low tread is fastest on easy terrain.  Alternately, lots of steep mud and/or loose gravel will, when combined with a low tread, force your legs to waste energy getting enough traction to engage your muscles. For this sort of thing I’ve yet to find anything close to the tread found on the more aggressive LaSportiva shoes, the Bushido being the most recent iteration. On steep and muddy or steep and loose descents these shoes let me quads save a significant amount of energy.

Rubber compound is highly relevant as well. As a general rule, softer rubber will grip better and wear faster. With trail shoes, your tread will ideally wear down to uselessness around the same time you kill the uppers. LaSportiva still rules the roost in this regard; the lack of substantive competition from other manufacturers remains befuddling.  If you’ll be spending a lot of time on bare rock, especially wet bare rock, a stickier rubber compound may be worth getting, even if it means that sole wear will be the limiting factor. Five Ten stealth rubber (like their Canyoneer) would fall into this category. Of course, you may be disinclined to own multiple pairs of shoes (but that won’t last long), or more relevantly end up dealing with steep ball bearings, wet river cobbles, and steep rock slabs on the same trip. Compromises will have to be made based on the predominant terrain, personal preference, and the ne plus ultra of fit.

Last, and certainly not least, avoid Goretex shoes like the plague. They’re made for dayhikers and coffee shop commutes. In warm conditions they’ll cause your feet to sweat like crazy (thus making blisters more likely), and in the conditions we’re talking about you’ll probably soak your shoes anyway. Best get over the fear of wet feet as soon as possible.  The notable exception is cold, ideally snowy conditions combined with slow movement of extended breaks.  Hunting and photography are prime examples.  Dry, or dryish, feet are necessary for warmth and health here.

Why we systemically worry about getting our feet wet I’m not sure. With leather boots that don’t drain and double their weight it makes sense, but wet feet do not have to be cold feet, and with footwear that fits and a few basic precautions, consistenly wet feet do not invariably lead to blisters and other problems. Canyoneering, and the resultant long trudges back to the TH with soaked shoes taught me this. It would have been nice to’ve learned to earlier.

If your shoes will get wet you want them to drain and dry as easily as possible. Moving water out of the shoes lightens them up, allows your feet to be wet rather than sitting in a bathtub, and creates the possibility that you might have dry shoes for at least some of the trip. Drier, if not totally dry, shoes also freeze less solid overnight, making the ritual of thawing shoes with body heat during the first 30 minutes of every day a little less miserable.

There is a problem here, which is that the fastest drying shoes (the aforementioned T100, for instance) are also the most fragile. Right now I’m using LaSportiva Crossleathers, which drain poorly and dry even slower, because I’m sick of trashing mesh shoes in under 50 miles. I like the tread pattern enough that I’m whiling to deal with wetter shoes. They also fit me perfectly. Compromise, compromise, compromise.

Principle #2: Wear gaiters.
Underlying axiom:
-keeping crap out of your shoes is a good thing across the board

These days I always wear gaiters when I’m in the woods. There is no reason not to. Beyond the obvious nuisance, time suck, and buzz kill of having to stop and pick pebbles out of your shoes, keeping dust and sand out goes a long way towards keeping blisters at bay. Gaiters also keep your laces from getting untied by sticks and brush, and keep burrs off your socks.

Pick the right gaiters for the job. Most of the time this means a low cut trail gaiter, of which Dirty Girl gaiters are likely the best. They’re made by ultrarunners and for ultrarunners, of a light spandex fabric in all the obnoxiously whimsical patterns you could possibly want. They’re super light, breath very well, dry fast, and once donned disappear. They’re also quite cheap.

Dirty girl gaiter attach via a front lace hook and a velcro heal patch, which is great because instep straps get cut by rocks very quickly (I averaged 15 miles a set on the Royal Arch route in the Grand Canyon before I wised up). The downfall of this system comes when postholing in snow and doing swift stream crossings. In really deep snow full gaiters (like the Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain High gaiters) will keep snow out of your shoes and provide a buffer against the direct cold for the feet and lower legs. I wore some for Le Parcour race across the Bob last fall, and they were a good choice (I use heel velcro and instep straps here). You can extend the utility of low gaiters by making the hell velcro much bigger than usual, something on the order of 2″ by 1.5″. I used low gaiters with no instep strap and a big heal patch on my Thorofare traverse in May of this year, and they stayed on despite the extensive potholing.  The Montbell UL spats, with their extremely burly instep strap, are another excellent option, though they only work well on shoes with a semi-defined instep area.
Principle #3: Have an outside-the-box sock quiver.
Underlying axioms:
-select a smooth, tight fitting next to skin layer to buffer moisture and abrasion
-select situation appropriate insulation

Socks do three equally essential things: they move moisture away from your skin, provide a buffer against abrasion, and keep your feet warm. In the contemporary profusion of post-Smartwool sock marketing, finding a sock to take care of the first two is easy. For summer, when one sock does all three functions, the Defeet Wooleator or Activator are good options. They’re both tough, with the later being a bit thinner and more durable.  For the other three seasons however, we must assume that sock layering will take place most of the time.

When selecting a very thin sock to layer next to skin, I have two favorites at present. The most favoritest is the Smartwool PhD Ski Ultralight. Accept no less verbose substitutes, as the genius of this sock is that it is soft and tough, knee high, and unlike many others will not sag or creep down your leg, at all! Calf high socks are perhaps the best addition, gram for gram, that one can make to foot warmth, and the Smartwools are the only thin knee high sock I’ve found that always stays put. My other favorite are the Injinji mini-crews. I often get little annoying blisters when my smallest toes rub togther, and the Injinjis allow me to forego taping. The Coolmax fabric is also quite good. Injinji makes a knee high compression sock, but they cost twice what the already expensive Smartwools do, so I’ve yet to make that leap.

Foot insulation for the other three seasons obviously requires a different approach. Thicker wool socks do ok, but for dealing with stream crossings, postholing, and rain when it’s near or below freezing, neoprene is the way to go, and you need look no further than at NRS socks. Other brands maybe cheaper, but the superior NRS sizing and fit make them the only option for serious miles. Many options exist, from the 3mm seam taped and thus fully waterproof Expedition socks to the .5 mm fuzzy rubber laminate Hydroskin socks. I’ve used the full range, and will try to provide a scale of warmth before I move on to specifics.

If a standard partial mesh trail runner with a very thin wool sock is a 1 on a scale of warmth, and the same setup with an Expedition neo sock is a 10, than a thin liner with a thickish wool sock (say a Darn Tough full cushion boot sock) might be a 3, and the liner with a Hydroskin sock would be a 5. The 2mm NRS wetsock would be an 8.

Hiking gives the cold weather traveler the huge advantage of feet constantly in motion with good blood movement. Thus it’s pretty easy to keep feet warm. The liner and Hydroskin sock combo is all the warmth I’ve ever wanted in cold and wet hiking situations, the use of thicker neo socks has been reserved for canyoneering and cold water boating. Hydroskins socks are also thin and flexible enough to be useable with your existing shoes. 3mm neo socks require, on average, a shoe that is a full size larger. Which brings back up the point that foot warmth is predicated on circulation. Make sure your shoes give you enough room, and when it’s cold out lace your shoes on the loose side of tolerable to maximize warmth.

Neoprene works best in wet environments. For snowier, colder, and drier hikes a different approach in warranted. For conditions below the mid-teens, I like a vapor barrier setup using Seal Skinz socks. Seal skinz are idiosyncratic pieces of gear whos peculiar attributes can be put to good use. They’re waterproof, but also breathable, albiet not much. For hiking in snow in single digits, I like a shoe 1/2 to one size larger than normal, a thin liner as discussed, Seal Skinz, and than a thicker insulating sock over top. The Seal Skinz guard the insulating sock from sweat, maintains a warm micro climate against the skin, and keep the feet dry from melting snow and/or low stream crossings. Combined with a full gaiter it’s a very flexible and warm system. Again, lace your shoes on the loose side. For me, this system is good a fair bit below zero. Any colder, at least here in Montana, and I’ll be wearing plastic tele boot with a thermofit foam liner, which are very warm indeed. For the odd locations where extreme cold occurs absent snow, or for snow bikers, the aforementioned sock system has been used, along with a fairly pedestrian boot several sizes too big, by Pete Basinger during the 1100 mile Alaska Ultrasport. Circulation and preservation of insulation with vapor barriers seems to trump all else here.

Principle #4: give your feet time to recover.
Underlying axiom:
-dry, warm feet will heal themselves, and fast

It’s amazing what our feet will do when you take care of them. First that means training them properly, second it means creating conditions under which they can function well (the subject of the above), and third it means giving them time off. This means creating opportunities for them to be warm, dry and not in use.

If you’re getting up early and staying on the go until late, and extended lunch break during the warmest part of the day can be a very effective use of your time. Hour wise, not minute foolish. Find a spot that’s a wind protected solar oven (in the lee of a boulder just off the south side of a ridge is ideal), and kick back, brew coffee and soup, dry your gear (sleeping bag!), and dry your feet. 30 minutes with your feet out in the dry sunny air can recharge you enough that you’ll make an extra five miles in the second half of the day.

The other time for foot rest is at night, which is why I consider sleeping socks essential gear. A pair of the thickest, fuzziest wool socks you can find should stay in the bottom of your sleeping bag, inviolate, all trip. Not only do they provide extra warmth, they help wick all traces of moisture away during the night, much better than bare feet would. This is 3 oz very well spent.

To review:

  1. your feet will get wet anyway, and that’s usually not a big deal
  2. keeping crap out of your shoes is important in all settings
  3. select a smooth, tight fitting next to skin sock to buffer moisture and abrasion
  4. select situation appropriate foot insulation
  5. dry, warm feet will heal themselves, and fast
  6. it is foolhardy to into the woods without good balance and strong joints, the maintenance of which is an unending project
  7. shoe fit trumps everything

Follow these guidelines, and you will have happy feet in the outdoors, at least in the grand scheme of things. Those ice cream headaches after stream crossings are just part of the fun.


12 responses to “Backcountry footwear for the other 3 seasons; revised”

  1. I asked on Backpacking light with little success, but is there such thing as a light resoleable boot/shoe? I do not have it in me to throw a perfectly good pair of shoes/boots away because the sole is shot. I also fail to see why I cannot find a resoleable boot made with lightweight, durable cordura (which being a synthetic would not absorb loads of water). But that’s just me ranting.

    1. The old Sportiva Crossleather is the only light shoe I’ve seen that would last long enough to make that project worthwhile.

      Astral has been making shoes with 1000D for a bit.

  2. Do you have any recommendations on how to strengthen feet? I was having sharp twinges from my plantar fascia while hiking through the woods with a pack full of feral hog yesterday. I tend to wear relatively minimalist footwear (daily nb miniumus, hike in la sportiva c-lite2) but have always struggled with painful plantar fascia cramps and twinges.

    I will be in your neck of the woods for archery elk season next year, and don’t want to be slowed down with foot issues, especially with the prospect of a 100+ lb packout. The trango trks arelooking likea good option, but the gtx liner scares me away.

    Thank you for this article and all the great content you produce!

    1. With no professional background I hesitate to give specific advice, especially on something that could end up as a medical problem. My laymans feedback is that frequency of training over a long period makes a big difference, and that plenty of rest is very important as well. Strengthening connective tissue goes in much, much longer cycles than strengthening muscles. I think alternating thinner and more supportive shoes can facilitate this.

      The TRKs are warm like any Gtex boot, but they’re probably the least hot option for that level of support. They’re impressively agile for such a stiff boot, definitely mountain boot lite rather than trail boot heavy.

  3. This is a really helpful article Dave. Ever since you posted the image of your new boots, and I noticed you had them on in the “meeting” video, I was wondering when you would update on it. At any rate, I really enjoyed it, and I’ve read it several times before, but this is the best iteration yet. Thank you.

    As an aside, can I ask about mileage? You mention a 35 mile day in this article. As someone new to all of this, what is a mileage you can sustain w/o a lot of problem for say 4-5 days, assuming loads in the 30-40 range, nothing monstrous?

    Also, since you wear glasses, would you please consider an article on how that impacts anything, if it does at all? Like do you carry spare vision correction?

    1. The mileage question is at base rudimentary. How does a given pack weight affect two factors: average speed, and endurance. Having 1/4 to 1/3 mph knocked off your average speed obviously has a big impact over 10-12 hours of actual walking. This can be addressed via fitness and training. With packs in the 20-30 range I have a lot of personal data on this subject, I know if I’m fit I should be able to do the same average speed with 28 than I can with 18, but that level of fitness requires fairly specific and dedicated effort. I also know that for me effort-reward starts to become very non-linear above 3.3-4 mph. Not worth it to try to go faster, even on the most favorable terrain (obviously running is not part of this discussion). Seven years ago I could push that up to 3.7-8, but as I’ve gotten stronger (and older) I’ve lost some leg speed. I don’t have enough data (yet) to say how things work in the 30-40 pound range. I suspect with even better training it’s mostly the same, but assume the margins will get ever thinner as pack weight increases. Body weight to pack weight ratio probably becomes ever more relevant, too.

      Fatigue and endurance needs to be parsed into two things; perceived fatigue (relevant in the later half of the day, typically) and cumulative fatigue. The former can be psychosomatic to an astonishing extent, which complicates managing the later. In short, you need to be able to extrapolate from past experience and estimate what sort of exertion will cause you to be slower the next day and pay attention to that, while trying not to get mentally bogged down by the kind of fatigue whose effects won’t carry over to the rest of your trip.

      An example would be day one and two of the Bob Open this year. Day one was 43-5 miles, 5 floating. The floating miles were slow and mentally tiring, and the walking miles were either on hard and rocky trail or through some fairly prolific blowdown. The mental relief the packrafting stretch (miles 30-35, ish) provided made me feel more rested than I was, and I really hammered out that last ten miles. I wasn’t able to eat or drink much of anything while boating either, and didn’t eat enough before going to bed. The result was that I slept cold, had to get up and make a hot water bottle, and felt pretty slow and froggy all morning. This led to a cascade of slow walking, lowered morale, and bad decisions (putting on Danaher Creek too early). Had I stopped 3 miles (one hour) earlier that first night and taken that hour to rest, eat, and drink before sleeping I think I would have gained 3-5 hours over the time I actually logged the next day.

      In summary, no hard and fast rule with endurance. It’s a moving target where the mental and physical sides cannot be meaningfully separated.

      With glasses I take my normal ones and a pair of prescription sunglasses (with a fairly light tint) always. Both are Oakleys, so they fit well and won’t fall off save in a pretty big wreck. If I lost or broke either the other would serve decently in most circumstances. Aside from occasional fogging they haven’t been a big deal since I went to wearing them full time four years ago.

  4. Wow, thank you very much for the detail. It’s helpful in a lot of ways, particularly in assessing just how horrible my hiking fitness is, lol. I’m more on the 2-2.5 mph range I think, and that’s probably not even on the hard terrain / elevation you’re talking about. I also now that after 10 miles I’m pretty beat for the day.

    I also hadn’t thought though about how when you are considering longer distance speed has to be taken into account with relation to how long you want to go…it’s obvious when you consider running, but when you consider hiking (where I foolishly label it as walking, w/o applying a velocity) it’s easy (at least for me) to overlook how speed could negatively affect endurance on a non day hike.

    The mental aspect is of course really interesting as well, and something that I assume is the hardest part to achieve w/o lots of experience.

    And thank you for the answer on the glasses. I always carry a spare too, and I was just wondering if there were people that actually didn’t. I too never find glasses a nuisance, although the only time I have been out in extreme cold I did opt for contacts just to better be able to wear a facemask w/o the fogging.

  5. collinswannabesite Avatar

    Is the Defeet Activator now the Aireator?

  6. collinswannabesite Avatar

    Thinking about picking up a pair of the .5mm NRS socks for wet Tennessee winters. How have the NRS .5mm socks held up for you? Are they slightly stretchy so you can get a snug fit? I don’t have experience with neoprene, and it seems like I wouldn’t want a loose fit in the shoe, or I’d get folds and all kinds of friction issues.

    1. They do stretch, but you don’t want them too tight for circulation reasons. They last longer than normal socks, but do eventually wear out (usually holes under the toes from grit and abrasion).

      1. collinswannabesite Avatar

        Thank you Dave.

  7. […] too cold (except for the middle of the night inside my quilt). With all the high stream crossings, waterproof shoes simply don’t work. Waterproof socks might work for a few hours, but a stream will send water over the top of them at […]

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