When going into the backcountry, your feet are the most important part of your system and often the weakest link. What I put on my feet is of huge importance. Prior to completing the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic in 2011, I thought that foot fatigue and damage limited performance more definitively than muscular fatigue. I now know that while this does happen, it's not necessarily always the case. Thorough, well-considered training of your feet and legs is one step towards eliminating this barrier to wilderness performance. A solid footwear system is another.
Preemptive foot care is vital because getting anything beyond trivial maladies to heal while on the go is difficult. Footwear is 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.
This article is limited to shoulder season footwear for a light and fast approach to wilderness travel. Shoulder season is here defined as lower 48, Rocky Mountains centric. For me, shoulder season is too cold and wet for just wool socks, with snow possible but temps much below 20 (F) unlikely. Stream crossings, wet postholing, and soaked brush make Goretex socks sub-optimal. In Montana, this period is normally late April through mid June and September through mid November, depending on year-to-year variation and altitude. Fast and light simply means this: enough continuous, all day motion to provide a dependable source of warmth. The systems outlined below depend on this, and the level of exertion required will vary substantially person to person. If these conditions and this approach sound like they’d fit well with your hiking, read on. If you hike on dry trails most of the time, stay away from gnarly weather, and take hour-long tea breaks while backpacking, this article is not meant for you.
My system is built around simplicity and the ability to keep feet warm by generating heat. If you prefer to travel slower, or have cold feet, some of the ideas outlined in Rietveld and Reichl’s Lightweight Footwear Systems for Snow Travel or Ryan Jordan’s Spring Footwear would be worth looking at. I find Jordan’s overboot system too hot for just about any conditions in which I won’t be wearing ski boots, and, as discussed below, merely relying on thick wool socks for insulation from the cold (as Jordan does in his lighter system) can be effective but is not as good as light neoprene socks. Rietveld and Reichl’s systems are light and flexible, but the less-warm incarnations rely on Goretex socks for water protection. As outlined below, my shoulder season hiking invariably involves wading streams far deeper than Goretex socks are tall. For this terrain, neoprene socks are more effective. Neoprene socks are also very durable, whereas Goretex socks are notorious for loosing their waterproofing in high wear areas like toes and the heel. Many users will find the comprehensive system outlined below to be more effective and efficient.
- Principle #1: Wear light, non-waterproof trail shoes that fit well and provide optimal traction for and protection from the expected terrain.
- Principle #2: Wear gaiters.
- Principle #3: Have an outside-the-box sock quiver.
- Principle #4: Give your feet time to recover.
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