Monday, October 27, 2014

My Journey with Backpacking Footwear

In this post, I wanted to talk about my experience with footwear while backpacking.  For me, footwear is still a learning experience, as I have not been fully satisfied with any of the footwear I've tried.  So let me walk you through my journey...

When I first started day hikes (other than as a kid) back in the mid to late '80s, I wore tennis shoes, cross trainers or running shoes.  They worked fine.

When I took up backpacking in the mid '90s, I followed the traditional guidance and started using some inexpensive hiking boots.  They seemed ok while on flat trails, but the first time I encountered significant elevation, I immediately got hotspots and blisters.  I had fit them like I did my day shoes--snugly!

I went to a local outfitter, up in the Adirondack's, and he advised me to make sure I had plenty of room for my toes and a snug heel.  I purchased a pare of Italian leather hiking boots (expensive) that were fantastic till they wore out a few years later.

After that, I bought a pair of LL Bean Gore-Tex Cresta Hikers (60 oz/pair).  Plenty of room in the toe box and a snug heel.  I wore them with a thick pair of wool socks and a sock liner.  Until recently, I've never had any problem with them.  My feet do seem to be getting a bit larger and wider, and they've seemed more snug recently.  The online community claims when Gore-Tex and/or leather gets wet, they take forever to dry out.  I've always keep them well oiled, and never had a problem with the leather getting wet.  To avoid getting water in them, I always kept my rain-pants overlapping the tops during rain.  For streams below the tops of the boots, I could just walk through it.  And up till now, I've only had to ford one river/stream that was deep enough to get water into them.  I took them off to wade across.  In snow, with gaiters or snow-shoes, they worked fantastic.  I never got cold or wet feet.  The traction was great on all surfaces except wet rocks, where they were so-so.

But over the past year, I've been reading a lot about ultralight backpacking.  That community was pushing the advantages of wearing trail runners.  Those included less energy to hike and less damage to the feet.  I began trying out some options on day hikes and over-nighters that I will discuss in a moment.

My last use of the leather hiking boots was on an 8 day trip to Isle Royale on Lake Superior in late May 2014.  NOAA was still showing snow on the island, and the ice had just cleared enough from the lakes that the ferries were running.  The forums indicated lots of roots and rocks on the trails.  I decided to play it 'safe' and wear the leather hikers.  I got two blisters and a hot spot, the first in years.  I also felt the effort of full day hiking in the heavy footwear.  And my feet were pretty dead feeling at the end of each day.

Some of my other reading had suggested minimalist footwear might be healthier for the feet than traditional over-cushioned, raised heel shoes.  So I tried some Vibram 5-Fingers.  But I didn't like the toe cups; they seemed to have seams that caught on the toe nails on my big toes.

So I purchased a pair of Vivobarefoot Synth Hikers (28 oz/pair).  These were zero drop shoes (no raised heel), had minimal cushion (really practically none), but had the traditional toe box.  I took them out on a 10 mile hike on a rocky Texas state park trail.  I felt every rock and pebble, and it slowed me down considerably.  I also had some mild heel pain for a couple of weeks afterward.  I decided these were not the footwear I wanted for hiking or backpacking.

However, they were comfortable for walking during the day and short hikes on good trail or pavement.  And they were a way to harden my feet for hiking and a way to get used to zero-drop shoes.  Since they were all black, I started wearing them to work!  I can get by without the dress shoes as long as I don't have a meeting.  The major drawback in office buildings is the tread on stairs.  You have to lift the foot fully (no sliding) and kind of walk up and down on the toes/balls of your feet.  It would be very easy to trip on stairs with these.

In recent years, I've used a pair of low-cut hiking shoes for short day hikes.  Most recently these were the Merrell Moab Ventilator (32 oz/pair).  They have a nice stiff sole, good for walking on rocks.  And they came in wide and were great in the toe box.  But they are petty stiff, you don't feel the ground with your feet, and they don't keep the water out like the Cresta hikers.  I really like these for everyday use, especially during travel where I'm not sure where I will be.  But they just don't seem to be the shoes I want to use backpacking.  I have worn them during travel as a backup to my regular backpacking footwear.

Recently, after reading a bunch of reviews, I ordered the Altra Lone Peaks 1.5 trail runners (23 oz/pair).  These have to be the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn.  They have zero drop, an extra-wide toe box, nice cushioning, and a drop-down velcro tab at the heel for attaching gaiters like Dirty Girl.  I've been using them on day hikes, over-nighters, and on a 6 day trek in Montana.  Except for the day when I forgot to put the insoles back in (I got a couple of hot spots that day), they've felt fantastic.  No blisters; no hot spots; and happy, nice feeling feet.

However, the Altra Lone Peaks are not perfect.  When I first used the Dirty Girl gaiters, the lace hooks tore up the soft laces.  I had to replace the laces with strong elastic laces (which work fine).  Also, in the first 100 miles, the white rubber at the toe separated from the red fabric on one of the shoes.  Since most of my hiking is on rocky trails, this might have happened earlier than it would for other hikers.  I glued the rubber toe back and took the shoes on my 6 day trek in Montana.  I did lots of water crossing, rock scrambling and bushwhacking.  Both toes are now separated.  One shoe has a chunk out of the toe rubber; the other has a split down the middle of the toe rubber.

On performance, while they felt good with general hiking, they really didn't handle wet rocks well.  I had minimal traction that made me pretty nervous in a lot of situations.  I slipped quite a bit.  They didn't dry out very quickly, but they didn't seem to hold a lot of moisture.  The wetness, in above freezing temperatures, didn't bother me.

My conclusions with this shoe was that they are pretty comfortable for good conditions, but the durability is poor and so is the traction.  If they fixed those drawbacks, this would be an ideal shoe.

Recently, I purchased a pair of the Altra Lone Peaks 2.0 shoes (26 oz/pair), and I'm hoping they will have addressed some of the shortcomings.  They seem to be a bit heavier duty shoe.  But I have yet to take them on the trail.  Realistically, I expect I will be visiting some stores this fall and winter to see how some of the other trail runners look.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Gear List, Sep 14

Gear List, Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, 21-26 Sep 14
Item oz (ea) # oz (total)
Packed Items...
ZPack Arc Blast 60, Hybrid Cuben (2014) 19.3 1 19.3
Trash Compactor Liner 20 gallon 2.1 1 2.1
Tyvek 2' square ground cloth for pack under tarp 1.5 1 1.5
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp (8.5'^2) w Tie Lines 11 1 11
Tarp Stake Kit (14 stakes) w sack 3.3 1 3.3
Katabatic Palisades 30 Sleeping Quilt, 6'6" 18.8 1 18.8
ZPacks Pertex Quantum Bivy, Water Resistant Top (2014) 6.4 1 6.4
Thermarest NeoAir Xlite, 72" (Regular), Inflatable 12 1 12
Firefly Stove, wood 3.2 1 3.2
Light My Fire Titanium Spork 0.6 1 0.6
Firestarter Kit 1.4 1 1.4
Evernew Ultralight 0.9L Pot & Lid (ECA 252) 4.1 1 4.1
ZPacks Bear Bagging Kit (carabiner, sacks + 50' Zline slick cord) 2.6 1 2.6
Loksak 12x20 odor-proof OPSAK 1.5 1 1.5
SteriPen Adventurer Opti 3.6 1 3.6
Dasani Water Bottle (1 L) w Platypus Push/Pull Top 1.1 1 1.1
Nalgene Canteen 32 oz Wide-mouth 2.5 1 2.5
Toilet Paper Small (2d x 8sq/d + baggie = 16 sq) 0.14 5 0.7
Purell in small (6 ml) dropper bottle 0.3 1 0.3
Dr Bonner in very small (3ml) dropper bottle 0.2 1 0.2
Dental Kit Small (toothbrush, floss, backing soda, lip balm) 1 1 1
Sunscreen in small (15 ml) plastic bottle 0.7 1 0.7
Bug repellant (Picardin) in small (6ml) plastic bottle 0.4 1 0.4
Cuben Fiber Repair Tape, 3M 0.4 1 0.4
Thermarest Repair Kit 0.2 1 0.2
Gerber LST, Knife, Black Pocket 1.2 1 1.2
UST JetScream Micro Marine Whistle 0.2 1 0.2
Silva Type 3 Compass 1 1 1
Photon Freedom White on Lanyard (remove HW) 0.25 1 0.25
Photon Freedom Red w Hat Clip (remove HW) 0.46 1 0.46
Nissin Pro (Tenkara) 360 cm 6:4 (11' 9", 10.5 pennies) 2.26 1 2.26
Rod Sheath, Blue CCF & Duct Tape 1.06 1 1.06
Flambeau Foam Box with Flies 1.04 1 1.04
Tenkara Line Holder, Meiho 56 0.39 1 0.39
Dr Slick ECO Black Nippers 0.25 1 0.25
Hemostat, 3 1/2" 0.6 1 0.6
Line, Yamatoyo Hi-Vis Fluorocarbon (50 m, size 3) and spool 0.88 1 0.88
Varivas Super Tippet 5X and spool (50 m) 0.46 1 0.46
Fishing License 0.04 1 0.04
Tenkara Kit Bag/Sack/Case 0.56 1 0.56
First-Aid Kit 2.2 1 2.2
Benadryl/Ibuprofen/Acetomeniphen/Ammodium 0.6 1 0.6
Hiker Goo in green plastic jar 1.3 1 1.3
ZPacks Micro-Fleece Hat (black) 1 1 1
Firm Grip Deerskin Leather Gloves (L), Yellow 2.7 1 2.7
Darn Tough Hike-Trek Micro Crew (L) 2.7 2 5.4
SeaToSummit Ultra-Sil Nano Drysack 8 L (for clothes) 0.8 1 0.8
Patagonia Houdini Jacket, Eclectic Orange (L) 3.2 1 3.2
Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Jacket (L, blue) 5.3 1 5.3
Montbell Versalite (rain) Pants (black, L) including sack 4 1 4
Mountain Hardware Ghost Down Jacket (silver, no hood) 7 1 7
Base Pack Weight (lbs) 8.9
Food (12 oz/d) 60 1 60
Snacks 46.8 1 46.8
Water (35.2 oz/L) 35.2 1 35.2
Total Pack Weight (lbs) 17.8
Worn or Carried Items…
Black Diamond Contour Elliptical Trekking Poles 9.5 2 19
Duct Tape around trekking pole (5'/pole) 0.4 1 0.4
Altra Lone Peaks 1.5 Trail Runners (11.5), Low Cut 11.7 2 23.4
Headsweats Protech White/Grey Coolmax (w neck sunshield) 2.3 1 2.3
Smartwool NTS Light 195 Zip T 8.8 1 8.8
Smartwool NTS Micro 150 Boxer Brief (M, black) 3.1 1 3.1
Arc'teryx Rampart Pants (graphite, 34/35) 10.1 1 10.1
Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew (L) 2.1 1 2.1
Sunglasses w elastic neck loop 0.9 1 0.9
Lightload Pack Towel 0.6 2 1.2
Pant Leg Stretchies 0.1 1 0.1
Mini-glasses (1.5) in soft case 0.18 1 0.18
Suunto Core Wristwatch, Black 2.3 1 2.3
Nikon Coolpix S8200 Camera 7.5 1 7.5
UDAP (Bear) Pepper Spray (8 oz) plus Holster 13 1 13
Skin Out Weight (lbs) 23.7

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, Lessons Learned, 21-26 Sep 14

This was a course, and I did learn quite a bit.  Here are a few of the things I considered most significant:

Don’t use a bivy that doesn’t have a way to avoid trapping moisture from nighttime breathing.

Don’t use a wood stove if you have other options.  The soot is a mess and not worth the hassle.

Find a way to quickly stow the trekking poles during travel where they are at risk or where you need your hands.  Further, don’t use them unless you really need them; they become a crutch and lessen my ability to maintain my balance.

Train for better O2 capability.  Do more intervals and do more uphills during day and overnight trips.

Train for more flexibility and especially for deeper squats.  The boulder travel required the equivalent of nearly continuous deep squats crossing the boulders and getting up and down on them.  Don’t forget upper body training for assists with arms and hands.

Do balance training.  I’m really poor crossing logs, and my boulder hopping through boulder fields was pitiful.

Don’t rely on mini-glasses (nose piece with lenses).  They might be good in a pinch, but they pinch the nose and limit breathing.  I avoided using them, and hence didn’t get the map reading and navigation practice I expected.  If I had wanted to use an iPhone or Kindle, it would have been torture.  Live with the additional ounce or two of real reading glasses.

Bear spray was relatively heavy, but it provided a lot of peace of mind in grizzly country.

Bear bagging works over limbs with leaves and branches!  It doesn’t have to be a bare limb like I expected.

Use shoes with some grip if you anticipate wet conditions or lots of rock hopping.  My shoes slipped on any wet surface, and I didn’t trust them to grip when boulder hopping.  Also, try to get shoes that won’t shred in rocks.

Use sunscreen!  I’ve gotten too used to skipping it on wooded hikes.  The shield over the ears and neck wasn’t enough.  The hands and face burnt before I knew it on the plateau travel!

A wool base layer plus wind shirt works during hiking in cool weather!  I’m used to a loose hiking shirt in hot areas of Texas, and had never tried a true base layer in cool weather without an insulating outer layer.

Wet shoes and damp socks are not the end of the world.  We crossed a lot of low streams without rock hopping, and the shoes were wet most evenings and mornings.  It might have been a problem if temperatures had dropped below freezing.  But they warmed up quickly after being put on each morning.

Pick camp sites carefully.  Try to get sheltered under trees, on flat ground, and not in depressions.  Lay on the bivy, pad or shelter before setting up the shelter to make sure it’s flat!

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, Return Home, 27-28 Sep 14

The trip back to Texas was not what I expected.  The night before I got an email message from United that my flight was delayed four hours from the 7:15 am departure, but we had to be there on time in case it left on time.  I took the 5:45 am shuttle to the airport, and was able to walk directly up to one of the self-serve kiosks; only a couple of folks were at the counter before me.

The flight was still delayed, and the attendant said some customers would have been automatically rebooked.  By the time the kiosk showed my original flights (I had an hour layover in Denver I wouldn’t make), the attendant made an announcement for everyone to get in another line to get manually rebooked.  There were now a dozen folks in front of me that had arrived after I did.

The United flights I was taking were small commuter jets, and had been completely full on the way out.  I figured at best, I would get on standby for a full flight from Denver home to Texas.  Plus I would go through all of the repeated delay extensions that happen on every delayed flight.

My sister lives in Denver and I decided to get a rental car home instead and stop in Denver overnight to visit her.  It was an excellent decision.

Turns out the flight out of Bozeman was actually delayed for 7 hours, not 4. This was due to not having flight crew.  Probably as a result of the arson fires at the FAA in Chicago the day before.  Great timing. :(

In the future, I plan to avoid flying for personal travel unless it is totally unavoidable.