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De-trial of de-feet

Boots … just like feet they come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors.  Some are heavy, others are light, and no two pairs will ever be exactly the same.  Combine that with a narrow, low-volume foot and finding a pair that fits just right is easier said than done.  In fact, for Rachel, it has been a nightmare. 

Most hikers have experienced blisters while breaking-in a pair of newly purchased boots.  Any of you who have lost a toe-nail (or two) after a lengthy decent, don’t have to be reminded of the pain and discomfort associated with an ill-fitting pair of boots.  The difficulty is that you don’t always know that the boots you have just purchased, often at a significant cost, don’t fit right, until after you have been out on the trail for a while.   This typically means that you have also reached the time when you can no longer return them, because they are now showing signs of wear.  Many retailers tell you to buy the boots, wear them around at home for a few days, or take them to the mall “where you can get into a full stride” and then, if you don’t like them, ‘By all means’, bring them back.  While this sales technique sounds good, the difficulty is that malls and homes don’t have the same kind of ascents, descents and terrain as we find on the trail.  Nonetheless, retailers encourage you to buy their shoes, knowing that if you walk out of the store with the boots under your arm, or better yet, on your feet, they will probably not see you come back with them for a refund. 

To further complicate matters, both Scott and Rachel have been grappling with the question of what type of footwear they should take with them on the Pacific Crest Trail. In recent years there has been a trend towards lightweight hiking shoes.  Many folks are even hiking in running shoes, as it has been said that ‘a pound on the foot is the equivalent of five pounds on the back’. 

“The heavier your footwear, the sooner your feet and legs will tire each day and the shorter the distance you will feel comfortable walking,” explains Chris Townsend, a long distance hiking enthusiast.  “When you think about it, this makes perfect sense.  At every step you lift the weight of your footwear.  My stride is roughly two feet long. So I lift my feet around 2,500 times per mile.  If I wear boots weighing 4 pounds a pair, I’m lifting around 10,000 pounds every mile.  However, if instead I wear low-cut shoes weighing 1.5 pounds, then I lift only 3,750 pounds every mile.  In the course of hiking 20 miles, that’s 200,000 pounds lifted with 4-pound boots, but only 75,000 pounds with 1.5-pound shoes, a big difference.”  (Chris Townsend - The Advanced Backpacker: A Handbook for Year-Round, Long-Distance Hiking, pg. 113) 

Scott readily admits that he has historically used the traditional, heavy-weight, high-ankle hiking boots and that he is having a hard time getting his mind around the idea of using hiking shoes.  Last summer he purchased a pair of mid-weight Asolo 535 boots for our Wonderland Trail trip around Mt. Rainier, but he experienced foot fatigue after as little as 8 miles.  It was on that trip that Scott and Rachel met Lia, who thru-hiked the PCT in 1999. She was wearing a lighter-weight pair of Lowe hiking shoes.  Through lengthy discussions with her, about gear, trail conditions, and footwear, Scott and Rachel finally began to accept the idea of lighter footwear. 

Despite the willingness to think about lighter-weight hiking shoes, both Scott and Rachel experienced difficulties settling on footwear for the Pacific Crest Trail.  “It’s hard to know what kind of footwear to take when we don’t know exactly what the trail conditions are going to be like,” Scott says as he was thinking of buying shoes all the way from trail runners to full support hiking boots.   “I like the idea of a higher cut boot to protect my ankles, not only from an ankle sprain, but also from hitting against rocks and boulders.”  After trying on countless pairs of footwear, Scott finally settled on the Merrell Chameleon hiking boots as his primary footwear, and a pair of New Balance 804 trail runners as his creek fording and camp footwear.  For Scott, the decision was primarily focused the type of footwear.

Rachel, on the other hand, didn’t have such a hard time with what type of footwear she wanted.  Her problems lay in getting a good fit.  Over the years, she has purchased more than one pair of boots that has left her short of a couple toenails at the end of a descent. She has discovered that not only does she have a narrow foot, but a low-volume foot as well.  “What does that mean,” you ask?  Well, it means that her instep is low, as is the rest of her foot, which doesn’t fill up a normal-sized boot.  As a result she can’t lace the boots tight enough to hold her foot securely in place.  There are a number of fitting techniques that can be tried, such as foot beds (extra insoles) and tongue depressors (foam that takes up volume between the tongue and the laces) that take up some of the extra volume.  Even using these techniques, Rachel experienced difficulty finding a good fit.   She sought out Phil Oren Fit System specialists in Seattle and Bellingham, but was dismayed when they both turned her away stating that they had nothing in stock that would fit her foot.   She was nearing desperation when she crossed paths with a Lowa representative who managed to get an all-round good fit from a pair of Lowa Tempest Lo hiking shoes.   “And to think that I had given up on Lowa boots because my feet seemed to swim in every pair I had ever tried on,” she said.   Her second pair of shoes will be Chaco Z1 sandals.

Although both Rachel and Scott have settled on footwear that is significantly lighter than traditional hiking boots, their heavier boots will be on standby, should they feel that they need them because, after all, old habits die hard.   

There is no other piece of gear more important to a long distance hiker than the shoes on their feet.  Scott has a wacky idea that deciding on footwear is like drafting an NFL quarterback (see his journal entry).  For Rachel, searching for the elusive “good fit” was simply beginning to feel like a hopeless cause.  Both of them grappled with their different footwear decisions for many months but they have been made and are soon to be put to the test.