Gear - footwear for C2C

(The following is a slightly re-written version of the footwear chapter from my book Smarter Backpacking, in Swedish Lättare packning från A till Ö)
Carrying a weight on your feet takes five times more energy than carrying the same weight on your back. Thus, finding the lightest footwear that does the job has top priority for me. To me, the use of light mesh trail runners has meant less aching feet, less blisters and a lighter step every inch of the way. Getting my feet wet is no big deal as I can don waterproof socks if my feet should get cold. Even though consciously getting your feet wet sounds extreme to some people, looking for the lightest possible footwear makes for a more comfortable hike and less weariness after the day is done.

You may easily forget that your footwear also is something you carry – something that requires energy from your body to be propelled forward. When you make a list of every piece of gear you bring and their weights, you find out that footwear has a substantial weight. In my pack list, which mainly contains light or very light gear, my shoes are the heaviest single piece of equipment. The mesh shoes I have favored since 2004 weigh around 740 grams (26 oz) in my size 11. The second heaviest item is my sleeping bag at 685 grams (24 oz).

Most traditional hiking boots weigh more than 1 kilo (35 oz) per pair and at times around 2 kilos (70 oz). Climbers preparing for the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 formulated a rule of thumb; one pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back. In other words, to move something attached to your feet requires five times the amount of energy that it takes to transport the same weight on your back.

Since then quite a bit of research supports this rule of thumb. Depending on circumstances such as speed, slope and weight carried, there is of course variation. The US Army has published research that shows a weight increase span of 3.5-5.25 times. Research done by Stephen Legg and others, published in Ergonomics 1986, indicates that carrying a weight on your feet requires 6.4 times the energy output compared to carrying that weight on your back.

The mechanics behind this are not simple, but an amateur like yours truly can understand that walking and running necessitates that you move your feet vertically, against gravitation, even if the purpose only is motion on a horizontal level. Your upper body, including the pack, however, moves very little vertically when you are walking horizontally. There is also a leverage effect. Having a weight at the far end of a lever, like your leg, makes it more energy-consuming to lift your foot than if the lever had been shorter or nonexistent.

Not only the energy expenditure makes me advocate lighter and more supple footwear for hiking, than what has been the norm for a long time. Stiff and heavy boots seldom give our feet and lower legs an opportunity to bend and move in the way they were created to move. Our limbs were created to walk barefoot. The restrictions often lead to diverse ailments, from blisters to aches, in the feet and lower legs, is a claim being voiced increasingly.

I have thought that carrying a heavy load also requires heavy and sturdy footwear, which in turn means aching feet and legs. I thought this was because I was not used to hiking long distances and carrying a pack. Nowadays I tend to think that the boots themselves contribute, maybe considerably, to my weary feet at day’s end. One aim of my writings is to make clear that heavy packs and heavy boots are not a natural law for backpacking.

For almost 10 years now, on some long and strenuous wilderness hikes, I have done a lot better with a much lighter pack than I ever thought possible. I have also done better with light shoes than I ever thought was possible – in fact, a great deal better than with heavier footwear. Many hikers have similar experiences. Fortunately, the market for light and quick-drying trail running shoes has expanded explosively in recent years.

Today there is much more to choose from for the lightweight packer, than there was only a couple of years ago. In fact, there is such a wide choice that choosing can be difficult. With the huge amount of choices available, I can only offer general advice.

To start with, you have to count on getting your feet wet while hiking, most of the time. Especially if you hike in arctic or sub-arctic areas most of the time, like I do. But this is not as big a problem as most of us imagine before we try it. As long as you are on the move, your feet stay warm most of the time. However, you must be able to keep your feet warm in circumstances when wet feet tend to become cold feet. The best way for doing this is either by using water-proof breathable socks like Sealskinz or Goretex socks from different makers or neopren socks used for water sports. I use these socks onlys when my feet do not stay warm enough even will hiking vigorously. When I am sitting and resting or in camp I don warm dry socks. These can be protected from the wet shoes with waterproof socks or ordinary plastic bags.

As for the shoes, they should soak up and retain minimal amounts of water when they get wet. Remember that water is heavy and it is very energy-consuming to carry heavy weight on your feet. You might think that waterproof shoes with membranes, of the Goretex variety, should be useful, but I do not agree. Trail runners with these membranes protect your feet initially and in circumstances where you do not risk getting into water over the upper rim of the shoe, like on sidewalks.

But if you are hiking in the wilderness, you will not be able to avoid getting water into your shoes. Even walking in a lasting rain shower on a sidewalk means that water running down your legs will eventually make your feet wet. In my opinion, waterproof membranes in your shoes only stop the inevitable water from draining away from them, once it has entered. The membrane will also hinder the drying of shoes and socks.

Instead I prefer shoes that are mostly made from mesh, where the water can freely run in and out. They should also contain minimal amounts of padding that soaks up water and retains it longer than necessary. Thus, I am an advocate of the wet foot principle and claim that wet feet is no problem as long as your feet stay warm.

 If you get cold feet you need waterproof socks and insulating socks underneath those. This means that the size of the shoes has to accommodate thick as well as thin socks reasonably well. So, when I find a pair of mesh water sport shoes or trail runners that look suitable, I test if they can be used with really thin nylon socks (or barefoot) as well as with insulating socks plus waterproof socks. Shoes that are flexible enough for this are not always easy to find, but one way to increase their roominess is to take out the innersole when you are using the thickest sock combination.

Nowadays I rarely need the thick socks. Around 90% of my hiking, even in what the British would call ‘inclement weather’ is done in really thin socks and damp shoes, and it works better for me than any other solution I have found during four decades of backpacking. I also found that my shoes seldom (except for longer stretches of hiking off trail on steep slopes) need to be tied particularly tight. In fact, shoes that are close to falling off most of the time seem to give my feet a natural way of movement that keeps them from acquiring blisters or starting to ache after a long day hiking in strenuous terrain.

But this is me. If there is one thing that is very personal, it is what kind of shoes fit a certain pair of feet, or, what we believe will fit our feet. Some people have long, thin feet, others have short and chubby ones. Some people pronate, some people supinate. Some have strong ankles and some have weak ones. You cannot offer specific advice and claim that it will fit everyone, because it will not. Thus, I write solely about my experiences. You have to get your own. For several years, while covering thousands of kilometres, I have used water sport shoes for hiking. The uppers are mainly mesh and the soles provide a good grip on wet rock. Experts often claim that these shoes are not made for hiking and are not suitable. As long as my feet stay fit in them and I can walk 500 kilometers (310 miles) through the mountains and forests of northern Sweden using them, I tend to neglect such comments.

 I notice that the same experts claim that you need 2 kilo (4 lb) hiking boots for ‘demanding hikes in demanding terrain’ and that every other kind of footwear is unsuitable, because it was not made for backpacking. So far, I have found little evidence that this is not just a sales pitch that has been around for so long that magazines and writers of hiking books tend to look at it as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

So, my advice is: Try something light on your feet. There are in fact very light boots available today, if you think that changing to trail runners is a bit dramatic and extreme. But give light trail runners or mesh shoes a try. You can take them along as extra camp shoes and try to hike in them as well. If it works, fine. If not, you have your regular footwear in your pack. That is how I started, and pretty soon I realized that even though carrying heavy boots in the pack is a lot smarter (5 times smarter) than carrying them on my feet, I simply did not need them.

Sandals are an alternative type of footwear along the same lines. Many people swear by them. I have not used sandals for hiking because the sandals I have come across have been surprisingly heavy. This may change and sandals may become a viable alternative if they are made as light as my mesh shoes. I also prefer the protection that mesh provides, from sharp twigs, which you can encounter while bushwhacking. Some hikers have skipped shoes and hike barefoot; and you can find shoes that mimic walking barefoot, which have become common in the last few years.

 I have found that these bare-foot shoes take a while getting used to, so my advice is to try these at home, before you go off on a long hike.  I have used barefoot shoes in the Swedish mountains a bit and find that they work fairly well, but I prefer shoes with a bit more sole. This is probably habit, having walked a whole life in ordnary shoes it probably takes quite a bit of training to get used to barefoot shoes.

Summing this up: If you feel that what I have described it is too extreme and you want to stay with something more traditional, like boots, do not forget: Weight.

Be ruthless in your search for the lightest available footwear that is compatible with your feet. Today there are a number of light boots to be found that weigh between 500-1000 grams per pair (depending on size and make). You can save kilos ((several lbs) by choosing light instead of heavy footwear. Furthermore, you can multiply the weight difference by a factor 5 to see how much lighter your step and your hike will be.

For those interested in the particular shoes I use they are Salomon Tech Amphibians, which I have used in different reincarnations for almost a decade. I usually buy a new pair every year and use them for at least one long hike of 300-500 kilometers, mostly on wilderness trails or cross-country. Besides that I use them almost every day in summer around town.

These were the shoes I used on C2C in 2013. After that endeavour, when my feet suffered, one move I made was to change my shoes into something less 'meshy' in 2014. The theory being that they would let less grit and sand into my shoes. Grit that would create friction with blisters as a result. This theory seemed to work well enough on C2C in 2014, and I will use similar shoes but with more padding underneath for 2015.

It should be noted that I used the Salomon Tech Amphibs on my trek in Brooks Range, Alaska, a month after C2C 2014 and they worked perfectly in that wilderness, where there was a total absence of dusty roads.

For those interested in the science behind the advantages of light footwear and some of the research done on the subject, here is an article I wrote a couple of years ago. If you prefer reading in Swedish a fairly identical version of the same article can be found here.

Another interesting article is my interview with legendary backpacker and gear tester Chris Townsend on footwear.


MARIANNE said...

I agree with you how nice it is hiking in light shoes. I have done that now for some four years and since then have never had any blisters and no need for 'camp shoes' any more.
My first pair was Montrail Hardrock, unfortunately no longer available, I have heard that the Montrail Mountain Masochist II is its successor, then I have Inov-8 Terroc 330 and La Sportiva
I think it is worth a try for many people.

Jörgen Johansson said...

Marianne, the fact that you mention that you own several brands and types of shoes is in itself important. In my experience the fit of shoes are so personal, of course dependent on your feet, that giving anything but general advice is difficult. Don't count on shoes or brands being recommended by anyone else to fit your feet, and needs. That is why I try to concentrate on general thoughts.

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