Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sock Me

It's been a while since I gave up boots. I'm starting my ninth season of vigorously not wearing boots. Labor Day weekend of year 2000 was the last time I went backpacking wearing boots, and I haven't done it since. Nor worn boots on ordinary hikes.

That was the same year I switched to using alcohol stoves and carrying an ultralight pack. The rest of the switchover, like finally settling on a hammock for shelter, took a few months more.

And I'm still learning.

In fact, I'm really glad that other people get out and tramp around because I keep learning from them. Perfection eludes me and every now and then get a chance to try new ideas without doing all that hard thinking stuff that has to be done first.

The story today: switching to shoes wasn't complete victory. I'm still paying attention to de feet.

Partly thanks to Andrew Skurka. He's famous, I'm not. There are reasons for that, none of which make me look good, so let's get to the story.

A while back I was doing the newsletter for the American Long Distance Hiking Association - West, and got a submission about the Sea To Sea Trail, and a guy who wanted to hike it, in one year. Well, that was Andrew Skurka, planning to hike 7,778 miles. Then he did it.

So far my longest trip is 200 miles. I'm a hero in my own mind but don't have the chops to qualify as a real hero, or even a consultant.

But I check Skurka's web site now and then and last summer came across a discussion of footwear and socks. Way late into my bootless phase I got a new idea.

See, when I began wearing shoes instead of boots, my first pair was a little wide so I wore thick socks. I'd been wearing two sets of socks with boots for years. Even so, I'd have sore (almost raw) spots on my feet and ankles at the end of each day. So in moving from boots to shoes, I kept that up. Anyway, that first pair of shoes was on the wide side. The socks filled in the corners.

Then after switching to tighter fitting trail running shoes I continued with two pairs of socks, two thin pairs. It was logical. The inner pair clung to my feet and the outer pair got hung up on my shoes, and the socks rubbed against each other instead of my feet rubbing against shoes.

So. It worked.

Later on, three years or so, I was reading a trail journal where someone I respect said that she wore only one pair of socks. So I tried that. Dang. Worked even better.

There was more room inside the shoes, my feet stayed drier, and there was no problem with blisters. In fact my feet got tougher faster because of air circulation keeping them dry.

Then last summer Andrew Skurka inspired me again. He has sponsors. He's a professional backpacker. That's a spooky term, but if he can make it work for him, OK by me. You have to be careful about what the pros say though, because sometimes it's advertising. And sometimes it isn't. And mostly you can't tell which is which, so when he says he likes Wooleator socks made by DeFeet I think OK there, what's the idea behind this statement?

The main idea is thin socks.

I had been wearing Wigwam Ultimax synthetic socks. They are good, and pretty thin, but not compared to Skurka's socks. His were barely there. More like an idea than a real sock. Painted on almost. I couldn't find any Wooleators here so I bought a couple pair of Smartwool hiking liners. Yikes. They make a difference.

Suddenly my shoes are loose. But that's OK. More room to pump air around my feet, and the laces can still tighten them. It worked.

Now my feet stay really dry all day. No need to hang socks in the sun when I stop. Just take off the shoes and everything is suddenly bone dry. The socks are so thin that they hug the feet like crazy, forming a blister busting barrier. Sure, they'll wear through quickly, but I'm willing to sacrifice them. I've had ugly blisters and sores in the middle of a trip, using other socks and it's better not to go there. These really thin socks really work.

These Smartwool socks are probably equivalent to Skurka's Wooleators. An exact match is beside the point. These work. They are 61% Merino wool, 35% nylon, 3% elastic and 1% polyester. And as I said, really thin.

Last year was a sucky season. Extremely heavy snow blocked most trails until August or later. I didn't get out much. I hope to do better this year, finally bagging a 240 mile route in northern Washington's Pasayten Wilderness. Last time I tried I bumped up against a forest fire. A big one. Burned for months. Luckily I was off to one side, saw it, and turned around.

The fire headed off into Canada. Maybe it had a burrow up there. Anyhow, this year could be the year. I'd like to go back and nail this trip and give these new socks a real test. Andrew Skurka couldn't be wrong, could he?

No, don't think so.


DeFeet Wooleator: The thinnest wool sock in the DeFeet collection
Skurka: Sea-to-Sea Route: Post-graduation, transcontinental 7,778-mile coming-of-age hike
Skurka: Two Seas, Two Feet: Five-month long 92-stop slideshow tour about C2C hike
Smartwool (warning: a stupid Flash-based site)
Sock Dreams (Got a sweety? Get socks here.)
The Sea-To-Sea Route