Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Feet In Up To My Knees

The problem.

I have a problem. I hike. I also backpack, which is more of a problem. You know if you've done it. With backpacking you're out there, on your own, for a good while, and what you have along is what you have to use. Don't have it, can't use it. Simple as that.

One of my special problems, one I'm sure I share with everyone who backpacks, is what to do when I come to a stream. Do I:
  1. Chicken out and go home, or
  2. Flap my little arms and fly across, or
  3. Stomp on through, or
  4. Tediously take off my shoes, put on something else, wade across, find a spot on the other side to sit and dry out, and then go ahead and do that, and get back into my shoes and stow my wading footwear, and continue, sometimes for only five minutes before I have to repeat the whole process?
Hint. Pick the long, boring, tedious answer.

I'm not brave enough to do the easy, obvious thing. Maybe it's something about Australians, or maybe it was only this one guy, but I was on a trip with one of them, and the guy just tromped right through the streams, high top leather boots and all, and kept going. I guess he was used to drying out in under a fortnight. I'd lived in Washington long enough to experience the joy of finding mold inside my boots, after trying to dry them for a week.

And I have an issue that can't be unique. I can't go far with wet feet. Skin gets soft, socks rub on skin, feet rub inside shoes, skin comes off in sheets. Then this hiker experiences unhappiness.

Part two.

Is having footwear for in camp. I usually haven't needed this since I stopped wearing boots almost nine years ago, but.

There are times when your feet are tired, or you have a blister, or only a couple of sore spots that could use a break. Then it's nice to have a second pair.

Or say you went ankle deep in muck. You want to wash your shoes and then they need to dry. It doesn't help dry shoes to wear them wet, and it isn't fun either. It's nice to have something else.

If it's a dewy morning in camp, or raining, and you leave your hiking shoes off then they stay dry. But you need more than bare feet to make it work.

Sometimes it simply feels better to wear a second pair of shoes for a while. You can't do it with only one pair.

Tried this, tried that.
  • A second pair of hiking shoes is a possible solution but not for me. Too big, too bulky, too heavy. Anything much lighter, smaller or cheaper would be hard to find.

  • There are specialized water shoes. Which reminds me of the next big trend: sleeping shoes. Bleh. That was a good joke the first time I heard it, but watch -- someone will make them yet. Anyway this is once again too specialized, too big, heavy, expensive and so on. Simply more of the same.

  • Sandals. I've never had a real pair, but do have some cheap ones from KMart. They are great, if I wear them with socks. They strap on tight, the socks keep the scratchy straps at bay and protect my toes, the soles are thick and the grip is good. The problem is that they are big (about an inch thick) and stiff, and heavy, and the two-layer soles began to separate early on, so I'd never want to really rely on them. Some glue fixed the soles problem but you never know. They did cost only a few bucks though. Good for stream walking.

  • Zorries. (Flip-flops, jandals, chappal, Hawaii chappals, Qainchi chappals, thongs, slip-slops, slippers, pluggers, go-aheads, ojotas, or chancletas.)

    I used these for years. Once upon a time they were dirt cheap and feather light. Now not. There is only one point of contact, between the first two toes, so they are iffy in fast or deep water. The light pseudo-rubber sort-of-plastic material they're made of has little strength, ages quickly, and disintegrates if the going gets tough. They are comfy, easy-on, easy-off, quick drying, and rinse clean though.

    To my last pair I added some elastic shock cord to make a loop that went around the heel. This improved them a lot. I didn't worry so much about loss in fast water but they still slid around when the going got tough. Really handy in camp.

  • Booties. Neoprene booties for cycling and other purposes are available but are probably all too expensive to fool with, and easily abraded, so I won't bother trying. I have used a leaky old pair of Rocky Socks Gore-Tex booties though. Sometimes I take these as sort-of-OK protection for semi-wet days, but I have used them for wading too.

    Wear these with socks inside shoes and you are just about unstoppable at wading, but if you're in up to your knees everything below gets soaked anyway.

    Wear then without shoes for stream crossings and they're good, but should be worn with socks, to fend off pointy stones. But you wouldn't want to pay $50 for a new set and then ruin them by wading. Better to try...

  • Socks.

    Plain socks work well as anything. They fit. They stay on. They cushion. They are cheap (no need to use a new pair). They are handy. They are light.

    OK, now the down side. Socks don't dry fast at all. Sometimes it takes a full day to dry them, even in warm weather. And they get gunky with sand, mud, stickers, and thorns. So not great.

  • Barefoot is the ultimate in light weight. I've done this too. Some times it's delightful, usually not. You have no protection, and can easily peel off a toenail, or worse. And unless you go barefoot a lot the soles of your feet will be uselessly tender.

    But feet are quick to dry, always enjoy being rinsed, and can simply be brushed off to remove grit after they dry.
The rest.

I haven't tried anything else except for a pair of throwaway insoles from new shoes. I got this idea from Carol "Brawny" Wellman. They're like zorries, but there is less there.

Thread some shock cord through the insoles to give your toes a grip, then run another loop around the back, to grab your heel. Add a cord lock in the right place and you can tighten them.

These work around camp, and in calmer streams, but they don't stay centered under the soles of your feet, so they're goofy to use. In fast water they move around so much that they're like going half barefoot. Even around camp they move around, and they're too narrow and short to serve well. Your toes hang off the front, and the sides of your feet get into the dirt. Or you're only half walking on them.

But they are light, and free.

So, what, then?

What I want is something that will:
  • Give me protection from pointy stones, and the occasional piece of glass or metal (or nails).
  • Keep my wet feet out of the sand and dirt.
  • Be convenient.
  • Be compact enough to tuck away in a pack pocket.
  • Dry fast.
  • Be durable.
  • Will let me stay nimble but sure-footed.
  • Be light.
  • Be as cheap as possible.
Not there yet.

I have more work to do but I'm getting closer. I made a pair of booties that look promising. Loopy but promising. I used some mesh left over from a sewing project. For soles I put in a couple of those throwaway insoles that come with running shoes.

I'm hoping that the mesh will give a good grip and will dry fast.

These aren't made that well, but they are small and light.

Mesh with any strength at all is heavy. Heavier than solid fabric. So after I play with these for a while I'm going to try solid fabric. It should dry fast enough, and since it's solid and not mesh it will keep out stones, grit, sticks, and other annoying things.

Wait, wait! Weights.

Footwear Ounces Grams
Barefoot: 0.0 0
Insole zorries: 1.9 54
Gore-Tex booties (approximate): 3.0 85
Socks (approximate): 3.0 85
Home made wading booties: 4.5 128
Commercial zorries: 4.7 133
KMart sandals: 9.0 255


Carol "Brawny" Wellman gram weenie sandals.