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John Muir Trail Gear: Footwear

They say that social security is the “third rail” of politics. (The third rail on a train or subway is the one that transmits electrical power to the motor, so if you touch it—you’re toast). Footwear could very well be the “third rail” of hiking gear discussions. There are folks on the trail who will look with disgust at anyone wearing hiking boots as they float (effortlessly, they tell me!) along in their trail runners. The more traditional among us, at the same time, see only two types of trail runner wearers: those who have seriously sprained their ankles, and those who are about to.

So, let me get my position out right up front: wear what works for you. (There. Is that noncommittal enough?)

That said, I think both camps would agree with the following:

John Muir TrailWhatever shoes or boots you decide to wear, make sure they are thoroughly tested for at least a dozen hikes over similar terrain and with similar loads. You must get this right. Footwear is NOT just a matter of comfort on the trail; it’s a matter of safety. A hiker with ruined feet, especially far from civilization and with bad weather moving in, is a hiker in danger. Your feet are as important in the wilderness as tires on a car or wings on an airplane, and your feet are defenseless without well-fitting, durable, boots or shoes.

Treat them well on the trail. True, good hiking footwear is designed to take some abuse, but limit it as much as possible. I always keep my boots in my tent (or in the vestibule). Why? Because there are critters out there who love to chew them. It’s cute when your puppy eats your slippers. It’s not so cute when a marmot, pika or chipmunk destroys a lace or chews a hole in your upper.

Understand that your choice of waterproof or non-waterproof footwear will affect the way you hike. Waterproof footwear does a good job of keeping VERY SHALLOW water and environmental dampness out of the inside of your boots or shoes. On the other hand, once the inside of those same boots or shoes becomes wet it will be far more difficult to get them dry, simply because that same waterproof layer which keeps water out, also keeps water in.

That means you will probably want to remove waterproof shoes or boots PRIOR to crossing a stream that is more than an inch or two deep. (Depending on the previous winter’s snowfall and time of year, you might encounter one such crossing a day, on the John Muir Trail, or one during the entire hike!)

Footwear without waterproofing will dry much more easily, but can also leave you with wet feet even if the only water on the trail is the occasional unavoidable puddle or even vegetation covered with dew.

Snow on the trail can make a difference as well. If the top of the accumulation falls beneath the tops of your waterproof boots, you’re in good shape. If the snow manages to work its way inside your boots from the top, because it’s a foot deep, that’s another situation, entirely.

I’m an ex-infantryman, so I’m a big believer in dry feet. I use waterproof boots and I keep their insides dry. Even if it rains, I put on rain pants. Going through a stream, my boots and socks are well away from the water.

Last, don’t scrimp on the socks. Get quality hiking socks and never—ever—buy cotton.

I’m not much for changing clothes on the trail, but socks are the exception. I always carry three pairs: one to wear, one to strap on the back of my pack, and one to sleep in. Each night I take the clean, dry pair off the back of my pack and put them in my tent. Afterwards, I soak my feet and wash the socks I wore that day. My liberally powdered feet are then slipped into my plush, comfy sleeping socks. The socks I wash that night spend the next day on the outside of my backpack, drying. The next morning I may be wearing the same shirt, the same pants—even the same underwear—but my socks are fresh!

Good hiking, Ray

Gear and the John Muir Trail

From to time to time I’m going to talk about gear on this blog, even though, in a way, I’m reluctant to do so.  Hiking the John Muir Trail is about the walking, the scenery, the people you meet, and the experience.  It’s not about the gear.

Yet gear is necessary, so we might as well choose it well.  In “Planning Your Thru-Hike of the John Muir Trail” I suggest a framework for evaluating gear called the Gear Triangle.  That diagram depicts this basic truth when it comes to choosing equipment: you can have it cheap, light or comfortable—pick any two.

But there IS one exception; something that is weightless, costs little (at least in the long run) and will make you more comfortable and safer: skill.

John Muir Trail Sierra Nevada backpacking

With the possible exception of judgment, skills are the most important things to carry with you.  Let me use something simple to illustrate the point: layering.

Your sleep system is critically important to a good hike.  If it fails to keep you comfortable you won’t sleep well.  It could even be a safety hazard if the conditions deteriorate.  But, by using a layering strategy, you can get away with a much lighter sleeping bag.

On my trip I had the following layers:  Capilene 2 short sleeved shirt, Capilene 3 long sleeved shirt, Polartec fleece jacket, Polartec fleece pants, waterproof rain jacket and waterproof rain pants.  That’s four different upper and two different lower layers I could wear or shed as the temperature fell and rose.  True, all that weighs in at a little more than four pounds (the fleece is heavy), but each piece is also multi-purpose.

The multiple layers allowed me to choose a sleeping bag with a rating fifteen degrees warmer (and, therefore, substantially lighter) than I would have otherwise taken.  It also kept me comfortable regardless of the temperature, even on my last night at Guitar Lake when high elevation and a clear sky meant near-freezing temperatures.

Learning to layer is a pretty simple example, but there is so much more to learn.  Here are three quick recommendations:

1. Go to school.  There are tons of outdoor schools out there.  Two that you should consider are: Mountain Education  and Andrew Skurka’s Ultimate Hiking Courses.  Both are well known for quality education.

2.  Surf the web.  So many websites, so little time!  Two of my favorites are Backpacking Light and Backpacker Magazine’s website.

3.  Read a book.  Obviously, there’s only so much you can learn about a very hands-on activity (like backpacking) from a book, but two that should definitely be on your list are The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trail by Andrew Skurka and The Backpacker’s Field Manual by Rick Curtis.

Gear is good, but it’s no substitute for knowing what you’re doing.

Good hiking, Ray