Uncle Tom, why are you wearing boots?

“Uncle Tom, why are you wearing boots? “ – One of the Kiwis, at Third Gate on the PCT (2010)
“I’m curious about your choice of shoes.  Comment please…”- Dennis on tjamrog.wordpress.com (3/2/2013)

You’ll see a fairly regular number of hikers wearing boots on the Appalachian Trail. You won’t see many boots worn by long-distance hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail.  I bet I’ll be the only long-distance hiker wearing boots on the Continental Divide Trail this season.

Here are some of the reasons from today’s Google about boot shunning, mostly from hikers on Whiteblaze.com:
Boots are considered so old-school as to be relegated to the slag heap of slide rulers and hand-held calculators that cost $50.  They are considered unnecessary, and so heavy that they are  a sysiphean drag on the energy required to lift each foot. They don’t dry out as fast as lighter, fabric trail runners. They supposedly “reduce blood circulation” (therefore your feet won’t be as warm than if they were in trail runners). Boots, ”increase the chance of ankle injury by masking features in the terrain that would turn an ankle”.  Boots cost too much to replace when your feet grow on a thru-hike ( compared to trail runners).  Gore-tex and other membrane boots don’t stay waterproof for long (Thru hiking “abuses the membrane” through dirt, sweat, and body oil….in as little as 45 days.)
Here’s an answer (whiteblaze.com) that begs critical analysis – “I thru hiked with boots. I had no issues with ankle support. ..Boots kept me from spraining or injuring my ankle”.  This answer illustrates the generalization fallacy, illustrated by substituting one word to change the statement to, “ I thru hiked with sandals. I had no issues with ankle support. Sandals kept me from spraining or injuring my ankles”.
People do complete thru hikes in minimalist footwear.  In fact, I saw a barefoot thru hiker on September 13 this year on the  summit of Katahdin.  It was this guy:

Look ma, footloose!

photo by Laura Hartenstein

He swears in this most interesting blog entry, “I will never wear hiking boots again.”

Few plusses are found for boots:  Boots provide “ankle support”, “keep feet cleaner”, protect if something heavy falls or whacks against your foot, and  are, “more durable”.  Here’s a durablility dreamer, “Do I want a pair that will see me through this hike and others in the years ahead?”  Obviously from someone who is still contemplating a thru-hike.

     So why buck the current trend?
History–> I started the AT in boots that were highly recommended to me from experienced staff up at Winterport Boot shop. They sold me a pair of Merrill Phaser Peaks20138_366_45
In 2007, I  began to get blisters within a week of hiking in Georgia, and some of the people I was hiking with encouraged me switch to ventilated trail runners, so I went to a pair of New Balance, and the blisters stopped. I then switched to Inov-8’s in Virginia with Superfeet insoles that took me all the way to Maine.  Unfortunately that combo left me with nerve damage and low-grade left forefoot pain.  Despite physical therapy, occupational therapy, acupuncture, medication, custom orthotics, and consulting the best sports podiatrist in Maine, I’m still affected.  It hasn’t gotten any better, but is no worse, even after two more thru hikes.

I was ready to start the PCT in April of 2010 in Asics Gel Trabucos when my brother Roy, who works as a costing manager for New Balance, told me that NB had just acquired a Vermont company, On the Beach, that manufactures military and tactical footwear.
“You are going to hiking in the desert, right?  These are the exact boots worn by Navy Seals in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I can get you a pair to try out.”
Long story short, I received free New Balance Tactical 802  boots for whole 2,700 miles, where I encountered NO blisters.

NB Tactical 802

NB Tactical 802

I did jump up to a size 14, with PLENTY of room in the forefoot, that ensured my toes were not able to rub when I walked.

That,  plus 2 pair of thin merino wool micro-crew Cushion Darn Tough socks that survived the whole trip. There is no finer hiker deal than Darn Tough.  There is NO other manufacturer whose hiking socks last like Darn Tough, and even better,  the $20 that you spend on a pair is a lifetime deal.  Made in Vermont. “If you wear these socks out, we’ll replace them. Free of charge. No questions asked.”  It’s true, I have 2 new pair of replaced Darn Tough socks for the CDT.
People get blisters on the PCT, even General Lee, who is usually blister free, but whose feet succumbed to the volcanic grit that was present in Northern California and Oregon.
I now hike three seasons in the Bushmasters,  now renamed the NB Tactical 802, which also allowed me a blister free completion of  Vermont’s Long Trail  (2011).
I like being free of blisters.  The boots ventilate exceedingly well, and this trip starts in the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico.  After they are soaked from rain or stream crossings, they dry our very quickly.  The specialized Vibram soles wear and grip nicely. The laces don’t wear. They are fairly light, and don’t have any metal in them, which is a military consideration.  They weigh 1.5 pounds each, where my Inov-8’s with Superfeet insoles weigh 1 pound each.  No big deal.

My beef with the boots continues to be the exposed stitching on the toe and heel cups.  I  went through 4 pair on the PCT and in each case, the stitching rubbed through, and made a hole between the plastic cup and and fabric where debris entered, and the separations increased, primarily on the toe cups. I communicated my concerns back to NB. The primary manager for these particular boots assured me that there would be a design modification in future factory runs of the boot that would recess and then cover these areas, but it hasn’t happened yet.

My brother Roy has helped me to secure five new pairs of Tactical 802’s for this trip. One pair was free, and the other four were sold to me for 60% discount, with free shipping.
This time, I’m coating the toe and heel stitching with a sealant, probably more than one thin coat.  Auntie Mame will send them to me when I need them.
That’s why I wear boots.  These boots work for me, but as Auntie Mame so perceptively put, “You could also call them ankle height trail runners.”  Enough already.

Soon it will time to “Stop Talking, Start Walking”

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About tjamrog

I'm sixty-seven and live in the Maine woods. I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2007, the Pacific Crest Trail in 2010, Vermont's Long Trail in 2011, and the Continental Divide Trail in 2013 . I am outdoors every day. I offer guided backpacking trips and classes in Maine, through "Uncle Tom's Guided Adventures".
This entry was posted in Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Continental Divide Trail, Gear, hiking, Pacific Crest Trail and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Uncle Tom, why are you wearing boots?

  1. Doug Sensenig says:

    Eeeeww! If I knew you wore boots, I never would have spoken to you.

    Haha… In all seriousness, my experience with boots was an increasingly frantic search for a brand that wouldn’t give me blisters until I realized that it was wearing boots that was the problem. Or was it? I think in retrospect it was that I was buying boots that were too small. The breakthrough was with Keen boots which have a larger toe box. I finished the AT and had two blister-free section hikes in mid-height Keens. When I was reading your description of the Army boots, I pictured something much heavier before I saw the picture. Auntie Mame is right – they’re more like high-top trail runners than the Herman Survivor boots I used to have. Those HS boots were fantastic but so heavy they literally made my knees hurt.

    For desert hiking, you will do well to have higher-top shoes – they will do a better job of keeping sand, gravel and debris away from your feet. In our Arizona years we found that grit was more responsible for blisters than any other factor. Every time you stop for a break, take off your boots and socks so your feet can dry. If possible, switch to clean socks, per Yogi’s suggestion, if you can get them clean at regular intervals.

    As one who has been plagued by blisters on many hikes, they are my one dread about my upcoming PCT thru. So this has been very helpful. I’ll get the socks and consider the Army boots, though I think I’ll start with the tried-and-true Keens. Not quite ready to go to the trail runners, as I also have had deep bruising and nerve damage from too-light soles.

    3Cats

  2. tjamrog says:

    3Cats, Thanks for posting. I agree that restricted fit, abrasives coming into the interior of the footwear, and moisture within the sock are the three factors that contribute to blisters. Thick socks do provide needed cushioning, however, can result in moisture being retained in the sock and then- blister! I am in the practice of removing socks and shoes at breaks and switching socks to dry out the dampness. Another practice that I employ is to round off the sharp edge of toenails with a emery board after clipping to eliminate the possibility of the sharp edge catching the fibers of the sock, and thereby causing the nail to lift up over time as the microtears accumulate, resulting in blood under the nail, then pain, then black nail, then no nail. I could show the readers a picture of the most damaged pair of feet I’ve ever seen on any hike, which were caused by restrictive footwear but you’d get sick to your stomach: no nails, huge blisters. The NB Tacticals are very solid under the foot, and do eliminate bruising of my feet. It is critical to care for your feet, which is probably the #1 reason people abandon longer hikes. If not the #1 reason, foot discomfort at least contributes to daily malaise where that rat of doubt nibbles away your resolve.

  3. Dave Nunley says:

    I still hike in my custom Limmers made for me in 1978. I admit I don’t always wear them but I have weak ankles and I never turn an ankle in my heavy old boots. A solid boot allows one to wear crampons or more readily cross a patch of snow. When traveling on hard surfaces like granite they are easier on the sensitive structures of the foot. Young hikers don’t appreciate the benefits of a good foundation.

    • tjamrog says:

      Crampons, snow, granite, and thirty five years – the Limmers and you must have some tales to tell. Still have the Sierra cup, Sigg pot set, and the SVEA stove? I know that things sometimes come full circle, like fishnet underwear….No argument from me!

  4. Grin says:

    The barefoot guy went past us going up Katahdin the day I finished my AT hike. You must have been on top a bit before I got there.

    • tjamrog says:

      It was a great day up there, Grin. Man, it would have been fun to run into you. It’s fun just knowing we were both on the big K the same day.

  5. Bluebearee says:

    Always a personal preference that gets folks all het up. Started and ended AT 11 years ago with LLBean Cresta Hikers. Full GTX leather. Which wore out days into hike (the goretex protection) – both pair. Had a lot of lower leg and foot pain the whole way until I ditched the green Superfeet. My high arch did not work with those. I turned to Vasque Ions in 04 and have never looked back. I need more flexibility in a backpacking boot. I hoard every pair I can find on ebay. Hiked in Iceland, Europe & Nepal with them. For me FG leather is overkill.

    • tjamrog says:

      It’s all about the feet. Sorry you had such a bad experience on the AT. I’m a big fan of having a consultation with a good sport podiatrist BEFORE one’s first thru-hike- they can detect gait problems, and assess what portions of your feet are ok and what are not, and possibly influence where you have to go with footwear. I still hike with my leather Phaser Peaks sometimes, like if it is springtime, there is mud, and may not be too much rain predicted. The downside of leather GT is that if water runs in there, you will be plagued by wet inside the boots.

  6. Tjamrog, please can you attribute the photograph from my blog properly? The photographer is Laura Hartenstein ‘Sweet n Sour’. If not, please take the photo down. Thank you.

    Glad to see some thinking going into footwear choices. Thanks for chiming in.

    Cheers,
    Merry

    • tjamrog says:

      Sure will, I thought the link to you your blog would have done that but will list the info on the photo itself.

      • All of the pictures on my blog were taken by yours truly except for that one. I felt duty bound to ask for attribution since it isn’t mine (even if I am the subject). Thanks so much!
        May your boots always treat you well 😀

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