Time to consider all things feet and walking.
Let’s start with the most controversial issue for many — the trail shoe!
I started wearing trail shoes just before my first ever TGO Challenge and I haven’t gone back to boots since. If you are working in fields or in woodland/forest you probably want boots, but when you are skipping across moorland, slashing through bogs or nipping up mountain paths then trail shoes excel.
With trail shoes I don’t have to worry about getting wet feet. The shoes are designed to let the water in but, of course, they are designed to let it out just as easily. Wet feet soon dry out and unlike boots — no water gets trapped inside — there is far less a chance of getting blisters. The most popular trail shoes for hiking also have flexible soles. This might seem a little odd but I feel safer when I can feel the stony path through my shoes.
When I first got interested in trail shoes I emailed Chris Townsend. He told me he felt safer walking in lighter trail shoes and you know what — I think he was right. When you are wearing a boot, said Chris, and that boot goes into a divot your foot/ankle basically goes where your boot goes. In a flexible trail shoe you have more control. I have lost count of the times I have nearly gone over on my ankles but have been able to pull out of a fall. In big heavy boots I’d have certainly have hit the floor.
My trail shoes are Inov-8 Terrocs. The shoe has been redesigned over the last year or so and i’ve yet to try a new pair. My favourite Terrocs weigh just 750 grams and they shed water fast. The Terrocs pretty much set the all-round trail shoe standard for a long time. Now there are lots of alternatives but if you are considering a pair of trail shoes just ask yourself how quickly will they shed water? NEVER EVER buy trail shoes with Gore Tex linings — that way the water just gets stuck in the shoe.
The water thing is probably the biggest advantage of the trail shoe on the Challenge. When you come to a river you can laugh in the face of the old farts who are sitting on the bank of the river or stream, taking off their boots and donning their crocs. Us trail shoe people simply plough on through with no loss of momentum.
I find that, at the end of a hard day, my feet recover more quickly when I have been wearing trail shoes.
If this sounds a little too extreme for you then just buy a good but light pair of boots. If you are tempted but still not sure, buy a pair of trail shoes for simple day hikes and try them out. And when people try and tell you that these have no place in the backpacking world ask yourself, have these people ever tried them? Most of those who complain about lightweight gear have never tried it I have discovered!
For water permeable trail shoes I have found X Socks Trekking Lite socks to be the best match. Although synthetic these breathe wonderfully and at 53 grams a pair they are pretty light. They wash out easily and can be put on when wet — your feet soon dry as you begin to walk. You can, of course, use your favourite merino blend socks successfully with trail shoes.
I carry two other pairs of socks with me.
Firstly, I carry a pair of Smartwool merino light hiker socks (70 grams). These are warmer than the X socks and can be useful on the very few occasions when I’ve wanted a little more warmth. On the whole I use these as a spare pair or socks to wear in civilisation. But one of the keys to successful lightweight backpacking is versatility and on these grounds alone there is a place in my pack for these socks.
I also carry a pair of Sealskinz waterproof socks. I was puzzled when I bought these as I fund them to be horrible to walk in. They also provide your feet with little natural warmth. However, they come into their own as camp socks. When I stop and make camp I put these on and then put my wet trails shoes on over the top. As I mentioned before I can also slip them on over down socks which allows me to wear these outside with a little care. In civilisation I also wear them to the cafe or the put when my trail shoes are still wet. The Sealskinz weigh about the same as a pair of merino wool socks.
These can be useful with trail shoes as they can help keep small stones and sand out of your shoes. Inov-8’s own short gaiter are effective and only weight 50 grams — they do wet out and keep wet though. These days I tend to use Rab’s shorty Gaiter which weigh 70 grams — and still weight 70 grams in the wet! To use these mini gaiters effectively you need to arrange the stretch chord on them so that you have two loops through which to put your feet. One loop goes underneath the front of your shoe and the other under the heel area of your shoe — this will give you tight and waterproof fit. All of these gaiters are fragile and the biggest problem with them is the breaking of this stretchy chord. I use bungee chord for mine and carry a spare length in my pack. I have never been able to get through two weeks of hiking without breaking one of these chords but I’m probably a bit ham-fisted.
I am an avid user of walking poles. If you are not your are probably young. And fit. And strong. Poles really do take the strain off the knees, particularly when engaged in steep descents. Pacer poles work in a different way toothed poles. Some people swear by them and others deny their social qualities. I swear by them. Pacer do produce a version of their poles in carbon but I use the aluminium poles as I have to rely on them to hold up my shelter. Carbon poles can break — particularly in cold weather. My Pacers weigh 500 grams for the pair.
No I haven’t gone mad. It is worth pampering those feet of yours while on a trek. I use two creams from backpacking light.co.uk. The first is a barrier cream that you apply in the morning. This keeps the feet protected and fresh while you walk and —I believe — adds a little warmth in the process. In the evening I apply a Refresher cream. This is lanolin rich and sheer, sheer, luxury; it certainly regenerates those feet quickly. The range that bob and Rose sell also has an all purpose cream that you can use in the morning or at night but you really will want to treat yourself to some refresher cream.
So, that’s it in the feet department. No spare pair of shoes or sandals — with trail shoes you don’t need the weight. But the versatility of those three pairs of socks is useful.
Next, I shall move on to the tricky subject of clothes and waterproofs.