The following content is comprised of personal opinions, and in no way reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Scotland Gear: These Boots Were Made for Walking


As that old song goes, "these boots were made for walking." Unlike the song states, they're not actually boots.

There has always been this association between hikers and these monstrous boots that are made of all leather, completely bomb-proof, and weigh about 10 pounds. Unless you are climbing Everest, there is almost no practical purpose for these boots. In a nutshell, they are 'over-constructed.' Sadly, anyone whom has ever taken a weekend retreat or visited a popular state park has seen hikers with boots like these, tramping on like they're about to conquer the world, and now they have the boots to do it with!

In reality, the solution to this over-constructed boot is so simple: the shoe. Anyone whom has ever gone for a run in their favorite tennis shoe and ventured onto a trail knows that they still work. With a few modifications to the sole and some added stiffness, the cross-trainer was born.

Cross-trainers, or hybrids, are just that; a combination of the durability and safety of a boot with the comfort and lightness of a running shoe. Usually only ankle-high, the cross-trainer will almost always be marketed as "having the sole of a hiking boot." Yeah...right. While the cross-trainer incorporates so many fantastic things from both side of the spectrum, it is inconceivable to take the sole of a hiking boot and transpose it onto a shoe, partly because the shoe needs to remain flexible, and the sole of the hiker is simply too ridged.

It is important to note that the decisions you make about shoes (or boots) are 10% dependent on what others say, and 90% dependent on how they feel. After all, you will be the one wearing them. If you want to wear 3 pound boots that are more comfortable than their 1 pound counterpart, that is entirely your decision. There will be positives and negatives to every piece of footwear. You simply need to find the one that work the best for you.

For Scotland, I could come up with many good reasons to justify bringing a pair of boots with me. However, I feel that the cross-trainers are more comfortable and more in line with the way I walk. For that reason, I have decided to use of pair of Moabs by Merrell. There is a range of reasons I chose these shoes:

- I already had them from my last hike (as you can see from the picture, they are already quite dirty!). On top of not costing anything extra, they are already broken in. While this can be a long and tedious process, I found this pair quite easy compared to other shoes and boots I've used.

-They're lightweight. At a whole 31 ounces, they may not be the lightest available, but they're awfully close.

-Full Gore-Tex® XCR® protection. While no boot or shoe is 100% waterproof, these do a pretty good job with knowledgeable use, of course). In addition, they also are breathable, allowing water that did make it in, along with sweat and condensation, to escape.

-Vibram® soles. I love Vibram, as you'll see further on in the post. The soles of these shoes are made with TC5+ rubber, allowing for ultimate traction with plenty of flexibility.

-Durability. I was hesitant to by these at first becuase I'd heard many horror stories about them falling apart mid walk. But I have probably close to 500 trail miles on this pair and, after a wash, they look brand new. Trust me, this pair has taken a beating, too. Lets just say there was a small incident involving a bridge-less crossing of the Encampment River in spate. Through thick and thin, these shoes took it all!

While I really like these shoes and the price I paid for them ($50!!!!), there are shoes out there on the market I would like to try. Namely the GoLite line of shoes. GoLite has yet again innovated hiking. Their new shoes incorporate a 'metamorphic suspension' much like the independent suspension in a car. Which mean that instead of the cushioning the foot-bed of a shoe, they made the tred conform to the trail. While these would undoubtedly be some remarkable shoes, they are a bit pricey (think $200+) and are hard to find in stores.

However, there are times when a single pair of shoes will not cut it. There are other times when you just want to get those smelly things off your feet! For those reasons I have chosen to also pack with my pair of Vibram Five Fingers.

These shoes have been called many names by people who see me wearing them around (I think the best yet was 'duck shoes'). However, these are a pair of shoes that will never leave my side. The human foot is said to be one of the most complex parts of our body, with 26 bones and upwards of 100 muscles. In addition, research has shown that while shoes are sometimes necessary to protect us, they weaken our foot and leg muscles and leave them open to injury. Five Fingers help promote a more natural gait and are very ergonomic. Walking in them is virtually identical to walking barefoot, although the TC1 grade rubber on the bottom removes the pain, so much that I can and do routinely walk on graval and trail in them with no pain.

While walking in them is great, backpacking in them would require a little more effort. The main problem here is that they have literally zero arch support, so walking with a loaded pack is more strenuous than if you were in shoes. However, like all activity, ability comes with time. It took me several weeks to be able to comfortably walk for an entire day with these on. Given enough training, I'm sure I could manage with only the Five Fingers. However, I plan to restrict their use to river-fording and around camp/town use.

I am prepared to invest my full confidence in these shoes. I am comfortable saying I have faith these pieces of gear will only aid me in all my endeavors.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Scotland Gear: The Rucksack

In the next few posts I will be outlining the gear I will come to rely on when crossing Scotland on the TGO Challenge.

The Rucksack:

This essential piece of equipment has many different names, including rucksack, backpack, and campbag. Regardless of what you call it, it serves the same function; to protect you gear while making it all easily portable. Many years ago, almost all packs (the term I use most frequently) were built with little thought to not only weight, but also their ability to repel water. The fabric was heavy, although tough, and included many things that would be considered outrageous by almost anyone today.

When the lightweight and ultralight movements started (partly because of one company discussed a little later on here), we started to see the use of special nylons and polyethylene fibers. Soon, companies we 'impregnating' nylon with silicone, making it super strong and still rather light. The problem, however, is that the stronger the fabric, the heavier it is (generally). This is where Dyneema® gridstop nylon come into play. Although Dyneema is not fully waterproof, this allows the fabric to be breathable, allowing the wet air to escape. Dyneema is so light, in fact, that it will actually float on water. The fabric itself is also chemical and UV resistant. We've proven it's light, but how strong is it? Consider this: armed forces around the world use it as a bullet resistant insert, mainly because its twice as strong as Kevlar by weight.

Because of its high strength and low weight, GoLite has started building their packs out of Dyneema-reinforced 210 denier (medium/light-weight) ripstop nylon. In my opinion, Golite's quality is most evident in their Pinnacle pack.

Weighing in at a maximum 0f 26 oz, the Pinnacle (pictured at right packed full) is one of the largest packs by volume to weigh in as an ultra-light. With a maximum fill of 72 liters (4400 cubic inches), I will never have to worry about not having room. In fact, I chose this pack specifically for this trip because of its large capacity. With a no resupply at all I will need to carry 14 days worth of food. With nearly 28 oz per day, that's 24.5 POUNDS OF FOOD, which is far more than the average bag can hold, weight or volume-wise.

Another reason I chose this bag was the front pocket. While not too large, it is large enough to stash all my maps in, allowing for easy access when needed. Although I will still have to take off the pack, I won't have to go digging through everything inside the main compartment to find them. And with 8 different maps, I will be switching almost once a day. In addition to convenience, the pocket also has a light-weight zipper that is fully waterproof. This will allow me to put one more barrier between the rain and my only navigational resources.
You'll also notice in the picture on the left that the Pinnacle has a very bare-bones suspension system. There's a saying that the first place you should be ok with adding weight to is the suspension system on your pack. A good suspension can make a 40 pound weight fell like 20. I spent at least two hours in the store with this pack, trying it on and checking the straps. Here's a rundown of why this system works:

-The flat part you see at left is due to a foam insert that acts as the frame.At only 2 oz, its worth keeping in (I feel), and it's essential in order to keep things from shifting while walking and poking you in the back.

-The shoulder straps are padded from seam to seam. Although this adds a little weight, that's negated by not needing padding in the hip belt. There are also straightener straps that keep the top of the pack from tilting you backwards.

-The hip belt's main (and only) function is to keep the bottom of the pack nice and close, which improves your balance. While some hip belts will distribute a good amount of weight on your hips, I feel this not only hinders my natural stride, but is also unnecessary for weights under 40 pounds. I can, however, lower the pack a little and place a small amount of the weight onto my lumbar region for a short duration of time.

Another main problem I face is that once I near the end of the journey, I will have a lot less in my pack due to the consumption of food. One of the most annoying things a hiker can be forced to endure is the contents of his/her pack sloshing around because of empty space. Not with the Pinnacle, however! GoLite has invented a ComPACKtor system that incorporates two small compression straps on each side of the pack, allowing me to reduce it from 72 liters to only 26 liters. That means no matter how much is in my pack, I will be comfortable knowing nothing is sloshing around!

In short, this pack is both durable and light, the two main features I need. While I have not fully tested it in the field (kind of hard in snow and ice), I am prepared to invest my full confidence in this pack. I am comfortable saying I have faith this piece of gear will only aid me in all my endeavors.

-Shawn Grund