Feet First Australia

exploring Australia (and sometimes further afield) on foot


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The Bothersome Business of Buying Boots

“What hiking boots should I buy?”

The answer to this common question is simple: buy the boots that fit your feet!

Flind Ranges MEL_2997

“I could list a whole lot of attributes that I think a hiking boot should have,” mountaineer and adventurer Peter Hillary told me when I interviewed him for an article on bushwalking technology and safety some years back, but if you find boots that lack in some areas but are really comfortable, they are the boots for you.  “If you’ve got uncomfortable feet your great adventure has got serious limitations.”

And not everyone is a fan of traditional hiking boots at all. One of my close friends wore elastic-sided boots in all conditions and some people still swear by Dunlop Volleys!

FTlegs

I recently had to buy new boots, an activity I dread more than scaling a steep scree slope or navigating a slimy log, because while my feet are a standard, off-the-op-shop-shelf width and length, my toes are slightly squared, so many boot lasts – the last is the foot-shaped mechanical form around which the boot is made – don’t fit. I am extremely jealous of friends who have found a boot brand/style perfect for them and buy the same one each time without issue.

bootz pic

In contrast, my hiking boot history is a who’s who of manufacturers. Over the years I have walked in Zamberlan, Hi-Tec, Scarpa, Footprint (made by Birkenstock) and Oboz boots but I have always been eager at day’s end to slip my feet into something more comfortable! My first hiking boots were too small (incorrectly fitted), which contributed to the near life-long abuse of my big toe nails. Some boots have rubbed, necessitating the taping of toes and heals before every walk. One pair made my feet sweat worse than usual – which is saying something – so I on-sold them soon after purchase.

MEL_7121Bibbulmun Coalmine WA

This time around I spent four hours trying on eight different pairs of fabric, hybrid and leather boots in Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street. The heftiest and most expensive proved to be the most comfortable so I brought home a pair of leather-and-goretex Asolo 520s. Frustratingly, our on-track relationship is not yet living up to the in-shop promise but a podiatrist thinks it is my feet rather than the boots and, unfortunately, I can’t sell them on ebay!

With a few helpful hints, though, you might have more success.

What do you want the boots for?

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Footwear is a vital piece of hiking kit but the variety can bamboozle.  While walking sandals suit many situations, including hikes with water crossings, because they grip while allowing your feet to breathe, ankle support is important on rougher tracks and when carrying a pack. You need a sturdier boot for heavy pack walks than you do on lighter weighted day walks, because the added burden on your back changes your posture and bodily stresses.

_MEL9601WP Lighthouse

Boots should have a thick enough and firm enough sole to protect your feet from rocky ground and side protection from rocks and sticks.

Talk to the salespeople. Many know what they are talking about and will point you towards the right style of boot for the job.

Size and fit?

Even if you have worn the same shoe size for years, get your boots professionally fitted.

Boots should fit snuggly, so your feet don’t move around, but not tightly, and allow your toes wriggle room. Try them on at day’s end (when your feet are swollen) and with the socks you plan to wear.

Girraween MEL_1180

With the boot fully unlaced, move your foot as far forward in the boot as possible. In a correctly sized boot you should be able to slip your index finger down inside the boot at the back of your ankle. This determines there’s space when your foot slides forward on descents under load.

Also walk up and down the ramp (good shops have them). And put your foot behind you and tap the toe on the ground; you should not be able to feel the front of the boot with your toes (vitally important on long descents).

Try on several different boots and compare, even one of each make on different feet. And don’t buy the first one that feels good; you can always come back to them.

Do try makes recommended by friends but remember that their shape might not suit your feet.

Falls Creek to Mt Hotham Walk, Victorian Alps, Australia

Put a sock on it?

Socks affect comfort and safety. Ask shop staff what they recommend but only trial and error will reveal what your feet prefer. Having worn thicker, wool-and-nylon blend Explorer-type socks for years, and tried the double layer system that many hikers swear by, I now wear thinner, left-and-right socks for a perfect fit.

Wear them in?

GOW blister

ALWAYS wear-in your new boots/shoes at home and on short walks before tackling anything major. And treat hot spots as soon as they develop, because blister pain can turn bushwalking bliss into hiking hell.

 

Feet booted and comfortable? Get walking!

Frenchmans Cap TAS MEL_9166

 


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Adventure clothing gets a caffeine kick

“When we got into our sleeping bags, if we were fortunate, we became warm enough during the night to thaw the ice; part remained in our clothes, part passed into the skins of the bags… and soon both were sheets of armour-plate.” Aspley Cherry-Garrad’s evocative description of the reindeer-fur sleeping bags used on Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic South Pole expedition, in his book, “The worst journey in the world,” has stayed with me since I first read it as a teenager.

Scott's_party_at_the_South_Pole 1But I looked it up again after an advertising email from Mountain Designs reminded me how much outdoor clothing has changed in the hundred years since British luxury fashion house Burberry fitted out Scott’s expedition.

Reindeer products are still popular, mostly with Arctic and Subarctic peoples, and natural fibres continue to be an essential part of many people’s outdoor wardrobe. I love zipping on a down jacket around a fire on a car-based winter bushwalking weekend – or at my desk on a particularly cold winter’s day in central Victoria! Wool hasn’t lost any of its insulating and wicking properties over the century either, although the merino layers my husband, Simon, hikes in are a finer breed than the woolen undergarments Scott and his men wore.

But the invention of man-made fibres, including quick, cheap, wash-and-wear polyester, patented in 1941, commercialised in the 1950s and much evolved since, has revolutionised adventure wear.

My customary bushwalking outfit is an advertisement for modern fibres: nylon trousers, which are surprisingly cool even in warm weather (and in cooler weather zip down to modesty shorts over polypropylene thermal leggings, rainbow striped for safety, and visibility in photographs), nylon shirt, PET polar fleece layer, polyester blend socks with “twelve separate support and cushioning features” and GORE-TEX waterproof jacket. This get-up is comfortable, dries quickly after rain and/or immersion in creeks and, fortunately for walking companions, doesn’t smell, even after several days’ wear without showering. It’s also light to pack and carry on my back.

FTlegsBlends of man-made and natural fibres are, however, coming to the fore. Mountain Design’s promotional email announced a range of clothing made from a blend of cotton and reclaimed and recycled plastic bottles. Sanjida O’Connell writes in her online article in The Guardian, that Patagonia, the first outdoor clothing company to make clothing out of land-fill PET bottles, in 1993, “claims to have rescued 92m bottles of pop from the tip”. Patagonia also recycle nylon, wool and worn out Patagonia-label polyester clothing into other products.

But what really grabbed my attention and prompted this blog post was Mountain Design’s announcement of a new range of clothing made from polyester and coffee grounds. Yep, coffee grounds.

chainimage-costa-coffee-beans-freshly-roasted-coffee-deliveredApparently, the process to turn waste coffee grounds into fabric is similar to that used to make a viscose-like material from bamboo, which results in a fabric that’s soft and silky but too heavy and slow drying for a long pack walk.

In The Guardian article O’Connell says “coffee” fabric is “soft, light, flexible and breathable and can also be used to produce an outer shell that is water resistant. It’s impregnated with ‘activated’ carbon, derived from coconut, which makes it UV-resistant, wicks water away, keeps the wearer cool and binds to sweat to eliminate unpleasant odours.“ And Mountain Designs claims it “harnesses the power of recycled coffee beans”!

What would Robert Falcon Scott think? That it’s just not proper? Then again, he may well appreciate the innovation. As for me, if there’s any possibility of getting a through-skin caffeine hit from clothing to power me up a hill, I might just have to try it!

Melanie Ball’s website

Melanie’s photography as art and clothing

Wearable Art from Appliquez Moi