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!

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“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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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Escaping the Family on Foot

People bushwalk – hike, tramp, ramble, trek – for different reasons and in different ways. The ten Brisbane mums I met walking the three-day Six Foot Track with Blue Mountains-based company Life’s An Adventure were on their eighth annual escape from their families.

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Members of a thirteen-strong walking group – it’s got a waiting list! – the women live in the suburb surrounding one of Brisbane’s oldest primary schools. Four of them have known each other since childhood; the rest met at the school gate, on tuck shop roster and holding timepieces at swimming carnivals. Aged from 52 to 59, with one 46-year old youngster, they have thirty-seven children between them, all but three of whom attended the historic primary school.

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When the ten women I met on the Six Foot Track first came up with the idea of a walking holiday, over a brie stuffed with cranberries and a glass of NZ sav blanc, it wasn’t really about the hiking. “It was about escaping our humdrum suburban routines and replacing it with adventure,” spokeswoman Nicola explains. “It wasn’t until we had done our first hike – Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand [in 2008] – that we understood what a multi-day hike really was.”

 

Since then they have done eight guided and self-guided walks in New Zealand (The Routeburn Track was one of Nicola’s favourites) and Tasmania, and on the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria, with a core group of six doing every one.

 

None were bushwalkers before their first trip but their number includes regular cyclists, boot camp attendees and masters hockey players, so they are not unused to exercise. “We are okay with training before the walk,” Nicola says. “However none of us wants to carry a pack of greater than 7.5kg… We wouldn’t take on Kokoda. We wouldn’t do a walk that didn’t have someone else prepare our dinner; we are all mums who have to cook every night so not cooking is one of the joys.”

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Cut as a bridal trail in 1884 to shorten travel time between Sydney and the Jenolan Caves, the Six Foot Track – it was made wide enough for two loaded drays to pass – was officially reopened as a walking track a century later. It starts and ends with a bang, dropping from a cliff-edge view of the Megalong Valley down rock and timber steps into lush fern forest tucked between undercut sandstone that frames a slice of blue sky, and finishing among Jenolan’s jagged external limestone cliffs and exquisite cave decorations. Yet the Six Foot Track is more about history than scenery, with a long, uninspiring day-two climb up a gravel road, and Nicola doesn’t rate the walk highly against others they have done.

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But Life’s An Adventure, the company with whom they’ve also walked on Maria Island, impresses. (It offers 17 walking holidays across Australia, including a fabulous two-day guided walk into the Wolgan Valley, west of the Blue Mountains.) “The girls in the office are always super helpful… and they get some mad requests from us,” Nicola says. “We pay in dribs and drabs and bother them with queries about pillows and sleeping bags and taking bottles of wine and then we harass them to chill it for us in the evening!”

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There are no better walking companions than those who have their priorities worked out and when the Brisbane Mums headed down to Coxs River for pre-dinner drinks and a dip at the end of day one, glasses and champagne bottle in hand, I willingly followed them slightly astray.

 

 


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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

 


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Walk Safe & Comfortable

 

by Melanie Ball (this post is based on an article written for and published in Royal Auto in 2010)

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As Simon and I set off on a 9-week walking-focussed road trip around NT, WA and SA, the time seemed right to remind myself and others how best to keep safe on foot.

I love  bushwalking. Because it stimulates every sense – a sandstone cliff lifts my gaze to an expanse of blue sky patrolled by a whistling kite, fingers trace an insect’s scribble on a tree, each step intensifies the smell of eucalyptus, or rainforest humus, or seaweed – and nothing compares with the self-satisfied weariness after a day on foot and the guilt-free pleasure of sating an exercise-fuelled appetite with high-calorie treats.

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But bushwalkers also break limbs, suffer hypothermia and dehydration, and become lost and spend unplanned nights outdoors, their rescue engaging numerous people and making headlines, and some die from their misadventures. However there are ways to limit the risks to life and limb (and self-esteem) that don’t detract from the fun of going bush on foot.

Books and web sites repeat mantras such as “always plan for the unplanned” and “expect the unexpected” but some people do not even expect the expected or plan for the likely; just look at Mt Kosciuszko! It’s a fairly easy 6.5km walk from the Thredbo chairlift to the top of Australia (2228m) and you’re rarely alone on the metal walkway on a sunny summer’s day. But alpine conditions can change suddenly and dramatically so why do people – even teachers leading school groups! – ignore the warning signs and set off in coffee-shop attire when dressing sensibly and carrying water, a muesli bar, and a waterproof jacket might save their life?

The biggest mistake bushwalkers make, says Sgt Ian Colles, Coordinator, Blue Mountains Police Rescue Squad, is insufficient planning and preparation.  “They don’t take enough equipment, they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t have basic navigation skills.”

WHAT, HOW & WHEN

DSC_7146 (664x1000)Choosing an Australian hike is like visiting a lolly shop. The assortment, from city-fringe stroll to remote multi-day trek, can tempt you to take on too much.  Don’t! Select a walk that suits your group’s experience, age and fitness; and that doesn’t necessarily mean one that everyone completes without raising a sweat, just one that doesn’t test limits of endurance and enjoyment.

Research the walk’s grade, length and profile (climbs and descents). Check track conditions (with park authorities), weather, and fire danger ratings before departure, and cancel/postpone if extremes are forecast. Download a map of the track and buy a topographic map for longer hikes – and learn how to read a map and use a compass.

Four is the optimum minimum group size, because someone can stay with an injured walker while two seek help, but coordinating four people is sometimes impossible. Solo bushwalking has unique risks (and pleasures). When doing a remote day walk or overnight hike, tell someone your plans and contact them on your return so they don’t raise an unnecessary alarm.

Fill in walk registration logs where provided and/or leave a note on your car. You can download a “Trip Intentions” form, with safety hints, from Victoria Police’s Search & Rescue Squad webpage. Blue Mountains walkers who register their intentions with authorities are asked for information about medical conditions, intended route, etc. so that the police don’t have to waste time asking for this if you make emergency contact.

On the trail, don’t make or follow shortcuts because this leads to erosion and plant damage and increase the risks of injury and becoming lost. Only go off-track if you’re experienced at wilderness navigation. And if you do become lost (or injured), and a brief scout around reveals no obvious way to safety, stay put. Make your position visible, relax and conserve energy, food and water.

WALKING GEAR

The worth of what you wear and carry becomes clear only when something goes wrong. Footwear is a vital piece of hiking kit however the variety can bamboozle.  While walking sandals suit many situations, including hikes with water crossings, because they grip while allowing your feet to breathe, and ankle support is important on rougher tracks and when carrying a pack, one of my close friends wore elastic-sided boots in all conditions and some people still swear by Dunlop Volleys!

“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 this article, 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.” Always wear in new boots/shoes at home and treat hot spots as soon as they develop; blister pain can be dangerously debilitating. WARNING: gruesome blister photo further on.

Socks affect comfort (and safety) too. Some hikers advocate wearing two pairs, others one (you can buy socks with distinct left and right for a perfect fit). Only trial and error will reveal what your feet prefer. _MEL1128Erskine Falls (664x1000)

And although they provoke repetitive quips about lost skis, hiking poles can lessen jarring on hills and improve balance on slippery stepping stones. Swinging the poles forward as you walk can also stop fingers swelling.

Unless you are into nude bushwalking, and there are websites and at least one designated trail for those inclined, what else you wear depends on climate. Cotton is cool in warm weather but is cold when wet so jeans are downright dangerous in alpine country – take note Kosciuszko summitters! Outdoor shops are full of synthetic-fibre layers that keep you warm even when wet. How you put them together is personal choice. I wear cotton leggings in hot weather to limit heat rash and allergic reactions to foliage and in cooler temperatures hike in thermal underwear and modesty shorts. A windproof and waterproof jacket should be in your pack whatever the weather.

As for clothing colour: I wear rainbow stripes to decrease my risk of being run over by a snowplough and increase my chance of being seen and rescued should I lose my way. FTlegsBut my colour preferences are unusual. “I don’t know why they [walkers] want to wear blue, grey, black,” says Sgt Colless, because such colours make lost and injured walkers difficult for air crews and ground crews to see.  “Black and dark blue is nearly invisible in the bush,” he says.  “Wakers should wear high visibility clothing.” And don’t worry about scaring off the wildlife; you don’t need to wear boring environmentally-sensitive colours to have welcome encounters with birds and animals. (Bright colours also look better in photographs.)

Queensland, Australia

In addition to sunscreen, sleeved shirt and shading hat, warm-weather hikers need to carry sufficient water. I prefer a collapsible, bladder-like bag with tube and mouthpiece rather than a water bottle I’d have to stop to retrieve and uncap. And even on short walks you should take energy boosting snack bars, just in case. A notebook and pen, a compact head torch, a box of matches in a waterproof container, and a whistle (for attracting attention), are other lightweight items that could get you out of a pickle.

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A first-aid kit is a must on long and/or remote walks. Blister-specific treatments used early can make the difference between a wonderful walk and a nightmare: hikers’ wool protects suspect spots and cutting a hole in adhesive padding puts some space between your boot and a hot spot/blister. Insect repellent, anti-itch cream and antihistamine tablets can keep bites and stings in check. Elastic bandages work for sprains and snake bites.  And you never know when you’ll be glad of your first aid training.

TECHNOLOGY

As in everyday life, technology now plays an integral part in adventuring and few bushwalkers step out without some electronic link to the world. Many walking tracks have limited or no mobile network coverage you have to hike up a ridge to make an emergency call. A popular alternative is the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB or EPIRB), which emits a signal that is detected (conditions allowing) by satellites and aircraft and relayed to a rescue coordination centre. PLBs should only be activated in life-threatening situations when no other communication system is available and penalties apply for unnecessary use. PLBs with integrated GPS cost from $400, however the Tasmanian government hires them through Service Tasmania for $40 per week, and a free hire system operates in the Blue Mountains. You can also hire them on line with Australia-wide delivery. The Blue Mountains beacon loan system is part of the “Think Before You Trek” initiative between the NSW Police Force and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “The beacons get all the attention,” says Sgt Colles, “but we push people to plan and prepare so, hopefully, they will never need to use the beacon.”

We put too much emphasis on technology, says Peter Hillary, who made satellite-phone calls from atop Everest fifty years after his father scaled the mountain.  “I was interviewed by CNN on the summit.  It was bizarre when you think of it in terms of 1953 [four days passed before England learned of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s success] but technology is here to stay.” BOG43The danger is people relying on technology over planning and preparation.  Hillary thinks the Queensland, AustraliaGPS is a marvelous aid but should only be used in conjunction with the more traditional, older navigational system – map and compass.

 

Off all the hiking equipment available now, though, Peter Hillary’s favourite is a stove.  “It’s survival,” he says.  “Melting snow and ice, bubbling water, it’s life… a very happy sound.” Carry a hiking stove even on a day walk and you can boil water for a cuppa with a view!


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Food for Thought (for walking and travelling too)

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by Simon Box

Why eat badly when bushwalking? Or travelling in general? Food is not only fuel to keep you going but something to look forward to after hours on foot; a celebration of your achievements. After a day or days of pack walking there’s nothing better than tucking into delicious local food, prepared by someone else or me!

MEL_0385 KerangDrive0315I have had a life-long fascination with cooking and food. I used to have a small stool in the kitchen and annoy Mum asking what she was doing at the cooker. My family grew all our own veggies, in the UK, and I have taken this up again since moving to Euroa (country Victoria) in 2013. I started hunting for food as a youngster too; Mum’s rule was: “you shoot something, you deal with it, cook it and eat it,” a principle I continue to follow.

I have cooked every day, apart from on some holidays, since I was 18, and I put a lot of effort into planning the food for our trips because I do not see why we should eat less well when we are travelling than when we are at home. I find it relaxing cooking at the end of the day, whether in a park cabin kitchen, or over an open fire or a portable gas cooker.

When travelling Mel and I always try to eat and drink local food and wine. Australia is a fantastic country for this as the ranges of both are fantastic. We have found some amazing local eateries across this country over the years and depending on our schedule and budget me might end up toasting our walking efforts in a simple fish and chip shop or a top-end restaurant.

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On car journeys I pack a plastic tub containing all the oils, spices, sauces and other dried goods that I use at home. We take a Coleman cooker, which has a burner for boiling and a griddle burner that can be used to fry and grill. We recently bought a Ziegler and Brown grill/oven, too, which is fantastic, compact, efficient and allows me to not only grill but roast whole chickens or other meats; it will also cook pizzas because it easily reaches 400oC. When staying in BIG4 Holiday Parks I use the communal camp kitchens, which are generally well equipped, or the barbecues and save on setting up.

A pack hike is a totally different beast.

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If we’re only out for one night I like to carry in some steak and vegetables for dinner and with a group walk you can spread the weight and take wine and some liqueur muscat too – always making sure we carry out all our empties. On longer pack walks it’s all about the weight on your back so we usually take commercial freeze-dried dinners (just add boiling water and stir). There is a wide selection of offerings and some are not bad; the curries and “hot” dishes actually have a kick (we’re planning a review later later in the year). The main brand of commercial hiking food we have used till now is Back Country Cuisine. We have found the 5-serve packs perfect for three people but when there’s just Mel and me we take 2-person meals and extra packets of mashed spud or vegetables.

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Some of the freeze-dried desserts are pretty tasty too but we prefer twin-pack Aunt Betty’s steamed puddings with a carton of long-life cream. These are heavier so it’s an indulgence but sometimes a treat is just what you need. Or a hip flask of rum to add to a cup of sachet hot chocolate or coffee to make a hot toddy before climbing into your sleeping bag.

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On overnight pack walks we might tuck into freeze-dried meals for lunch too but usually we take tortillas (because they pack flat and stay moist) and make wraps of foil sachet tuna/salmon or chicken with triangles of cheese and bean shoots. Yes, it does get monotonous and on the last day of the 6-day Carnarvon Great Walk, in Queensland, I couldn’t face another lunch of salmon wraps so we filled up (and emptied our packs) of jelly snakes and chocolate!

On day walks we lunch on sandwiches, fresh fruit, muesli bars and jelly snakes.

On longer walks I get the urge for that “Umami” hit and have found that a few pieces of thinly sliced biltong can satisfy that need. (We have recently bought a dehydrator and will be experimenting on some home grown veggies, maybe some casseroles and even our own version of biltong.)

So to finish. try and eat as well as you can carry as it really makes long day walks and multi-day hikes all the more enjoyable. Well, it does for me, anyway. Mind you I usually wake up thinking about what I am going to cook for dinner.

Happy cooking, eating and walking.