I’ll be sitting out this year’s hiking season, and I resent that. I’m definitely not the hiking enthusiast that Heather is; I could take it or leave it, more or less. But I nonetheless want the option of backing out of a hike instead of having that decision made for me on account of injury.
Hiking did a number on my feet last year. Specifically, hiking janked up my big toes big time, and I’m still recovering from it.
Heather writes about the importance of the proper hiking footwear here. I have to confess that I’m skeptical of activities that require specialized, activity-specific gear. I’ve always suspected that runners will do as well in $50 Asics as they will a $500 shoe designed by a retired NASA scientist. Likewise, I’m going to guess that cyclists would be just as pretentious and insufferable in a cotton T-shirt as they are in skin-tight jerseys covered in logos.
I quickly learned, however, that when it comes to hiking, you’re not going to get very far in tube socks and Chuck Taylors. Even with the appropriate gear, you can still walk—or hobble—away from a hike with some seriously damaged feet.
I began hiking last year with Heather in a $100 pair of Merrell hiking shoes. They were definitely comfortable, and they were more than adequate on camping trips.
But after each hike, my big toes would feel sore and bruised for days. This I later learned was the result of the tips of my big toes being repeatedly jammed into the roof of my shoes during the hike’s descent. Imagine someone using his full weight to press his thumbs on your toenails and then temporarily releasing your toes before pressing on them again. Now imagine that happening dozens of times a minute for hours at a stretch.
I employed one of the lacing techniques Heather mentions in her post to keep my foot from sliding around too much. I also invested in a pair of thick, soft hiking socks in order to keep my feet padded. But I think it was too little too late. I think the damage had been done maybe as far back as the first hike and each subsequent hike only exacerbated the situation. As the hiking season progressed, my toenails became discolored, bruised. Sometimes, I noticed a small amount of blood seeping out from under them.
Rather than being concerned, my attitude was, “Meh, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” The Half Dome hike proved that I would not be. I trudged ahead on that hike in my properly laced shoes and cushiony socks but cheaped out on a pair of $12 Dr. Scholl’s insoles from Wal-Mart.
After returning home, my toes looked worse. A lot worse. The right one especially was a disaster. The nail became thickened and had risen to such an extent that I could see under it. Remember that nauseating toenail fungus commercial from ten years ago, the one where some sort of toenail gremlin saddles up to digitally rendered big toe and then sadistically lifts the nail up like it’s the hood of a ’57 Chevy? This one?
Yeah. That’s what it was like. The nail had separated from the nailbed. One-third of it at least was completely detached from the edge. It looked like one good tug would have completely removed the nail from the toe.
It gets worse.
A few weeks after Half Dome, green pus started to ooze from under the nail. If I pressed on the nail, pus would leak out. It made a squishing noise. It smelled. Bad.
With the Whitney hike looming, I did two things stop my transformation into Brundlefly: 1) I went to the doctor, and 2) I went to REI.
My doctor told me that the injuries to my big toes were common for hikers with the wrong shoes and the wrong lacing method. The pus was the result of water making its way under the barely there nail and not being able to escape. An infection had set in, which a dose of antibiotic knocked out. It never returned, but water continued to get trapped under the nail for months afterward. It wasn’t until recently that I stopped being able to squeeze water out of it after every shower.
At REI, I spent $250 on a pair of Merrell hiking boots. The higher tops not only give me better ankle support, they provide more grommets for lashing and cinching the laces—similar to how you lace up a pair of ice skates.
I was reluctant to spend the $45 on insoles, but a helpful REI employee showed me why I needed them. The employee told me to face him with my feet spread at shoulder length. He then told me to put one fist on top of the other at about chest level and extend my arms slightly toward him.
“Now, I’m going to press down on your hands as hard as I can,” he said. As he pressed down, I started pitching forward.
“See?”, he said. “Let’s do it a few more times.” Each time he did it, I leaned forward.
“That’s what you’re doing during the descent,” he explained. “Your balance is off, and you’re leaning forward, which puts too much weight on your toes.”
After selecting a set of insoles and putting them in my new hiking boots, we did the test again. Each time, I stood perfectly straight and didn’t pitch forward once. Not only do the insoles give me added comfort, they give me stability.
Unfortunately, as I noted above, the boots, laces and insoles were no match for the collective trauma brought on by the half dozen prior hikes. I came off Whitney vowing that I wouldn’t put on a pair of hiking boots again until my nails had grown out and my toes had recovered.
It’s been a long process. Six months after Whitney, and the nail on my left toe is almost back to normal. One more round of clipping, and it should look like its old self.
My right big toe is another story. The good news is that enough healthy nail has grown out that the nail is once again fully attached to the nailbed. But the top half is thick, uneven and sort of a green-gray color. The bottom half looks relatively pink and healthy, save a small red splotch, a reminder of dropping a baby gate on my toe a month after the Whitney hike. It’ll probably be several more months before I’m able to trim off the last of the damaged part. Wanna see it?
I mean, it’s not exactly the big reveal at the end of Boogie Nights, but after 1,100 words, I figured I owed you something.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from Fitbit that said in 2015, I walked 5.14 million steps. I knew I walked a lot in 2015, but my jaw hit the floor when that number came up.
Here’s how you can do that too:
Above all else, the number one rule is: don’t be cheap. Don’t take a shortcut. The fact is, good hiking boots and good insoles are going to cost some money. You don’t have to go broke, but don’t think you’re going to get away with $30 hiking boots from Payless and $10 Dr. Scholl’s insoles. That is not enough.
It feels good to save money, but whenever you’re tempted to cheap out, picture yourself 10 miles from the trailhead with a painful blister. You can also read Darren’s post about the consequences he experienced after not taking care of his feet on our earliest hikes.
Expect to spend about $250-$300 for all of your footwear and blister prevention needs. The good news is that most of this stuff should last you a while!
What footwear you get is up to you, since it’s such a personal choice. My first “real” hiking shoes were some Merrells, which were great until they wore out. Now I hike in some waterproof Keen boots, which I love.
Every shoe type has its pros and cons. I have waterproof boots; they’re not breathable and they may be too confining for some, but they’re perfect for me and give the stability a klutz like me needs.
The best way to find the right shoe for you is to head over to an outdoor store and try on some different types and see what feels best to you. REI has a little ramp in their shoe section so you can get a sense of how your shoes will feel going uphill and downhill, too.
Don’t be shy about asking questions, either! You’re about to make an investment, so make it a good one.
Your hiking boots will come with insoles that will be decent for a few hikes, but they’re one-size-fits-all. High arch, low arch, whatever. Consider getting insoles that are made for your type of foot. They’ll make such a difference.
I use the SOF Soles insoles, and I have zero complaints! They’re like walking on a cloud and I couldn’t be happier about that.
Head to an outdoor store to find out more about different insoles and what type of support you might need.
This is embarrassing to admit, I did not know that sock liners were a thing until around May of last year.
Darren got a blister on our way up to Cucamonga Peak. The band-aids I had weren’t staying put. He was miserable.
On the peak, we met some kind strangers who gave Darren and some moleskin and then introduced us to the miracle of sock liners. (These are the sock liners I use, in dark blue). I swear, you meet the most helpful, informative people on the trails.
Sock liners are thin socks made of a moisture-wicking material that serve as a dry layer between your shoes and your regular hiking socks. Moisture, if you don’t know, is what causes friction and friction is what causes blisters. Sock liners also help your band-aid stay put if you do develop a blister.
How effective are sock liners? After we climbed Mt. Whitney—more than 26 miles of walking—my socks and my feet were completely dry.
Another reason to love sock liners: they’re one of the cheaper things on this list.
Regular socks will not do when you’re hiking. No, no, no. You need really good, thick socks.
My favorites are Thorlos, but there are lots of good ones out there. The styles differ, as well, depending on how you hike and where you need support and extra cushioning.
You can have the best hiking shoes in the world, but if they aren’t laced properly, you can still wind up with some foot problems.
Did you know, for example, that you can tie your shoes in such a way to hold your foot back and prevent your toes from jamming into the front of the shoe? You can! Once you master it, it’s a game changer.
You can also go to REI and a staff member there can demonstrate various techniques to you.
Another camping season, another tent…
Heather and I have been camping now just shy of five years, and in that time, we’ve owned four tents.
Steve donated the first one to us. It was a Coleman… um… blue tent? There was some white on it and zippers and a floor and some poles? Okay, I don’t know what the model was, but it looked like this:
That gently used hand-me-down held up really well under all kinds of conditions. But eventually, the years and the mileage caught up with Ol’ Blue, and she provided her last night of cover to us sometime in the summer of 2014.
Then there was the Coleman Weathermaster II. I detailed its short life in an earlier post.
After that came another even more gently used tent from Steve, the Coleman Evanston 4-person tent:
This one is probably my favorite one that we’ve owned. It came with a screened in front section (I called it “the mud room”) that was perfect for storing gear when it was just the two of us or for providing a sleeping compartment for Nabby and our niece when she was visiting us.
Unfortunately, this tent’s life was also short-lived. The front zipper came off track from almost the get-go and never did zip up right after repeated attempts to fix it. About halfway through the brief year and a half that we owned it, one of the tent stake rings started to tear loose from the seam, followed by another a few months later. It seems like something else went wrong with it that I can’t remember now. At any rate, we left it behind in a dumpster at Indian Cove Campground in Joshua Tree last year.
Now, you might be thinking, “Why don’t you just put some real money toward a tent that you won’t have to replace every 18 months?”
Hey, slow down there, Mitt Romney! Not everyone has $500 to spend on a fancy REI tent with a gold leaf rainfly, screens made of spun diamond dust and built-in speakers that hypnotize woodland creatures into singing you softly to sleep at night. Heather and I are blue collar, working-class Coleman people, dammit.
No, actually, I agree with you. However, we’re Costco members, and Costco sells a different, affordable Coleman tent every year. Costco will also take back nearly anything without question. Therefore, we decided we’d just keep buyin’ ‘em, wreckin’ ‘em and tradin’ ‘em in until Costco wises up and changes its return policy.
Which brings me to our 2016 – 2017 tent, the
That’s her the one and only time we’ve used her. If you want to see prettier, more varied photos, visit the tent’s page on the Coleman website.
In a nutshell, here’s what you get:
The features that caught our eye included:
We’ve envied our friends Kim and Kent’s instant setup tent the last couple of times we’ve camped with them. While instant setup feels like cheating, Heather and I have lost so much time to unfolding, threading and securing poles in fading light that we thought it was time we pampered ourselves.
But we’ve been burned by this “instant setup in about 60 seconds” claim of Coleman’s before. If the tent (or canopy) has been properly folded and zipped up in the bag then, sure, you can put it up pretty quickly. But if the item has been crammed in there willy-nilly, it’s like trying to untangle a ball of Christmas tree lights.
Guess how Coleman packed our tent.
There were two main problems with this tent upon freeing it from the bag: 1) One of the pre-attached poles had either been installed backward or had become twisted. Either way, I had to unscrew the joint with my pocketknife and put it back together the right way.
2) The poles came free of the center “hub” at the top of the tent and had to be forced into place several times.
3) We were in Death Valley National Park. Between the brief window when we pulled up to the site and when we began putting up the tent, the outside temperature went from a pleasant 60-something to hot as balls ˚F.
Let’s compare and contrast the Coleman version of how this should have gone with the reality:
Fuck Yeah Camping:
Fuck Yeah Camping:
Fuck Yeah Camping:
Fuck Yeah Camping:
Fuck Yeah Camping:
Confession: not every hike is awesome. So far, I’ve been fortunate that most hikes are very awesome, but every so often there’s a dud in there.
It’s my own fault that I didn’t enjoy the hike to Lost Horse Mine more than I should have: I misunderstood the mileage given.
Lost Horse Mine was a gold mine in the late 1800s. Now it’s preserved by the National Park Service.
This very popular trail is a loop, but most people hike to the main attraction—the mine—and then turn around. It’s four miles round trip.
We did the loop, which is two miles longer. That’s a lot when you’re only expecting four.
Boy, did I grumble. And since Darren was with me, he got an earful of my complaining.
And yes, I know that complaining about the length of such a short trek seems ridiculous from someone who isn’t truly happy unless it’s a double-digit mileage hike that has you totally spent at the end.
But two miles you weren’t expecting is a lot on the trail. I don’t know what it is, but things that feel short in the real world can feel very long in the wilderness.
Now that I look back at the pictures, I have to admit this hike was really pretty with some stunning views of the desert landscape.
I’ll do it again, maybe, and I’ll be mentally prepared next time.