“Two standing orders in this platoon. One, take good care of your feet. Two, try not to do anything stupid, like gettin’ yourself killed.” We can learn a lot from Lieutenant Dan’s two standing orders to Forest Gump and Bubba. Having once been (literally), a Lieutenant Dan myself, I can tell you that these are fantastic “orders” and there is good reason that it applies to hikers and climbers just as well as an infantryman. When your means of transportation are your feet and those feet take you away from other methods of transportation it is important to one take good care of your feet and two not do something stupid.
In today’s world a mile seems like a very short distance. This distance can be travelled in 1-minute driving at 60mph in your car and when you are in a commercial aircraft at cruising altitudes that distance can be travelled in 7-seconds. Even running some humans are capable of travelling this distance in under 5-minutes. Oh and with our cell phones that distance is travelled 3×10^8 m/s, or basically instantaneously. But what about in the backcountry? Well, there are actually quite a range of speeds depending on what you are doing, but in general I have found a mile takes around 30-minutes. That’s if you are healthy. But if injured, this distance can take so much longer and in some instances might as well be Mars. And you cannot rely on your cell phone in the backcountry. The network providers have no reason to provide cell service out there, so if you have a signal, it is luck. In fact, I would say I have a cell signal maybe 10% of the time when hiking in the Blue Ridge.
So let’s look at each Standing Order. “One, take good care of your feet.” Your feet move you and keep you stable and are what’s in contact with you and whatever you are carrying and the ground. What you put on your feet is critical. They must have ample protection from the elements, provide the right stability, and fit well. Seems simple enough but its actually not an easy task. Last winter, I was guiding a few friends up Old Rag. I wore GoreTex approach shoes. One of them had on tennis shoes that had good solid soles and traction but weren’t waterproof, and the other had on Nike Free’s. It had snowed the week before and the mountain was in the thaw freeze thaw cycle, meaning there was some solid ice, slush, and mud throughout the day. My feet were warm and dry all day. The one friend who had on tennis shoes had good stability but her feet got wet. The other friend who had on Nike Free’s slipped throughout the day on slush and mud and his feet were also wet. The good news, neither got a blister. If they had gone out and purchased most retail “hiking boots” for this one hike they may be spending money on the wrong shoe and quite possibly buying something that will give them blisters. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of most retail boots. They are heavy and weight on your feet has a huge implication on fatigue throughout the day. Many also require a good deal of breaking in before you stop getting blisters. There are definitely some exceptions but be weary. My recommendation would be to purchase GoreTex approach shoes. They are light, extremely versatile, weather proof, stable, and I have never gotten a blister in them. Unless I need to wear crampons in deep snow and ice, they are all I wear when I hike and climb. They are even great for easy rock climbing. Downside, they are relatively expensive and hard to find at local outdoor retail shops (but easy to find on the internet). If you are new to hiking and are dead set on buying some hiking boots, then think about utility. I still use my Merrill All Blaze Stretch around the house despite shelving them after a few hikes. If you are new to hiking or are going to try it out and don’t want to spend money on something you aren’t certain about. I would suggest a good supportive and high traction athletic shoe. I love Nike Free’s for running, but they are not the right shoe for hiking.
Socks. Really simple. Always go with wool. Choose a weight that matches the season, the fit of your shoe, and expected weather. Go to the store with the shoe you will hike in and try on socks. Finally, let’s discuss blisters. If you feel a hotspot or a rubbing in whatever shoe you are wearing, do not wait. Take your shoe off and put on 2nd Skins before that hotspot becomes a blister. Moleskin is really best when you already have a blister, but can slip and rub even worse than if you had nothing. Do not put a bandaide onto your hotspot or blister as it will make it worse. As Lieutenant Dan says, “take good care of your feet”.
“Two, try not to do anything stupid, like gettin’ yourself killed.” Uh…duh! Ok so maybe we can state it better. Be smart. The outdoors is a wonderful place and in my opinion critical to our mental and emotional well being as well as being the greatest gym in the world for our physical health. But it can also be dangerous if we don’t make good decisions. The variables on the decisions we make are constantly changing. Ice turns to slush turns to water and mud. This simple fact changes the conditions within hours on a route and can have major and in some cases life threatening implications. On that same hike up Old Rag, we turned around when the conditions became dangerous. A half inch of ice had coated the rocks on most sections of the rock scramble overnight from melt water and had made a relatively benign hike into a dangerous one. That said, if we go to the outdoors with the right intentions, stay in tune with the environment and elements, and make conservative decisions as we explore, staying safe is easily within reach, so get out there!!
As Forest Gump says, “That’s all I got to say about that….”