I’ve been asked a lot about my boots lately; what I like to walk and hike in and what boots I wear for expeditions. I’m not a gear expert, but I am an expert in feeling comfortable when I’m out on the trail, so I’ll happily share what works for me.
I started out walking in Wicklow 5 years ago with a pair of Meindl trail boots, on the recommendation of the lads at Great Outdoors in Chatham Street in Dublin. I went back about 4 months later because the boots were looking a bit rough and the guys asked me did I condition and waterproof them? I stared blankly and probably said something sensible like “what’s that then?” The boys replaced the boots, gave me a lecture on how to care for them, and I’ve been wearing them ever since, in fact, my trusty Meindl’s took me up and down the Galtee Montains just last week.
I clean my boots after every hike and condition them and spray them with waterproofing and it really does make a difference to their longevity and the comfort of my feet. My Meindl’s are Nubuck leather and have several seams running through them. Regardless of how well the boots are made and how well you look after them, stitchwork will eventually start to rot when you’re trekking relentlessly through peaty Irish bogland. The stitching is breaking down pretty badly on mine after 5 years of hard work, and yet with the boot’s waterproof Goretex lining – combined with a good spray of waterproofing on the outside, my feet are still warm and dry; even in heavy rain and even after forging through streams (with gaiters). They really are quite remarkable and comfy as a glove. As my mum would have said: “They don’t owe me a penny”.
I’m still not ready to throw away my Meindl’s, but I was beginning to look around for another boot for hiking at home here in Ireland. I had a hankering for a ‘single skin’ boot. In other words, I was looking for a pair of boots that were made from one piece of leather, which didn’t have many stitched seams. I overheard a couple of ‘old-timers’ discussing boots over a pint of Guinness and I heard them say that stitching will always rot when you’re hiking in Ireland because of the effect of the bog on the threads. I don’t know if that’s true, but I was willing to test the theory. So enter my new generation of heels; a pair of Zamberlan Vibram Gortex boots. All deep glossy chestnut and thick, deep sole – I spotted them in Pat Falvey’s Adventure Store in the Gap of Dunloe in Kerry, and it was love at first sight. The boots have a rigid sole and can hold an automatic crampon, which I’ll talk about later. I was a bit concerned the hard sole could be inflexible for walking on long trails; but they felt really supportive and being able to wear them with crampons has it’s own attraction, so I decided to take the chance. On the downside they weigh over 4lb which is a little bit weighty for me for general hiking. On the up, they fit really well, they’re comfortable, and they’re nicely padded around the high ankle support. I wore them for the first time last weekend when I was climbing Mount Errigal in Donegal. I had intended to wear them for a few short walks first, but when I thought of the scree-slope on Errigal, and the very worn soles on my old boots, I decided I’d chance the support of the new ones. I was glad. They were comfy, solid, edged nicely through the scree and caused me no problems. A day later I went for an eight-hour-hike in blistering heat in Wicklow, and wore them again. They should have punished me with blisters, but I got away with a single hot-spot on one of my big toes. That’s a really good result.
Enter the big boys. My pride and joy are my Boreal’s. I have two pairs, both with rigid soles and both for using on ice with snap-on or ‘automatic’ crampons. They were both sourced through Con Moriarty of Hidden Ireland Adventures.
My Boreal Super Latok ice-climbers have brought me to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, Grand Paradiso in the Alps and Mount Elgon in Uganda. They have a fully rigid sole and can take all crampons. They weigh just over 4lb and have a triple thermal insulation and dry-lining. The manufacturers recommend them for ‘very cold conditions. Himalayan and Alpine climbing. Technical ice and mixed climbing.’ I love these boots. They served me well in Nepal and the Alps, but were overkill in Africa. They’re suitable for cold-weather mixed climbing, but wearing them in the heat was silly. My feet sweated on the inside and got soft. I didn’t get blisters, but I just didn’t need this class of boot in the heat.
My Boreal G1 Lites brought me through a technical climb on Island Peak (20,305ft) and I’ll be wearing them again this year when I head to Elbrus in Russia. Another super boot, these are the equivalent of the old ‘plastic boot’. Suitable for extreme cold, they are a double boot, with an outer Neoprene and Carbon Glass boot, and an inner removable dry-line ‘bootie’. For the amount of insulation, they’re a real lightweight, at 4lb 12 ounces. As a girl, I can tell you, weight really does matter!
I’ve had my cold-weather boots since 2010 and I’m sure there are a lot more light-weight, warmer, super efficient, ‘go-faster’ materials on the market since then. A straw poll of female climbing buddies recommended Scarpa, Asolo and Keen, which apparently has a lightweight day-hiking boot that comes in at just 1.8lb for the pair.
Probably the best place to start is knowing what you want when you go shopping. Do your research and shop around. You need a cold-weather boot if you’re going to snow and ice at altitude. If you are going to travel all that way, spending lots of cash on the trip and spending months training to make a summit, it’s awful to think of failing because of a shortfall in gear. You need to check the manufacturers’ insulation claims and believe them. In other words, if you’re borderline on whether you should step up a level with gear – step it up. Don’t arrive somewhere and discover you’ve got it wrong. You can rent, but I’d be terrified of finding the boots felt uncomfortable when I arrived, I’d prefer to borrow from a friend at home and get a chance to try them out before I left. I found the Latoks were fine for the Alps, but I was super-glad of the G1 double-boots when I arrived on Island Peak. If I’m going to need crampons I would definitely go for something with a rigid sole and have the ability to use snap-on crampons, saving time and energy fiddling with ‘tie-ons’ out on a glacier. Good gear is especially important for me, because I’m a ‘newbie’ and I lack the skills of other seasoned climbers, so I’ll take every bit of help I can get. If you’re not sure about something – ask. There are plenty of great sports stores that will give you advice and who know better than most, what works and what doesn’t. If you’re already an expert, go for it. But when I need a bit of help, I prefer to skip buying online and go and find someone local who can give me advice and support me in my purchase.
I was recently asked about what to wear on Kilimanjaro. I haven’t been there so I have no personal experience, but from what I understand, you certainly wouldn’t need a killer, rigid, Alpine boot. The final day is the toughest and it’s mainly scree with some icy patches. I’ve heard of people wearing trail shoes the whole way up, others wearing boots, others wearing runners but switching to boots on the final day. If I was heading off to Africa tomorrow I’d bring a lightweight boot that would support my ankle and grip well on the scree, but wouldn’t be too warm that my feet would sweat and soften – and I’d wear them as soon as the ground got rough, for fear I’d twist an ankle.
When I first bought my gear I got a really good grounding on the benefits of wearing supportive boots, that would protect my feet and my ankles in rough terrain. I have since tempered the message to my own taste. I now often wear trail-runners rather than boots, particularly during the summer when trails are dry and when my feet tend to sweat easily. ‘Stay-dry’ linings are great in winter when you’re splashing through a stream but are less useful in summer if your feet are soaking little puddles of sweat. I’ve got two favourite pairs of trail shoes; a pair of pink Helly Hansen trail runners and a pair of very expensive, very swanky, very sporty-trendy Salomons. I prefer the Helly Hansens, partly because they’re pink, and partly because I think they’re a broader fit and my foot is short, fat, with high insteps and dropped arches. It’s a major point to make – along with getting the right technical footware, it’s vitally important that it FITS.
When trying on your new boot, it should feel like someone is holding your foot firmly across the instep. You need a little toe-room, but not enough that your foot is slipping down in the boot when you’re making a descent, or you’ll end up with battered toes and blackened nails. I generally find my boot is a size larger than my normal shoe size. You need to have enough room in the boot to allow for circulation, for your foot swelling, and to fit a thick sock along with a thin liner, to avoid friction. I’ve been told you need enough room to slip a finger down the back of your boot behind your foot; and I’ve found that rough guide works for me. Consider the shape of your foot, if you need a broad or narrow fit, you may need to try several different brands to get the right fit. Specialist stores will measure your foot and can even produce moulded insoles that could help. Never be tempted to walk away wearing something uncomfortable in the hope that it will get better later – it won’t. Also, don’t tie up the laces too tightly, and give yourself a chance to break your boots in, or they’ll break you! I may have chanced my new boots on a long hike without warning, but if you’re depending on comfy boots in high places, you really should be hiking in them for at least 3 months beforehand.
That’s about the size of it for me. Happy hiking – and let me know what works for you out on the hill. I love to hear other people’s hiking stories and recommendations, so send them on. Email me on: email@example.com and remember, if you’re going on a walking holiday with me in Spain this October – Great Outdoors will give you a discount on your gear! Check out the Travel Department advert at the top of the page.
My ‘Happy Feet’ relay team for the Lough Key triathlon was waiting for me at registration when I turned up, shoulders shrugged high, to stop the torrential rain running down my neck, realising the futility of keeping dry – when I was just about to jump in a lake!
As I walked up to the girls, I couldn’t help gawping at the big yellow markers on the water, that were clearly marking the swim. To my eye, the markers seemed far too distant from the shore; surely they’d made a mistake? It looked so much further than I thought 740metres would look like. There were shrieks and hugs as we met up and shared training disaster stories from the past week; but all the time I felt butterflies the size of bats in my gut. I shouldn’t have eaten breakfast, I knew I shouldn’t. The egg and ham and goats’ cheese and spinach soufle that my host had made me, was now hanging heavily on my mind.
I was doing the swim, Teresa the cycle and Anna had been roped in at the last minute with a dodgy knee and very little notice, to cover the final 5k run. It had all seemed so simple to offer to swim the 750m for team Happy Feet, until I read the briefing notes with just a week and a half to go, and realised there was a 30 min elimination time on the swim! Pressure, and not enough time to train. If you followed my training blog here, you’ll know I tried to short-cut my lack of speed-work by swimming without a wet-suit, against the tide at Malahide Beach in North Dublin. I suppose I thought that if I made myself suffer as much hardship and discomfort as possible, I might feel more comfortable, and swim faster, when I had to get in the lake. Well it was a theory at the time, and the only one I had! My big problem was that although I was comfortable doing the distance, I had no speed and was planning to complete the distance in 40mins. The briefing notes blew that out of the water – if you’ll excuse the pun.
Well I put my shoulder to the wheel – or tide – and soaked up all the tips I could drag from my Hi-Rock swimming friends in Malahide, and in particular ‘Chanimal’ – Channel Swimmer, Fergal Somerville. Deep, even breaths – long, measured strokes, no panic. Now today was the day.
As the other athletes gathered in the holding pen, adjusting swim caps and goggles, stretching to warm up arms and legs and shoulders; they looked sleek and professional, I sneakily looked around comparing the size of my belly with everyone elses. I thought mine looked much bigger, and I grimaced. A throwback to my days of being 23stone. These days I’m just under 12 stone and still a bit on the curvy size, but despite no longer being morbidly obese, I still have body-image flashbacks, especially when I’m standing on the shore in a screamingly tight wet suit along with 300 taller, slimmer, fitter looking people. I just had to remind myself that I was strong and healthy and capable of taking them all on. (I just didn’t really believe it).
The Public Address speakers crackled into life and there were speeches and applause as the rain continued to fall and we stood, shuffling our bare feet in the wet grass, wishing for the start. Eventually we got the nod and as one, we swimmers moved towards the water. It was all new to me, we were to get into the lake and swim to warm up, before the start was called. I followed the leaders and reached the water’s edge, noting the lack of reaction from the other swimmers and imitating their composure as I stepped calmly into the lake, biting down a gasp at the cold. Up to my ankles, my knees, my chest and finally I’m swimming, then finding some space to keep treading until the race ‘got the off’. This part was unexpected, and I felt a tremor of adrenalin or something close to fear. I was out of my depth, I couldn’t swim out with a proper stroke or I’d crash into the swimmers ahead. I was just bobbing about getting cold, and I didn’t like it. I determinedly removed my mind from the lake and imagined I was going through my yoga routines in the sun, and felt the warmth and the calm flood through my legs and up through my body to my arms. I relaxed. We’d go when we’d go – and finally the human wave washed back towards me, as the race began.
I reached out into the dark waters of the lake, pushing my head under water and noticing the pink hue of the feet in front, dyed red by the peaty flood waters. I had taken the other swimmers’ advice and kept out of the crush at the start, for fear of being dragged or accidentally thumped in the fury of the moment. I took my line against the yellow marker out near an island in the lake and just swam. I didn’t try to go fast, hearing Fergal’s comments a week before, telling me that trying to go fast was the fastest way to slow down. I wasn’t sure if he was right, but I was taking his comments on board. After about 250 metres, the 1st marker was drawing close and I realised there was a crush emerging as the swimmers tried to get a tight line around it. I didn’t. I pulled left and gave it – and them – a wide berth. I think I actually gained time instead of losing time, as I swung wide arount the buoy and the human soup, and took my line to the next marker.
I had told myself that if I was comfortable after the first 250, I would step up the speed on the 2nd leg. It worked fine, I stretched out and increased my speed, breathing deeper into my lungs and concentrating on rolling smoothly to catch my breath, keeping my face down between strokes and pulling my arms smoothly through the water. Quicker than I expected, I reached the second marker, and swept around to face back into the shore. I looked up, and saw swimmers far ahead and far behind. At my right was an orange kayak, on hand to help if I needed it. I didn’t need it. I saw the last marker, saw the shore, put my head down – and bombed it. I gave the last 250 every last bit of energy and strength and felt excitement well up inside me. I’m not sure why, I just felt powerful and thrilled because whatever the time on the clock, I wasn’t the last person in the lake, and I knew I had the energy to get me back to shore. Stumbling out of the water, I took the waiting helping hand eagerly and pulled myself free of the lake, then sprinted to the holding paddock and my teammates. Pulling the electronic tag from my left ankle and passing it to Teresa, I recognised she was excitedly shouting at me about the time. I felt tears well up as I realised I’d made the 30 minutes…. and more.
Later, with the time confirmed at 22 minutes. I joked that it was the egg and spinich ‘Pop-Eye’ breakfast after all (thanks Mary) but I was humbled. This body of mine, that I have so abused in my lifetime, again pulled out a blinder for me. With less than 2 weeks to prepare, it had delivered all I asked, and I had smashed my own time. I felt like one of our Olympians, I could proudly say I had a PB and I’d smashed it! It was hard work getting here; swimming in cold, choppy, waters off Malahide, hours of weight training in the gym on our few sunny days, and a lot of self doubt. But the help I got, the support from my friends, from FB and Twitter, and all the generous tips and training swims I got from Fergal and his Hi-Rock mates, had paid off. I’d made it – and Team Happy feet could run and cycle the rest of the way, without being disqualified by the swimmer!
You know, when I started training for our Concern/Uganda: hiking, cycling & kayaking challenge in November, I never thought I’d end up long-distance swimming too. But I suppose it all helps with general fitness. What’s next? Well, the whole Concern group is due to climb Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain this Sunday; and that’s going to hurt – because with all the time I’ve spent cycling, swimming, working-out in the gym and learning to kayak, I’ve somewhat neglected my hill climbing. There is a reckoning a-coming on Sunday. And do you know? there’s a 750m sea swim in Killiney on Saturday….. 😉