Let’s chat about clothing options!

Another gear related question I get from people is “what type of clothes are good to wear?” I tell them to do what they can to stay away from cotton. As the saying goes, “cotton kills,” and here is why.

The Techy-ish Stuff:

As we hike, our body temperatures inevitably rise and needs to be lowered. To achieve the required heat balance we sweat. This is good and helps to cool us off, unless we are wearing cotton clothing which soaks up and retains that sweat. Simply put, once the cotton is saturated it no longer acts as an insulator, and instead starts to suck heat away from the body. This can drop our core temperature enough to cause hypothermia, even when temps are not freezing. The Mayo Clinic says many elderly people suffer from hypothermia in an air-conditioned home every year. If you are hiking in cotton clothing in the winter, then the risk is greatly magnified and you should probably rethink your hike.

This doesn’t mean that if you wear cotton out in the woods you will inevitably die, only that cotton can be added to the equation if something does go bad. Everyone has, and probably most still do, wear cotton on a hike. If that’s all you have, that’s all you have. Just be cognizant that once you get wet, if you’re feeling cool it might not be the wet shirt cooling you off, but rather your body temperature dropping.

So if you shouldn’t wear cotton, what can you wear? The big three you’ll find most commonly mentioned are clothes made with polyester, nylon, or merino wool. The primary function you are going to hear is that these materials “wick away” sweat, which basically means it does the opposite of cotton.

The design of “wicking” materials is that they pull sweat away from the body where it evaporates more easily, helping you stay cooler and dryer. The first major name that I remember pushing this tech was Under Armour while I was serving in Iraq in 2005. It was the big thing to put it on instead of the standard olive drab cotton t-shirt to help keep us cool in the heat. (They played it up too by being one of the few to make their products in military colors and the whole “Under Armour” thing.)

The last kinda technical thing I’ll cover is terminology of the tops. There’s a base-layer, a mid-layer, and an outer layer or hard-shell. Here’s the Barney-style breakdown. The base-layer is a thin, lightweight, breathable, wicking layer, such as the Under Armour shirts. The mid-layer would typically be a lightweight fleece or jacket, something to add a touch of warmth. The outer layer could be a coat to increase warmth, but mostly it is something that blocks out the wind and rain, sometimes referred to as a hard-shell since it goes over everything to protect you from the elements.

So what should we be looking for?

Now that the techy-ish stuff has been glossed over, let’s chat about what you actually wear. Today, there are more companies producing outdoor clothing than any of us realize. Some are going to be better than others, so read up and figure out brands to trust before you start investing heavily on a new outdoor wardrobe. When tech is involved in creating things, the price goes up, and quality outdoor gear definitely comes at a cost.

DSC_1353I’ll speak from personal opinion on what I do. I like to hike in a nice breathable shirt and a breathable pair of shorts or pants. Those are a must for me, I perspire a touch and breathable means wicking and staying cool. The majority of my hikes are from late spring through early fall (which I’m going to assume is like most of you). Iowa temps are roughly 70-90 degrees F, with 70-100% humidity during that time period, so I typically only bring an emergency rain jacket (hard-shell). If I do hike in the early spring or late fall I’ll add either a thin fleece or a lined windproof jacket. In the winter I wear a base-layer, the mid-layer fleece, and my outer layer is a lightweight, waterproof, winter coat.

When it comes to my legs I wear either my hiking shorts or pants. I only have one of each, so its a temperature dependent situation. Both are stretchy and have thigh pockets that work great for storing my map or lens caps, or snacks. In fact they are the same thing, except one is longer than the other. In the winter I will add a pair of running tights under the pants to add a bit of warmth.

And that is that on what kinds of clothes I wear on my torso and legs, moving on to the things we think less about.

The Peripheral Accessories:

Image result for under armour running glovesIf we have our legs and torso covered, then that leaves the head and hands (I cover the feet in another post). When it comes to hands, I think the only time we would need something would be during winter and possibly the weeks bracketing it. I use running gloves most of the time unless temps are really low, then a nice pair of thick gloves. I choose running gloves because they are thin and normally fit a little snug which allows me to still use my camera equipment and often allows the use of a touchscreen with them on.

When it comes to the head I think it is important to keep it covered and I use several options. First off, hats. I prefer to wear a full-brim sunhat most of the time. However, that doesn’t work when I have baby girl on my back I’m discovering; it annoys her half the time and she likes to play with it the rest. So I am switching to a standard ball cap. In the winter I use running beanies or standard stocking caps. I focus on sun protection and warmth.

The other item that I really like for outdoor wear is a Buff. Buff is the name of the company that produces a tube of material that can be manipulated to be used in a ton of different ways. I’m wearing my orange one with night time reflecting strips in headband fashion above. I recommend trying one out if you’ve never messed with one before.

Another newer item that has been popping up over the past couple years are arms sleeves. They are simple tubes of spandex for your arms that can be used to help warm a touch, or the more common use as I understand it, UV protection that is easy to take on and off.

The last accessory item I will touch on is one I never really hear anyone talk about, but it makes a big difference to me; the belt. We all should be wearing a belt to hold our bottoms up, but how many have thought about the materials that belt is made out of? I started out wearing my standard leather one, but it inevitably soaked up too much sweat, took too long to dry, and got annoying. Now I wear a nylon belt that doesn’t soak up water. It has made a big difference in comfort on the longer trails. Of course many have fancy buckles like rigger’s belts, or ones with bottle opens, etc. Just stay away from leather and cotton belts.

The Brands I Know About:

Like I said before, there are more companies jumping into the outdoors than we’ll ever realize. These are the ones I can speak to.

The budget option: Champion from Target isn’t among the highest end gear, but it will do when money matters and you’re just starting out upgrading from cotton.

The name brands: Eddie Bauer, North Face, Columbia, Under Armour, and Merrell are all high end brands I’ve had great experience with. My personal go to is Eddie Bauer’s Active and First Ascent lines, always great comfort and durability. None of these companies are cheap, but one thing about Eddie Bauer is that they have huge sales often. As Iowans, all of these brands also have an outlet store in the Tanger Outlet Mall in Williamsburg to save a few bucks.

That is just me though. There are other well know brands such as Arcteryx, Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, and REI that all have great reputations.

The important thing to remember, don’t let you clothing prevent you from going outside and getting active.

I recommend at least wearing something, we can have a ridiculous amount of mosquitoes in Iowa after all…

We all started with cotton, upgrade as you can. I have a specific set of outdoor clothes now, but I spent several years finding what I liked and putting it together piece by piece. You’ll figure out what you like and will build your outdoor wardrobe as you go as well.

I hope this little chat helped get you moving in the right direction.

Now go enjoy your walk!

 

Gull Point State Park (plus Hawkeye Point)

 

DSC_1104Hawkeye PointGull Point State Park is located in northwest Iowa on the southwestern shores of the Okoboji Lakes in Wahpeton.

I visited Gull Point with my wife and my little Adventure Baby for a nice stroll through some woods on our third stop of the day over a Halloween weekend to check out what northwest Iowa had to offer. The whole idea for the weekend was to spend some family time in the woods checking out the last remnants of the fall colors and to see how much Adventure Baby could handle riding in her chariot (she was just shy of 11 months). Let me just say, even though it was slightly chilly, the weekend did not disappoint!

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The park has a short interpretive trail across the road from the campgrounds that produced a couple surprises. Now the park is pretty much flat with a small amount of grade to it at points. That being said, it was a pretty quick little trail to close out our hiking for the day.

DSC_1068aThe weather continued to decline as we left Fort Defiance and some very light sprinkles started to show up. We put the rain cover on the child carrier and marched once more down the trail. I’ll just say that for an interpretive trail, it wasn’t overly interpretive, just sign-less trail. We started at our orange star as usual and immediately found ourselves on a well worn trail.

I had almost decided to cut this one off the list, but I’m glad I decided to create these park tour trips and was able to fit it in, because the wooded surrounding were very pleasant. We hung a right at the first intersection and found a nice little chapel nestled quietly in the trees (red star). I later learned that it is considered the Boy Scout Chapel as it was built as a memorial to a boy scout troop that is no longer around, but was apparently quite popular.

DSC_1074We headed south from there and crossed the bridge toward the large loop. A few yards west of the bridge there was a canoe launch that looked to be part of some camp, and a neat little overlook (green star) that suggests that the park must be pretty active. The next surprise was at the blue star where we found a small scout camping area that had a bench overlooking a small nature space.

DSC_1080The rest of the trail was simple path flowing smoothly through the woods. All in all a small little gem I did not expect. The Okoboji Lakes are a very popular destination in Iowa and this little walk is definitely worth hopping over to.

A short and simple little review for a short and simple little hike. The 1.5 mile loop only took a touch over 30 minutes to hike. It’s flat and fast, so the only thing I would suggest is to bring your map!

DSC_1092This tiny treat completed our hiking tour for the day and Adventure Baby did great! She did finally start to express a little fussiness while were buckled her in this time, but once we were moving she continued to enjoy the ride. Day 1 test: success! Now on to a quick visit to Hawkeye Point before heading to our overnight in Sioux City.

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Bonus: Hawkeye Point, Iowa

DSC_1170Hawkeye Point is located near Wilson in the far northwest corner of Iowa.

Given the rugged, rocky hills of northeast Iowa, most people tend to think that the highest point in Iowa would be in that part of the state. In actuality it is in the northwest corner at Hawkeye Point.

DSC_1135At 1,670 feet, Hawkeye Point is the summit of Iowa. It is a small patch of ground that was donated to the state by the original family who worked the surrounding fields for decades. I was a little apprehensive as I pulled into the standard looking farm driveway that split the old farmhouse and barn, but once I got past them I saw the signs and knew I was going to the correct place. There are plans to build it up into a park with camping, but for now it is still just a spot on an Iowa farm. It is pretty simple in design; a tiled mosaic marking the point surrounded by a flag pole and posts with signs pointing to the other 49 highest points in each state with their elevations and distances away. Most of the work was done by local 4-H and youth groups.

DSC_1168The wind was really whipping through and the temps had dropped a good chunk by the time we got there, so we only stopped for some quick pictures and hopped back in the car to head to our room for the night. Adventure Baby had definitely had her fill of adventure for the day and proceeded to take a solid nap!

DSC_1153Thanks for reading and enjoy your walk!

Fort Defiance State Park

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Ft Defiance google mapFort Defiance State Park is located on the outskirts of Estherville in northwest Iowa.

I visited Fort Defiance with my wife and my little Adventure Baby for a nice stroll through some woods on our second stop of the day over a Halloween weekend to check out what northwest Iowa had to offer. The whole idea for the weekend was to spend some family time in the woods checking out the last remnants of the fall colors and to see how much Adventure Baby could handle riding in her chariot (she was just shy of 11 months). Let me just say, even though it was slightly chilly, the weekend did not disappoint!

Fort Defiance State Park gets its name from the old fort that once stood in what is now Estherville. It was built to protect the area from the Dakota Indians following their attack on settlers at the Spirit Lake Massacre in 1857. However that would be the only attack by the tribe. The Dakotas were eventually expelled from Minnesota, and the Civil War required resources and manpower, so the fort was decommissioned not long after.

Ft Defiance Trail Map.jpgFort Defiance has a lot to offer in its number of trails and terrain. We ended up cutting ourselves short sticking to the trails on the outer edge of the park, partially due to some frustration caused by low maintenance issues in places. We planned for around 5 or 6 miles, but ended up only knocking out 3 when all was said and done. Let’s get to the hike.

DSC_1001aWe parked at the lodge (orange star) and got Adventure Baby all prepared with a snack and a clean diaper. The temp did dip a touch since leaving Ambrose A Call State Park, so we put her winter coat and pants on her and buckled her into her pack. Then we set off to the west to begin our counterclockwise hike around the perimeter of the park. The initial hundred or so yards was a road walk to the first trail head, the mini Spring Creek Trail (tight purple dashes). This trail was a steady downhill that immediately awarded you with a sense that you were in the woods, our smiles were genuine.

DSC_1008Eventually it met up with the actual Spring Creek Trail (aqua). This intersection was the first point where low maintenance showed its head. There were a couple downed trees across the trail that had been there for a while. A makeshift attempt to go around the trees had been attempted by a few people before us, but not enough to really make it easily passable. We eventually got around the road block and back on the trail. The rest of the trail was very enjoyable and passed without incident.

Spring Creek Trail terminated at a road where it meets up with the two prairie trails; East and South Prairie Trails. We hopped on East Prairie Trail (purple) from here which turned into a grassy walk on what was probably the least scenic of the park. About 2/3 of the way down the path we discovered it met up with the road where we found a bench swing looking off toward the center of the park (red star). The view from the swing was great, making this a neat little road side pull off site. DSC_1033After a few photos, we continued along and found ourselves wandering a bit through a section of trees where the trail wasn’t overly noticeable. While I normally grumble about them chewing up the trails, luckily horses had been through earlier so their tracks were easy to follow to the end of the trail.

DSC_1037I was able to get us back on track and entered the descent of East Trail (yellow), and quite a descent it was. It didn’t last long as we were only on it for a few dozen yards before branching off onto Ridge Trail (gray) (and a new climb…). Ridge Trail was great as it wove through the trees overlooking the valley below. We noticed that there are a few lucky people with backyards that meet up with the northern border of the park for ready access.

DSC_1052Low maintenance appeared again where Ridge and North Trail (orange) met, and sporadically came in and out throughout its length. The North Trail was kind of scraggly in places before turning into a pretty good descent into the valley floor where Flume Trail (blue) followed the creek. The area surrounding Flume Trail felt very open and was quite attractive. In hindsight, I wish I had known and planned to hike more of the green circled area. I would probably have hiked the full length of Flume Trail, re-hiked the small section of Ridge Trail until it met with East Trail again and taken that back to the lodge.

DSC_1047As it was, we didn’t hike as far as we thought we had on Flume Trail, and once we could see the lodge, we accidentally exited the trail about a 1/4 mile early by following a game trail up the ridiculously steep climb thinking it was a low maintenance trail heading up the hill on the east side of the lodge. Once up top, we walked the 50 yards or so to the car and prepared for our next stop.

DSC_1063I would still say there are a good 6 miles worth of trails to snag out at Fort Defiance State Park, 6 rugged miles. That being said, as you can tell from the map and my report, you can plan as many miles as you want. You should keep your personal conditioning in mind when making your plans. I had put in a good number of miles that year and found myself breathing pretty hard on some of those climbs. Due to the ruggedness I would suggest a minimum of a pack with water and snacks. I would also promote the use of trekking poles here for sure. While not necessary, they really do alleviate some of the stress on the knees during the climbing and descending. Obviously I would say that a map is a must as I got a bit off trail even while using it, imagine if I didn’t have one.

Now don’t take any of the negative chatter within this post as the park being a less desirable location to visit. I really did like that park a lot and feel that with a little more attention to trail maintenance it could be an awesome state park! If you head that way to check out the fall colors, Fort Defiance State Park will provide an excellent scene. Now on to Test part 3: Gull Point State Park.

DSC_1005Thanks for reading and enjoy your walk!

Ambrose A. Call State Park

 

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Ambros A Call Google MapAmbrose A Call State Park is located up by Algona in northwest Iowa.

I visited Ambrose A Call with my wife and my little Adventure Baby for a nice stroll through some woods as our first stop of several over a Halloween weekend to check out what northwest Iowa had to offer. Let me just say, even though it was slightly chilly, the weekend did not disappoint!

Ambrose A Call Trail Map.jpg

The whole idea for the weekend was to spend some family time in the woods checking out the last remnants of the fall colors and to see how much Adventure Baby could handle riding in her chariot (she was just shy of 11 months).

We parked at the orange star next to the lodge and got baby girl all secured into her pack. One thing I noticed right away is that they appear to have a really nice disc golf course around the main recreation area of the park, complete with signage and maps of each hole (yellow star). It suggests that they put a good amount of effort into the park and speaks to its potential.

DSC_0950Overall the park has a short 1.75 mile trail system through some very pleasant woods set on a good-sized hill. We started our hike on the Woods Trail staying to the outer loop in a counter-clockwise route. As the map suggests, a .2 mile trail is super quick to complete. The trail was pretty well maintained for the most part, however at the red star this one got a little over grown and confusing until we came out at the southwestern most picnic area. That was our only hiccup with the trails though. After that, all of the other trails were solid and easy to follow.

DSC_0961As we started our trek eastward from the picnic area we followed the road for a few feet until we found the trail-head to Creek Trail. It started with a good downhill descent and then turned into the most enjoyable section. The scenery was great as we followed the creek in a northeasterly direction toward the park entrance. Adventure Baby was having a blast slapping the back of my head and pulling at my ears most of the way.

DSC_0969DSC_0948Eventually we had to climb out of the creek bed and found ourselves on the main park road. I snuck down the road to catch a picture of the entrance sign (something I often forget to do…) and then back to jump on the last section of trail, High-Low Trail. Now this last section did have a couple of spots at the beginning where you could easily follow the trail, but it was a little tough to pick it out until you were right on top of it. As we rounded the bend at the northern most point we were met with a long, steady, incline back to the top of the hill.

DSC_0997Once we got to the top, there was a moment of, “oh hey, isn’t that grass over there pretty.” Chuckles aside, at the top was a home of one of the original settlers to the area. It had been preserved and relocated to the park a number of years ago as a representation of the original home of the family that donated the land to the state that once sat in the park. From here it was a road walk back to the car to complete our hike. Adventure Baby had a blast, but was ready to be done and get something to eat. Test part 1: success.

Given the short length of the trails (1.75 miles over a casual 50 minutes), gear is more of a comfort item for this hike. I would still suggest bringing some water and your map of the park. Since they are small, I’m never opposed to taking something like a Clif Bar as a snack for just in case you get hungry (ya never know). There was a good amount of climbing/descending, so I would also recommend trekking poles for those who want more stability.

I tend to shy away from these shorter length parks as I enjoy chewing up the miles, but Ambrose A Call State Park is definitely a beautiful fall destination. If you’re just looking for a quick stroll, or introducing some little ones to the outdoors, this park gets my stamp of approval (if I had a big ole’ stamp to approve things with). Now on to Test part 2: Ft Defiance State Park.

DSC_0968Thanks for reading! Now go enjoy your walk!

Rock Creek State Park

DSC_9020Rock Creek Google Map

Rock Creek State Park is located near Kellogg which is just north of I-80, about halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City.

Rock Creek Trail MapThe park has a single, relatively flat, 11.5 mile trail traveling the circumference of a lake that is a standard model in many of Iowa’s state parks. In this case 3/4 of it is trail covering the southern portion of the lake (blue line), while the remainder consists of walking along the roads to finish off the northern part (green line).

DSC_2799This park did take two visits to be able to complete as it is a park that seems to suffer from low maintenance. The first time I attempted the hike, I parked at a nice little picnicking area (orange star) and only made it to a small pond where everything was completely overgrown and impassable (red star). That is one of the bigger problems with parks with trails that primarily consist of grass. Their trails require very regular mowing.

Good news is, the second trip was far more successful. I was apprehensive about the trip, but felt a sense of relief once I found that the trail was semi-recently mowed.

So I began the trip from the orange star and hiked clockwise around the lake. Another problem with grass trails is that the morning dew clings to it and it wasn’t long before my feet were drenched. Some sections were drier than others, but ultimately I did the whole 11.5 miles with wet feet. (Wet is a sore spot with me, my ultimate kryptonite.) That aside, the trail was easy to follow as it looped around the eastern inlet.

DSC_9032Eventually I found myself on a road for a short bit as I lost the trail near boat ramp/ pseudo marina (blue star). This is one of the areas where there are residential homes along the shore, so it is plausible that the docks here are designated for the homeowners. The next 1/2 mile of shoreline you are basically walking through the backyards of these houses. At least the yards are large, unlike some parks where I feel as though I could see right into their living rooms. This is also the section I got the best pictures in. I found a couple of cranes and a finch at the docks, then all along the shoreline I found some nice flowers.DSC_9028

DSC_9049Shortly after that is when the low maintenance reared its head again. In the park’s defense, is was pretty wet leading up to the hike, and many parts of the terrain in the remaining section (red circle) would be hard to mow. Unfortunately, this is also where the mosquitoes decided to join the party. Rather than digressing into a complaint session, I’ll just say that there is a lot of potential for this area of the park if there would be a little more effort put into keeping the trails mowed (or transitioning into gravel, etc.). I found myself pushing hard to get out of the longer grass and thick mosquitoes. In fact the mosquitoes pushed me off my plan of sticking to the blue trail, and taking the yellow trail to the beach (green star). One positive was capturing some photos of a funnel spider getting a young grasshopper that hopped onto its web.DSC_9086

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DSC_9097Once out of the infestation… I milled around the beach for a bit watching the geese with a bird friend.

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After having a snack I decided to start the road march up and around the northern tip of the lake and back to the vehicle (green lines – dark planned, light impromptu). The road walk was what you’d expect from a road walk. One interesting thing I found was that at the north end of the park is a paved trail that leads east from the park entrance all the way to the town of Grinnell (bold yellow line). Something nice if you happen to live in town. Rock Creek trail.jpg

From here I headed south back to the vehicle, past the campgrounds, and called it a day.

As for my gear recommendations if your journey takes you to Rock Creek State Park: a pack with plenty of water and some calories as 11.5 miles will burn some energy. Some first aid, a map, and of course, bug spray and waterproof shoes… heh. This was one of my faster paces, covering the distance in a little under 3 hours and 45 mins, part of that could be contributed to the literal bugging out at the end. So keep that in mind when planning your timetable compared to your average pace over flat ground.

DSC_2776In the end, Rock Creek State Park has a lot of potential to be a nice stroll around the lake. I think if they could improve the condition of their trails with rock and/or wood chips it would be far more enjoyable. Parks like this are one of the reasons I started this site and the Youtube channel. If more people show interest in visiting our parks to use the trails, then maybe the park service will be more likely to put money into improving the parks that aren’t as popular. During this visit I did see work being done to other parts of the park, we just need to work to get the trails added to the to-do list.

For another look at the park, please check out the video over on the YouTube channel.

DSC_9021As always, thanks for reading and enjoy your walk!

Holy Cow, it’s April!

dsc_2638Well March flew by in a hurry. That’s what happens when you’re working a lot I suppose. Remember those snowshoes I was complaining about never getting to use since I bought them? Well, the only hike I got to do this month was a quick and short snow stomp in those snowshoes on the one day we’ve had snow since December! Just kind of plodded around looking for a photo on a gray day, but I definitely had fun trying out something new.

img_3394img_3395img_3397Throughout the month I pumped out a lot of my backlog of data. To recap: Briggs Woods County Park, Wildcat Den State Park, Ledges State Park, Wapsipinicon State Park, Elk Rock State Park, Pikes Peak State Park (Iowa), Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, A discussion on Footwear, and Cruisin’ the Upper Iowa River were all posted in March. Also, I got a couple more YouTube videos completed and uploaded: Elk Rock State Park and Lacey-Keosauqua State Park.

Looking into the future, the month of April is going to be another month of heavy working. I am hoping a window will open up that will allow me to sneak off and finally forget about the stress of life for a bit; but if the weather remains the same, it is going to be one wet spring… Until then I have plenty of backlog left to tell you about. I have 13 more hikes to write trail reports on, and 9 of those have videos to edit. All of which I really need to get working on before I start to add to that backlog in the coming year! Once again, the plan for the year is an ambitious one!

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So far I’m off to a slow start, but as you can see, the miles will start ramping up once I can finally get out on the trails regularly. You can bet I’m checking the weather for every day-off I have coming up as well. While I’m waiting in limbo for that next clear day, I’ll be cleaning out my hiking cabinet to check over any gear that hasn’t seen much use. You never know when an impromptu camping trip can surface, not to mention a couple of the multi-park “tours” involve an overnight.

Gotta always be prepared for adventure! May our free time involve blue skies overhead soon!

A discussion on Footwear

different-hiking-shoes-750x410One of the most common questions I get from those around me is “what kind of shoes do I wear?”

My number one answer; “You don’t need specific footwear to get on the trails!” Don’t wait until you get some new kicks, just get out there. Starting is the first step… heh. However, eventually we all want to wear the more appropriate coverings for our feet.

So let’s have a discussion about what kinds of footwear are out there. Now I will preface this by saying I am not a footwear expert and can’t speak to the super technical details. I have tried quite a few different pieces and can tell you my experiences.

parts-of-the-soleThere are four basic components of footwear: outsole, midsole, insole, and upper. The outsole is going to be the rubber on the bottom. This is the part that actually touches the ground. Companies develop all kinds of different compounds that create varying hardness, stickiness, and durabilities. The harder it is, the longer is should last, but it’ll be stiffer and likely yield less traction. Too soft and you’ll get great traction and more flex for added comfort, but they won’t last long.

Sometimes a manufacturer will include a “rock plate” (red) between the outsole (black) and the midsole (gray). This is normally a piece of plastic designed to protect the foot from sharp rocks, especially on footwear with a softer outsole and a thinner midsole where pointy rocks can hurt the foot more easily. Some can even be removed if you don’t like them, they are sometimes built into the insole, others only cover the forefoot, lots of variations.

The midsole is going to be the foam portion that separates your upper from the rubber and provides most of the cushioning when you step down. This is another component that gets a lot of science to create different densities for stiffness and rebound ability, how much it bounces back after being compressed during your stride.unisex-superfeet-green-premium-insoles-color-green-size-d-86301514088-1514088_1036_1

The insole should be familiar to everyone since there have been commercials promoting them for as long as I can remember. This item adds some cushion and support, not to mention that it may help with odor! The unique point about insoles is that they are customizable to user preference and can be swapped out for something that the wearer prefers.

Finally, the upper is the part that holds your foot into the shoe. The materials are anything from cloth, to nylon, plastic, leather and more. There is an infinite number of designs that can be put together creating a system of choices that can be intimidating. Different materials and technologies make the upper support your foot in a plethora of ways. One thing about the hiking community you’ll hear repeatedly, is the concern over weight. This is one area of your footwear where the design can really make this noticeable. I’ve had boots that were super supportive leather clod hoppers weighing 2.5 pounds per, to super minimalist shoes weighing 6-7 ounces per. There are advantages to both and I hope to make your footwear search easier.

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There are 3 base categories I’m going to talk about: cheap “Wal-Mart” shoes, your standard boot, and the running shoe.

When it comes to the “Wal-Mart” shoes and boots, my recommendation is to stay away from them.  With cheap footwear all four of these components are going to be very sub par and possibly be harmful to you. CAN you use this kind of footwear to get out in the woods? Of course! If this is all you have, then don’t let it stop you. However, here are the reasons I say you should look elsewhere.

The most obvious reason is the sub par materials that are used to help keep the cost down. The outsoles and midsoles will tend to be harder, reducing comfort and causing increased impact on your feet and legs the longer you are on them. You might not notice it too much for a short 3-5 mile hike, but once you get into the 8-10 range you’ll likely find that you begin to feel every step. The uppers are going to be stiffer and less breathable most of the time too. Uncomfortable footwear leads to you deciding the TV looks more attractive than the woods.

So the next category would be your modern hiking boot, actually designed with hiking in mind. There are more brands than I know of available for you to look at. The materials are going to be more advanced, increasing the first noticeable thing… the price. On average, a good quality boot can range from $60 -$300. That aside for now, the next thing most will notice when comparing the name brand to the cheap ones, is comfort. The technologies involved that drive up the price, are often realized in short order.

cta-desert-tan-military-bootsWithin this group you will mostly find  3 variations; low, mid, tall. The tall variation typically has an 8 inch height that most people recognize as military style boots. These are less common in the woods these days, but do still have their place. The main advantage to the tall boot is ankle support. If you’re going over tough terrain with a load on your back, these boots will definitely help prevent an injury to your ankle if worn correctly. Having worn them for over a decade between the Marine Corps and work; I find these to do their job, but are the least comfortable and the heaviest in the category. They also are pretty stagnant when it comes to style.

861847Now the mid height are going to be around the 6 inch mark and the low will be similar to your standard tennis shoe. These two have become the most common of the hiking specific shoe. The mid will still provide some ankle support if you are looking for that, and the low will be the lightest and most nimble of the group. If you want a shoe that has a more stylish look, then these two will provide that as well. When I got back into the woods I went straight for the low top hiking shoe; a couple years ago my work transitioned to allowing the mid height hiking shoe. If I had to choose between them, I would go with the low top shoe over the mid height easily. I feel they are more comfortable, I like the lighter weight, and they feel more nimble. That being said, there is one more category to discuss.

product~p~126UG_01~1500_1The trail runner. The big craze now among hikers is to ditch their stiff and heavy boots for running shoes designed for the trails. At first I was skeptical because growing up we were always taught that hiking is done in boots. Today however, technologies have gotten to the point where a 7 ounce running shoe is just as tough as a 5 pound hiking boot. The outsoles have rugged lugs for traction, and the midsoles are designed for a lot of impact forces. The uppers are often super breathable to expel heat, and flexible due to the lighter materials for that breathability. One thing of note, most people who choose to wear trail runners also try to keep our pack weight down. So if you haven’t shaved some gear and are still humping a monster pack, something with more ankle support might be warranted. For reference, a rough guess says that with my day hike gear, water, and camera gear, my pack weighs about 25-30 pounds. I should actually weigh it one of these days…

Now once again, with technologies comes a price tag. The average retail price of a quality trail shoe ranges from $100-$250. This can be scary for those of us on a budget (we’ll chat about that in a sec). I have to say, for the past two years I have exclusively been wearing trail runners, and will not look back. I bounce between two pairs, one standard pair for dry conditions, and one Gortex pair for hiking when it is wet out. Now a word of caution about Gortex, it is great about keep your foot dry, as long as the water doesn’t get inside from the top. If that happens, it is also very good about keeping water in… I normally bring both pairs and opt to wear the Gortex if it is looking like it is slightly wet. My Achilles heel is wet feet.

81bDpzvyGuL__SL1405_Which one should you look into? I can’t answer that, only your feet can. If I were to steer you in a direction, I would suggest either the low hikers or the trail runners. Make sure to try them on in socks a little thicker than you plan on wearing, after a few miles of ground pounding our feet tend to swell. My sock of choice; Darn Tough Socks. Spendy, but if you wear them out, they’ll replace them!

Like I said before, there are too many brands to list. I will toss out a few I trust though. For hiking shoes I like Merrell, Keen, Soloman, and I’ve heard excellent things about Oboz. Merrell and Keen are pretty common in most of the outdoor stores we can find in Iowa, such as Dick’s, Scheels, and Gander Mountain.  When it comes to trail runners; New Balance, Altra, Inov-8, Nike, Soloman, and Merrell all have solid entries. My personal shoe of choice is the New Balance 910v2 (910Gtx is the Gortex model), the red one above. Favorite part about New Balance, almost all of their models come in Wide/2E, and some even in Double Wide/4E!

Now that we’ve covered far more than I thought I would, let’s talk about stomaching the price for the higher quality boots and shoes. I often scour Amazon for good deals on name brands and have scored a few pairs for well under $50 (typically free returns as well if you have Prime). In fact, most recently I snagged three pairs of New Balance running shoes that cost $100-$120 per, for a total of $120. Also, for you central Iowans, the Williamsburg outlet mall has a Merrell store and I’ve gotten some boots for as low as $25 before. REI is now in Des Moines and will have by far the best selection to choose from when it comes to being able to try them on, and they run deals all the time. So you see, there really shouldn’t be a reason to even think about buying the “Wal-Mart” shoe when you have access to name brand quality shoes for a price that is relatively close.

For those of you who are new to the trails, I hope this helps answer any questions you might have had. For those familiar with the dirt, maybe this post informed you of something you didn’t know and will improve your comfort on the paths you take.

Enjoy your hike!