Note: I paid for these shoes with my own $$; my barefoot life is a completely non-monetized operation :)
With a five-day Grand Canyon backpacking trip looming, I’ve been trying to figure out what my foot-wear strategy will be.
Back story: A bit over a year ago, I did a six-day trip (arranged by the same wonderful folks at the Grand Canyon Field Institute), and had immediate shoe issues.
Hiking Grand Canyon is a bit different than hiking in the mountains; in the canyon, you first go down-down-down, and then come back up-up-up later. The initial descent can ruin your toes/toenails if your shoes don’t fit properly, with the constant bumping against the end of the toe-box resulting in blood-filled black toenails that eventually fall off. No fun.
The whole thing becomes especially problematic if you never wear shoes that cover your toes in day-to-day life . . . that would be me.
During last year’s Grand Canyon adventure, I showed up at the trailhead in my Merrell Pace Trail Gloves (the original model from their “barefoot” line). One of the reasons I wore them (besides hoping they would function well as backpacking footwear), was to not freak out the other backpackers on the trip, none of whom I had ever met . . . all of whom were wearing traditional hiking boots, and who would have probably not allowed me to join the fun without footwear that made me look like I knew what I was doing, since the trails we were about to travel for the next week were majorly steep and rough and rocky.
Well, I do steep and rough and rocky all the time at home, but not with 30 pounds on my back, so like a good scout I did try to wear shoes the first couple of jagged miles. Ouch. I knew my toenails were headed into oblivion, so I replaced the Merrell shoes with Merrell sandals: the (sadly discontinued) Pipidae Wrap Minimalist models. I had backpacked short distances (5-7 miles a day) in these, and they were very comfortable; their only drawback was the annoying quantity of pebbles they allowed to sneak between my foot and the shoe-bed.
Long story short on the Merrell sandals: (wasn’t this going to be a Sockwa review?) they are lightweight and comfortable and allowed me to keep up with my heavily booted companions down the Bill Hall Trail to Thunder River, along Tapeats Creek to the Colorado River, rock-scrambling along the Colorado River trail to Deer Creek, and then up the Deer Creek trail back to the Bill Hall and our cars (30-ish miles).
I now own two pairs of these sandals . . . one I wear to work every day (slipping them off as often as possible), and the other has remained my go-to backpacking shoe. Until now.
The constant attention to flipping tiny trapped rocks out from under my sole while traversing treacherous terrain gave me a hankering for another solution.
Enter the Sockwa: bought online from the company itself last Friday night ($59 + tax, free shipping), grabbed off my doorstep five days later and slipped on my feet immediately, and, finally, trail-tested this morning during an hour of steep up and down on the Chutes Trail outside of Irvine Park, near my hometown of Orange, CA.
Thus begins the review:
Sizing: I had measured my feet, as the web site suggested, and came up exactly between their (unisex) sizes. Drat. One size fits 9-10” feet; the next size up fits 10-11” feet. My feet are exactly 10 inches from heel to long second toe. I went with the larger size, since I don’t like things strangling my tootsies. There was room for my toes to wiggle this way, which I liked.
Initial feel: OK to pretty good. Did I mention that I really really dislike wearing anything that covers my feet? These are not too annoying to wear, however, with thin and stretchy uppers that wrapped my toes and continued up to grab my ankles in a snug-but-not suffocating fashion. I had read other bloggers mention being able to feel the stitching inside, but my feet got used to that quickly. There is a molded-in arch which is moderately annoying to feel pressing up against my foot (remember: my baseline is zero . . . nothing on my feet . . . so everything is noticeable), but my brain was soon able to tune that sensation out as well.
Weight: Nice and light, under 3oz. each.
Ground feel: With 4.5 mm of sole and mid-sole that the manufacturer claims compress to 2mm when you step on them, the ground feel is pretty darn good . . . comparable to my old SoftStar Grippy Roo Moccasins, which I wear to work when I want to feel like it’s winter in So Cal.
“Protection”: I put this category in quotes, because it is not a priority for me. I would not hike and trail run barefoot 100% of the time if I were concerned about this. For the purposes of backpacking, though, I guess this is why I bought the shoes . . . to help me keep up with my companions no matter how cold or hot or gravelly the surface (these are the three conditions I avoid during my solo wilderness travel . . . heat and cold, by planning the time of day of my outings; the gravel I have no control over, but it doesn’t really bother me without a pack on my back.)
Traction: I made a point to travel a trail with eroding sandstone ledges . . . that thin layer of grit can take you by surprise and cause a slidey-slip if you’re not careful. The Sockwa’s shallow, hexagonal tread worked fine as I stepped up and down and over rounded rocks and ledges, and I only lost traction and slipped once, about the same as when I am barefoot.
Toe-stubbing: The reduced proprioception that comes from covering all those fabulous nerve endings on your soles comes with a price: your subconscious is less vigilant, and you start catching your toes on rocks (i.e. tripping). (This is why people in big ol’ hiking boots trip all the time . . . their nervous system is asleep.)
I can go for months without this happening, or I can have an odd day and stub my toes two or more times in just a couple of hours. During my Sockwa test, I counted just one toe-stub, and since that toe was covered (the sole wraps up and around), I did not end up with skin torn off. (Which does not bother me much, since my feet have super-circulation and heal very quickly from these minor owies . . . yet another benefit of regular barefooting.)
I walked a lot and ran a bit, both up- and down-hill, for about an hour.
And . . . after that hour was over . . . I could not wait to strip those things off my feet and get back to honest contact with the friendly dust and rocks again.
Cons: a few minutes into my test, I bent down to take photos, and noticed a thread dangling loose over the toe box of the right shoe. I pulled it. The stitching began to unravel. WTH? (What-the-heck?) I got out my knife and cut the thread to keep more unraveling from occurring, but I’m a bit concerned, and may return these for an un-raveling pair after the trip.
Questions: Heat is an unknown factor . . . it was in the mid-60s during my test this morning, and my feet did not sweat or feel overheated. What will happen in warm weather? I know Barefoot Ken-Bob cited this as a major drawback for him (but he’s even more of a shoe-hatin’ rambler than I am).
Bottom line: I feel good about bringing these lightweight and stretchy shoes backpacking next week. While they do not look “normal” at all, they should inspire more confidence in my new hiking-friends-to-be than if I showed up stark raving barefoot. I will also bring my Merrell Pipidae sandals as a backup, though, since I know I can hike very rough terrain in them. And, as soon as the trail allows, I will be shoe-less, for sure.
Enough: At $59, this wisp-of-a-shoe is comfortable enough, has good enough traction and ground feel, and looks shoe-ish enough to keep folks from freaking out about traveling with a barefoot weirdo.
Grand Canyon, here I come.
Thanks to Rick Kempa’s editorial dedication and expertise, the new (and first!) anthology of essays dedicated to the Grand Canyon hiking experienced has just been published by Vishnu Temple Press. (“Vishnu Temple” is an iconic rock formation in Grand Canyon.)
I am grateful that Rick saw potential in my essay “Rim to Rim, Barefoot,” and after acting on his wise words of revision advice, I was able to deepen it a bit (not as deep as the Canyon, but just a bit more in terms of layers of meaning . . . ha . . . it’s hard to write about Grand Canyon without drifting into geological punning) . . . and now it’s joined a fine collection of all kinds of stories about this place that fascinates so many of us.
The publisher is offering free shipping through the end of September . . . and . . . we’re having a publication party and author reading on Oct. 4 in Flagstaff, AZ (see the Vishnu Temple Press web site for details.)
Happy (Grand Canyon) Trails!
The Owens Valley in early September . . . pre-trip, I wondered if Big Pine (went there last weekend for some California Native Plant Society activities) and surrounding environs would be too hot for shoe-less fun.
While I would not have wanted to stroll down Highway 395 in the middle of the day, by getting up early and/or going to higher elevations I was able to get in some wonderful hikes (no running . . . but that was fine . . . hiking has its own slow charm barefoot).
Here’s some images of my toes on the move:
And now for some images from this week’s local wanderings:
Like this coyote I’ve run into the last few mornings crossing Santiago Creek at sunrise, I also seem to be a creature of habit.
While the hills around Irvine Park are his home, and he needs to make his daily rounds to find food and water, I suppose I could live without my 2-3-times-a-week adventures on these trails . . . but I would surely, quickly, succumb to what Richard Louv calls “Native Deficit Disorder.”
So, like coyote, I roam these hills looking for sustenance. Here’s a few photos of what feeds my soul as my soles delight in feeling God’s splendid creation:
Happy (more coyote and fewer dog) Trails!
Our county fair ended last weekend, but not before I snuck over for a quick afternoon of agricultural nostalgia, including a new attraction: turkey racing. I was glad to see they had not imprisoned the running birds in any kind of “high performance” or “protective” footwear.
This print has a special meaning to me; I was able to hike a short loop trail near the 1875 eviction site in Temecula, where People who had lived with the land for thousands of years were rounded up and removed, since they could not prove via paper deeds that they had a claim to the land. Here are a few more images from there:
While in Temecula, I also was able to hike a short ways up the Dripping Springs trail just south of town on Hwy. 79. Not much water, but excellent views out over the valley, and a fluffy velvet ant (really a wingless wasp) in my foot vicinity. Yeah, yeah, I know these critters are nicknamed “cowkillers” for their excruciating sting. But that’s why I hike with my eyes open . . . and I haven’t stepped on a stinging critter yet . . .
Moving from Temecula back to the Orange County foothills . . . there are fine oaks here too, and good folks who enjoy hiking out to see them, like this group in Baker Canyon last week on an Irvine Ranch Conservancy sunset hike.
Back to my more familiar trails . . . I’ve had some good runs in my Santiago Oaks-Barham Ridge-Irvine Park network lately. The summer dust is soft, and the rocks are kind this time of year (for some reason, right after rains the rocks seem much more angular). This morning I saw a multi-pointed buck (no photo, just a breath of admiration), and tiny lizard babies out in force.
As always, I try to pick up whatever trash I find . . . except when it presents itself in cozy situations such as this:
Those excruciatingly delicate multi-colored leaves are poison oak, so I had to leave this nasty plastic crap under the oak where some excruciatingly idiotic person tossed it. I keep meaning to purchase (and hike with) and telescoping trash picker . . . just for situations like this.
So it’s back to teaching on Monday . . . what an adventure-filled summer. I had to bail on my 50k race, but still have hopes that one of these days, my body will tell me “let’s go” and I can enjoy an ultra run. In the meantime: I am running 60-90 minutes (up and down hills) easily, shoelessly. That’s a lot to be thankful for . . .
During this morning’s run up and down Barham Ridge (between Irvine Park and Santiago Oaks Regional Park), my mind was doing its usual wandering, and a word floated into my consciousness: “velfie.” I thought about it, came up with a formal-ish definition, and jotted down my ideas when I got home.
Definition: (Noun.) A video selfie. A video of any length that is taken by the subject of the video. It is a mix of first person and third person point of view, accomplished by extending the camera away from the body (either via arm or hand-held tripod). The camera may also be attached to to the body (or piece of sports equipment such as bicycle or surfboard) to make an “action velfie.” Whether it is allowable to extend the third person viewpoint by setting the camera on the ground or in a tree is currently a velfie gray area.Numbers attached to the word velfie indicate how many other people were involved in the production; a pure “velfie 1″ will involve only the subject of the video for ALL aspects of filming and editing (including music).
When I had a chance to google it, I discovered I had NOT invented this word. Oh well . . . I had fun imagining myself as a neologist for a few brief shining moments.
I’m getting hooked on making these velfie critters . . . as long as they’re about barefoot running. Here is a link to my shortest velfie (shot last Thanksgiving season after a rare local rain): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xAnWFAV4KQ
My YouTube channel has more: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVy21IXp-3Mo3lQPAJ4g4mg
Happy trails . . . May all your velfies be barefoot ones!
We recently spent a few days camping along Rock Creek in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. The Little Lakes Valley trail was drier than I’ve seen in the past, but there was still a beautiful wildflower display. Who needs hiking boots?
Here’s my “YouTube tribute”:
And some more photos from a blessed time in the mountains: