June 19, 2023
Off-season preparation is something I have always taken seriously. Even more so last year knowing that I would be spending over 20 days in the backcountry of Alaska pursuing Dall sheep and grizzly bear. Summer passed quickly and the deafening hum of the Super Cub descend- ing into basecamp served as a constant reminder that the time for preparation was over. After several days of covering countless miles in grueling sheep country, I knew that my summer prep had paid off. My gear was performing as advertised and my legs felt strong. However, what I didn’t expect was the beating that my feet were taking. I had good boots and adequate socks, but as the Last Frontier often does, it taught me some valuable lessons, particularly in foot care.
Below are four tips for preparing your feet for the abuse they will undoubtedly receive in the backcountry. None of these tips are groundbreaking, but their importance can't be stressed enough. If you get nothing else out of this article, remember that prevention is your best offense when it comes to foot care. Once your feet go, your hunt is essentially over. I also include what I believe to be the X factor when it comes to curbing foot problems and prolonging your time in the backcountry.
PICKING THE RIGHT BOOT
There are a dozen or more hunting-boot manufacturers that offer premium options for the serious hunter. But just because a pair of boots are well made doesn't mean they will suit you well. I have tried boots from most major companies. Some worked, some didn't, but what works best for me may cause nothing but problems for you.
An entire article could be devoted to picking the right boot according to stiffness, height, width, material, and features. For our purpose, suffice it to say that you need to spend an adequate amount of time researching different boots and then go try them on. All of them.
Breaking in a pair of boots is not a new concept but is often an afterthought when it should be a priority. The break-in period is two-fold. First and foremost, it is intended to break down the stiff leather of a new boot into a more malleable condition, making a more comfortable bed for your feet. The second, and regularly overlooked, reason for breaking in boots is to break in your feet.Your feet are comprised of tissue and bones, just the same as your hands and arms. The more that they are used, the stronger they become.
This second step is where I fell short in my preparation for Alaska last fall. I hiked at least once a week with my boots on and they were well broken in, but my other three or four hikes each week were done wearing Solomon trail-running shoes which did not help my feet toughen up or get used to the foot bed of my boots. Wear your boots and a weighted pack during all summer preparations to build your foot stamina long before your hunt begins.
I have always heard about the importance of a good pair of socks, but never put much thought into it until my preparations last summer. I came across two common rules that everyone seems to agree on. Rule number one: Avoid cotton socks at all costs. They dry slowly and trap moisture from perspiration or water in your boot, setting the stage for a plethora of foot problems. On the flip side, wool socks are your best friend. They do sting the pocket book a little, oftentimes being $20 or more per pair, but I promise it is money well spent to avoid a foot disaster. Not only do wool socks wick moisture and dry quickly, but they come in a variety of thicknesses for any temperature you might encounter and are incredibly comfortable to wear.
Rule number two: Prepare in the socks you intend to wear on your hunt. My off-season prep was done during the dead of summer, battling 90+ degree heat so I wore thin socks. On my grizzly bear hunt the temperature ranged between 30 and 50 degrees, forcing me to use a thicker sock than what I was used to. The slight increase in sock thickness didn't seem like much, but it— ever so slightly—put pressure on my feet that I was not used to and subsequently my feet suffered because of it.
DRY EM' OUT
Keeping your feet dry should be amongst your top priorities when in the backcountry. Perspiration is inevitable so the key is managing moisture as opposed to preventing it. The easiest way to keep your feet dry is to change socks. As a general rule of thumb, I almost always change my socks at lunch time. Physically demanding days may call for more sock changes. Also take the opportunity when sitting at a long glassing point or eating a meal to air out your feet and don’t forget one of the simplest pleasures in the backcountry is a new pair of socks right before bed.
THE X FACTOR: CUSTOM ORTHOTICS
High-end boots come with good insoles, but they do not hold a candle to the aftermarket options available. There are companies such as Sheep Feet that offer custom orthotics as well as others that you can purchase at the store and cut to fit. Regardless of what route you go, your feet will thank you for the extra comfort that an after-market pair of insoles provides.
No matter your skill level, none of us are immune to having foot problems. The key is adequately preparing to prevent these issues and knowing how to deal with them when the unpleasant problem arises. Apply a few, or all, of these tips this fall and save yourself the pain and heartbreak of having to come out of the backcountry early due to foot problems.