Gear talk is an obsession – on the trail, at the outfitters, and especially in groups and comments on the Internet. But in most forums I find this talk unpalatable, with any helpful anecdotes or thoughtful observations drowned in a deep sea of piss from the contest of “my gear is better than yours – and here’s why.”
The why’s are many – weight, expense, efficacy, experience, a good marketing campaign. And there are no definitive answers to this question of “why?” In fact, the opinions of gear talk are almost entirely binary. For example: Should one hike with hiking poles? Survey says equal parts “yes of course, you idiot” and “no of course not, you idiot.” Talk is cheap, but gear can be expensive (and mess up your trip if you don’t have what suits you), so it’s worth a dive into this sea of binary piss.
It surprised me to find that gear talk peeps actually agreed on something: The Big Three. Items of backpacking gear that are crucial and often the heaviest or most expensive. Now, they don’t agree on the specific backpack, shelter, or sleeping system one should use – but they seem to be the most important. Which with, of course, I do not agree. Because we already had our so-called Big Three locked down, I was obsessing over another piece of gear crucial to our adventure.
Shoes. I needed shoes.
SO whatevs, I went and got some shoes. I had never used hiking boots, and have only recently in my life come into a place of wearing shoes that don’t mess up my feet and legs. I did some research on the kind of boots we might be looking for, how to fit them, where to get them, etc. We went to REI at the end of the day after we had been working and walking around, with our hiking socks in tow, so as to get a proper fit.
When I started trying on boots, I felt instantly dumb – I thought, “I have no idea what I need, or how to tie the laces, or how it’s supposed to feel.” Some of these feeling were attached to my deep-seeded-yet-no-longer-relevant insecurities toward money, and some were attached to a fear of really fucking up my feet – especially after years of tendinitis. What I had read online, paired with the affirmations from the clerk, made me feel good about my first purchase. Mid-rise, waterproof, suited for the amount of weight I would be carrying.
After a few test runs and a little breaking-in, I no longer felt good – the boots caused blistering, hurt my toes, and were hard to tie. Three strikes right away. We were stopped on the Ice-Age Trail watching hundreds of blackbirds swarm and race through the trees when I realized my boots weren’t right for me. I thought, “This is totally worth having my feet hurt. But I would probably rather not have my feet totally obliterated.” This particular pair of Keens also were difficult for me to lace – I gave myself blisters on my fingers trying to tie these, and because of their lacing-system, I wasn’t able to try out alternative lacing techniques to prevent blistering. So I returned them to my outfitter.
One issue with gear talk (or any talk) is that, if you have little/no experience or opinions previously formed, you may accidentally swallow some piss and become absolutely full of it.
I convinced myself that I had to have a pair of Merrell Moabs – female thru-hikers gush about them and about the company. They met my necessary specs (mid-rise, waterproof, blah blah blah), and come in a non-waterproof version (which I’m still on the fence about whether having a waterproof shoe will actually be a bummer after I experience it). So again I went to REI, at the end of the day, to try on these boots. I was feeling super confident (read: full of piss) and asked the clerk for a pair to try on right away.
Something I’ve observed about gear talk peeps is that when, inevitably, one of their opinions is challenged or even (GASP) wrong – they get mad. They are personally injured.
So of course, the Merrell Moabs didn’t fit me or feel good at all. So, with my core piss-values challenged, I basically demanded to try on every other boot that met any aspect of my necessary specs. My necess-specs. Which were now: SHOE FIT GOOD. GOOD SHOE. FIT.
Luckily for everyone involved, the place was closing and the clerk was totally not focused on fueling my shame-rage quest for the perfect boot. At the time I thought she was being rude and not really paying attention to my needs, but I realize now that my needs were TOTALLY WHACK and I’m glad she shut down my Cinderella’s-Prince raid in footwear.
More research and examination of my necesspecs lead me to this: no boot is going to fit me perfectly unless I have one custom made, idiot. Makes sense – the same goes for all garments. I’m forever living in a world of between-sizes, and you either wear a belt or let your pants drop or get those trousers tailored, yo.
So the game became: find the boot that will fit you in the most ways, then compensate for the rest. I have a wide toebox and a narrow heel, so I needed a boot that wouldn’t mash my toes up that was easy to lace so I could lock in my heel and prevent blistering.
The clerk on this final foray into the land of shoes-that-don’t-fit-me was a different kind of piss-competitor than I had encountered – his opinions regarding gear were accompanied with crazy field notes. “These are the boots I summitted Everest in. This guy, he had these other boots, and he started complaining about blisters on the first day. Yeah, he didn’t summit.”
The clerks at REI don’t get commission for their opinions or their sales, which has been communicated to me on several occasions – so it’s like, their successfully selling you a brand they enjoy could be a validation of their own piss-opinions, or it could be that they actually are trying to help you get and enjoy what you want and/or need, regardless of whether they agree with your desires. I can say that honestly, as a person who has sold a product about which I have opinions, it’s a little bit of both. And that’s fine. People are allowed to like different stuff. Sometimes it’s a challenge to accept that some people really enjoy stuff that you think is shit. I understand why conflict exists. It just totally does not matter.
So, because I wasn’t being a jerk-customer and I was intently listening to this clerk’s adventure stories (even if in amusement and not in awe), he was invested in me as a customer. He was patient with my insecurities and didn’t go for too-hard of a sell on a particular brand. Although, the brand of shoes I did leave the store with were the ones he wore when he was traversing the plains of Africa and awoke to the beautiful scene of lions making love in the sunrise, framed in the fly of his ultra-light tent. We’re talking a NatGeo Instagram worthy kind of scene, here.
As I was leaving, a passing clerk saw I had decided on this particular brand and vocalized his approval. The two clerks did a mental high-five. Or it might have been an actual high-five. I don’t remember. My memory is clouded with piss-fog.
So these boots are good. Good enough. My fingers don’t blister when I try to tie them, and I’ve taken to some alternative lacing techniques to help with the heel blistering, and I’m prepared to wrap with leukotape for preventing blisters (and moleskine if I don’t prevent them). I also got sock liners, and in my search for sock liners I deduced that I was wearing too large of a sock, and that the extra fabric around my Achilles bit was a contributing culprit of my many shoe-woes.
I have surrendered to the foot-deity in hopes that my extremities may be raptured and not ruptured. Be wary of anyone who is overly eager to talk of gear – just find what works best for you and your needs and preferences. Gear talk is crazy helpful, but that sea is boiling hot.
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