Lieutenant Dan's First Rule: Always Take Care of Your Feet!

Every time I mount an expedition into the Smoky Mountains there is a scene from the movie “Forrest Gump” that always plays through my head. It is the scene where Forrest  and Bubba first set foot in Vietnam and meet Lieutenant Dan. He gives them two rules:

“Take care of your feet and try not to do anything stupid! Always change your socks!”

We have come a long way since OD green and itchy wool were the ideal choice of outdoorsmen. Modern backcountry socks are wonders of technological and engineering prowess. Brands like Smartwool and Darn Tough have revolutionized sock composition and performance. Blending merino wool with synthetic moisture wicking fibers makes these socks last longer and keep your feet healthy and happy for days on end. There are some that even reduce odor and kill bacteria! The first key to comfort on a backpacking trip in the Smokies is a few pairs of high quality socks. The money spent on 3 pairs of Smartwool socks more than makes up for blisters on the heel when you have 30 miles of hiking remaining on a backcountry expedition. Smartwool socks are softer while Darn Tough socks last longer and also carry a lifetime guarantee. If you wear a pair of Darn Tough’s out just send them back to the manufacturer and they return a brand new pair.

As we hike day by day I encourage my guests to hand wash a pair of socks each night and to hang them on the outside of their pack while hiking the next morning. To keep a rotation going insures you have fresh socks each day and that you can cut down on a little pack weight by not bringing a pair a day.

In the words of Lieutenant Dan “Always change your socks!”

Footwear: Boots, hiking shoes, or sandals?  

I have owned and used many different types of footwear in my years backpacking and guiding; From heavy duty boots that cost hundreds of dollars all the way down to running shoes that cost less than a ticket to the cinema. When choosing footwear the choices and combinations are endless.

There are three keys to choosing footwear: Environment, temperature/weather, and weight.

Each of the three keys plays a pivotal role in proper footwear choice for backcountry travel.

Environment: The particular type of terrain you are traversing. Is it through desert, across temperate regions where rain is likely, or along snow covered alpine ridges?

Temperature/ Weather: If the temperature going to be below freezing? Sandals would be a bad choice… Is it going to be so hot you can fry an egg on a rock? Heavy duty hiking boots would be a bad choice... Is the area reasonably dry most of the year? Is there rain forecast or a high chance of precipitation while out in the thick of it?

Weight: Every pound of weight we have on our feet equals five pounds on our backs. Lighter is always better.

Spring to Fall in temperate zones

A pair of trail runners and a backup pair of sandals should do the trick. Trail runners are better than hiking boots due to their weight and the ability to feel the ground underfoot. You will move faster and maintain energy levels better by keeping the weight off of your feet. If it is raining switching to the sandals with wool socks keeps your feet warm and this method keeps your shoes dry. For creek crossings switch to the sandals. Again, this method keeps your shoes dry.

Spring to Fall in desert zones

A pair of sandals and a backup pair of approach shoes are perfect in a desert environment. Wear the sandals with socks throughout the day and you have a pair of approach shoes at night for use around camp. If the terrain is rugged and rocky switching to the approach shoes gives you grip and the ability to feel the terrain with your feet. Again, the lightness of the footwear allows you to move quicker and feel the ground under your feet, giving stability and less likelihood of injury.

Winter or in snowy or cold environments

When passing through this type of environment heavy duty backpacking boots are a must. Taking a pair of approach shoes or trail runners along as another option or camp shoes is a good idea. You can increase the temperature rating of your boots or hiking shoes by layering extra pairs of wool socks under your footwear.

Personal Preferences

I almost never use my heavy duty boots while in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My personal choice is to carry a pair of sandals for water crossings and a pair of trail runners or approach shoes for hiking. When it rains I switch to my sandals. Waterproof boots have never kept my feet from getting wet. The best option if it is cooler and rainy is to wear a dirty pair of smartwool socks with my sandals.  Wool insulates even when it gets wet! I keep the shoes dry along with two dry pairs of socks and voila! I get to camp and have a dry pair of shoes and warm, dry, comfortable socks to wear with them! Wearing clunky boots is my last resort.

With this knowledge in tow and getting back to basics your fun factor for trips in the backcountry will increase dramatically. For more information on what American Wild Trekking recommends for  backpacking trips in the Smokies click here.

Remember what Lieutenant Dan said, “ Take care of your feet!”