Hiking Shoes Advice

Hiking footwear selection is a highly personal, trial-and-error, context-dependent endeavor. Before purchasing shoes, it’s important to consider questions like the following: What sort of hiking do you anticipate doing? How many hours (or days or weeks) and miles at a time? How much weight will you be carrying? Across what sort of terrain will you hike (e.g. well maintained packed dirt trails, muddy bogs, rocky and gnarly bushwacking, etc.)? In what conditions (scorching heat, freezing cold, torrential rain, etc.)?

And then there’s the personal fit — how wide are your feet? How tall are your arches? How muscular and stable are your ankles and feet? How roomy a toebox do you prefer? Are you more concerned with preventing blisters or wet feet or rolled ankles, etc.?

In recent decades there’s been a push away from big, heavy hiking boots and towards lighter, less supportive shoes (somewhat paralleling the fall of bulky external frames and the rise of internal frame ultralight backpacks). A lot of people I know hike and backpack exclusively in trail runners, with some even opting for only minimalist shoes or hiking sandals (all of which I’ve tried myself for a few years each). Ideally, you’d get a few different pairs that you could whip out under different conditions. If you’re looking for a single type of all-purpose shoe, so-called “hiking shoes” or lightweight, low-cut boots would be your most versatile choice, imo – not too uncomfortable on flat, gentle trails, but with good traction and support on slippery, rocky hikes. I’d generally also recommend against getting EXTREMELY WATERPROOF sorts of shoes — in my experience, they end up being really hot so my feet sweat under dry conditions, and when it rains, they inevitably get wet and take forever to dry out (granted, the latest, high-end ones may be different — I feel Gore-Tex is always coming out with REVOLUTIONARY NEW MATERIALS). It’s generally preferable to get something lightweight, too — “a pound on the feet is five on the back” is a popular saying in hiking circles (of course, try not to get frostbite wearing by wearing trailrunners on a backpacking trip in freezing rain and snow. It is, let’s say, not very pleasant).

As for actually buying shoes, I think the best approach is to crowdsource (look at amazon’s and other online retailer’s top rated shoes), and read the reviews to find the ones written by people most like yourself. If you’re a wide-footed man with small, delicate feet looking to do 10-20 mile hikes in temperate forests and all the top rated reviews are by women with extremely narrow, calloused feet who’ve only ever gone on 2 mile nature walks in Antarctica, their experiences might not adequately represent your own. Also, look at outdoor gear magazine recommendations (e.g. like those suggested by Backpacker Magazine). When you have a solid 5-10 contenders, head to an outdoor gear store like REI wearing the socks you’d wear for hiking (and ideally after already walking around a fair bit, in case your feet swell substantially during activity) and try your pre-selected pairs on. Be sure to walk around the store a good bit in each pair with your pack loaded and step up and down off of their chairs/benches to simulate real-world hiking.

The shoes shouldn’t feel uncomfortable here (on the trail after several miles they may, though that might be because you need to break them in). How tight they should be is a tricky question — some shoes (especially ones with an all-leather construction) will stretch to accommodate your foot as you break them in, so you might opt for a slightly tighter pair. If you neglected to pre-hike and know your feet swell a lot after 1-20 miles, consider going for a slightly looser pair. Ideally, your shoes should allow for minimal slippage under trail conditions (since slippage = friction =  blisters, or worse: rolled ankles, falls, etc.), but not be so fitted as to restrict bloodflow or be uncomfortable. Luckily, laces can be tightened or loosened to result in a (narrow, but important) range of fits (see below for information on lacing patterns).

Then, when the store manager threatens to kick you out, either buy your top shoes to appease them (REI has a great return policy IIRC, if the shoes aren’t comfy in actual practice), or, if you’re a cheap asshole like me, take note of your favorite model and buy it online for typically much less (newer models can be competetively priced with REI’s regular 20% off coupon though). SierraTradingPost.com has been my favorite site lately for new outdoor gear — they sell the last several years’ stock discounted, and if you sign up for their mailing list, once every few weeks they’ll send you a 40-45% off coupon, so you can usually snag things for 60-80% off MSRP [EDIT: recently they seem to have cut back on their super coupons, with the highest coupon discounts offered skirting, at most, 25%-off with free shipping. Still solid deals though). The people in the shoe section at an outdoor gear store can occasionally be helpful, too (they’ll often have some outdoor experience themselves, if not always a lot), so you might benefit from asking them for advice. But if you take up a lot of their time, OFC consider buying something from the store.

Additionally, I’d recommend a proactive approach to blister prevention (if I anticipate getting any, I’ll pretape blister-prone spots with leukotape on the flats and micropore on the toes, which has worked great so far. You can see more good recommendations here). I’d also advise that you pick up some orthotic inserts – if you know your specific foot requirements (e.g. high arches), you can get a pair intended to accommodate them, or you can get some custom fit ones (I have some you put in the oven for 10 minutes and then wear cold so they mold to your feet). If you want to go all out, a podiatrist can make you some for a few hundred $, but the $20-$30 options on amazon have worked well for me.

Some lightweight gaiters might also be useful — not the waterproof sort (though in some conditions those are invaluable), but the breathable cloth ones. I use the “Dirty Girls” brand, and they’re great for preventing dirt and sand and stuff from getting in your shoes (esp. if you’re wearing shorts), which is also important for maintaining clean feet and preventing blisters. You can also look into “sock systems” and sock liners and stuff, though I personally don’t use them (my feet get too hot and I don’t get blisters with the aforementioned prep). For socks generically, though, I really like Costco’s Men’s Trail Socks for the price (the smalls fit Kate, and I think the men’s fiber composition is nicer than the women’s specific one), though they’re definitely too thick for the summer. You want to match the thickness of your sock and shoe to weather requirements, because hot, sweaty feet are not only uncomfortable but can accelerate blister formation.

Ooh, and crocs make for my favorite middle-weight camp and river-crossing shoes, and hiking poles might be worth looking into too (they’ve saved my butt a few times on steep, slippery descents; Costco again carries some good, inexpensive carbon-fiber ones).

Once you have some shoes and have worn them for a while, consider further customizing lacing pattern to suit your personal needs. There are many ways to tie shoelaces that can help alleviate foot problems experienced while hiking. Here are a few (from Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition):

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All in all there’s a fair bit to consider, but perfect’s still the enemy of good enough, and usually the problems are sufficiently minor to not bother worrying yourself too much. Even if whatever you get is suboptimal, you’ll better know your preferences when it’s time to buy shoes again! Hope that helps and happy trails!

(side note: afaik there have been some basic attempts to evaluate the influence of shoe selection on injury, but I’m hesitant in interpreting their results without access to the raw data with which to perform my own analysis)

DXA Scan Results

In December 2015 I got a DXA scan to get a sense of body composition during my first ever intentional cut (or perhaps it was my second ever if you count my experimenting with keto under a deficit in college). It was fairly inexpensive — I did it through BodySpec’s West LA location for $42.50. The whole procedure took about 10 minutes, plus another 10 to chat with the technician. Interpreting the results is a little iffy without knowing how they arrived at some of their numbers and conclusions*, but it’s still useful and interesting information to have.

Here are the scan results:

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And for reference, here are some derpy scantily clad photos of myself a couple days after getting the DXA scan. The first is me in a gym locker room before going for a swim:

i0hqtfwAnd here’s Kate lifting me up during that swim (with legs visible):2015-12-28 11.41.25.jpg
and a (flexed) leg-shot:Legs.jpg
and a (flexed) back-shot:
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UPDATE: Here’s a couple of “progress photos” from 1y later, by which I mean almost nothing changed (aside from my haircut). 2016 was pretty busy for me so I didn’t have much time for exercise. Oh well!

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Diet and Exercise information

Diet: Mostly lacto-vegetarian. I’ll usually have some protein powder in my coffee in the morning, and once or twice a year I’ll eat a small piece of meat or a cookie with an egg in it or something. I don’t really track calories. I do take some basic dietary supplements, however (protein powder in coffee, creatine, multivitamin, omega-3s, etc.).

Exercise: I engage in resistance training 2-3 times a week except when traveling, or when I’m really busy, or when I’m focusing on some other athletic goals. I’ve no real set routine, at least not consistently, but depending on the lift and how I feel I’ll follow something like 5/3/1 or 5×5 for a time. Currently nursing some back and shoulder injuries (from lifting and snowboarding) so lifts aren’t too hot — around 225×5 for bench, 245×5 for front squats, and 365×5 for deadlifts. Hopefully I can heal up quickly and get back into the 3/4/5 plate range (for the big 3). I can do around 20 unweighted pullups, too, and Bulgarian split squat around 220 lbs (with DBs). I also walk 5-10 miles a day and go on 10-20 mile hikes on the weekends, and occasionally backpack for 1-10 weeks at a time. Sometimes I’ll do other athletic-y stuff too (e.g. climbing, watersports, dancing, slacklining, etc.). Been lifting on and off for the past 6ish years, and did tons of trailrunning before then. Recently, I’ve been trying to get back in to running, with my current target a comfortable sub-5 minute mile. Right now my mile time is in the high 5s and I’m pretty pooped after.

Overall, the DXA scan estimated my body composition to be around 15% fat by weight. This is around where I expected it to be and in line with caliper estimates (which are well known to underestimate bodyfat, putting me around 11-12%). My current goals are to lose another ~10 lbs or so and lean out my midsection a bit, with a target DXA BF% of around ~12%. My bone density is good for my age demographic, which was expected given the fairly active lifestyle I lead. It’s also nice to see that my right and left appendages appear fairly balanced in total muscle amount. My A/G ratio and VAT could be better, but probably aren’t worth worrying about too much. My Total Mass was estimated/measured to be 191 lbs, but my weight can vary between 170 and 220 lbs depending on what I’ve been doing (if I’m backpacking it plummets, if I’m bulking and lifting it shoots up).

*Some questions I had but am still a little unclear on include:

  • The scan gives point estimates for all the measurements, but what’s the uncertainty about those estimates? The tech who chatted with me mentioned an interval of +/- 1%, and from what I could tell this was the total range of values obtained from a single individual tested multiple times in quick succession. So I guess the test is pretty precise/consistent, but how accurate is it? Systematically, how close to the “true” values are these measurements? He said they calibrate their scanner using blocks of known densities, but how representative are these blocks of the complex, overlapping hodgepodge of materials that is the human body? How much uncertainty is there in the (according to the guy) “algorithms” they use to calculate the estimates from whatever data the scanner picks up? How much variation is there in the values obtained from a single individual across multiple days, levels of hydration, GI contents, etc. (he mentioned they ran the test before and after one of their employees drank a few liters of water and it didn’t change the numbers much, but chugging water quickly seems like it might have different effects from being mildly dehydrated over the course of a week, say).
  • Similarly, how accurate is the “Muscle Balance Report”. Evidently I have about the same amount of lean mass in my right and left legs, but I can do a dozen more pistol squats with my right leg vs my left leg. Is this indicative a muscle imbalance elsewhere or is it just a matter of balance, muscle fiber recruitment, and coordination?
  • According to the guy, an A/G ratio of 1 “unhealthy”. What does health entail here, exactly? Are there sex differences in what the “healthy” range is for men compared to women? He wouldn’t elaborate much (“the results of this test do not constitute medical advice”). Does some A/G ratio X or amount of Android Fat Y correspond to some Z increased risk of heart disease or something for my demographic above some baseline? Since more of my fat is android, losing more fat would presumably lower this ratio.
  • Likewise, if my VAT should be as low as possible, what does a non-zero VAT imply? A smaller person would presumably have a lower amount of VAT, so why isn’t this number adjusted for some function of weight as a proxy for size of organs or something? Or is it the absolute amount that matters? And what are the quantitative health implications of higher bone density?

OkCupid Success Story

I initially created an OKCupid account on a lark my sophomore year of undergrad. I chatted to a few people then — mostly interesting foreigners — and never met with anyone in-person. My hands were full with academics, hobbies, and a fairly robust social life, and I mainly used OKC to read other people’s profiles (how they chose to represent and market themselves was really interesting!), answer questions and quizzes, get occasional ego boosts from unsolicited messages, and refine my own self-presentation. I sporadically browsed the site for a few months, but my curiosity and amusement eventually died down and I deactivated.

Some years passed. I lived abroad, bummed around, wrapped up undergrad, decided to do a PhD, and went to Europe to travel and work on a summer dig. Upon my return, I’d be moving to a new part of the country and was brainstorming ways to meet people when I remembered OKC. Touching down in the US, I reactivated my account, asked a friend for feedback, updated a few details, and was ready to go! Messages came trickling in, and I sent a few to interesting-seeming people myself. 4 days back stateside, I’d made the long drive to my new home, interviewed a bunch of prospective roommates, utterly failed to overcome jetlag, bought some kitchen supplies, and messaged Kate with a dorky compliment on her lifting form and a link to Dave Tate’s “So You Think You Can…” series. We clicked instantly, and where all my other conversations had ended with tepid boredom after a dozen messages, we exchanged 50+ — each a few paragraphs long — over the next 2 days (later on, she’d recall my profile as “confusing, pretentious, and intriguing”, which, to be fair, describes me pretty damn well). At first we agreed to meet for coffee, but after exchanging a couple dozen more messages we upgraded to dancing, which led to a long walk and a few hours of conversation over late night frozen yogurt. This was to be our first “date” (at the time, she was looking for “new friends (only)” and I for all the options available, so it took me until “date” 3 to realize we were actually dating, and not just having friendly outings and lively conversations. It turns out she’d unwittingly made that selection when filling out her profile, and had indeed been on a few OKC dates since joining the site some months before).

We hit it off like gangbusters and agreed to meet again that Saturday for a long day of hiking, wine tasting, and food, and then again the following Wednesday for a corn maze, picnic dinner, and meteor shower. Cuddling out in a field on a blanket that Wednesday, I reflected on our physical proximity and my own habitual obliviousness (weren’t we walking arm-in-arm at the wineries? hand-in-hand in the labyrinth?) and realized her intentions toward me were more than just friendly. Dropping her off that night, I lifted her up against my car and we kissed for the first time.

The next few months blurred by. Tuesdays, I would make her dinner at my flat and she’d spend the night. Fridays, she’d make me dinner and the following day we’d drive a few hours to nearby towns, cities, canyons,mountains, forests, lakes, deserts, oceans, etc. for a day of exploration and fun. We’d talk for a dozen hours straight, both on topics that emerged naturally and on those provided by various books of questions and thought experiments (highly recommended! We’ve gone through a bunch of them, and while some were duds many were great! We’ve especially enjoyed those written by Gregory Stock, though occasionally his can be goofy or weird), and our conversations were always pleasurable, insightful, and easy. The next day, we’d hit the gym, do chores, get groceries, work a bit, and relax, all to longer postpone our inevitable separation Sunday night.

She spent a week (and got along swimmingly) with my family that winter (we’re all from Russia and some of my relatives don’t speak English, so communication was mostly gestural, but Kate’s since made good progress learning the language!). The following spring, I introduced her to one of my favorite hobbies – backpacking. Though a fairly avid hiker, she’d never spent longer than a night in the wilderness, and after getting gear squared away we began going on 2-3 night trips in preparation for a summer hike that had long been on my bucket list – the John Muir Trail (JMT). As our permit dates grew closer, I recognized more and more that this was the person I wanted to spend my life with, the partner I’d been hoping to find over many years of relatively casual dating. Not only was she exceedingly kind and adventurous, but also a fantastic conversationalist, wickedly smart (she’s a superstar graduate researcher with a fellowship valued at ~1M USD in an extremely competitive, world-renowned dual-doctoral-degree program, has written a few books, etc. I could brag about her all day!), funny and mischievous as hell, unbelievably sexy, and had similar hobbies and interests (including but not limited to various outdoorsy stuff, travel and tourism, sci-fi and fantasy, cooking and baking,foraging food to cook or can, singing and dancing, creating marvelous works of art, books, anime, biking and bikepacking, potlucks and parties, board games and video games, human and animal welfare, navel-gazing, exercise, science, the list goes on…). She pushes me to be a better person, and our relationship is founded on the basis of mutual adoration, support, and respect. So marriage was not a difficult topic to broach, and sooner or later we were looking through thousands of engagement rings (with repetition and across a few months, to account for intra-observer variability) and discussing long term plans. We also moved in together at some point here, but our weekend activities didn’t change (and still haven’t! But we no longer have to part ways on Sundays!).

We embarked SOBO on the JMTthat summer, and having discussed our preferences for the proposal itself some months prior, I’d decided to pop the question at the southern terminus of the trail — Mt. Whitney. Unfortunately, Kate took a pair of nasty falls that left her knees in intense pain 30 miles from our next resupply point. A few days of tears and agony later, she’d hobbled back to civilization, where we hitched some rides outta there and back to our car in Yosemite. Having told our PIs we’d be gone for a 3 weeks, we figured to make the most of it and went road-tripping, and after a particularly delightful morning of freshly baked goods, painless knees, and breezy parks, I sat down beside her on our motel bed as we were packing up, withdrew the engraved wooden box (stuffed in a sock, wrapped in a ziplock, stuffed in another sock, and wrapped in a waterproof bag with the words “SECRET BAG NO KATE ALLOWED” sharpied on it) I’d been carrying in my backpack those past few weeks, and handed her the ring we’d chosen together.

A few months later our small family grew by one as we inherited an Italian Greyhound rescued by my mum half a decade ago. He’s a hardy fellow – his favorite things are long walks, pissing, treats, cuddles, naps, and acting far too cool for school, in that order, and he easily outpaces us on our 10-20 mile jaunts most Saturdays. We’re having a very small wedding ceremony this upcoming December (in my mum’s backyard), and backpacking around the British Isles and Iceland next summer for a honeymoon (and a few smaller weekend-to-week-long trips later this fall, during winter and spring breaks, etc.). We’re in school for another ~four years (me finishing up my degree and she her two), and though it doesn’t pay super well — by real life standards, at least — we live pretty frugally and so can save/invest a good third of it, give a decent fraction to assorted charities, and still go on tons of weekend and holiday trips. After grad school I’ll probably end up following her, since she’ll be way more desirable by employers and needs a shit-ton of lab equipment where I’m doing computational biostats-y stuff and really only need a computer. We’ll probably have a kid in 5-10 years, though whether we make one from scratch or adopt is still undecided. Overall, the future’s very bright and I’m happier than I’ve ever been!

(Header Photocredit: Bon Miller)

Wedding Vows

Kate and I were married recently! Here’s a transcript of our wedding vows:

My Vows:

“Kate,

You are my best friend. When I first saw you years ago, I never thought I’d be meeting someone simultaneously so kind, interesting, intelligent, sexy, funny, and adventurous, and yet here you are. You occupy a lonely corner in the multivariate distribution of what I value in a partner. From our day-long conversations each Saturday as we explore places old and new, to cuddling up in bed watching movies, playing games, and reading books, every moment we spend together is special. I admire you for your perseverance in the face of adversity, your diligence in work and exercise, and the care and compassion you show both me and others, even when your own spirits are low. The many examples you set help me grow as a person and inspire me to be the best I can be.

I love you tremendously and enjoy our time together tremendously, and so am committing myself in marriage to you now. Speaking mostly metaphorically, I promise to walk forever by your side, hand-in-hand, except of course when it’s hot out and your hand is really sweaty, to carry the extra load when you’re tired and hurting, to rub your feet, legs, and back when they are sore, to help you up when the path gets steep or rocky, to film your squat and spot your bench, to cuddle you every night and morning, to hold you when you cry, spoon you when you sleep, and laugh with you when you fart, to nag you about proper dental hygiene and skin care, to remind you to take in the views every so often, and to protect you from scary coyotes and rabid squirrels. Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of promises, but you get the gist. Statistically, we’re not absolutely perfect for each other. But we’re damn well perfect enough, so I pledge to you my heart, my life, my devotion, and my love, with the stars above and our friends and families gathered here today as witness.”

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Kate’s Vows:

“When you first met me I may have seemed happy but I was lost and alone, but then you came into my life and suddenly there was this excitement in every adventure we went on, every conversation we had, and every touch we shared. You brought joy back into my life.

You inspire me to be a better person every day. So while I can’t promise to be perfect, or to never let my emotions get the best of me, I can promise to be the strongest, kindest, most generous version of myself. A version I didn’t even know existed, a version you helped me find, because you are my North Star. No matter how dark and wrong the world feels, I know that being with you will always be right.

You are the only person I want to challenge and frustrate me, the only companion I want on any adventure, the only hand I want to hold when I am sad, the only face I want to see when I wake up. So this is me telling the world, I choose you, knowing who you are today and trusting who you will become, as the person with whom I will spend my life.”

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(Photocredit: Bon Miller)