Hiking Tip # 3: Personal Safety, Risk Mitigation, and Traveling in Foreign Countries

January 28, 2017

uspassportrenewalsThe following story was chronicled on television recently and the full article on the tragic story of Aubrey Sacco’s disappearance in Nepal while hiking can be read at the following link:

http://www.backpacker.com/gone-girl-aubrey-saccos-disappearance-hiking-in-nepal/destinations/18334

The key safety lesson from Aubrey’s story is never go hiking in a foreign country with someone that you do not know in a high-risk location.  Practicing good personal protective measures and risk mitigation while hiking in a foreign country is necessary.  Aurbrey’s story reinforces the fact that American women are lucrative targets for kidnapping in foreign countries.  Therefore, if you decide to go on a hiking expedition in a foreign country with some friends, you should always be out on the trail with a partner from your group (a.k.a. a Battle Buddy, as the US Army calls them).  You should be wise about who you choose to be your hiking partner if it is only the two of you going out on the trail.

Another safety recommendation by experts is to have a communication plan. Before, you go on your hiking adventure, always have a plan to communicate with others on pre-determined times. For example, you agree to call your family or friends every two to three hours during the hike and once a day when not out on the trail. You should also have several ways to communicate (e.g. cell phone, text messaging, email, skype, etc.).  If you can afford one and the data plan to go with it, I would recommend that you take with you a satellite phone into a foreign country. That way if you have an emergency while hiking in a foreign country and have no cell phone coverage, you can still communicate with the local US Embassy or Consulate or with your family or friends in the United States who can assist on your behalf.

In regards to communication in a foreign country, always have the emergency number to the closest U.S Embassy or Consulate in the area you are going hiking. All United States Consulates and Embassies have a Unites States Marine Corps watch desk that is manned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Keep their contact number on you and in your phone at all times and do not hesitate to call them if you need to get to the US Embassy or Consulate in an emergency.

Another safety consideration to remember is never give up your US Passport to anyone in a foreign country. Upon entry into a foreign country, the customs officials may take your passport for a few minutes to stamp it, but most foreign customs officials will return your passport.  If a customs official, law enforcement officer, military member, hotel clerk, or private citizen of a foreign country attempts to confiscate your passport, do not give it up.  Immediately make your way to the nearest US Consulate or Embassy for protection and report the incident.  Then as soon as possible, leave the country.

As we are discussing travel in a foreign country, always heed the Official Warnings published by the US State Department, even if one is published after you arrive in a particular country. Do not travel to countries where there is an active civil war going on or there are open hostile feelings towards Americans. I realize that there is a whole world of things to see and do in many countries of the world.  However, if you decide to travel in a country that has an Official Travel Warning published against it by US State Department, you are traveling at your own risk. Do not tempt fate at the expense of having a good time and broadening your cultural horizons. You may regret that decision later and cause your family and friends unnecessary worry or grief.

If you are planning to travel to a particular country, learn as much as you can about that country and its laws before you leave the United States. BBC News online is a great resource to learn about different countries and the latest news coming out of those countries. If it looks like the country of choice for your travels is going to slip into turmoil, cancel your plans to travel to that country.

The next safety and risk mitigation factor is to try to learn about the laws and social nuances of the country in which you plan to travel and hike.  For example, is it a law that hotels must keep the passports of foreigners at the front desk? Is it a law that one must dress a certain way? As a foreigner, are you libel for any accidental harm to local nationals or their property (e.g. in a vehicle accident)? In speaking of driving, memorize the international road sign symbols of the particular country you will be travelling in. Understand that you are in a foreign country and not in the United States, so law enforcement, liabilities, and legal procedures are not probably going to be in your favor. If the police in a foreign country detain you, you may be there awhile.  There is no such thing as due process and Miranda Rights in many countries and you are guilty until proven innocent. So be informed, be aware, and be careful.

Food and drinks in a foreign country can be a risk.  While in a foreign country, try not accept food or drinks from questionable origins. Many drugs are slipped to people through food and drinks (e.g. accepting an alcoholic beverage from someone that you did not see pour or prepare the drink). In some countries, standards for food preparation and handling are not the same as in the United States. This makes eating the local food a potential health risk. So be careful what you eat and where you eat.

When travelling in cities, do not go down alleys and streets that are not on your planned route. Understand where the high crime areas are and avoid them at all costs.

In closing, I have traveled in many different countries.  You can have fun and enjoy yourself in foreign countries.  Be smart, be wise, have a plan, and if it is against the law in America it is probably against the law in a foreign country. If you mind your business, and keep a low profile, you will find your time in a foreign country to memorable and enjoyable. Do not be reckless, foolish, or provocative and you will return to the United States with a mental backpack full of hiking memories and not regret.

Take care, have fun.

See you on the trail!

 

Hiking Tip # 2- Footwear

January 28, 2017

vasque-mens-breeze-gtx-hiking-bootOver the years of my US Army experience, I have had a constant battle to find the best fitting boot. Equally, I have had a hard time winning the war against blisters while on long marches. In my hiking endeavors, I have learned that footwear and blisters are a continuing saga. Because of my troubles, I have developed heal spurs and chronic plantar fasciitis. I have gleaned some practical wisdom in this particular area.  Therefore, I would like to share some of my tips regarding footwear.

The Hiking Boot:

Properly fitting footwear is critical to having a pleasant experience while out on the trail. Granted that most of you will not be lugging around a heavy military rucksack, thus, the wear and tear on your feet should not be as dramatic. As a small man at 64”, my feet can fit into a men’s 6.5 wide military issue boot and the men’s 6.5 wide Altama® Jungle Boot. I also can wear comfortably the men’s size 7, Danner® TFX military boot, and the men’s size 7 Matterhorn® military boot.  The US Army has lost the art of the other essentials to proper fitting footwear—lacing and socks. It has been rather difficult to find commercial hiking boots in the sizes that I require, but it is possible to find them.

One thing that I have learned about boots, that will see a lot of time in the field, is the importance of breaking them in. Boots that fit snug when you try them on in the store will loosen up after a few days weeks in the field. The more uneven and rough the terrain, the more quickly the boot will lose its stiff and snug fit. Humidity, sweat, and wetness will also be factors in how your boot will “break in”.  There are many different techniques to breaking in a new pair of hiking boots.  We will not outline them here, except to say, that the one most often heard is “soaking” the boot. This, however, only works with an all leather (not suede) boots with removable insoles. The military issue all-leather Altama® boot can be done this way, but most reading this article are not going to buy a boot such as this. By the way, I have experimented with this technique and it is not as effective as claimed, so I do not recommend it. With commercial hiking boots with Teflon or Teflon/Leather combination material, breaking them in will require just wearing them for a couple of days or weeks as your primary footwear.

Another factor concerning breaking in the hiking boot is whether it has a Gore-Tex® liner[1]. When you try Gore-Tex® boots on, your feet feel very snug in them. However, over time that “padded” feeling tends to lessen with the use of the boot. There are several reasons for this. First, Gore-Tex® does not have an extensively long lifecycle. Second, the principle material in Gore-Tex, latex[2], will lose its elasticity and other properties over time. Improper care of these type of boots will hasten this process also.  For example, the Gore-Tex liner in the two pairs of Matterhorn boots that I owned while serving in the US Army, lost their moisture wicking and heat retention properties after about 18 months of continuous use. While the sweat from my feet was still being drawn away from my socks and into the liner, in cold weather, the water retained in the Gore-Tex liner became cold and the cold was transferred back to my feet, thus defeating the reason that I bought them to begin with. I have noticed this same problem with my Gore-Tex lined Danner TFX boots as well. The Gore-Tex lined boots break in more quickly than an all-leather boot and do not require as much maintenance, but their fit can be deceiving if you are not experienced with Gore-Tex lined footwear.

Another factor in breaking in new hiking boots is discovered when lacing them up. Boots that have Gore-Tex liners will tend to lace up with a wider gap between each line of eyelets when new. Over time and with use, this gap will decrease between each row of eyelets as the boot material becomes more flexible and you are able to pull the laces tighter for a continuing snug fit.

By contrast, the most comfortable pair of boots that I have worn thus far, have been the all-leather military issue boot produced by Altama®. In the Army, these boots were called “cruit boots”.  I was not fond of these boots either, until I went through Infantry Officer training. However, after much use during the humid summer in Georgia, the leather softened and formed around my foot in a very comfortable manner. With the addition of Spenco® inserts and Vibram® soles, these boots were just as comfortable as my New Balance® Cross-training running shoes. To date, this has been the only boot that really fit me properly. With my growing problem with heel spurs, the Danner TFX boot became the next boot to fit me as good as my all-leather Altamas.  To get a proper fit for your hiking boots, it is best to get them fitted by a knowledgeable person at your favorite outfitter store, such as REI. The links below will help you also.

Another thing to be mindful of about foot wear is the maintenance of your footwear. All-leather boots require much more diligence in keeping them maintained than Teflon material boots. The video links below will provide a good over view on maintenance of footwear. Remember, that boots with Gore-Tex liners cannot be put into clothes dryers after washing. The heat will cause the Gore-Tex liner to break down. You must let Gore-Tex boots air dry. You do this by removing all of the laces and folding out the tongue in order to open up the boot to as much air as possible. If you have a 5 to 8 inch tall boot, then you will need to try to fold down the top of the boot if it is flexible enough. Otherwise, just leave it as is. With Teflon or Teflon/Suede combination material, you can use a stiff, but flexible brush to clean the outside. If your Teflon boots have a Gore-Tex liner, then you can wash them in clear, clean, cold water and let them air dry on your porch or in your washroom.

In caring for all-leather boots (not suede), you can wash them in lukewarm water with a mild dish soap on the outside. Use a soft brush or tooth brush to clean off any excessive dirt. Let them air dry as described above for the Gore-Tex lined boots. You will notice after a while that your leather boots will have some white, chalky residue appearing on the surface of the boot. Do not be alarmed, this is some of the leather salts coming to the surface after being wet. After the boots have dried, you can take saddle soap and clean off the white chalky stuff. If you try to rewash them, you will just get more of the leather salts coming to the surface. Rub the saddle soap into the leather very thoroughly, this includes the boot tongue and seams. After using the saddle soap, you can wipe the boot down with a damp cloth to get the excess soap off. Let the boot sit for a couple hours or for a day to let the soap work its way into the leather. When this process is complete then you can apply the boot polish or, in some cases, mink oil, as a way of waterproofing the boot. However, I have found if your boot leather is not waterproofed already with oils, like the Matterhorn Boot, then a boot polish is the first layer of defense in keeping the leather in top condition. You do not have to polish the boot to a high sheen, put the boot polish is critical in keeping the boot leather from deteriorating. So do not ignore its importance.

As we move on from the hiking boot itself, we will move on to the next important factor in footwear, lacing. I did not understand the importance of proper lacing of the boot until after completing my military career. Lacing is important because properly lacing your boots will reduce foot fatigue, and reduce or eliminate blisters.  Every once and a while, I would notice some Sergeant that would have a unique lacing pattern on his boots. One instance comes to mind, as I witnessed a sergeant with a big gap in the lacing pattern over the crook or bend of this foot. I asked him about it and he told me this was more comfortable to him than the ingrained left-over-right pattern that our Drill Sergeants pushed into our heads.  Since I started hiking, I have come to understand that some lacing patterns are better than others. Since everyone’s feet are different, I cannot recommend a particular lacing pattern here. Like with anything else, you will have to experiment to see which lacing pattern works for you and helps eliminate or reduce blisters on your feet. The video links below can help.

As we move on, let us talk about socks.  Socks are vital to the care and maintenance of your feet. Keeping your feet dry while hiking is important. Getting your feet dry after they have become wet while crossing a stream is equally important. The socks you are wearing are critical to ensuring these two objectives are met. The type of socks you are wearing will also determine whether or not you get blisters.  When it comes to socks, I have not had a good experience with any of them living up to their billings as being blister reducers. On the other hand, keeping my feet dry and warm has been a positive experience with socks. I see the socks and the hiking boot as a unit. Your socks and your hiking boots should be complimentary to each other. Remember, that all things require a little trial-and-error in order to come to the best combination for your feet. So talk to people, talk to experts, and judge the validity of the sock you are wearing on your own experience.

In conclusion, the hiking boot is always a fun and interesting topic to discuss. Remember when it comes to boots and the things related to your boots, what works for you is what is best for you. My feet are not your feet. So have fun with the links below.

See you on the trail!

Fitting Hiking Boots or Shoes

http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/hiking-boots.html

http://www.backcountryedge.com/video-how-to-fit-a-hiking-boot.aspx

Hiking Boot Maintenance and Care

http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/caring-hiking-boots.html

http://www.backcountryedge.com/video-how-to-care-for-hiking-boots-and-shoes.aspx

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h-IR-IrfgQ (Dave Canterbury discusses care of hiking boots)

Lacing Hiking Boots or Shoes

http://www.backcountryedge.com/video-lacing-techniques-for-better-boot-fit.aspx#

http://www.backpacker.com/april_2003_gear_boot_lacing_tips/gear/5245

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cs-5-DkUJiE (REI Instructional Video)

Hiking Boot Socks

http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/backpacking-socks.html

http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/socks.html

http://www.backcountryedge.com/video-choosing-the-right-sock-for-hiking-and-backpacking.aspx

 

[1] http://www.gore-tex.com/remote/Satellite/content/our-fabrics; http://www.gore-tex.com/remote/Satellite/content/footwear-technologies#!

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emulsion_polymerization

 

Hiking Tip # 1: The Survival Knife

January 28, 2017

survival-knife-comparisonIn the beginning of my hiking and backpacking journey, it became clear that there is a definite controversy surrounding “survival” knives. Despite this, everyone seems to agree that a good survival knife is an essential item for backpackers. There are many good resources to access regarding learning about survival knives.  I have experimented with some of the survival-type knives marketed over the years and for me the key word is versatility and practicality when it comes to carrying fixed-blade knives. The defining question on fixed-blade knives is how such a knife will be used in the field. For me, the term “survival” knife is a definition for a purpose or an application of the knife. That means that the intended purpose of the knife is for it to be the one all-purpose knife that you will rely on exclusively in the field to save your life should you get lost or separated from your gear.[1]  Also, you must understand there are many categories of survival: combat/tactical, wilderness, urban, water/sea, jungle, mountain, desert, medical, emergency, etc. There are knives available for each of these survival categories.

Therefore, a person needs to define what kind of use they want to get out of a fixed-blade knife. Is the knife going to be used primarily around the campsite or bivouac to build shelters, process meat, process wood, build snares or traps, cook, etc.? Will the knife be used for hunting, fishing, camping, or self-defense? While serving in the U.S. Army, I found that there is such a thing as having too much knife (i.e. cumbersome and impractical). Lugging a long-blade knife around your waist and the only chance you get to use it is when you open an MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat) is my definition of too much knife. Moreover, there is a big difference between using a knife to survive in a combat environment and using one to get you through the wilderness (i.e. bushcrafting, big game hunting, or a through-hike on the hiking trail). For those who practice wilderness survival and bushcrafting as their primary activity, then the type of fixed-blade knife that they will use and recommend is well defined.  For those less inclined to practice woodsmanship or bushcrafting, then there seems to be more variety of fixed-blade knives from which to choose. To determine what one needs for a survival knife, there are some basic characteristics that are universally accepted by outdoor experts that define a good survival knife.

First, the knife must be full tang. Full Tang means the knife blade and handle tang are formed from a singular piece of steel.  The tang is the part of the knife upon which the handle scales are attached.  The knife tang should extend to the bottom of the handle and not taper into the handle as in a “rat-tail” design.  Some knives marketed as survival knives have a hollow handle molded, bolted, or welded to the blade. This makes the knife vulnerable to cracking and breaking at the joint where the blade and handle meet. When I first learned about this difference, I quickly discovered that you get what you pay for. Most hollow-handle survival knives that are inexpensive fall into this category. However, in recent years, there has been some significant improvements on the hollow-handle knives and some people are starting to recommend them as a useful knife.[2]

The second characteristic of a good survival knife involves blade thickness. A good survival knife needs the blade thickness to be between 3/16 of an inch to 1/4 of an inch. This provides a solid and durable blade that will last if you properly take care of it. Other sources will have additional considerations. However, I found that if you find a knife that meets these first two specifications then the other recommended characteristics for a good survival knife will fall into place.

Some other points of argumentation that one will find in the literature or online concerning survival knives are about the type of metal the blade is made from, the grind of the cutting edge, blade coating, and the edge of the blade spine. Again, this is easily worked out if one has a good idea of what they want the knife to do in the field or on the trail. If you are a hiker or backpacker that likes to do bushcrafting while you are outdoors, then your preference in a survival knife is going to be a bushcrafting knife with all the accepted characteristics (90° blade spine, no serrated edges, Scandinavian grind cutting edge, 5 to 6-inch blade made from 1095 High Carbon Steel with no coatings). If you are a camper or a hiker just out for a couple of hours or spending the night in a prepared bivouac and you are carrying your tent, stove, and food, then there are a variety of options available to you for a good fixed-blade knife.

There is one knife that is the exception to these general considerations.  It is the Morakniv® Bushcraft Survival Knife. Most of the experts agree that this is the best knife to possess if you are on a budget or as a secondary knife in your kit. It is not full-tang and its blade is just under 5 inches; however, it meets the other criteria that bushcrafters and outdoorsman are looking for in a knife. If you are a hiker or backpacker and do not want to spend a lot of money on a knife, but want a good, solid, reliable knife, the experts agree that the Morakniv® Bushcraft series are the best knives.

Finally, a short comment on serrated edges. There is much ado regarding a knife blade with a serrated edge and one without. For me, it is a matter of preference and being able to answer the question that I mentioned earlier, “What is the purpose of your knife”? If you want to cut down on weight in your backpack and are interested in carrying only one knife, then a knife with a serrated edge may be a viable option. The serrated edge provides some versatility with the ability to saw small diameter limbs or materials such as plastic. If you are going to carry a good multi-tool (e.g. Leatherman® Sidekick or Gerber® Diesel), then I do not think you really need a knife with a serrated edge. The multi-tool already gives you the capability to saw things. If you expect to process wood with a saw-type tool, then I would recommend carrying a decent folding limb saw to round out your basic tool needs as a backpacker.[3]

It must be remembered that many of the knives being marketed as survival knives are actually tactical knives designed for military use with some cross over applications in law enforcement. The serrated-edge tactical knives provide soldiers and field medical personnel the ability to cut through MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment) gear and armor plate carriers when rescuing or rendering medical aid to an injured or wounded service member.  Commercial stainless steel fine-edge knives are not as efficient at cutting though military-grade Cordura® material as the Berry Compliant tactical knives with serrated edges. Tactical knives are very attractive and inspire confidence, but they have little application in a non-tactical environment. Additionally, most of these tactical knives have the serrated edge near the hilt of the knife which is the most important cutting surface of the blade for notching other carving and cutting tasks that require more hand dexterity and precision. The tasks become more difficult if you are trying use one of these serrated tactical knives to cut notches in limbs or carve out a slot in a small piece of wood for a trap or fire-making kit. So, consider carefully what you are going to need a survival knife to accomplish before purchasing a knife that looks awesome but is useless to meet your needs.

So, have fun, do some shopping, and once you are settled on the knife that meets your needs, exhaust its use.  See you on the trail!

[1] Dave Canterbury, “Knives JMHO”, Wilderness Outfitters, YouTube®, accessed December 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpNQS6CX7FA&index=2&list=PLZLagqylZ3j4VEKfSuM-2jZrwsh689YSs.

[2] Jack Richland, “Rambo Survival Knife”, Black Scout Survival, YouTube®, accessed December 15, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8YR-YmGFiw.

[3] The basic tool needs for backpackers: fixed-blade knife, folding blade knife, multi-tool, and folding saw; a small camp axe is optional.