Livin’ The Infantry Dream: Or, How to NOT Cripple Yourself Before the Age of 25. A Brief Treatise on Boot Selection and Foot Care for Security Patrolling in UW Environments
The gentlemen at WRSA posted a very good introduction to basic foot care from a reader recently, at the following post:
While there is a great deal of wisdom in both the original post and some of the comments, I’m going to take the opportunity to add to the conversation, based on my personal experiences, growing up in the Ranger Regiment in the early ’90s, walking my way through SFAS, and hiking more miles than I care to count, both as a SF soldier, and on my own time, having hiked a large chunk of the Appalachian Trail, almost half of the CDT, as well as various back country solo treks throughout the western US and Alaska.
I was sitting at the PX at Ft. Wainwright in Alaska once, while on leave, waiting for a cab to show up to drive me and my heavy-ass Dana Designs ruck to the front gate of post, where I was getting ready to pull a two-week solo trek in the Bush. An unidentified Sergeant-Major was walking out and stopped and looked at me sitting there, on my ruck, stuffing my lip with Copenhagen, as I waited for the taxi.
“Hey, Sergeant, what’s your unit?” he asked.
“XX Group, Sergeant-Major,” I responded, far too casually, for being on an infantry post, since I didn’t even bother standing, let alone standing at parade rest.
“Can I ask you a question then?” his curiosity obviously outweighed any concerns for my apparent lack of military decorum. “You hump a ruck for a living, and now, you’re doing it for fun on your own time? Are you fucking nuts?”
It could be conceivably argued, if I were willing to sit down and do the math, that I’ve walked well over a quarter-million miles with a rucksack on, and it’s probably over the half-million mark. The argument could be made that, with only post-Vietnam deployments to my credit, any private with one year on Vietnam had more combat experience than I do. It can certainly be said that LOTS of guys in USASOC with multiple deployments between OEF and OIF have more combat experience than I do. I’d be hard pressed to be convinced that anyone has more experience walking around with heavy shit on their back than I do.
Boot Selection 101
To start with, this:
from 2008, is an abortion of an idea. Even if that pull-on over boot thing in the photo is insulated, it doesn’t strike me that it would do a whole hell of a lot of good at keeping snow out of the space between the insulating outer shell and the intermediate/temperate weather boot. Here’s a science 101 lesson: If the cold stuff is inside of the insulation, it doesn’t work really well (granted, based on one photo, I could be misinterpreting the picture.).
The WRSA reader, QuietMan, adds the comment that,
“In the 80′s, the Ranger Battalions came up with something similar, and more readily available.“
I didn’t serve in the Ranger Regiment in the ’80s. I was just starting high school when they jumped into Panama. I did serve in the Regiment in the early ’90s though, when the Regimental SOP (RSOP) still mandated that we wore jungle boots for pretty much everything that didn’t involve wearing Class As. I’ve worn jungle boots in the desert, I’ve worn jungle boots in the swamps. I’ve worn jungle boots in the snow. I’ve even worn jungle boots in the jungle, of all the strange places to wear jungle boots….
I had one particular pair of jungle boots that survived 10 different re-sole jobs at the boot shop. I wore them in RIP. I wore them to Suck School. I wore them to Selection. I wore them through the Q. I wore them on deployments both at the Ranger Regiment and at Group. I LOVED those boots. After the second set of soles, they felt like sneakers on my feet. They were AMAZING!!!! (And yes, to preface the inevitable question, they were the older green canvas, not the shitty black canvas type!)
When I deployed to Afghanistan, my bags were packed with two pairs of jungle boots (one of them being THAT pair of “lucky” jungle boots), a set of Gore-Tex insulated Danners, a pair of USGI desert boots, and two pairs of civilian hiking boots, one a pair of Asolos, the other a pair of Vasques.
With the exception of one mission that required extreme cold-weather survival skills being put into play, due to environmental demands, I wore the jungle boots for one single mission, and the only other boots I wore the entire deployment, outside of the wire, were either the Asolos or the Vasques.
My lucky jungle boots died an honorable death, befitting old warriors, several months after my return from the ‘Stan, when they finally split along a crease in the leather toe and the cobbler looked at me like I had a dick growing out of my head when I asked if he could repair it….
Since then, I’ve owned and worn a couple pairs of desert boots, from both Altama and Belleville. I’ve got boots from both manufacturers stored away in my “Oh shit!” boxes o’ goodies even. The reality however, is, jungle boots, and military boots in general, blow ass for long-term wear, under a heavy ruck, if you value the structural integrity of the joints of your spinal column and lower back.
Reader “Chuck” points out that most after-market combat boots look like they are designed to absorb moisture out of noon desert air and fall apart at the drop of a hat. He’s right. I’ve known guys on ODAs who wanted to wear the cool-guy SWAT-type boots, and they generally fall apart quicker than a two dollar pistol in a real gunfight.
Finally, I have to give a nod to the “Old Gray Haired Hiker,” because he’s spot on. Yes, jungle boots or the older all-leather desert boots will last longer than the newer sport boot-based SWAT/DELTA/SEAL/NINJA/Commando boots. The reality is though, they suck. They’re piss-poor for maintaining good health in your feet.
You’re better off looking at what the dudes and dudettes through-hiking the AT, CDT, and PCT are wearing for boots. Sure, they’re going for the ultra-light backpacking thing, but here’s the rub, their ultra-light backpacking motif, when you factor in food and water, is still plenty heavy, and the civilian mode boots will last. I’m hard as fuck on boots. In fact, the only piece of my gear that probably gets more mis-treated than my rifle, is my footwear. I wear the same boots, day-in and day-out, through creeks and rivers, across sandy, sage-brush deserts, and dry-pine needle-strewn forest floors, as well as down concrete sidewalks and when driving long distances. I’ve been wearing a pair of Keens boots now for well over a year and they’re still holding together, without even needing to be re-soled. I’ve got a pair of Vasques in my go-to-war kit bag that I wore for a year before stashing them in the bag, with the confident knowledge that they’ve got another year or two of work in them, easily.
The sad reality is, when you start talking to old paratroopers, Rangers, and SF guys, who retired after 20+ years, rather than taking the easy way out like I did, and doing one or two enlistments, they’ll be the first to tell you, military boots will cripple you in the long-run. From guys who have compression fractures that never healed properly in their spine, to guys who’ve had to have their knees or ankles completely re-built, the military builds boots that are hell-for-tough, but the longevity of the wearer is seldom a design parameter.
My recommendations for boots include:
- Keens. These are a relatively new brand. When a former Civil Affairs buddy showed me his and asked my opinion, I was ambivalent at best. I tend to not trust critical gear if I’ve never tested it, nor known anyone who had put it through the ringer, regardless of how comfortable it it. I found a pair at a local thrift store, still with the original store tags on it (thank God for living in the Rockies, where people buy cool outdoor gear on a whim that they never use), for a lousy $10. At that price, even if they sucked, I wouldn’t be out much, so I grabbed them. As I mentioned, I’ve been wearing the hell out of them for quite some time now, and they’re none the worse for wear. They’re also quite possibly, the most comfortable boots I’ve ever worn.
- Vasques. I wore Vasques, as I mentioned, in the ‘Stan, as well as on several long-distance solo personal trips. I love them, and for the price point, really can’t recommend them highly enough.
- Asolos. The other civilian hiking boot brand I have a lot of experience with. These bad-mama-jamas are worth the price, but the price can be kind of high, last time I priced them.
- Belleville Desert Boots. Of all the currently available .mil boots available, these ones are my favorites. I’ve worn them more than a little bit, both in my personal training, daily life, and in classes, with little complaint, beyond the typical, “they’re military-issue boots, and thus not very comfortable.”
- Original Altama Jungle Boots (with the green canvas). I don’t recall the last time I saw a pair of these for sale. While they’re pretty far down the list, my old “lucky jungle boots” do still hold a soft spot of nostalgia in my heart, so if I came across a pair, I’d probably buy the bastards, just for old time’s sake.
As several readers commented on the article, the real secret to boot selection is less what boot to wear (after all, G’s have been surviving and thriving for the last fifty-plus years wearing canvas sneakers and truck tire sandals, instead of combat-designed boots), than how you wear them, and what kind of preventive maintenance you’re willing to do to keep your feet healthy.
In the ever-present interest of intellectual honesty, I feel obligated to mention that a student in a class recently asked me about this, specifically what my personal routine for foot care was. As I answered them, “I don’t have one. I recommend certain things, but my feet are so far beyond fucked up, that I honestly don’t bother, beyond trying to remember to change my socks every couple of days.” With that caveat in mind, here are my recommendations on foot care, predicated on what helped me develop the kind of fucked-up feet that don’t really need a lot of foot care to stay healthy…
- Wear your boots. Seriously. Learn to live in your boots. Obviously, if you were a suit to work, throwing your Asolos or Keens or jungle boots on isn’t going to be much of a realistic option at work. If you wear anything other than a tie and jacket though? Start wearing your boots to work and play in. If you do wear a suit, wear your boots anytime you’re not at work. The only time I don’t wear my boots is when I’m wearing my Tevas, and that’s generally only in summer (and I’ve done backpacking trips in Tevas, so…….).
- Pick good, wool socks, and wear them religiously. I honestly don’t believe that, within reason, the brand name matters much. I’ve worn SmartWools, and had them develop holes in less than one day. I’ve worn cheap-o wool socks that Christ alone knows where I got them, and had them last weeks. The best socks I’ve found, for longevity, are the Carhartt brand wool socks that I picked up at the local feed and farm outlet store. I had one pair of them for over two years before they finally fell apart.
- Sock Liners. I don’t have a legit opinion on sock liners, or Gore-Tex over-socks. I’ve tried both, in their specific applications. As far as sock liners, I tried some poly sock liners, specifically marketed to long-distance backpackers, and didn’t notice much benefit from them. No, I didn’t develop any blisters, but I hadn’t had a blister in seven or eight years by that point anyway. If you wear decent wool socks, change them whenever you get the chance, and lace your boots up snug (not tight) enough to keep the boots on, I don’t personally feel the sock liners are necessary.
- Gore-Tex Over-Socks. I knew a lot of guys who brought these to the ‘Stan with them, and swore by their value. I fucking hate them. They make my feet sweat, worse than they do without the over-socks on, and as soon as you step into a creek or river, the water pours in the top, just like it does into the top of a “waterproof” boot, and they do not, contrary to the advertiser’s claims, sweat out the moisture fast enough to be worth a shit.
- Have lots of dry, clean socks. I hate seeing guys, in the military, or in the civilian backpacking world, with lots of shit just strapped to the outside of their rucks, looking like an old Gypsy peddler plying his trade. It looks unprofessional, like they couldn’t be bothered to pack their rucks with any forethought, and it makes me worry that they’re going to lose some critical piece of gear. The exception I make to this is when I see socks strapped to the outside of the ruck where they can dry out. You probably can’t carry too many pairs of socks, but space and weight restrictions, as well as the necessity to carry lots of other mission-essential shit, sometimes limits what we can carry. I don’t believe there’s any reason to carry less than six pairs of socks. Wear one pair until it’s wet, then strap it to the outside of the ruck to dry, while you wear the next pair. Repeat as necessary, until you’re down to wearing the dirty, but dry ones again. Clean, dry socks are ideal, but dirty, dry socks are better than dirty, wet socks. At worst, you can beat some of the dirt and sweat salt out of them.
- Use foot powder. Antiperspirant, talcum-based foot powder, baby powder, it really doesn’t matter. You’re just trying to get something on your feet that will help absorb the moisture of sweat to keep your feet and socks dry longer. I honestly, do not remember the last time I used foot powder.
- Take care of your feet. From the WRSA comments: “I’ve seen guys lose half the skin on their foot from long foot marches (literally flaps of skin hanging off or blood leaking from their boots) but you typically don’t see that kind of damage from patrolling.”I’ve actually been that guy. On a ruck march as a junior NCO once, I got to the stop point and pulled my boots off, to reveal that you could see the bloody muscle tissue and bone on the ball of one of my feet. I’d felt the blister develop, and felt it pop. I even felt the blood, but just figured it was blister fluid. Another NCO, from another team, looked at it and declared I was an idiot and now combat-ineffective, because I wasn’t fit to fight. While he was probably correct (at least on the idiot part), he backed down when I laced my boot back up, rucked up, and asked if he wanted to walk back with me…. Don’t do stupid shit. If you feel a blister forming, especially during conditioning hikes, take the time to stop and dress the hot spot. Moleskin, 100MPH tape, whatever is going to work for you, just dress the hot spot before it becomes a wound. As a drill sergeant at Sand Hill pointed out to a group of very avid aspiring infantrymen once upon a time, (albeit in a different context) “An infantryman without the use of his feet and legs is pretty fucking useless.“
- Start conditioning your feet. The only way to condition your feet to survive humping a heavy ruck is….to hump a heavy ruck. So, figure out what weight you can carry, right now, for a couple of miles, and go carry it. Then, add weight, or miles, then the other, and increase your speed.
The Ruck-Conditioning Program
The following program is one I recommend to people who’ve never humped a ruck before, or have only carried a very light load for day hikes.
Start your program with a paltry 25-lb rucksack. If that’s too much, I suppose you could drop the weight to 10-lbs, but in the meantime, I’d suggest seeing your gynecologist for testosterone injections as well…..
Take the 25-lb rucksack out and go walk two miles. Time yourself for the two miles. Repeat, once a week, in addition to your normal running or sprinting PT, until you can do the two miles in 30 minutes or less. Then, double the distance until you are doing four miles in 60 minutes.
At that point, add weight to the ruck, up to 35 pounds, and continue the four mile hikes, until you can do them in the 60 minute time limit. Then, step the weight up to 45-lbs, and repeat. Continue at the four mile distance, with the 60 minute goal, until you’re doing that with 65 lbs.
Once you can do four miles, in 60 minutes, with 65 lbs on your back, add a mile, and continue pushing for the 60 minute time limit. That’s “Checkpoint #1.” If you can do a 12-minute mile for five miles, with 65 lbs on your back, you’re light years ahead of most people. Once you’ve accomplished that, keep trying to exceed the standards though. Push on to doing eight miles in two hours. Then, push to doing eight miles in 1:30.
I believe your goal should ultimately be:
12 miles in 2.5 hours, with 65+ pounds. I’d like to see people pushing the two hour time limit, with 75 lbs or more, but I’d offer that the 12 miles, 2.5 hours, 65+ pounds will put you light years beyond what most people in the military, let alone in the preparedness world, will ever achieve, or even bother trying to achieve.