What will ruin your next hunt? (Feet Edition)

20180701_170202I am embarrassingly close to making an appointment for a pedicure. I am not usually one to partake in such indulgences, and I think my slight uneasiness with physical contact would restrict me from enjoying it (I’m not a hugger).  But, I would be willing to put all my predispositions aside if it would help me be a better hunter.  There are dozens of ways for your feet to betray you when you’re out on the trail for a week, so you should do what you can to head off those issues before they start.  Pedicures have become a common maintenance technique for professional athletes and other manly types, so I assume I could see some benefit from it as well.  Blisters, calluses, nail issues, and calf-down muscle tightness can be addressed in a 30-minute appointment.  I do suffer from some frequent ingrown toenails, so I’m curious to see what those nail-clippers could do in the hands of a real pro.

So while I go through several iterations of dialing up the local pedicurist and shyly hanging up the phone as soon as they answer, take a minute to read through some of these tips below.

Insoles

I have gone through some minor obsessions with aftermarket insoles.  I don’t know why, but even high-end boots come with a flimsy sliver of foam as the first line of contact for your feet.  For some, this minimal amount of cushion directly underfoot may be enough, but others may want more.  Insoles are pretty cheap when compared to a pair of boots, but they can make a significant difference in the way your boot feels and performs.  They can reduce foot fatigue and keep you going hiker longer.  Generally speaking from experience, as the weight of the boot increases, the need for a more substantial insole increases as well.  With a taller heeled boot, more pressure is going to be transferred to the balls of your feet, which will benefit from more cushion.  I’ve actually found that a little thicker insole can add noticeable insulation to lighter boots, keeping your feet warmer in cold conditions.  After trying out dozens of pairs of insoles looking for something to keep my feet going longer each day, I usually look for an insole with some arch support structure (my feet are generally classified as “normal arch”), medium cushion, and some ability to form-fit to my feet.  Make sure your boot has enough room in the toebox before adding a thicker insole, as crammed toes are not going to make your feet happy.  Take notice of the top surface of the footbed that will be contacting your foot.  Sometimes they can be too silky, and become irritating once your merino wool socks get a little sweaty and start sliding around.  The best bang-for-buck insoles I have found are the Columbia Enduro Soles.  They are thermo-molding, so pop it in the oven at

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Columbia Enduro Soles (Columbia has bought out Montrail)

200 degrees for 2 minutes, throw them in your boots, and slip your foot in for 5 minutes to create a custom foot cast.  I usually wear my hiking boots to the store so I can check fit before I purchase.  You should least take the factory insoles of the boot with you for fit comparison.  Most aftermarket insoles are made to be cut down to fit, and the original insole is usually a perfect template.

Focus on your weak points

Listen to your feet while you’re out in the field.  There was a survey for marathon runners several years ago, where they were asked how they coped with pain while running races.  The survey revealed that the more successful runners did not try to block out nagging pain, but focused on it.  By focusing on it, they were able to make adjustments to their running stride to make sure the discomfort did not become an injury that impacted their race.  Be aware of your body out in the field, and make decisions that are ultimately going to keep you out on the trail.  Be mindful of how your feet perform in the offseason, and make adjustments to ensure they are ready to perform when it counts.

Break-In (For boots and feet)

Wear your boots in the offseason, but don’t wear them out.  I had a buddy that wore his hunting boots all summer for work, only to discover the waterproofing had failed once we got into the backcountry during a snowy, wet September.  Everyone knows that you’ve got to break in your boots.  I like to take new boots, immediately oil them, and wear them laced up moderately loose (The loose lacing will help from pressure points forming between the tongue overlap and your lower shin).  I’ll wear them loose around town for a couple days before tightening them up to break-in in the field.   Depending on the boots, the field break-in period can be a couple days or a couple weeks.  Part of this is getting your boot to flex around your foot, and part of this is getting your foot used to your boot.  It can be subtle, but your foot will “get used” to your boots as well.  If you’re using custom insoles, it can be good to throw them into your everyday shoes for a couple weeks before you plan to be out in your boots.  Ultimately, you want to have confidence in your gear, so try and simulate your activities before you find yourself in a situation where poor boot performance will ruin your hunt.

Don’t let your feet get soft

Do your foot strength conditioning while relaxing.  I used to have discomfort in the joints of my big toes when on hunts where I was hiking off trail in steep terrain.  One day I made the correlation between the pressure points in my toes and the curl of the toes of the slippers and flip-flops that I’d been wearing around the house.  I decided to stop wearing any footwear when I was at home.   I began going barefoot on solid surfaces like wood floors, concrete slab, and laminate.  Big difference made!  It only took a couple weeks until I noticed an improvement in my feet.  I realized I had been making my feet into a couple of major-league wussies while sporting comfort footwear for evenings and weekends.  I guess the bigger point from this small experiment was: My feet could get tougher by adding some moderate minimalism.  I didn’t go wild and begin running marathons barefoot, and I didn’t begin preaching to my friends about how humans were meant to walk without footwear and that modern shoes were changing our musculature and posture.  But, I was wearing silly foot-cushions too much, and I believe it was detrimental to my feet.  More importantly, it was affecting how well I could perform in the woods.

 

What will ruin your next hunt?

A quick overview of things to consider in the offseason.

20180513_125309.jpgAlright, GO!  Lack of preparation, lack of skill, misunderstanding the terrain, misunderstanding your quarry, poor woodsmanship, lack of mental toughness, poor physical conditioning, equipment failure, laziness?  How about several of those problems, to some degree. I like to consider it a “smattering” of inefficiencies, and it’s basically my list of focus points.  Maybe this list of issues could simply fall under the heading of “A Lack of Honest to Oneself”.  I have gone into more than one hunting or backcountry situations (or daily life situations, really) feeling totally prepared, at least until I reached the point where I realized I was totally unprepared.  It can have real consequences, too.  I almost missed out on a great bull on my first backcountry solo hunting trip, simply because I had not given enough consideration to my mental conditioning.  Prior to the hunt, a week without human contact or personal interaction was not something that I expected to have any trouble with.  As it turned out, the solitude was miserable, and I chose to end the hunt a couple days early.  I lucked out by filling my tag the morning I had decided to pull out and head for home.  If it weren’t for luck, all those months of preparation for the hunt may not have added up to much more than a very long and drawn out learning experience.  Prior to that hunt, I had considered myself a rather socially independent and stoic person, but I had to immediately reevaluate my condition.

Preparing for a hunt should be fun (mostly).  But what happens when that sensation of enjoyment gives way to feelings of tedium, or futility, or obligation?  There is a lot of talk of “focus” while on the hunt, but I believe most of the focus begins during the summer well before you head out in the fall.  I’m going to hit on some more specific elements in the next couple weeks, but here are a couple overarching thoughts to put in the old brain bank for next time you’re prepping for the early season.

Know yourself, and be honest with yourself.  Not many people realize this little secret, but the beauty of being honest with yourself… is that it doesn’t require you to be honest with others!  You can still talk a big game to your buddies and partake in all the obligatory self-aggrandizing!  Believe me, this is something I know very well.  But all half-joking aside, it is a lot harder to make improvements if you don’t start with a solid understanding of your own limitations.  Sometimes you have to challenge your own beliefs and self-image to improve.  Truly acknowledging your limitations and weaknesses can be tougher than it sounds.

Aim for skilled balance.  We have a finite amount of time each day, so focus on the weak points that will bring you the most improvement.  Don’t fall into a trap of focusing on one thing and honing it down to perfection, while neglecting other areas.  An example would be archery skills.  I know a lot of guys that want to deck out their equipment to the point where they can stand at the range and shoot a golf ball-sized group at 60 yards, when grouping a paper plate at 60 yards is plenty accurate for hunting deer-sized animals or larger.  If you’re trying to reach perfection, you’ve likely reached a point of diminishing returns, and it may be time to look for other areas where you may have more glaring weaknesses.  Maybe focus on draw hold time, quick shots, shooting while winded, shooting on cross-slopes, or put the bow down and pick up your pack for a scouting trip to the woods.  Focus energy on the weaknesses, and you’ll find more success.

What do you hate to work on?  Do that one first.  I kind of alluded to this a couple times above.  If you find something you enjoy, you’re more likely to strengthen it to the point of unbalance.  Everything needs to fall into place for a successful hunt:  Know where the animals are, be fit enough to get after them, understand how they behave, be able to go through all the steps of an ethical harvest, and have the ability to get back home with the meat.  Lacking ability or knowledge in any of those areas will result in a failure.  If there are areas for you to improve, rank them in the order you want to do them, and complete the list from bottom to top.  This will help you touch all the bases, and also motivates you to complete your least favorite tasks in order to get to the ones you enjoy.

Daydreaming with purpose. I prefer the term ‘daydreaming with purpose’ over ‘visualizing’.  Regardless of what you want to call it, this can really help prepare.  Take some time to focus, and walk yourself through a full day of the hunt.  Imagine the steps you’ll be taking in the field, the experiences you’ll be taking in with all five senses, and especially the challenges you will likely face.  Imaging yourself facing a challenge and calmly addressing it with a confident solution.  You’ll find that you’re actually training your brain for success, and will be less prone to frustration and negative thoughts.