Advice and Tips for Kitting-out the Budding Ecologist - Week #2: Footwear
For the newly qualified ecologist, the prospect of getting yourself ‘kitted-out’ is daunting. Not only does a lack of field experience and contact with other seasoned professionals, present a major barrier to getting access to the right kit, but other factors, such as available budget and shear variety of choice, help to add further confusion and hinder getting the right kit for the right job!! However, help is at hand… Over the years I’ve tried the lot, sometimes I made good decisions and sometimes I didn’t. Over the course of the next four blogs, I’m going to share with you the sum of my 20+ years of survey experience, with an emphasis on getting kitted-out on a budget!
This week looks at footwear... Choosing the correct item and size of footwear is probably the most important decision you will make in terms of your field kit. From a certain point of view, it’s possible to endure being wet or cold, or a combination of both, but an inappropriate and/or ill fitted item of footwear can not only make the difference between comfort and agony, it can also present a credible health and safety risk, especially if you are many kilometres from your mode of transport.
For ecology fieldwork, which in this context excludes construction sites or working in or near water, the choice of footwear largely falls into two camps; walking or hiking boots and wellington boots. First and foremost, size - it does actually matter!! When choosing the size of your boot, it's important to remember that a tight boot will reduce the circulation around your foot, which will lead to cold feet in the winter and sweaty feet in the summer – an unpleasant and undesirable outcome in either event! In direct contrast, a boot that is too big, will lift at the heal, leading to blisters or worse than that, might result in foot instability, which will increase the risk of turning or twisting an ankle.
I have a pair of wellington boots and a pair of walking boots, which I regularly use depending on the known and/or anticipated ground conditions. For me, the critical factor in deciding between hiking or wellington boots is surface water. If I know or think I’m likely to incur standing water or wet ground conditions, that will exceed the height of my walking boots or will result in me spending most of my day with by boots immersed in muddy/peaty water, then I wear wellington boots. It goes without saying that the opposite applies if the ground conditions are dry or when I need better ankle support!
One enhancement I always make to any new pair of boots is the addition of a good, quality insole. Most outdoor shops sell these nowadays, which are tailored to the pitch of your foot i.e. pronated, supinated and neutral pitch. Regardless, it’s important to get an insole that’s the right fit for your foot. If in doubt ask the shop staff and they will be able to advise you further.
When choosing a wellington boot, it’s very important to ensure you have adequate ankle support. This observation is based on my own personal experience, as I find it’s easier to go over on an ankle in wellington boots than in walking boots. Wellington boots come in a variety of styles and fittings, so I’ve always bought mine from a store where I can try them on and get a feel for their fit. Once you’ve identified a pair that’s right for you, then you can always order the next pair on-line with confidence. My wellington boots (from the Wanderer range) are a full-length boot made by Toggi (www.toggi.com) and are lined with neoprene, for added warmth and comfort. What that means is that the entire boot is covered in rubber, rather than just the lower part – as is the case with a couple of well-known brands. I personally think a full rubber boot gives better support than a half boot, especially if the boot comes with a proper, robust footbed. That said, I have friends who are ecologists and they have half boots and are very pleased with them. I’ll be the first to admit that my boots are certainly robust i.e. a little on the heavy side; however, that’s my personal choice. My first pair of Toggi boots lasted 10 years, which is amazing value for money. In fact, I've only recently purchased my second pair, so fingers crossed this pair last as long as the first!!
I have to admit that I wear my wellington boots more often than my hiking boots. The main reason for this is down to Scotland’s topography, as I’m never too sure when I’m likely to encounter wet ground conditions. However, when buying a walking boot, I’ve always bought from a reputable store, with knowledge, experienced staff and a good selection of boots. When buying a boot the first thing you need to consider is the time of year you will be wearing boot i.e. the season. Most ecologists I know, including myself, do their fieldwork below the snowline and therefore select a boot that’s three seasons or less. A four-season boot is designed for serious winter work and has a very rigid sole, which will be less confortable out of the mountains! My boots are made by Scarpa (www.scarpa.co.uk) and come from the Men's Delta range. They’re not the cheapest but then again they're not the most expensive; however, walking boots are something I personally don’t scrimp on because I've found cheap boots tend not to last i.e. are not value for money in the medium to long term. The reason for opting for a Gore-Tex lining is simple - it's down to the fact that it makes the boot waterproof but breathable. I come from a generation that pre-dates the Gore-Tex revolution, and I can assure you dubbing and wax will only make a non-Gore-Tex boot waterproof for a certain period of time!
A couple of valuable bits of advice when buying a wellington or hiking boot… When you get home don’t wear them outside for the first time. What I do is wear them around inside the house for the evening and see how the fit feels after several hours of use. This is important because your foot swells a little after being in a boot for several hours, so by wearing them around the house, you get an inkling for how they will feel out in the field. If you feel they are pinching or just don’t feel comfortable at the end of the home trial, then you can return them to the shop with a clean conscience! Another valuable tip I was given in an outdoor shop in Wales, with regards to fitting a new boot is to slide your index finger down the back of the boots – if you can fit your finger between your heal and the boot, without pinching your toes, then you’re on the road to finding a fit that’s good for you. Remember though; if in doubt ask the shop staff, as they will be specifically trained for the stock carried by the shop in question.
If you liked the above blog, then stay tuned for more!! Over the course of the next three blogs I'll provide you with advice and tips on keeping your hands warm, thermal layers and for those aspiring ornithologists out there, buying the right optics.
Image Credit: TETRIX Ecology,Toggi & Scarpa