Monday, July 5, 2010

Choosing Footwear

I was riding a ferry across Puget Sound a few days ago and, with a half hour to relax, started noticing footwear.

What do people put on their feet when they leave the house to travel? These folks weren't just stepping outside to retrieve the newspaper or check what's in their mailbox. They were traveling from somewhere to someplace. And as I watched the parade of flip-flops (thongs for feet — in the best tradition of the "thong" it offers no coverage, no protection, and leaves feet virtually naked), bedroom slippers (I'm not kidding), dress shoes, cowboy boots, stilettos (again, not kidding), open sandals, and sport shoes, my brain was working all kinds of scenarios in which what you have on your feet makes a difference to your ability to survive.

It is true that if everything goes perfectly, your choice of footwear probably won't have much of an impact on your survival. You walk from your house to your car, drive someplace, get out and go inside another building where life is good. No problem.

But we can't always depend on life going perfectly. What if on your way from Point-A to Point-B you are involved in a traffic accident? Or maybe you have a flat tire, or run out of gas. What if there's a natural disaster (an earthquake, sudden storm, flood, wildfire), or some other kind of event (terrorist action) that leaves you unable to continue your trip in your vehicle? What if suddenly you have to abandon the car and walk five miles to reach safety?

I've chronicled lots of incidents in which this is exactly what happens to folks who end up in survival situations at one level or another. In these cases, what the individual has on his or her feet makes all the difference in the world. There are times when, if you can't travel by foot, you're dead. And that might mean anyone with you is also dead.

So, what's up with footwear in general?
  • The only reason you need footwear is for protection. By choosing good shoes, you protect your primary means of transportation (vehicles are secondary means of transportation, because they cannot always be depended on). 
  • Fashion is, in most cases, the enemy of appropriate footwear. If you buy shoes so your feet will look cute or cool or fashionable, you need to rethink the point I just made above. 
  • The largest segment of society that is victimized by the footwear fashion industry is women. But, ladies, you have the ability to choose not to wear stupid shoes that torture your feet, cripple your posture, and offer no logical function. You can only become a victim if you choose to. 
  • Whenever you leave the protection of your home, you should always think, "What if I had to walk 5 miles … could I do it comfortably in these shoes?" Why do I use 5 miles as my standard? Maybe when things break down you won't have to walk 5 miles, but if your choice of shoe will carry you that far, it will also carry you a lesser distance. Think of it as a safety factor, like speed ratings for tires that will endure 100 mph … the logic is that if they can go 100 mph without exploding, they can probably go 70 mph safely.
What's up with the kind of footwear I saw that day on the ferry? I'll start with the worst and work toward more appropriate shoes:
  • Flip-flops — Virtually zero protection from anything, even walking on a beach. They leave feet vulnerable to sunburn, blisters, impact injuries, cuts, stone bruises, thorns, contact-poison plants, bug bites or stings, and they are impossible to run with in the event that your escape must be made at more than strolling speed. 
  • Bedroom slippers — Bedroom slippers won't take you very far if you have to walk. The sole is too soft to prevent stone bruises to the bottom of the feet, and the totally open rear invites pebbles or other junk to slip in and cause injury.
  • I saw one gal with a pair of shoes that resembled ballerina slippers. They had paper-thin soles that were not much better than going barefoot, so there was precious little protection being offered.
  • Cowboy boots — Hey, I have some. They're perfect for riding horses, because the pointed toe slides into the stirrups easily and the aggressive heel keeps the boot from slipping all the way through the stirrups. They offer heavy leather protection for the foot and lower leg that's important for busting through brush when rounding up cattle (yes, I used to do that), or on a trail ride. But as walking footwear, they are horrible. In my book, they rank right up there with high-heels for women — they torture feet, are slick and don't hold the ground well, and cause posture problems. 
  • High-heels and other women's business shoes — Not only high-heels, but nearly all women's fashion shoes are an abomination. Yes, they're cute. Yes, they show off the curve of your calf nicely. Yes, they make you look taller and more statuesque. But if you ever have to step off the fashion runway and actually walk anywhere you'll regret having these horrors on your feet. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me why I see women remove their shoes and rub their feet every time they have a chance, and why I see some walk down the sidewalk barefoot while carrying their shoes. If you think you're wearing this stuff to please men, think again. Real men who care about the welfare of their female friends would support you in wearing what is comfortable and protective. 
  • Men's business shoes — While men are not subjected to horrible dress shoes as much as women, most men's dress shoes are not built for foot travel that covers any distance on uneven ground. Slick leather soles are the worst, but all slick soles, no matter what they're made of, are a problem in wet conditions. These shoes also tend to have very thin soles that offer little protection against stone bruises. 
  • Open sandals — Any kind of footwear that is open along the sides, front or back invites a certain amount of risk of injury to the feet. I admit that I have a favorite pair of Skechers sandals that I love to wear when there's a chance I'll be stomping around in water. They drain instantly and are comfortable enough for me to walk a pretty good distance. I wouldn't want to have to go 5 miles in them, though. The soles are hefty and have aggressive traction lugs, so they protect against stone bruising and hold the trail pretty well. Problem is they allow small pebbles to invade, and that can injure the feet. They're also not protective enough against plants (thorns, stinging nettle, etc), insects, or sunburn. 
  •  Sport shoes — Fortunately, we live in an era when excellent sport shoes are available and inexpensive. Unless you're engaged in serious mountaineering (or digging your way through collapsed buildings, where work boots would be best), quality sport shoes offer good protection for the feet. With full coverage, they protect against sunburn (if you think I'm overdoing it on the sunburn issue, you just haven't suffered a serious sunburn to your feet yet. Toasted feet are absolutely disabling), they keep pebbles from entering, shield against plant irritations and insects, prevent stone bruising, and can comfortably carry you as far as you care to walk. 
Bottom line — pay attention to what you put on your feet when you leave the house. Consider your feet to be your most fundamental form of transportation, and take care to not diminish your ability to walk long distances. 

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