My adventure began six years ago and I’ve travelled for five of those years. In that time I’ve learned a thing or two about world travel. Many who follow this blog are world travellers themselves and others would like to be. In Travel 101 (like Photography 101) I try to get back to basics. If you know this stuff already (or have your own opinions) I am totally cool with that. The caveat always: this is simply my opinion based on my experience and not the Gospel According to Steve—are we clear on that? Good.
The one and overriding truism of world travel is: you’re going to walk a lot. I primarily use local transportation when possible: buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, scooters, river boats, pangas (canoes) and bicycles. But at the end of the day it always comes down to shouldering my pack and using my own two feet. Hence, back to the truism: you’re going to walk a lot. I’ve walked on tropical beaches, in dense jungles, in hot deserts and cold mountains, in sunshine, rain (and even snow), on cobblestone village roadways, urban sidewalks, volcanic islands and dirt roads. The one constant is that I am walking.
Next to a great hat (which I will discuss in a later post) nothing is more important than good footwear. Having spent six years in the Marine Corps and having been an avid runner, walker and backpacker for most of my life I’ve come to value good footwear and will willingly pay top dollar for the same. Unfortunately, I’m usually disappointed when my footwear fails in reliability, durability or value. Finding footwear that includes all three criteria is like searching for the Holy Grail. But the search goes on (happily I might add).
Living out of backpack full-time forces certain constraints: space and weight primarily. Any piece of (potential) gear has to pass through a set of buying filters that include: need or want, weight, space, reliability, durability and value. I think the filters speak for themselves. What is on my feet as I write this post? A pair of Keen Newport H2 Sandals. I am back in a warmer clime (Yucatan, MX) after leaving Southern Patagonia in Argentina. I love Keen sandals but this is my second pair, not by choice, since leaving the States in early 2012.
My first pair de-laminated in Mexico before I headed farther south. The sole literally separated from the upper. This has happened to others so I’m not the only one who has experienced this problem (are you listening Keen?). Keen sandals are not cheap and usually run around $100 USD depending where you buy them. Heading to the Galapagos Islands in November 2015 I had to buy a second pair in Quito, Ecuador (they were on sale and I got them for about $70 USD). This time so far so good.
When I first voiced my complaint I had a lot of people telling me their Keens never failed but the difference is I wear mine almost EVERY SINGLE DAY for hours on end. I cram a lifetime of wear into a few short months. Most Keen sandals are weekend warriors, only worn on weekends or vacations. Mine have a full-time job. For functionality and utility I give them high marks (10/10) but for reliability, durability and value I am less enthusiastic (7/10). Is there anything better on the market? If so I haven’t found them. Will I continue to buy them? Yes.
The Pros: The Keen H2 Newport sandals are waterproof, they are immediately comfortable (no breaking-in), have an excellent lacing system, they provide good arch support, they have fair traction on slippery terrain (highly overrated in my opinion—I’ve slipped on my ass a fair number of times) and they have a GREAT toe guard (saved my pinkies from damage more times than I can count). Overall, I absolutely love them as do most folks who buy them—as a fashion statement you either love them or hate them (but I don’t care much for fashion).
The Cons: Their functionality and utility are second to none, but where they fail the test (in my opinion) is in the areas of reliability, durability and value. It’s worrisome when a piece of highly-rated gear (especially footwear) fails when you’re far away from your hostel or hotel, or worse yet when you’re hiking in rough terrain and incur a failure (like sole separation). I also found that the sole itself seems to wear rather quickly (like I said earlier I wear mine a lot) and that the upper webbing and mesh are prone to wear like fraying. They are also pretty dang expensive.
My primary footgear for less friendly conditions (rougher, wetter, colder) is boots. I started this journey with a beautiful pair of Alden boots (handcrafted leather and prohibitively expensive—but I had money back then). This was one time I succumbed to fashion over functionality and utility. I loved the retro Indiana Jones look (Harrison Ford actually wore his own Alden boots in the movie series and made them famous by doing so). But they ain’t great for world travel: too heavy and bulky and not easy to pack when not on your feet—reliability 8/10, durability 6/10 and value 5/10.
The Pros: They make one helluva a fashion statement. They look great at the opera, ballet, theater or even at 5-star restaurants (I’ve worn mine to all of those places). They are the most comfortable leather boots I’ve ever worn bar none (handcrafted on an American last of the finest leathers). They offer good support and have an ample toe box, the eye & hook lacing system is efficient and looks super COOL and no matter how scruffy they get a quick polish and buff brings them back to life. They’ve been my constant companion and I love them although I can’t recommend them.
The Cons: They’re bulky, heavy and difficult to pack when not in use. The beautiful soft leather lining quickly began to wear, the tongue has a tendency to wander which lets in gravel and debris, the hooks are hard on laces (causing them to wear and break), the deep waffle-stomper tread collects mud and pebbles. The Vibram soles can be very, very slippery on wet surfaces (I took a real header near a waterfall in Chiapas, MX) and as we speak the Vibram sole is de-laminating (not from the Goodyear welt but the Vibram itself is coming apart). They’re very expensive at about $600 USD.
I will be replacing my Alden boots when I return to the States for a short visit and although I have criticized Keen I will be replacing them with a Keen product: the Keen Targhee II Hiking Shoe. Why? They’re lighter, smaller and easier to pack. No breaking-in period like leather boots. I am familiar with how Keen fits my foot and I like the fit—wide toe box and narrow heal. They’ve got the same toe guard as my Keen sandals and I love that feature. They have a waterproof interior lining good for puddle jumping if not complete submersion.
If I were backpacking substantial loads on long wilderness treks I might opt for more ankle support but I’ve learned (over the years and with experience) that the perceived need for ankle support is more myth than science. Mother Nature designed our ankles to work pretty well even when bearing heavy weight. Will I be happy with this choice? Who knows. I will certainly update you with a review after I buy them and put some miles on them. Just a reminder, I don’t receive any money for these product reviews—they’re just my opinions. Here’s an earlier post: I Have No Sole.
A final thought: Flip-flops. I HATE FLIP-FLOPS. I never mastered the skill of walking in flip-flops. I’m always stepping out of them and it’s embarrassing. I’m from San Diego, California and you would think after almost seventy years I could walk in a pair of crummy flip-flops. Having said that, however, I do keep a pair in my pack for those sketchy bathrooms and showers I often find in hostels and cheap hotels. So my footwear choices for successful world travel are: Hiking Shoes (not boots), Waterproof Sandals and reluctantly Flip-flops. Down the road we’ll talk about socks and answer that age-old question: Sandals & Socks—what, where and when.