Training: Work Hard, Be Ready Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was an advocate of the “strenuous life”. The man never shied away from a challenge or adventure and some advice to his son, Kermit, was to always “work hard & be ready”. These words of wisdom are also relevant to those of us who seek our own adventure in austere wilderness. Training for the backcountry should be a continuous process of trial and error with no end to the journey. No matter how experienced we become, there will always be more to learn as we seek the elusive goal of mastery. Training for these dynamic pursuits should be realistic, challenging, and expose limitations while also building skills and confidence. These criteria are what I sought as both a student and instructor and anything less is a waste of time, and effort, and ineffective for future performance. Creating high-stress scenarios in training help build callouses to stressful situations we’ll experience during the actual event. Repeated exposure to pressure like shooting in a league or in front of strangers helps to inoculate us from the surge of adrenaline that accompanies these scenarios. Shooting alone on a flat range with a low heart rate, off a bench, or without a pack tugging at our shoulders does little to prepare us for real life. Shoot in challenging positions, winds, or when fatigued after a grueling work-out or training hike to better understand accuracy limits. Training should be realistic and present scenarios than what we would typically expect in the field. Exposing deficiencies in training is far better than discovering them in remote places. Inclement weather tests both equipment and mindset far more than fair-weather. Training only on permissive weather days does little to prepare us for the challenges of dynamic backcountry conditions. No matter how warm and comfortable I am in a tent, it’s never as restful as at home. Instead of taking a morning off after a poor night of rest or a late night out, train hard the next day, mindful of your cognitive function and physical performance. Understanding our limits keeps us safe, allows us to plan trips within our boundaries, builds on new skills and capabilities, and provides a foundation for more difficult trips. Training with minimal food & water for a day showcases our body’s response and capabilities. This critical information can then be factored into the crisis nutrition plan. Knowing our hiking pace under a load off-trail is critical. It informs route planning decisions and helps ensure we arrive at campsites, glassing knobs, and water sources more efficiently. Training should build skills and confidence, not false assumptions of proficiency. Take a 3D target to a quarry, remote trailhead, or local ski area and set up challenging hunting shots that inform future training sessions. Summer 3D archery events are also great but these events can present some unrealistic shots that if not careful dings confidence before hunting season. Pushing boundaries is required but unrealistic training becomes a detriment to growth. Conversely, shooting steel off a bench at 1000 yards builds a false belief in one’s ability to shoot an animal with a rifle under field conditions; off-hand, kneeling, or against a tree. Ethics aside, overestimating one’s abilities makes you a liability in the wilderness. Hunting season is short, but training is a year-round activity. Trips into the wilds demand we strive to be as capable as possible. Realistic training should teach, challenge, humble, and prepare us for the untold demands of these wild places. Honest assessments of our skills help ground us to better plan trips that suit our experience level, setting us up for continued growth and success. The Closet: Crispi Briksdal boots Footwear has an intimate connection with the body, and everyone’s feet are different. I require a stiffer boot than most due to endless mountain miles and foot injuries. Because of this, I’ve relied on mountaineering boot brands for several decades to provide me with footwear solutions for the backcountry. Mountain boots for backcountry hiking need to fit great, be durable, protect the feet, and be constructed for side-hilling with heavy packs and rugged off-trail hiking. Most, if not all, traditional hunting footwear falls far short of this performance. Over the last several years, Crispi boots have become my choice in footwear for the backcountry, consistently meeting my demands. Crispi provides footwear that blurs the line between hunting and mountain boots, and while I own several models of Crispi boots, the Briksdal series has become my favorite. Briksdal’s come in several models, from uninsulated with moderate flex to a very stiff-soled version and the new higher collared Pro model. I usually default to the stiffer Briksdal SF GTX for backcountry travel but wear the standard model for training hikes, lighter days afield, and as an extra pair in my truck. The Briksdal’s fit true to size, and I’ve not had to tweak the fit much except for lacing, socks, and a custom footbed. The toe box provides enough room for minor foot swelling common on long trips, especially at altitude, but is narrow enough for good performance in technical terrain. The Crispi Briksdal’s may appear overkill to those used to more traditional hunting boots, but after a few hikes off-trail, the increased performance of the Briksdal series shines. Crispi Briksdal GTX $410.00 Briksdal SF GTX $420.00 Briksdal Pro GTX $480.00 www.crispius.com Gear Locker: Custom Fitting Boots Boots are expensive, and we want to get the best fit and performance we can for miles and years of comfortable hiking. It’s unrealistic to think we can take a pair of boots out of the box and expect them to fit our feet for aggressive off-trail travel. No matter how much we may want, some boot brands will not fit our feet. Narrow toe boxes, wide lasts, or low volumes may not suit everyone. Finding a brand that fits your feet and meets your requirements can be daunting and expensive. Once you find suitable boots, they may still require tweaks and modifications to limit or remove hot spots, blisters, and pressure points. Here are a few ways to work on your boots this summer to customize the fit. Lacing Lacing boots in different configurations goes a long way in modifying the fit. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, we don’t need to lace the boot in the traditional manner and sequence going through every eyelet or hook. Surgeon Knot The Surgeon’s knot allows the laces to be locked down in certain areas to keep a boot tight or loose, depending on the need. For example, lace the boot loosely in the forefoot to provide room and remove pressure points, then apply a surgeon’s knot in the middle, allowing the ankle area to be laced tight for better lateral stability. A surgeon’s knot used between these two areas holds the pressure of each region, allowing for this customization. Window Lace Window lacing can remove pressure caused by the boot’s laces crossing on top of a painful site such as a bone spur, old injury, or some other deformity. It can also provide more flexibility in the region, especially with a stiffer mountain boot. For a video showing different boot lacing methods check out: How to Lace & Tie Hiking Boots, www.rei.com Footbeds I feel it’s essential to use some form of aftermarket footbed, especially in boots that you’ll put many off-trail miles on, sometimes with heavy weight on your back. I’ve used custom and semi-custom models and found both acceptable, but only buying and testing can determine true compatibility. If you have foot issues like myself, it’s probably worth consulting with a Podiatrist and getting a custom set made. Beware that most aftermarket footbeds take up more volume in the footwear than the footbed from the manufacturer, a fact to consider before purchasing boots. I recommend having a set of footbeds handy when buying new boots to achieve the best fit. Sole Semi-Custom footbeds www.yoursole.com Socks Socks play an essential role and are an inexpensive way to modify the fit of boots. Experimenting with the thickness of the hiking sock can provide big dividends. I covered sock systems extensively in last month’s newsletter. Darn Tough Hiker Mid-Weight Hiker sock www.darntough.com Tongue Depressors Tongue depressors are simple foam pads that slide down between the tongue of the boot and the laces. These pads take up volume in the ankle area where the boot can often be too large in circumference to achieve a tighter fit when laced. These pads can help keep the heel back and down in the boot to reduce blisters, especially when climbing steep ground. Tongue depressors are cheap to buy or can be fashioned out of thin foam you may have around the house. They are not permanent and allow for easy trial and error while on a training hike. Tongue Depressor PG37068 www.summithut.com Rubbing Bar A rubbing bar helps break-in boots without damaging your feet, and I like to say adds ten miles with ten minutes of effort. The rubbing bar is mounted to a workbench or heavy piece of wood so that you can get aggressive with it. The smooth end won’t damage the boot’s interior but helps smooth out seams, soften leather, and compress insulation in large areas. Rubbing Bar SC-9000 www.blademaster.com Boot Press A boot press is more surgical than a rubbing bar, allowing you to target specific areas within the boot. Often the boot needs to be pushed out in a particular area to accommodate a wide foot or other abnormality, and a boot press allows you to expand that area to achieve a custom fit. Foot Fitter Ball & Ring boot stretcher www.amazon.com Tape Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we need to add protection to certain areas of our feet. It’s far better to apply tape or moleskin as a preventive measure versus after a hot spot or painful blister has developed. Steep hiking, wearing a heavy pack, and off-trail movement applies extra pressure to the feet. Depending on the trip and expected terrain, I’ll often pre-treat my little toes with tape and even my heels. The trick with tape is, once applied, do not remove it until it falls off naturally to avoid the risk of damaging the skin. Leukotape www.amazon.com Media: How to Get the Most Out of Gore-Tex Rainger Outdoor Class I’m excited to be a part of this new online hunting and outdoor education platform. OutdoorClass is bringing together the best teachers in their respective disciplines with the goal of making you a more competent and capable outdoorsman. Use promo code BARKLOW to get 20% Off your yearly membership and unlock a wealth of knowledge for lifelong learning. www.outdoorclass.com Journal of Mountain Hunting Podcast Listen Now I had a great discussion with Adam Janke discussing his sheep hunt from last year and how his miscalculation of Crisis Nutrition and Exploiting Terrain played against his success in the remote mountains of BC. Forging Roots Podcast Mathew Couture and I discuss in depth what it takes to be successful, and practice mental toughness for the backcountry. The Word: Decisions Have Consequences The hiking had been challenging in the steep, open country, with fog obscuring vision past 100 meters. Low visibility transformed an otherwise easy hike into a frustrating series of missteps and backtracking, trying to find small passages over ridgelines and around short sections of cliffs. On the loose descent from the last saddle, my partner slipped and took a hard fall in the razor-like shale, slicing open the bottom of his pants and backpack. Seeming none the worse for wear, we searched out the flattest spot to lay up for the afternoon and wait out the inclement weather. I pitched my small tent on the rocks against the gale-force winds, with the broken terrain providing sparse protection from the storm. Climbing inside the wet, green, nylon shelter was appreciated and helped detach me slightly from the storm’s intensity. Drying my clothes and reviewing the map, I began planning the next day’s movement as the wind shrieked in my ears. Settling into my tent routine, I contemplated making a hot drink when my partner yelled above the noise, telling me he was bleeding quite a bit from his fall while hiking. Because it was on his backside, he couldn’t effectively assess the seriousness of the injury and asked if I’d come to take a look. I climbed inside the vestibule and poked my head into his tent a few minutes later. The tent floor was awash in diluted blood and watery mud. My partner wasn’t in much pain, but he was concerned about his condition, as was I. I assessed the injury as best I could, considering the location of the laceration was on the inside fold of his right butt cheek. We determined he needed medical attention sooner than our scheduled departure from the mountains two days away. After packing the wound with gauze to stop the bleeding, there was not much more I could do for him. Running through our options, we determined that hiking out before dark was our best course of action as the weather wasn’t forecast to break anytime soon. The journey to the truck would cover 10 kilometers of mountainous terrain, mostly downhill, and require a river crossing at the end. Moving slowly got us to the river thirty minutes before dark. It had risen considerably in the last few days due to the rain. Being more experienced with river crossings I considered the conditions marginal but felt confident we could wade across the 30-meter wide span utilizing a bipod technique. We knew of a bridge another 10 kilometers downstream, but the hiking would be challenging and take all night. Recent reports of an aggressive Brown bear in the area foraging for food before winter further added to our decision. Wanting to get to the hospital before an infection set in or we got mauled, we chose to cross the river. Water licked the high watermark on the rocky bank, and occasionally a log would race by further heightening the tension. Unbuckling the waist belts on our heavy packs and assuring our rifle slings weren’t tangled, we grabbed each other’s shoulder straps. We began making steady progress by side-stepping into the river at a slight downstream angle and shuffling our feet. Rocks rolled under our boots, and the river’s current fought to break our bond to the slick bottom. Water rushed against my back and floated the pack off my shoulders, threatening my balance. Shouting encouragement, we fought closer to shore. Three meters from safety, we were violently and unexpectedly knocked off balance and quickly swept downstream. Raising my head above the icy water, I sought out my injured partner. Battered by the raging water, the pack pressed against my head, shoving my face back under. Desperate to help my friend, I rolled out of the pack and eddied out on the muddy bank. Running downstream, dodging alders and trees, I could see my partner struggling mightily to swim and keep his head above water. Over the roar of the river, I began yelling for him to get his pack off. Helpless, I watched him get swept through a strainer and around a bend in the river. Continuing to run downstream, the thought that I’d just killed my partner filled my head. Frantically pushing through alders, I was relieved to find him floundering and exhausted in knee-deep water two hundred meters further. He explained his rifle had hung up on his pack straps, making him unable to get it off his back. Strong swimming ability and a fighting attitude kept him from being swept miles down through dangerous rapids. Hours later, my partner emerged from the hospital with 20 stitches, a drain installed, and a hefty dose of antibiotics. The doctor said the wound’s laceration was severe considering the location, and the unsanitary conditions would have caused a nasty infection, but his extraction from the field could have waited till morning. Reviewing the Lessons Learned days later, I concluded we should have laid up next to the river and waited till early morning for lower water. The chance of a bear encounter was minimal, and we were armed. My biggest failure was deciding to wade the river with the water level at its limit for a crossing. A false sense of urgency on my part led to a poor decision. We got lucky. The situation could have been much worse. Two things helped prevent a disaster; being technically capable and physically fit. I knew how to navigate in the fog to find the river crossing. I was capable of managing the wound, was comfortable spending another night out with wet gear, and knew multiple ways to cross rivers. With all that going for us, I still made poor decisions. Once the switch flipped in my brain that we were leaving the mountains, the thought of staying another night was not appealing, and my decisions became clouded, almost cascading into a disaster. The backcountry has its own cadence that can be difficult to sync with but often is what’s required to survive and find success. There are no rules, referees, timeouts, or scoring in the wilds. You can never be capable enough, and it always requires our best efforts to be safe and successful. Poor decisions and false urgency to get my friend medical attention almost cost us more than another night in a wet tent. Decision-making in the wilderness is an endless series of calculations on the odds, risk versus reward, and objective hazards. We won’t always choose the proper course of action, but hopefully, we can walk away from poor decisions unscathed and learn from our mistakes.