During the Buddhist Backpack Pilgrimage, I acted as your personal bodhisattva, dear readers, and compassionately offered myself as a sacrifice for your welfare. How? By venturing out to do the whole 34 miles in jackboots (sapogi) and footwraps. In our previous field test we’d shown their value in wet conditions, but we still didn’t know how they would compete with hiking boots on hard, dry roads and rocky moonscapes. And who else would be lunatic enough to do so?
Hyperbole aside, I really was a little leery about this. It’s one thing to don strange footwear for a walk in the park, it’s another commit to them irrevocably for two days of hard walking.
The boots I chose were surplus West German “Knobelbecher” (“dice-cups”). They’re heavy (1.1kg each), older than I am, and I bought them for $20.
My feet I wrapped in my homemade Russian-style portyanki. (In the world of footwraps, there is a Russian style and a very different German style called Fußlappen. Don’t worry, we’ll experiment with those too in due time!)
What did we learn? First, jackboots are awesome on roads, hardpack, and the forest floor. I’ve remarked before on how they make me walk by swinging my foot from the knee instead of from the hip. For whatever reason, on flat surfaces I sometimes felt like the jackboots were walking me or like I was a Bionic Marching Man. Not for nothing do Germans call them Marschstiefel, “marching boots!”
The jackboots also performed nearly as well as hiking boots on loose gravel and decaying roads. The only time I really wished I could change into hiking boots was on certain stretches of Mad Max-level rubble where your ankle rolled a different way with each step. With hiking boots you can plow straight over the rocks, if the ground is stable, as if you had little ATVs on your feet. With jackboots, you have to do a little extra work with your own foot and leg muscles, and I have to think that over time your knees absorb more torque.
The footwraps were positively delightful. They stayed put on every kind of terrain, and it was nice to refresh my feet by sitting down every few miles, turning the portyanki around, and rewrapping them. I also tried out wearing a pair of wool socks with the footwraps over them, something common in winter, and found that very comfortable too.
A final thought on trail guns. I’d always wondered why someone would buy the Ruger LCRx, a misshapen 5-shot airweight .357 with a 3” barrel. It seemed like an overpowered pocket rocket that won’t even fit in your pocket! But after my close encounter with the bears, when I’d almost been too lazy to carry a gun at all, I saw the LCRx in a whole different light. It looks like a perfect “just in case” backwoods beater gun for when you’re weighing the annoyance of a real belt gun against the pathos of your family getting your remains back in a wet, 2-quart Ziploc bag.
Following an idea from the Manly Monk of Vilnius, I declared this weekend the Great Buddhist Backpack & Beads Pilgrimage. The idea was, one step, one mantra, and in 27 miles that would make fifty-five thousand mantra reps. That’s got to be enough to make you a buddha in this very lifetime (即身成佛), right?
But a meditation retreat is always a hilarious circus of human foibles. My mind took the the last song I heard, “Billy Jean,” and for three miles it composed ribald lyrics.
Then came the bears. A mother and two cubs CHARGED across the trail, 20 yards in front of me, like OJ and his blockers. Thank heaven they kept going and started crashing around in the bush. But I couldn’t tell from the noise where they were going—“Do bears circle around and take people from behind?” I wondered—so I walked the next stretch very quickly and “mindfully,” shall we say, before I took my hand off my gun and remembered anything about a mantra.
Yes, there is a tradition of Buddhist pilgrims with weapons, and we just saw why. Bears eat you alive and screaming, even if you’re Buddhist. Mama Bear begins her meal as soon as you’re pinned down, without so much as a break-your-neck.
“Wait,” you ask, “you would really shoot a charging bear, Mr. Buddhist?” It’s “Dr. Buddhist,” thank you very much, and HELL YES! Ain’t no precept tells you to yield meekly while The Three Bears eat your liver.
Some wiseacre will now point to folklore where bodhisattvas (superhero-saints) offer their flesh to starving carnivores as an act of compassion. (Sigh.) But those are hyperbolic hero tales, like a Wonder Woman comic, not practical instructions for conducting yourself on a camping trip.
Much gratitude to Remi Warren for his lesson about this, or I’d have been lazy and carried my gun in my pack. As they say, “You almost never need a gun, but when you do, you need it real bad.” This whole thing started and finished in 2 seconds.
For a few miles after the bear encounter, the only mantra I was repeating was “HF!! WTF!!!” which is not officially sanctioned. But after that I settled my breath and my feet back into a happy rhythm, and in 5 miles I almost forgot that it ever happened. Feet, breath, mantra, all thumping along cheerfully in time with each other, far from the proverbial smoke and fire of human settlements (人间烟火)–well, it’s pretty close to heaven.
Between the bears and Billie Jean, I only got in maybe 30,000 good reps in, but I’ll take it! Svaha!
Since our posts on footwraps and jackboots, Lean Solid Dogs has been flooded with queries from peace-loving people of all fraternal nations. In response, I conducted harsh field trials on the Russian-style jackboots and footwraps, equipment worth over $20.05, assuming a value of one nickel for the remnants of my old pillowcase. Nothing but the best for you, dear readers!
To me they still look like I should be rounding up Polish hostages.
I’d been told that where jackboots and footwraps excel is in water and damp. However, I had doubts. Sure, jackboots have high sides, and no doubt some of them are well sealed too. But it seemed like once they did flood, you would be doomed and your feet stuck for your whole walk in knee-high water buckets. At the recent GORUCK challenge, I’d chosen exactly the opposite strategy, wearing a second-hand pair of “Moab Ventilators,” so named because of the mesh sides intended to let water drain out like from scuppers on a ship’s deck. But whatever the designers’ intended, the Moabs stayed wet all night, encrusted on the outside with a thin cement of caked-on sand and moistened from the inside by my waterlogged wool socks.
And just as Krushchev predicted, the Communist jackboots buried their pricey, effete capitalist counterparts. I tried to flood them all the way and could not! First I stood in a creek up to my ankles, patiently waiting for water to find its way through the seal, but it never did. Impressed, I knelt down in the creek hoping that water would rush over the boot tops like Soviet tanks through the Fulda Gap. Still no joy. As I have mentioned before, the portyanki are so long (90cm/36”) that you wind half the fabric around your calves, and to my amazement this sealed the boot tops so thickly that water could not cascade in. I had to wiggle and fishtail around, trying to coax water into the jackboots, til after about 30 seconds I had to be satisfied with getting my feet about 40% soaked.
See the ring of creek filth around the calf? The portyanki created a thick cloth seal there that kept out the dirt, and most of the water too.
I walked the next mile that way and found it perfectly satisfactory. I had wondered whether water would continue to drip down my calf and slowly make a sopping, sucking fishbowl around my feet, but this never happened. Either the footwraps pack up all the loose space around your feet and leave little room for water to gather, or as Lars from Survival Russia suggests, maybe the footwraps really do wick it up and out.
Certainly I was amazed at how well the wraps dried out. After a mile, I stopped to turn the wraps around. This is something that portyanki fans like Lars are always try to sell you on: “Instead of changing into dry socks,” they’ll say, “you can turn portyanki around and wrap your feet from the other, drier end. The wet end will get a chance to dry out, now being wrapped around your calf or even sticking out your boot top. It’s like having a dry pair of socks built right in.” Without impugning Lars’ integrity, I must confess I thought that sounded almost as fishy as Lenin’s “democratic centralism,” but he was right. After a mile, not only had the top end of my footwraps dried enough to be comfortable, they were also drier than my pant legs, which were directly exposed to the air!
Turned around, re-wrapped, and almost as good as dry socks. The wet end is now poking out the top.
Score one for East then. No, the footwraps did not dry out completely until I took them off at home and hung them up, but now I was inspired to try some serious Marxist science. I soaked the portyanki and my favorite wool socks and hung them in the sun, side by side to make a fair trial, but the outcome was never in doubt. Unsurprisingly the thin, single-ply footwraps with their huge surface area dried in half the time.
So will I seriously wear these things in place of hiking boots? I certainly would in wet muck. I might even wear them on other terrain just for the fun of doing things the old-fashioned way, just like I prefer to shoot revolvers. Loyal readers of this blog know that I am a sucker for the seductions of kludgy but ingeniously designed Communist gear, and friends know that I suffer from Ostalgie, an aesthetic nostalgia for the lost world of the socialist Eastern Bloc. The city of my young adulthood was an actual Stalinist metropole, and it left me with a sentimental fondness for the blocky, heavy, dim, cheap, kitschy material culture and aesthetic that—as far as I can tell—originated in Moscow and was exported to all corners of the Second World as part of what might be called the “Stalinist cultural package.”
Jokes aside, let me be clear: Lenin, Stalin, and the state they made were evil, an evil unsurpassed in the 20thcentury, and it’s bizarre that they get a pass from so many bien-pensants in the West. I’m just saying that if (Heaven forbid) I were going to conquer and enslave half the peoples of Europe, I would definitely consider doing it in actual Communist jackboots.
“ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς” –Spartan moms in a time before enlightened parenting
I am ready to ruck! I’ve trained for weeks, obsessed minutely over man-toys Vitally Important Equipment Choices,™ and I just managed to give myself a second-degree burn with a piece of paracord that caught on fire. (Don’t ask.) But now I’m ready!
The event isn’t a race where participants compete against each other but a quasi-military model where we’re all on the same team and the fun is to carry out ludicrous challenges dreamed up by the race director. (E.g. “Next, jump in the water and then schlep your backpacks, a sandbag, and this telephone pole to the top of that hill. You have 30 minutes. Go.”)
I’m intensely curious about who shows up to such an event. I’m guessing it will be one part military types, one part mountaineers, and two parts people like me, hyperactive desk workers who did Tough Mudders and then asked, “Now what?”
Anthropologically, I wonder where these people will come from. These events are culturally very Red: run by ex-soldiers with commemorations of deceased service members, flag-centered ritualism, and plenty of American civic religion. And yet they are holding this particular event in San Francisco, the Vatican City of Blue America. I love juxtapositions like this and wonder whether I will meet a lot of other category-straddling Purple weirdos like me.
Gear is laid out all over the living room floor and I’m about to scrunch it into the pack like Tetris pieces. From toe to head we have: hiking boots with mesh sides (Moab Ventilators) to drain water; East German army socks and Fox River sock liners; yoga shorts that make me look like a pole dancer; tough Flecktarn shirt with huge pockets; Swedish surplus rucksack that was supposed to be a birthday present for Michelle Skadisdottir (sorry, dude!) that I pimped out and filled with the regulation 30# of weights; British surplus windbreaker; boonie hat (because the logs scrape your ears) with a headlamp; and pocket knife, Ibuprofen, and duct tape (because Macgyver).
I had my first encounter with one of the hill dwellers who, I’d been cautioned euphemistically, “isn’t real social.” As it turned out, we just ignored each other. I was taking a break at the side of the road, he was watering Some Kind of Plant Life 100 yards away, and neither of us acknowledged the other. Moments later I was on my way.
When you wander far into the boonies alone, it is an act of faith in people. Where phone service is hours away and the sheriff another hour or two after that, anyone you happen upon with a vehicle or a friend has an almost insuperable advantage over you, and if they wished you harm, they could do it with a free hand and complete privacy, and they would probably get away with it forever.
And yet the people I meet in the middle of nowhere prove cordial and downright benevolent. Most recently it was a couple of thick, rough men with neck beards in a Suburban who stopped to exchange a few words and offer water or a lift, and as they rolled away their parting words were “Stay safe.” I marvel at how nice people are even when they have no reason to be.
I’m not offering an ecstatic panegyric about the innate goodness of humankindpersonkind, just noticing that we are such social animals that even in settings where we can harm people with impunity, we mostly still do the opposite.
It doesn’t hurt that both parties can virtually take it for granted that the other is armed: an armed society really is a polite society. But by itself that would only explain a wary indifference, not the warmth, concern, and fellow-feeling that’s actually out there.
A mind is a terrible thing. If you are lucky enough not to have one, I counsel you to keep it that way.
If you do acquire a mind, you may end up like me. I have gone far, far down the rabbit hole in preparing for the all-night ruck, and it has led me into a monstrous, Faustian quest for Science.
Why? I’ve been warned that we will end up soaking wet whenever the race directors can arrange it, so I decided to find out what happens when I get my equipment in water. It has been a big eye-opener.
I found that some clothes get much heavier than others when soaked, and/or they dry very slowly. An over-eager mind with an excess of intellectualism, I broke out the scale and the lab notebook. I weighed everything dry, wet, and partially dry, and aside from having a more fun lab experience than anything in high school chemistry, I discovered surprising things.
Chiefly, my awesome, comfortable German shirt and pants turn to lead when wet. My favorite hiking shorts also hold more water than a llama, and those big pockets I like so much will stay damp and heavy all night.
What emerged in the lab as the hands-down winner? I am almost too embarrassed to tell you. My goofy yoga shorts. Yes, they belong on Steve Gutenberg in Can’t Stop the Music, but they weigh just 440g soaking wet. Almost everything else is two or three times as heavy.
That is not the truth I wanted. So I did what educated people always do with an unwelcome finding and tried to rationalize it away. Maybe the 1970s gigolo shorts would chafe, or allow my backpack to chafe. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to manage without cargo pockets. After all, these things can’t hold anything more than a few stripper singles.
So today I conducted field trials: I put on the Goofy Yoga Shorts and a British DPM button-down shirt, jumped in a swimming pool, and then humped a pack up the Rock of Faeries, on the clock and with a notebook. Then I repeated the trial with the long pants that did the best in the lab, also British DPM.
The Goofy Yoga Shorts crushed the pants. I bopped up and down the hills with spritely steps like Steve Gutenberg on roller skates. Their only drawback was that they dribbled water down my legs into my boots. The pants could avoid that—I just wore the cuffs outside my boot tops—but in every other way they sucked by comparison. They bound my strides just enough to annoy me, and it only got worse if I tried to put something as paltry as a pair of gloves into the pockets. My conclusion was, my legs have enough work to do, they don’t also need to lift wet layers of cotton/poly weave. Whatever I need to carry in a pocket, I’ll put it in a shirt pocket or even hang it from my shoulder straps.
Farewell British Army, namaste Lululemon. Let Science reign.
Backpacking brings to life a lot of dead metaphors. When someone drives past you on a dry dirt road, you literally eat their dust, and on day two of a long hike, you really do have to tighten your belt.
But “jackboots?” To me, “jackboot” is just a metonymy for fascists, as in “jackbooted thugs” and “Europe can go from zero to jackboot in no time.” George Orwell derided it as a hackneyed Comintern pejorative that held zero literal meaning for English speakers: “Ask a journalist what a jackboot is, and you will find that he does not know. Yet he goes on talking about jackboots.” I’d bet that Orwell was right and we got the viral “jackbooted Nazi” trope from the Russian language. But curiously, the Soviets themselves
also wore jackboots! In fact, whereas the German army traded in jackboots for laced boots halfway through the war, the Russian army wore them right up to 2008! (In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the usual Russian word for boots, sapogi, specifically refers to jackboots.)
Here in America, actual jackboots are a weird sight, known mostly from black-and-white photos of our dead enemies. Even in China they were rare. I used to deal with a lot of Chinese soldiers, who were organized and equipped along Soviet lines—like the Finns, the PLA would study Soviet designs and then improve them—but instead of sapogi they wore green canvas sneakers. It was only the ceremonial detail (礼兵) who raised the flag in Tiananmen Square each morning who would goose-step across Chang’an Boulevard in actual huge gleaming jackboots.
I must be a true ‘Murican, because I am turned off by jackboots, both the word and the real thing. For me, they call to mind all the adjectives that I associate with Mussolini: “preening,” “cocksure,” “buffoonish,” “swaggering,” “ridiculous,” “vainglorious,” and so on.
So I was surprised to find that in 2018 jackboots are still being chosen for daily wear by actual, nice, non-evil people! Exhibit A is Lars Grebnev, a Danish expatriate who creates the “Survival Russia” YouTube channel from the homestead he shares with his Russian wife and daughter in BFE, Siberia. (Hmm, I guess it shouldn’t be BFE but “БФЗ.”) A woodsman and hunter, Lars prefers jackboots to lace-ups for general wear because the jackboots keep moisture out, dry quickly when wet, and keep a healthy circulation of blood and air in and around the foot.
I had to keep reminding myself that a considered preference for jackboots is not necessarily the same as choosing despotism over freedom. “Besides,” I assured myself, “Grebnev can’t be an evil blood-stained fascist hyena. He’s Danish, and since Viking times no Dane has visited atrocities on other countries. Unless you count the films of Lars von Trier.”
So for the sake of Science, I acquired a pair of East German jackboots from—literally—a dust-covered shelf in a dark corner of a cavernous surplus store. They were so unloved that I had to convince the store owner to charge me $20 for them. “Perhaps,” I thought, “as a true American she’s ashamed even to have them in her store and just wants them gone.”
And then (deep breath) I wore the jackboots. Yes, outside of my house. In daylight. On a long hike. Granted, I did roll my pant legs down over the distinctively mitteleuropäischen boot tops so that people wouldn’t look at me and think, “Wow, I bet that guy kills for sport.” And there is NFW I am taking a picture of myself in tall jackboots and putting it on the internet. I probably wouldn’t be crucified unless I also wore balloon-like cavalry trousers and carried a swagger stick. But these days you can’t be too careful. People get condemned as Nazis for less. Honestly, sometimes I wonder whether you people adequately appreciate the things I do for you.
When you change into a completely different kind of clothing, you change your posture and movement too. Not just because you are conscious of a different social role but because of how the clothes physically touch, cue, constrain, or free you. If you’re like me, if you wear a kilt for a few hours, you walk and stand wider just because you can. Your thighs get to do whatever they want for once and you can give more room to … whatever needs room.
The jackboots seem to prompt you to lock your knees when standing, because they push gently backward on your shins and coax you to put more weight on your heels. You tuck your pelvis under too—most Americans stand with our pelvises tilted forward—and then when I walk in the jackboots, I swing my feet more from the knees.
In the field, the jackboots were much more comfortable than I thought. I am pretty certain that the Russian army chose jackboots not to please the soldiers but because they made the supply officers’ job easier. One advantage to the jackboots was that correct sizes are not so important (more on this later), so your soldiers could get boots that were too big and still make do. Also, if I understand correctly, jackboots are easier to manufacture than ankle boots. Yes, they use up more leather, which is why the Germans abandoned them mid-war, but in some cases the Soviets had plenty of raw materials and labor but not enough of the specialized tooling and production experience needed for fancier items.
A classic example was the early AK-47. As originally designed, it was supposed to use light, cheap metal stampings, an emerging technology used to great effect by German engineers when they ran low on raw materials. But the Soviets found they suffered a different kind of scarcity than the Germans: their enemies had run short of steel and factory workers but they still had world-class production engineering. In contrast, the Soviets had enough steel and manufacturing capacity, but they didn’t have engineers who were experienced in the new field of metal stamping. So they purposely took a technological step backward and abandoned stampings for AK-47s, instead going back to the old-fashioned technique of carving the guns out of blocks of metal. (They also enslaved the German engineers and made them fix the metal-stamping problems. How’s that for thinking outside the box?) They chose something clunkier that used more material because that was the thing they could mass-produce using the skills they were good at. I suspect that jackboots were like that too: no eyelets or grommets or hooks, no tongue, not so much precise fitting, just a basic pattern that the Russian workforce was already good at making.
As promised, my jackboots kept my feet dry. I was pleased that for once I could clomp boldly through the stream instead of picking my way across stepping stones with a backpack and a clumsy jerry can–and maybe falling in anyway. And the jackboots were amazingly light, lighter than any boots I own, being made from some kind of imitation leather (possibly kirza).
What I worried about was footing. As noted, jackboots by themselves do not fit you very closely. Saying nothing of the ankle, which has no laces, the boots’ “lasts” (the foot-shaped part) can’t tighten around your feet. Instead they are like little boxes and your feet bang around inside fairly loosely. Even wearing two pairs of woolen socks, my feet did not feel snug enough.
That was the whole problem. These boots are not made with socks in mind. Instead you’re assumed to be wearing footwraps (portyanki). So I did it, friends! As promised, I cut up an old flannel bedsheet into strips of 40 x 90cm (16 x 36”) and learned how to wrap my feet the Russian way. (One more item off the bucket list!)
Let me tell you, comrades, like so much of life, there is a right way to wrap your feet and there are also lots ofwrong ways. I know this because I tried all of them. Finally I got it right (thanks, Lars!), and what resulted looks like a foot that’s mummified in soft, poofy cotton cloth. Tactilely, it felt really luxurious and cozy, like a thick, sturdy sheaf of cotton candy from my calf down to my toes. And miraculously, when I slid my mummified foot deep into the boot, I got a nice, snug fit. Instead of my feet banging around the inside of loose leather cases, they were like a pair of earrings cushioned by cotton inside a gift box. Whereas laced boots tighten the boot down around the foot, the portyanki bulk the foot out to fill up the boot.
This seems to be why jackboots are forgiving of imprecise sizing. If you have a pair of boots that gives you a lot of toe room, you can tweak your wrappings slightly to fill in the empty space. Problem solved! The same thing happens at the ankle. The portyanki are super-long—a full yard!—and most of that cloth ends up wrapped around your ankle and calf. It acts as “internal boot laces,” if you will, and gives you a firm fit. When you walk, your heels get to rise and fall a little but you are held gently but firmly at your toes, instep, ankle, and calf.
On my walk, the only problem occurred when I walked down a long, steep, rough slope under heavy load. My toes were superbly cushioned, whereas hiking boots would grind them if the boots didn’t have generous toe room and the right tension in the laces. But after a time, the downward angle was slowly bunching up the footwraps in the boots’ toes, and after half a mile of that I needed to rewrap my feet so that I blister them against the wrinkles forming underneath them. I don’t yet know whether this is an inherent problem or my fault as a neophyte foot-wrapper.
In any case, at that point I had the opportunity to try out one of the virtues of portyanki that Lars and others praise the most: they make it easy to keep your feet dry of sweat because they are like several pairs of spare socks in one. Your sweaty foot is only in contact with one corner of the footwrap at a time, and the opposite end is wound around your calf or even poking out the top of your boot, where it is gradually drying. So if your foot would benefit from some dry “socks,” you just turn the portyanki around and wrap from the other side. Later you can dunk them in water, wring them out, and hang them up, and the thin cloth will air-dry in no time. I tried this out at the Pool of Heaven and it worked just as advertised.