Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chaco Shoes for Backpacking

So, now that I'm getting back into backpacking after a long hiatus - like, decades - I've been trying learn from Ray Jardine's practices and apply what works for me. I've already mentioned about making his Tarp and Net-Tent kits.

Another piece of advice from Ray is about footwear. There's probably no more important gear choice you can make than what to put on your feet. Ray recommends hiking in trail running shoes. I agree. On the other hand, I don't push it, because some people genuinely need ankle support. But if you switch to trail running shoes, there are some advantages. One, obviously, is weight. Trail shoes beat boots hands-down. Another is flexibility, and that's very important. Again, trail shoes beat boots. Another is support, and again, shoes beat boots. Another is shock absorption. Again, shoes over boots.

So, about weight. The weight on your feet is more important than the weight on your back. Why? I think it's because you're constantly accelerating and decelerating your feet. Any weight there takes more of an energy toll than the weight on your back, which maintains a relatively constant speed. I'm a big fan of New Balance shoes. I switched to them for daily use some years ago when I found that a pair would last me a couple years instead of one year, like many other brands. I also like to buy Made in the U.S.A when I can, so I can ride my high horse when my job gets outsourced. ;) New Balance gives me more of an opportunity to do that. New Balance shoes are available in 2E width, which I need.

Given that background, I went and bought a pair of MT908's. They're advertised at about 12 ounces, which is close to Ray's ideal maximum of 11 ounces. They're made in China, unfortunately. I wore them on several hike at a parks nearby that sports woods, hills, and trail loops where I can get a 3 to 6 mile hike in fairly easily. I then wore them on an overnighter, about 15 miles. Total mileage on the shoes was probably less than 100 miles. And guess what? The soles started falling apart. Follow the link and look at the picture of the soles. You'll see that there are different colors. All of those different colors are actually pieces that are glued on. Duh. What were they thinking? Those pieces were starting to fall off. I'm going to go to the New Balance store, expecting a fight when I try to return them.

But let me tell you this - New Balance understands customer service like NOBODY else does these days. I take the shoes back to the New Balance store, and the employee there says that this is unusual, and they haven't had that problem with this model. She asks if I would like a total refund, would I like to try a brand-new pair of the same shoe, or would I like to try a different model. So, I like the shoe, it's light and comfortable, so I try a new pair. No charge. I love those guys, and they have a customer for life.

Within seven miles, the new pair is falling apart. That's right, seven miles. Now, I'm not huge. I'm a little over six feet tall, about 195 pounds. Heavy, but the shoes should be able to handle it. Back to the New Balance store. This time, by luck of the draw, I'm talking to the store manager. Same level of customer service. This time, I opt for a full refund.

So, I was disappointed in the shoe. They're made in China, and honestly, they know that Americans today are not like the previous generation. Most of us (not me) are happy to buy crap, and pay good money for it, so they sell us shiny crap at high prices, and we say thank you. Having said this, New Balance customer service is Made in the U.S. of A., the old-fashioned way. I WILL go back to them, largely because of their customer service. New Balance, please make all of your shoes in America. Why not outsource to small towns like Steelville, Missouri? You can still save money over big city labor costs, and those small-town folks remember what quality is. I guarantee it.

So now, what to do for a shoe? I went to one store, and the guy tried to jam Nikes on my foot. Nikes only come in narrow and narrower, and I need a 2E. Moron. I went to another store, and found the Chaco's Men's Redrock.

Here's what's right with the Chacos. Firstly, never in my life have I had a shoe where the arch of the shoe comes up and nestles in the arch of my shoe. I never knew they were supposed to do that! The Chacos do. Wow, arch support. So that's what they meant by arch support. Oooooh.

Second, one-piece soles, stitched to the uppers. That's way shoes are supposed to be made. There's no gluing in shoes.

The soles are some percentage recycled rubber from tires. Good for the environment, and that's a plus. And they've got good lugs for grip on the trail.

Also, all the standard stuff. Reasonable cushioning. Not as good as the NBs, but good. That's good for my knees. Breathable uppers, so that they walk dry after going through a creek. I also moved the laces so that the eyes closest to my toes are not used. This gives me the nice, floppy, barefoot feel up front without losing the heel-hugging feel in the back. The shoe laces could be better, but I might swap out for some of New Balance's bubble laces, which are great.

Okay, now the bad news. First, they're made in China. Not a show-stopper, but I'd like to keep shoe jobs here so that when someone's buying software development, my job stays here. Next, the weight. Chaco doesn't advertise the weight.I wear a men's size 9 in 2E width. My right shoe weighs 463.1 grams, or about 16.34 ounces. The left one weighs 472.2 grams, or about 16.7 ounces. Too heavy to be ideal for backpacking. They are noticeably heavier than the New Balance 908s. Finally, when I asked about the return policy, it's not as generous as NB's. They'd deduct from the refund for wear-and-tear.

The Chacos are for me, at least for the time being. Chaco, here's what I have to say to you. First, open a plant in Steelville, Missouri. Can you tell I love the place? It's not my home town, but it has a special place in my heart, for a variety of reasons. Chaco, if you build a plant there, you will be able to make shoes cheaper than in Colorado. Not as cheap as China perhaps, but it keeps jobs here in the U.S. Second, see if you can make a shoe that's just right for ultralight backpackers. Take the Redrock, reduce the weight by five to six ounces, if possible, while keeping as much ruggedness as possible. And third, think about your return policy. If you're making a quality shoe, and you are in the Redrock, then you can be more generous. See if you can match NB's policy.

Conclusion: I'm going to wear the Chacos for now, because they're the best shoe I've found so far.

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