A couple of years ago I went to the top of a snowy peak believed by many to be Mt. Ararat (Ağrı Dağı). It was a four day hike. The leather boots I purchased were a wee bit small, but I thought they would work fine. Boy, was I wrong! I developed blisters on the top on my blisters and before it was over I was gimping badly. I pushed through it, but my dogs were sure barking!
Or, to modify a familiar proverb: “When da feet ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”
So what kind of footwear is needed for a two week trip to Israel/Palestine? Obviously, we will not be climbing any 17,000 foot mountains. Still, the physicality of such a trip should not be underestimated.
Walking, Walking, Walking
Daily transport in-country is often facilitated by motor coach (bus). Because the country is relatively small, we hop on the bus, ride a short distance, and hop off again. Once at a site, we walk to and around it. Rarely does the bus stop directly where we want to be. In a few cases, the walk to and through a site may be the distance of a mile. And it is not a “sidewalk mile” either. Uneven steps, dirt trails, rocks, and ledges without rails are common. Having your feet secure beneath your body is critical.
On Jerusalem days we may not use a bus at all. The city streets are too narrow for cars, much less big motor coaches. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that Jerusalem is built on a hill. There are stairs everywhere, made of cut limestone and worn smooth (and slick when it rains) by millions of feet. Most of these have no handrails. Occasionally we leave the hotel on foot in the morning, return to the hotel on foot in the evening. Between these two moments, we are on our legs all day. My point is this: having your feet secure beneath your body is critical.
A few years ago, there was a fellow on one of our trips who brought along a little device that counted his steps. I don’t remember his step count, but I do remember that on the most intense day of the trip he walked a total of 12 miles (Keep in mind that this guy was a little goat, jumping here and there all the time!). His experience was extreme (and it was a spry group), but I’m guessing that even if the rest of our company walked only eight miles, that is still probably more than what most of us do on the regular basis. Having your feet secure beneath your body is critical. Being able to walk up to ten miles a day is also essential.
You need a goal? If you can walk 20,000 steps a day you'll be fine.
Because these trips can be strenuous, we are careful. From the front, I walk slowly and take my time. We stop regularly for breaks and help each other over obstacles. I also warn travelers in advance of the degree of difficulty for each day and stop. If a person does not feel up to it, there is no pressure to go. You can stay with the bus or rest outside. On walking days in the city (since we don’t always come back to the same spot), you can take “a day off” and recuperate in the hotel. I want every traveler to see as much as s/he is able, but not to push it to the point of injury.
So what about Footwear?
Given the challenges described above, footwear is the most strategic choice of clothing you must make. It is not the place go chintzy.
Let’s start by identifying the footwear that should stay in your closet at home. The obvious no-no’s for safe and efficient travel are anything with high heels, anything with metal in them (steel toes wreak havoc with security devices), anything heavily insulated, anything uncomfortable, and, of course, those flip-floppy-sloppy things (do you really want a staph infection?). Keep in mind that on a trip like this, fashion is on the bottom rung of concern. I don’t give a flip what you look like. I do care if your footwear puts you at risk in some way.
What Footwear should I bring?
Rather than recommending specific shoes, let me give you some questions to ask yourself as you stare at your closet at home. Before mindlessly grabbing something, ask yourself a few questions.
Are these breathable?
Because temperatures are warm to hot in the spring and summer months in Israel/Palestine, breathability in your footwear is critical. Hot feet are uncomfortable feet. For me, a heavy leather shoe is a bad choice. Classic hiking boots are a bad choice. Galilee is not the Yukon and we will not be doing any bushwacking. Get something meshy and synthetic and antimicrobial that allows your feet to breathe, and believe me, when you take your shoes off at the end of the day, your roommate will thank you.
Are these comfortable?
The day before you fly is not the day to buy shoes. The shoes you wear on the trip should be a pair that you have already worn for many miles. I always recommend that travelers begin a regimen of regular walking several months in advance of their trip. This will prepare you (and your feet) for the journey. If you have given a pair a shoes a substantial “test drive” you already know if they are comfortable and if you can be in them for a whole day without difficulty.
Do they fit well?
Footwear that are too tight or too loose become blister factories (Did I tell you about Ararat?). Make sure your shoes fit well and that their fasteners (laces, velcro, buckles, etc.) are secure and don’t loosen in time. Flip flops do just what their name implies and should be avoided at all costs. Try pairing your shoes with specific sock/sock liner/shoe insert combinations and see how they work together. Log many miles in them before the trip.
Do they protect my feet?
Because we will be walking over a variety of surfaces, the soles of your footwear are critical. The soles must be thick enough to protect your feet (and heels) when scampering over rock and gravel. They must be supportive enough to hold your feet up when walking on hard surfaces all day long. And finally, they must have enough tread/grip that you will not slip on wet stone surfaces.
Are they light?
Every step requires energy. A lighter shoe means less stress. You will be working hard enough as it is. Pick something light and go easy on yourself.
Not really. I usually wear running shoes/trail running shoes for our daily walks because they meet all the criteria described above. Because I have pronation issues, I also go with a shoe that has extra support in the midsole (stronger on one side than the other) or use an insert. I have tried the new breed of sport sandals and find them to be a good choice as well (just be sure they have a toe cap).
How many shoes do I need for this trip?
I recommend a total of two. One for each foot.
Wear them on the plane and save packing space. There are no “dress up” nights on our trips (a study-tour ain’t a cruise, baby!). Remember, the goal here is to live light.
. . . Wait. Throw in a pair of really cheap water shoes (or jelly shoes or Crocs) if you plan on walking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem or swimming in the Dead Sea. (Note: you cannot go through the Tunnel barefoot.)
. . . and Finally . . .
Be sure use hot soapy water to wash your feet every night before bedtime. Open your shoes up and let them air out at night. Don’t forget to bring a few essentials for foot care. Toenail clippers, anti fungal cream, antibiotics, petroleum jelly, and liquid bandage. A dash of Anti-Monkey Butt powder here and there will makes you feel as fresh as a daisy.
Take good care of your feet and they will take you where you need to go!