Editor’s note: This is the sixth of an eight-part series by writer / photographer Brian Buckner about hiking in the Cuenca area. To read the earlier installments, see the links at the bottom of the article.
By Brian Buckner
Writing about the things that will increase your quality of life as you hit the trails is a dubious proposition.
A full book can’t do justice to what’s needed by different types of hikers, scramblers or climbers in Ecuador. I’ll scale it way back and give you my thoughts on what works for me. Here’s a few items from my essentials list.
You’ll need good sturdy trail shoes at minimum. These shoes are more suited for conquering town sidewalks than boots. The next step up is to buy waterproof and breathable shoes with a built in moisture vapor membrane. Also, the tread should be aggressive with some type of lugs to provide good purchase in those rocky and slippery areas. Better yet, is to buy a 3/4-high or ankle-high shoe/boot. You’ll receive more support for your ankles and may tire less quickly. Also, if you get a twist there on the trail, more support may help prevent serious sprains. And protecting those ankle bones is always a good idea, one good lick on a rock you didn’t see in the páramo and you’ll know why you bought them.
I like a full-height boot most of the time even though they are slightly heavier, the protection from rocks and water is great. Also, they can be markedly warmer than a low quarter shoe. I have all these types of footwear and I wear different types for different conditions I expect in the field. If you decide that one pair must suffice for your hiking needs, meet in the middle and get 3/4 or ankle-high, waterproof.
In closing, a waterproof shoe is good in grass with heavy dew. However, when rain sets in, most pant/shoe combos begin to fill your shoe with water. An ankle high 3/4 is fairly successful in preventing this, a full boot, even better. Keens are my favorite shoe and Vasque’s my favorite boot. Rubber boots are really only good to use when you know you’ll be standing in water for extended periods. They don’t breathe and are a poor choice for the trails.
Don some good-quality socks before slipping on your footwear. For everyday use, I like ankle high cotton with some padding for wicking perspiration. The synthetic or acrylic type socks don’t serve me well. They wick okay but my feet slide around too much in the sock and then, in the shoe. For other hikes when I wear 3/4-ankle highs or full height boots, I really like wool. Smart Wool is my fave. Wool is not only warmer but can stay warm even when wet because of its hollow fibers. When cotton or acrylic gets wet, you’ll be singing the blues.
I like nylon or other synthetic pants for hiking, they dry very quickly when you’re caught in one of Ecuador’s common rain events. Button or velcro pockets can do a good job of helping you keep up with your stuff. I use a trim fitting pant that has a little stretch in it. Unless you’re a bigger person, I would avoid loose fitting trousers, blousy britches catch on all types of things that can tear your clothes and trip you up. Sleeking up your body profile by having a little tighter fit can help you glide through underbrush or past grass and small brush easier. Another cool thing about some synthetic hiking pants I use is that they are pre-treated with insect repellent when manufactured. Mine say they retain insect repellency for seventy washings. Cotton’s OK but once I became used to synthetic, I never looked back. Save that cotton for lounging around camp later if you want.
Layering Your Shirts
I use synthetic base layer shirts for my hiking and then, build my layers from there. These synthetic base layers wick very well and I always feel dry in mine even with some fairly extreme activity. I use 1/2 zips because I can dump heat quickly when I need to by unzipping for a few minutes. If it’s not too cool, this is often all I wear. Next layer, 1/2 zip micro-fleece. Next layer for me is a goose down sweater. After that, wind and rain jacket. If it’s really cold and windy, I add one to two more layers. Staying light and maintaining freedom of movement is the name of the game. Remember, zippers can help you warm up or drop heat quickly. In lower elevations where temperatures are warmer, I use nylon shorts and light, short-sleeved base layers that dry in an instant. I wear these type clothes with a slightly looser fit to help promote air movement between the garments and my body.
La Costa or El Oriente can be hot and humid, dress accordingly. Sometimes the insects are relentless at lower elevations and adding your favorite type of insect repellent isn’t enough to keep the bugs at bay while wearing your shorts and tank top or sports bra. Reach for lightweight synthetic pants and even a very light long-sleeve shirt. It’s really not bad at all temperature wise and the biters won’t get to you as easily.
You may not feel as joyous about the rain as John Audubon did when he wrote, “Thank God it has rained all day. I say thank God, though rain is no rarity, because it is the duty of every man to be thankful for whatever happens by the will of the Omnipotent Creator; yet it was not so agreeable to any of my party as a fine day would have been.” That quote makes me laugh every time I read it! It’s going to rain on you and more than once; the weather is hugely unpredictable.
If it’s warm and you don’t mind getting soaked and then air drying, it’s not much of an issue. Just use those quick drying articles we’ve been discussing. I’m OK with getting wet sometimes but if I can, I usually avoid it. It’s more difficult to operate my camera gear when I’m wet and the gear’s not supposed to be. Perhaps an activity you enjoy outdoors requires your gear to remain fairly dry too. As you move up in elevation from the east or west toward the foothills and mountains of Ecuador, temperatures begin to drop and rain becomes colder and the wind is more intense. Here’s the way to think of it: as you go higher, so does the likelihood of suffering from exposure if you are not appropriately clothed. It’s time to be serious since conditions can be life threatening if you’re not prepared. It seems silly to say this but it’s not a good idea to get soaking wet at colder, higher altitudes.
Dependable rain gear is a must, I find no way around it. Some people I know successfully carry a small umbrella for brief showers and more in-town type hikes. Out in the countryside, its better to have something to wear which also frees both hands for tasks. If you can possibly afford it, do yourself a huge favor and buy only the best: it will pay off in both comfort and dependability. Use membrane products that have a moisture/vapor barrier so that when your exercising body makes a little steam, it has a way to get out, yet water won’t be able to get in. You’ll stay dry and avoid the clamminess from a rubber coated garment that has no way to breathe and let steam from perspiration out. For example, a yellow rubber slicker is certainly better than nothing and will keep you dry from the outside, for a little while anyway. But, you’ll be wet on the inside from your own steam. Don’t take chances by not carrying or wearing good quality rain gear. You can’t put it on if it’s not in your pack. It’s serious business being soaking wet and cold. Use your best judgement and advise others to check to be sure they are leaving on the hike with what they need. You’re not being a busybody, you’re being a good hiking buddy. It’s good to check with all members of your party, even the most experienced sometimes leave an important item back at the trail head.
Your rain pants should allow enough room for a long under-layer and/or a hiking pant. If you can, buy some that have an articulated knee where the knee of the pant is actually at an angle to facilitate the natural bend in your leg. Men, good rain pants will have a waterproof zipper fly, that’s handy on the trail. Moisture/vapor membrane is important here also to allow the dissipation of body steam. Try to select rain pants that have reinforced cuffs, multi-ply in these areas. This greatly increases durability and will help you glide through some páramo or other low grass/brush. The cuff should be adjustable by built in draw elastics and perhaps a snap. Mine have both. You’ll want a small hook built into the cuff front so you can snap under your boot laces to prevent the pant from ever riding up. If you’re climbing, this is just about indispensable. If you’re hiking and it’s raining, the cuff covers the top of your boot and water can’t run down the pant leg and into your boot or 3/4 ankle high shoe/boot. You’ll pay a little more for them but Ark’teryx makes some top notch rain gear that’s light weight, durable and dependable. The performance makes the price worth it for my purposes. The gear doubles as a wonderful windbreaker. And in Ecuador where the weather changes quickly, I can roll this gear up and drop it into a 35 liter pack(small, day pack) where it uses little space. As a bonus, it’s very light too. This type gear is also small and light enough to be carried in a technical pack.
If you can, it’s great to have a jacket that has pit-vents. These are openings under each arm controlled by a long two way zipper. You can quickly open these to allow moisture vapor to dissipate quickly or leave them open to prevent buildup from the start. I leave mine open almost always except during extreme conditions usually above 13K feet where wind driven rain can be more than a nuisance. Of course, a hood is part of the jacket and one that is adjustable to accommodate a climbing helmet is welcome when needed. Elastic drawstrings and velcro get your gear fitting you properly around your body by closing off entry points at neck, waist and wrists.