Battle of the boots
It was the month of February and I was a few miles into the high desert looking for javelina. My hunting partner and I hiked quickly through the rocky dry landscape that is Arizona, peering through our binoculars as we went. This rugged terrain eats through boots much like wax melts beneath the hot flame of a candle. Up until this point, I had always gone the cheap route in terms of what boots to buy for my hunts. After spending the day glassing for javelina to no avail, we decided to head back to the truck. On the way out, the whole sole of my boot came off and I was left hobbling through the desert. I remember cutting my shoelace and using it to strap the sole back to the boot for the walk back. No longer would I skimp out on boots because of this.
With all of the types of boots on the market, choosing the right one for you can be a bit daunting. All of us are different in terms of our feet and what we need a boot to do for us. Maybe you are an ultralight hunter who wants the lightest boot possible with minimal stiffness. Perhaps, you frequent the craggy mountains that sheep call home and need something much beefier. Whatever the case is, we all have one thing in common here: We need a good pair of footwear to carry us through our journey, no matter what that journey entails. In light of that, I am going to go through the different options we have out there for boots. Is one better than the other? Let's find out.
Ultralight trail runners
I am sure when you think of hunting, the first thing that pops into your mind is not "ultralight trail runners." Why in the world would someone actually wear a trail runner on a backcountry hunt or any hunt in general for that matter? You are not alone in your thoughts here. Believe it or not, though, there are quite a few folks out there that really enjoy rocking these in the mountains. They are extremely comfortable, usually waterproof, lightweight and quiet. This is great for bowhunters out there that prefer to not shed their boots on a stalk. An option like this is going to save you energy in the long run as well from not having to lift up a heavier option with every step you take. They also have a little to no break-in period, which is another plus.
However, there are some drawbacks with this type of shoe. The first is going to be durability. Not in a million years will a pair of these stand up to the rigors of the mountains like a pair made of full leather with rubber rand option. This means you will be spending more money more often to stay in the game with your feet as you replace your footwear over and over. You lose two things here: longevity and the shoes staying waterproof. Once a cactus needle goes through your lightweight footwear, guess what? No more dry feet when it rains. A gaiter could help with this and with debris getting in through the tops, but you can only do so much. However, it's a give and take. Are the cons worth the pros? For many they are. If not, let’s keep looking.
Next on our list is what I like to call a "tweener." A kind of hybrid if you will. They are neither heavy nor extremely lightweight but fall right in the middle of everything. They are a great option for most people out there while offering much more support than the ultra-light model... I like to think of these as a heavyweight trail runner. I say that because they maintain the comfort of the ultralight option, but have an increased value in durability. They are a win-win. Because they have a soft sole, they are going to be quieter than a boot with a hard sole. As you are traversing through rocky terrain, you will notice that these boots tend to wrap around rocks, rather than fight with them. There is much less resistance to the different terrains you will encounter, hence giving them the ability to make less of a racket. They are great for bowhunters. I've successfully stalked animals in these many times. They offer little to no break in period as well.
So, are they perfect? No, unfortunately, they aren't. While these are more durable than the ultralight versions, some still fall short in this category. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I can see how some folks might not be OK with that, especially after laying down the cash for them. I have found that boots in this category will last about a year, give or take. I've also heard of people getting up to four years out of them, too. It really depends on how much you use them. Another drawback is going to reflect the first and that is waterproofing. Once the outside of the boot is compromised, your waterproof boot is no longer waterproof. You might also notice that your feet sweat more in these than in the lighter options. With them being waterproof on top of more beefy, they are not as breathable. Worth it? If not, let's keep looking.
A full leather boot with rubber rand on a hunter is a classic image to me. They have stood the test of time and continue to do so year after year. With this route, you are going to get the most out of durability, waterproofing, and support. There is a reason that guides and outfitters across the West gravitate towards this type of boot. They are in the field more than any of us, packing out animal after animal and need something that will withstand whatever is thrown at them. Longevity is of no concern, especially if you take care of the leather. By doing so, you will just increase the life and waterproofing of the boot. I have heard of many hunters getting these resoled over and over again. Unlike the soft sole option, with these, you will not feel the rocks you are stepping on. That could be considered a positive or negative depending on how you look at it. A positive because they will save your feet from abuse. The negative? We'll discuss that below. Simply put: these boots were built for the mountains.
What is not to like about these? It sounds like they cover the gamut with hunting footwear. Just like the others, there are cons that go along with the pros. The biggest one for me is comfort. These boots are going to be way stiffer than the others, which is going to make them not as comfortable as a soft sole option. In light of that, they are also going to require much more break-in time. So, if you do go this route, make sure that you spend the time before your hunt breaking them in. If not, you might be in for a world of hurt on the mountain. I've made this mistake before and it's not fun. Because of the stiffness, I also find it a lot harder to walk around. They do not conform to the shape of a rock, so your legs will get thrown to the right or left if you aren't paying attention. A lot of stumbling goes on here if you aren't used to these. Due to them not conforming to rocks, these are not going to be a good option for stalking. Plan on ditching the boots above that bedded buck.
At first thought, I think it is natural for all of us to gravitate towards waterproof footwear. How could we not, right? We encounter all sorts of weather, paired with creek crossings, etc. when we’re hunting. It’s important to understand something about waterproof footwear, though. They keep water out but also will keep water in. On more than one occasion I have heard of people complaining about how their waterproof boot wasn't keeping the water out. While this could be the case some of the time, it might not be all of the time. It might be an issue of sweat inside the boot, rather than water getting in. Having a good sock, along with airing your feet out during the day could alleviate this.
This is hands down the number one thing to consider—no matter the boot. Spending the time actually going and trying on these different options to make sure they fit you right is going to pay off huge in the end. Proper fit is everything when it comes to boots. I would rather have a less durable, less waterproof boot that fit me than one that is the most durable and waterproof option out there, but that didn't fit. I would highly recommend that you go to someone who is qualified to fit you. This will give you a better idea of what options are going to be best for you.
When you do go and try on different pairs of boots, don't forget to bring the sock you are going to plan on wearing with them. Doing so is really going to give you a better picture of how they actually fit. It doesn't matter how they feel with socks you aren't going to use in the field. Another thing to mention on socks is I truly believe that most folks go too thick with socks. They are paranoid about their feet getting cold and naturally want a thick wool sock to pair with their hunting boot. This is especially true for late season hunts. I would urge you to try out a thinner option, though, particularly for western spot and stalk hunting. I used to wear multiple pairs of socks when I was a kid and I would always get cold feet. Fast forward to present day and I really enjoy a very thin merino wool sock year-round. I run the same sock in January that I run in August. Low temperatures during January here in Arizona where I hunt sit anywhere from 10 degrees to mid-30s. Keep that in mind. Doing this, I don't have the cold feet problem any longer. Probably, because my feet aren't sweating anymore.
I wasn't a huge believer in aftermarket insoles until I was faced with a boot that was giving me problems. Over and over, I kept getting what we call heel lift. This was because the boot didn't fit me perfectly. It felt great on flat surfaces, but once we started climbing, that dream was gone. Something that completely fixed the issue for me was replacing my insoles with ones that have more depth. Doing so took up more room in the boot and did away with my issues. Aftermarket insoles seem to offer way more comfort and support than the ones that come with these boots. I'd strongly consider this—even if the boot isn't giving you a problem.
So, out of the options we have discussed, which boot is the best? I think you have gathered up until this point that it is a very individualistic thing. We are just so different in how our feet are shaped combined with what we need out of a boot. Some folks put comfort over support and some the other way around. There is no right way for everyone, except their way. The only way to find that out is to get out there and try these on for yourself. Ask yourself what kind of terrain will you be in most of the time. How cold or warm will it be? Are you backpacking? Whatever route you go, do your research and don't cheap out as I did in the beginning. Your boots are your tires and, without them, well, getting around is going to be a challenge. I am happy to report that since I have changed my ways with boots I have not had to walk back to my truck with my sole tied on via shoelace.