It is cold and rainy today in Utah. If I have a choice in hiking weather, rainy isn’t usually my favorite. I don’t have a lot of rain gear because we generally don’t get rain. I have exactly one raincoat and no umbrellas. So I feel like today is a great day to talk about a hiker’s most important gear: footwear. I have very strong opinions about footwear because I like having comfortable feet, and I’m really picky. I expect my boots to hold up in dense patches of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), hiking up shale, or wading through cow pies and dodging prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polycantha). I also need to be able to use a manual transmission while in the boots.
Trail Runners vs Hiking/Work Boots
This is pretty divisive among myself and my colleagues. I think the main differences can be boiled down to what you need. If you need a shoe that is light and breathable trail runners are great for that. Especially if you’re planning on staying on a trail and avoiding pokey plants and cheatgrass. I’m in the camp that prefers boots because I need the support. I have strong ankles, but I like the extra protection, grip and durability of boots. I wore trail runners in the field and was seriously injured because I wasn’t wearing my normal footwear. My foot slipped off a rock and I fell about 8-10 feet on a talus slope. I was fine, just had a concussion and a neck sprain, but if I had my regular boots I wouldn’t have been injured.
To start off with, I think it is worth spending money on your footwear. It is the only thing that protects you from the ground. If you screw up your feet, you won’t be able to hike easily. Don’t be afraid to spend over $100 on boots if you can afford it. I am frugal (my partner likes to say I’m cheap) and I don’t spend money on much besides good boots once a year and knitting materials. I usually spend between $200-300 on boots.
You can find boots at Walmart for $50-75 that have glued soles and synthetic materials. If you don’t hike for your job and only go hiking a couple of times per year, that’s fine. When you start hitting the $100-150 range, you’re getting into boots that are made to be hiked in regularly. This price range isn’t unreasonable if you’re getting mens’ boots. In my experience, women usually have to spend more to get the same quality of materials as a mens boot. I can’t tell you the amount of times I was really excited to find a really awesome boot for $150, but then saw that it had plastic eyelets that were glued to the leather, whereas the mens boots had metal d-rings that were secured to the uppers with rivets. To get the same quality, I would have had to spend an extra $40 because the mens boots didn’t go down to a small enough size.
Go to a place that does good boot sizing for women with quality shoes. I’ve been to many stores in my area that had a terrible women’s selection and terrible customer service. (Just because I like to wear lipstick and leggings doesn’t mean that this is my first time hiking, Kevin). I’d recommend going to stores that don’t require you to be a walking Patagonia or North Face ad to shop there. Despite womens sizing issues at Red Wings outlets, I really love the quality of their boots and their customer service. They usually can find small mens boots to fit women’s feet. I’d also try going to your local gear store. Here where I live, we have Out N Back, who I LOVE. They didn’t have the boots I wanted to try on, but were happy to send me to a store that did.
How to look for a quality boot
I prefer boots that are leather. I like the main body of the boot to be leather with a little bit of padding around the ankle for comfort. I like a flexible, but grippy sole.
GLUE: When I’m looking for a new boot, I make sure that there isn’t any glue leaking where the uppers meet the sole. You also don’t want any gaps. It should be pretty smooth. I feel that it shows that the manufacturer is detail-oriented. If there is glue all over, then what other defects exist?
LONGEVITY: I like boots that can be resoled--I don’t own a pair like that right now, but if you don’t wear out uppers before your sole wears out, you are a good candidate for resoling. It saves you money, saves it from landfills and saves you time breaking in new boots.
EYELETS/GROMMETS: Make sure the eyelets (where the laces go through) are metal and are securely attached to the boot. If you have plastic eyelets they will fall off and this can put you at risk for injury. You don’t want to trip on a bootlace while you’re rock scrambling.
SOLES: Do the soles fall apart if you aggressively rub them in your hands? If they do, don’t buy them.
INSERTS: Can you put in an insert? They can help with supporting your arches and encouraging proper spine alignment, while increasing the longevity of your boot. Very important if you have high/low arches and are on your feet all day.
Trying them on
Wear or bring socks that you are planning on using with these boots. When you put on your boots, notice where it is rubbing. If it’s an all-leather boot like the Red Wing 606 you can expect to be a little tight for the first two weeks or so. It’s because you have to break them in so the leather can form to your feet. It should be a little tight, but it will stretch out the more you wear them, especially if you regularly oil them. Walk in the boots you’re trying on. Run, squat, twist, go on your tiptoes. Do normal movements that you do every day at work. If they hurt your feet, talk to the salesperson. They’re there to help you find the perfect boot for your needs. If you know the kind of boots you want, try and find last seasons colors and styles for a discounted price. Usually there aren’t any defects and you can get a quality women’s boot at a very affordable price.
What I Wear
I’ve owned many pairs of boots in my life and my favorite boots so far are Vasque St. Elias Women’s Boot . I was boot-hunting for a few weeks in March 2019 and I was getting really frustrated trying to find a boot that fit my feet and would at least last me through the field season (Mid April-September). I wanted something that had metal eyelets that were secured to the uppers. Since March 2019, I’d estimate that I’ve put over 200 miles on this pair. I spent the spring and summer on the border between Nevada and Utah with highs ranging from 32F to 110F. They have survived a very unusual wet spring and summer. Post-field season uses, I have used them as regular cold weather boots while shoveling snow and going on walks in the park. I’ve also gone snow-shoeing in them and I was pleasantly surprised that they held up and kept my feet warm.
Keeping your boots in tip-top shape
Moisturize the leather on your boots, especially if you live in a dry climate like I do. It keeps the leather from cracking and breaking and increases the life of your boot.
Don’t wear them constantly. Your feet need to air out at the end of the day. Make sure to bring camping shoes with you like a pair of old slippers or sandals. It gives the leather time to breathe and let your boot air out.
Clean your boots after each use. I wipe my boots down with a damp bandana if there is a fine layer of dust, or let them dry out overnight if they’re covered in mud or scat and scrape it off the sole in the morning. If you’re traveling between areas, take off your shoes and socks and let them breathe.
Clean your feet! If you’re out in the field, make sure to wipe down your feet with a wet cloth or baby wipes. This helps prevent your feet from getting cuts, heat rashes blisters and body odors.
Always bring more socks. On my 8-day trips last season, I brought twice as many socks than I needed. Wear wool socks if you aren’t allergic. It wicks away moisture and keeps foot-funk down because of antimicrobial properties. This also helps you avoid sweat buildup in your boots.
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