Articles (Tools & Gear)

There’s A Boot For That
(Hunting Boots Buyers Guide)

This article has originally been published in the BC Outdoors Magazine
© By Othmar Vohringer

hunting_boot.jpgModern technology in boot manufacturing and new materials makes it possible for hunters to find a pair of boots that are both functional and comfortable. Weather you climb the steep mountain sides in pursuit of rams and goats, hike the vast grasslands for the elusive pronghorn antelope, spend hours in a treestand waiting for a whitetail deer, or traverse the northern muskeg-swamps looking to find a bull moose, there’s one thing you can be rest assured of: there’s a boot for that.

There are many aspects to consider before we put our hard earned cash down. A pair of flexible and light hiking boots are ideal for upland bird hunting or stalking deer in the river bottoms. Take that same pair of boots on a mountain hunt and they could get torn to shreds amongst the jagged rocks and steep mountainsides before you even reach base camp. Other considerations are the time of year that you do most of your hunting; a boot layered with cooling membranes for the dessert will “cool” your feet to the freezing point on a late November deer rut hunt. Define the type of boot you need by the habitat (rocks, sand, dirt, snow, grass, brush or mud), terrain (mountains, hills or flat) and the climate (hot, wet, dry or cold).

The definition you come up with will determine what type of sole (stiff or flexible), the boot material (light or heavy leather), insulation strength (see side panel) and waterproofing would be perfect for you. Another consideration to take into account is the height of the boot collar. Personally I prefer 8 to10-inch collar heights for boots I am wearing in high grass, on gravel and anywhere else were debris could fly up into the boot top. The terrain you are most likely to traverse will determine what type of sole is best.

I am not much of a mountain hunter and so I asked my brother, a Swiss mountaineer, what he would recommend on the type of boots to wear. He recommends a boot with a relatively high collar to give stability to the ankle in the uneven mountain terrain. Preferably, the ideal mountain boot should have stiff soles with an aggressive profile that will dig into the ground and grab on to the smallest rock projections. For better foot support the boot should be of a lace-to-the toe design that lets you lace the boot tightly around the length of the foot.

Conversely, in gentler terrain and in the lowlands a lighter boot with a less aggressive sole profile and thinner soles and uppers are better suited. These boots are lighter, maximize comfort and move naturally with your feet.

A boot category that became very popular with whitetail deer bow hunters and generated a new market that slowly spills over to Canada, is the knee-high rubber boot. The reasons these boots are popular is not the fact that they are completely waterproof, but rather that they are also scent resistant, meaning that they do not leak human scent. But this is not the reason why I own two pairs of rubber boots, one pair knee-high, the other hip-high. The reason I own them is because they keep my feet dry in tall dew-wet grass, in the duck marsh or crossing creeks and walking in the swamps. These specialised rubber boots fit tightly around the foot and ankle and will not pull off when you sink into ankle deep mud. This tight fit combined with hard rubber soles, featuring a steel or hard plastic shank, makes these boots also quite comfortable to walk for several hours without getting sore or tired feet. These hunting rubber boots are also available in insulated and non-insulated versions that, depending on the amount of insulation, will keep your feet warm even in the coldest temperatures.

A hybrid of sorts combining leather and rubber boots is the L.L. Bean boots, named after its inventor. The shaft of the boot is made of leather and the foot part of rubber. L.L. Bean boots come in a variety of shaft lengths und insulation strengths. These are my favourite boot to take on a spring turkey hunt, when wet ground conditions are frequent. The unique design of these boots provides me with the best of both worlds, waterproof rubber at the bottom with the comfort and flexibility of leather around the ankle. The only drawback with these boots is that they only can be laced up the leather shaft. The rubber part of the boot cannot be laced and that makes them not an ideal option for traversing steep hills or mountain sides.

A few words about Insulation.

The most common material used to insulate hunting boots is Thinsulate™, a product of the 3M Corporation. Thinsulate™ is a moisture-resistant and breathable fiber, sandwiched between fabric linings that trap warm body temperature but lets moisture pass through. With that Thinsulate™ fulfills two important elements in keeping your feet warm: trapping warmth while wicking moisture away from the skin surface. Thinsulate™ insulation strength is measured in grams per square metre. Common insulation weights for hunting boots are:
  • 200 grams, for cool conditions or high activity levels.
  • 400 grams, cold conditions or moderate activity levels in cool conditions.
  • 600 grams, for very cold conditions or moderate activity levels in cold conditions.
  • 800 grams, for extremely cold conditions with light activity levels.
  • 1,000 grams, for extremely cold conditions with light to minimal activity levels.

The insulation strength provided above is for normal to moderate activity levels. This is important to remember for hunters sitting motionless for hours in a treestand or blind the later part of the hunting season. On such occasions a higher insulation grading, or additional insulation with thicker socks, may be needed to obtain the same insulation levels, instead of 600 grams insulation 800 grams or even 1,000 grams may be required in these cases. Besides keeping the feet warm Thinsulate™ also provides comfortable padding to the boots, preventing excessive rubbing of the skin on hard leather and stitching.

Now let’s look at various less obvious parts a good hunting boot that should play an equal part in choosing the perfect footwear for you.

The sole:
The boot sole is comprised of three parts; outsole, midsole and insole. The outsole (bottom of the boot): Most of the modern boots use an outsole made of synthetic rubbers of various densities and hardness. One of the ultimate outsole materials that is predominantly in use these days is “Vibram” (see side panel for more information), and for good reason. Vibram soles, named after its inventor, are the invention of an Italian mountaineer who wanted to create an outsole with the qualities of Pirelli race car tires. The result of this endeavor was a rubber sole that provides excellent traction on the widest range of surfaces from rock to snow, mud, ice and even oil yet contains a very high degree of abrasion resistance and is impervious to most oils and chemicals.

The tread pattern on the sole is important. Air bobs, my favourite pattern, are rounded knobs that provide good traction without getting clogged up with mud, dirt and snow. However, they are not an ideal choice for the mountain hunter because the air filled bobs flex and cling to everything for the ultimate grip, but can rip off on jagged rocks and therefore are not recommended for rough mountain terrain. Shallow treads are preferred by upland bird hunters because they make for easier walking but slip in the snow and mud. Wide deep V-shaped aggressive lugs are all the rage right now, hailed as the do-all and be-all outsole pattern that does not fill up with mud or snow and provides a good grip in most terrain. Thinking about the tread pattern when you purchase a new pair of hunting boots is important, you want the pattern that’s best for the terrain and time of year you intend to use the boots, this not only aids comfort but also safety.

The Midsole:
This is a protective, sometimes insulated or cushioning layer sandwiched between the outsole and insole. Usually midsoles are made of cork or one to two layers of leather. During the past decade midsoles have been improved by using modern materials such as thermoplastic rubber and polyurethane that can be better molded for various thicknesses to support particular parts of the foot or provide more cushioning and with that, wear ability and comfort of the boots. The insole: The insole, usually removable, is the layer of the sole that is in contact with the foot. These too were originally made of leather or cork to absorb perspiration. The problem with leather and cork was that it hardened, shrank and in the case of cork, disintegrated over time. The new synthetic fiberboard insoles not only last much longer but they can be custom molded to just about any walking style and foot form.

are an important part of the sole. These are inserts of spring steel, wood or plastic and provide support for the foot arch. Depending on the design a shank can add stiffness or assist the foot in springing back to its form, important when carrying a heavy load down hill. Boot Uppers: Everything above the soles is the uppers. The most common materials for the boot uppers are leather, cordura nylon or rubber. Full-grain leather is the full thickness of a cow hide, stiff, durable and heavy. Split leather has been thinned and is more flexible and lighter. Depending on the use of your hunting boots you may choose the stiffer full-grain leather or split-leather boots.

Cordura is a material made of a nylon weave which is lighter than leather. Unlike leather, Cordura has no natural resistance to water and thus needs a special membrane liner to make it waterproof. Cordura is not heat resistance and melts easily so don’t try to dry them out close to a campfire. Because Cordura it is a weave it is easily penetrated by thorns and other sharp debris which needs to be considered if you hunt in a place where thorn bushes or cacti exist. In my opinion the most durable boots are constructed of full grain leather and if cared for properly can last a life time. Over the years I have owned dozens of all kinds of hunting boots and some of the oldest that still serve me well are made of an all-leather construction. Lining: The interior boot lining is most commonly made with a synthetic fabric called Cambrelle. Cambrelle helps with moving moisture away from your feet and is sturdy enough to protect everything layered beneath it such as paddings, insulations and waterproofing membranes.

The most common waterproofing material used is Gore-Tex. This is not a fabric but a membrane (see side panel for more information) with tiny holes just large enough to let moisture vapor (sweat) pass through but not water. To waterproof a hunting boot it is lined with a Gore-Tex bootie that is either suspended between protective layers or is laminated directly onto the inner boot itself. Great care in the installation of Gore-Tex must be taken not to puncture it with a sowing needle as it would leak in water. That is the reason why Gore-Tex booties are only sown onto the boot along the upper boot-neck rim.

Boot lacing systems:
Lacing systems consist either of eyelets, reinforced with metal rings, D-Ring loops that pivot on hinges or lacing hooks. The lacing system can also be a combination of the three above. While boots with hooks can be quickly laced up they have one drawback. The hooks are prone to snagging on grass, pant cuffs and forest debris. One lace up system that has proven very valuable in the mountains is the lace-to-the-toe construction. This lacing system extends nearly all the way to the toes thus providing the foot more support and preventing the foot from slipping forward on steep downhill hikes.

A few additional tips.

About Leather:
Despite what some may believe, leather is not waterproof, it is water resistant. To stop leather from soaking up water I treat my boots regularly with some type of leather wax or other manufacturer recommended sealant. But I don’t just smear the stuff on to the boot; I thoroughly rub it into the leather, paying particular attention to the stitching. Do new boots need to be broken in? Modern boots are constructed in such a way with padding, liners, contoured innersoles and insulations that breaking them in may not seem necessary but to me it makes sense to get a new pair of boots broken in by wearing them on short walks, then on longer hikes until my feet feel totally happy in them. I do my boot breaking-in sessions well before hunting season arrives.

Taking Care Of Your Hunting Boots.
hunting_boot2.jpgProper maintenance and care of your boots will ensure they last for years and keep them in good working order. It all starts by keeping hunting boots clean. Nothing ruins them faster than dirt, mud, moisture, and extreme heat. The leather and stitching quickly will start to break down if boots are not cleaned and nourished regularly. I clean my hunting boots after each day out in the field by wiping and brushing off dust and mud. If the boots get wet I stuff newspaper or even towels inside after removing the Gore-Tex bootie, and dry them gradually in warm air, not directly over beside a campfire or stove. If I am at home I may blow dry boots with the hair dryer at the lowest setting.

When the boots are completely dry I wipe them clean with a cloth moistened with leather soap and a warm water mixture. The clean boots are then treated with leather conditioner. To do that I use the manufacturer recommended animal fat and, or beeswax based products. With a cloth I firmly rub the conditioner into the boot leather and all the seams.

Cordura boots can be easily cleaned with a soft brush and mild soapy warm water. When the boots are dry apply a coat of spray on a water repellant recommended by the manufacturer. Rubber boots can be easily cleaned with a brush or cloth and warm soapy water. Never use solvents as they can damage rubber. Never dry rubber boots in direct heat; this will break down the rubber, Just like leather, rubber too needs to be conditioned to keep it from deteriorating. Use a quality silicone based rubber conditioner recommended by the boot manufacturer.

Store all hunting boots during the off season in a dark, cool and dry place. To prevent boots from getting dusty I store them in Rubbermaid® boxes, after I cleaned and conditioned them, leaving a small gap open on the lid to let air circulate. To make my hunting boots last (my oldest pair is over 15 years old and still in working shape) I wear them for hunting only, not to walk around town or do garden work, that’s why they are called hunting boots.

You may have noticed that no brand name boots are mentioned in this article. Why not? Although I do have my favourite brands they are of no consideration when I set out to purchase a new pair of hunting boots. I think that focusing on a particular brand can be detrimental to the thought process of what is important. The first priorities should be “where and what time of year do I intend to use the boots?” and then looking at the boot has the properties that fulfill all the requirements. After that spend an hour or more in a shoe store and try on different pairs of boots, including different brands. Don’t just put a pair of boots on your feet then walk a couple of steps with it in the store and make a decision. When I purchase a pair of new boots I make sure I wear the type of socks that I will wear when I am out hunting. I will also walk around in them for a few minutes. During that time I twist my ankle sideways, kick the toe and heal in the ground; I may even jump up and down in the new boots. It’s only if I feel perfectly comfortable and nothing squeezes and there are no pressure points that I will I look at the brand label. To me hunting boots are an important part of my hunting equipment that can make or break a hunt. From past personal experience I have learned that less-than-perfect fitting boots lead to blisters, and quickly can become a battle of endurance. In one case wearing the wrong boots led to a twisted ankle and ended a hunt before it began. As hunters we spend a lot of time on our feet out in the bush and the better the boots fit and suit the environment we traverse the happier our feet will be. Lastly, wearing the right pair of hunting boots is also important for our personal safety; many injuries have occurred by wearing the wrong footwear for the terrain or weather conditions. There is no question about it that good calling is an essential part of turkey hunting success. The emphasis in the former sentence is on “good calling” as in getting the right sound and perfect pitch. Turkeys have been called to a great deal by hunters. They have learned to distinguish between a real turkey sound and almost real turkey sounds. This ability has saved many a toms life.
I welcome assignments from hunting related media. Send for queries and requests by email.

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