By Wade Bourne
One good indicator of boot quality is thickness of the leather.
Boots are the Rodney Dangerfield members of a hunter's wardrobe. They rarely get the respect they deserve.
This is because most hunters don't know much about boots - their materials, features and functions. More boots are bought by whim than through studied selection. Few customers -- know what constitutes good value in boots and how to match an individual's needs with available boot options.
This is ironic, since boots play such a critical role in success in the outdoors. Boots which are comfortable, which keep feet protected and dry, go a long way toward enhancing a hunter's pleasures. Conversely, boots which rub, which leak or which don't keep feet warm can ruin a trip in a hurry.
Following is "Hunting Boots from A to Z." This guide has been compiled with the assistance of some of the top hunting boot designers in the country. Readers should study the following sections to educate themselves about hunting boots features. Then, the next time their old boots wear out and a new pair is needed, they will be more able to make a more informed selection.
Modern hunting boots come in three primary materials: leather, fabric, and rubber -- each of which has its own unique characteristics.
Leather is the most traditional outer material. Several types of leather are used in bootmaking: cow hide, boar hide, kangaroo, etc. Of these, cow hide is predominant. Cow hide is strong. It wears well. It is less expensive than other leathers. Considering its price and performance, this is perhaps the best outer boot material in existence.
A green (untanned) cow hide is thick, so it is normally split into two layers before tanning. "Top leather" shows the grain of the outer skin, and it is the toughest of the two layers. The "split" layer is the bottom, fleshy side, and it tans with a smooth or suede finish. This "split" is tough in its own right, and being less expensive than top leather, it constitutes a very good per-dollar value. Its main drawback is its tendency to abrade, owing to its smooth surface.
One good indicator of boot quality is thickness of the leather. Thicker leather provides more protection and durability. When considering leather boots, check exposed edges for thickness.
Another widely used leather in bootmaking is boar hide. This leather is extremely tough. However, it has a very coarse outer grain, which some consumers do not like.
Kangaroo leather offers a combination of armor-like toughness and light weight. (Its fibers grow in a cross-hatch pattern, which provides this strength.) Because of these factors, this leather is typically used in upland hunting boots. Kangaroo boots are typically expensive because of the cost of this specialty leather.
Many leather boots are oil-tanned, which means they are impregnated with Neatsfoot-type oil. This process helps turn water, but it does not render the leather 100% waterproof. However, full waterproofness of leather can be achieved through chemical treatment or impregnation with silicon.
The best application for rubber boots is wearing in a wet environment.
Many modern boots are made with full fabric outers, or combinations or fabric with leather and/or rubber. These fabrics include natural fibers, manmade polymers and nylons.
Canvas (cotton) is the most prevalent of the natural fabrics, though it is rarely used in serious hunting boots because it absorbs water, leading to mildew and rot. Manmade polymer threads are woven into a fabric which is stronger than canvas, but not as strong as nylon. Boots made from polymer fabrics are inexpensive, but their longevity is consistent with their cost.
Far and away, the best fabric for boots is nylon, which is tough and a good value for its cost. One of the most widely used nylon fabrics is Cordura, which comes in a range of thicknesses. Cordura has a rough texture and abrades and becomes fuzzy through extended wear. However, this material is very hardy as an outer material in boots.
The advantages of fabrics in boot construction are several. They are cheaper than leather. They are lighter than leather. They can be colored or camouflaged in any pattern. Fabric boots require no breaking in.
Fabrics' disadvantages include: their strands may eventually unravel due to abrasion and pulling; they offer less protection than leather against sharp sticks or rocks; and they have more seams, which increases the chance of a blown seam at an inopportune time.
Boot buyers might consider the following guidelines for choosing between leather and fabric boots. For sporadic or light duty use, all-fabric boots are sufficient. For moderate use, fabric/leather combo boots are a good choice. (The leather should be used where the boots are more likely to receive their hardest wear - toe, sides, etc.) For serious hunting, especially in steep or rocky terrain, all leather boots are best.
Rubber is the third main boot material. Its primary feature is its efficiency in turning water. However, rubber boots trap and hold body moisture, so feet in rubber boots will get wet from their own perspiration. Also, rubber is susceptible to tearing from sharp objects. The best application for rubber boots is wearing in a wet environment, especially during long periods of inactivity (sitting in a deerstand or a duck blind) so the feet won't perspire.
In bootmaking, "construction" means how the sole is attached to the uppers.
Goodyear Welt is the most traditional and most durable of all construction methods. In this process, a welt (ribbon of leather or rubber) is stitched to the boot upper, insole and lining in one operation. Then the outsole is stitched to the bottom of the welt. The outsole is wider than the boot, and stitching is apparent.
Goodyear Welt boots are extremely tough. They provide excellent traction and the best lateral stability of all boots. Also, they are easily repairable at any shoe shop. On the downside, Goodyear Welt boots are more expensive than boots of other construction types.
In cement construction, leather is wrapped around a "last" (foot-shaped form) and cemented to the bottom of an insole. Then the outsole is cemented to the bottom of the insole. This process requires minimal labor, so these boots cost less than other construction types. Their main disadvantage is that, if a good cement bond is not achieved, the outsole can pull loose, and they are difficult to repair.
"Process 82" involves stitching a leather upper to a welt and stretching over a heated bronze form. Then a pure rubber outsole is molded directly to the leather. Thus, the welt and vulcanized bottom become one. This process is inexpensive, and the result is one of the most durable construction processes. Disadvantages include slightly higher weight and the inability to waterproof these boots without using a waterproof membrane bootie.
Air bob outsoles are good in rocks, dry dirt, and mud, plus they are self-cleaning.
Moccasin construction is what its name implies. The foot is totally enclosed in a leather moccasin, then the outsole is stitched on the bottom. This construction is very tough. However, if the cement outer bond breaks down, grit can work in between the leather and the outsole and cause discomfort to the wearer. Also, moccasin construction is done by hand, so it is expensive.
"Outsole" is the term for the bottom surface of the boot, what actually "digs into the dirt." Outsoles come in a variety of materials and tread designs for different terrain conditions.
Manufacturers typically develop outsole designs that are different from their competitors'. However, most outsoles can be classified into one of the four following categories:
Vibram Lugs - A "lug" is "a projection by which a thing is held or supported." In bootmaking, a lug is a hard rubber cleat with a sharp outside edge for digging or wedging into hard surfaces such as rocks, dry dirt or clay. Thus, lug soles have dependable records in rugged terrain. They are workhorses which are typically used when conditions are demanding and grades are steep. Their drawback is that, since the lugs are deep and closely spaced, mud packs around them and is difficult to get out.
Air Bobs - Air bob outsoles provide great traction in a broad range of terrain conditions. Air bob soles are dotted with rounded knobs which have hollow cores. These "bobs" flex when contacting hard surfaces. Each bob acts as an independent claw or finger, gripping where it contacts the ground. Air bob outsoles are good in rocks and dry dirt. They are equally efficient in mud, plus they are self-cleaning. Their rounded design and abundance of space between bobs discourages mud buildups. Air bobs make for a great all-purpose outsole.
Shallow Tread - These outsoles have a thin, wavy pattern for use in mud, grass and other slick walking surfaces. Their main purposes are to provide traction while not picking up mud. These soles are typically used on rubber boots and upland hunting boots. They are not suitable for steep terrain.
Hiking/Athletic - Athletic outsoles have shallow lugs which are omni-directional. They are very general in purpose. They provide fair traction, shallow grip and light weight for all-purpose use. Their main disadvantage is that they are not self-cleaning. They will pick up and hold mud, which diminishes their grip and adds to their weight.
Hunting boots come in a range of heights from ankle high to almost-knee high. The standard height is 8-10 inches (measured from the top of the sole). Boots in this range provide plenty ankle support and lower leg protection. They are tall enough to allow wearers to wade through shallow creeks or puddles without having water come over their boot tops. Also, standard height boots with gusseted tongues (stitched up the sides) will help keep out seeds, pebbles, etc.
For walking in rough terrain where steep climbs or descents are expected, hunters should wear boots at least 8 inches high for strong ankle support. Otherwise, boot height is a matter of personal preference in terms of comfort, support and leg protection. Taller boots provide more support, but they also weigh more (and cost more).
Insulation, Lining, Insole
Boot height is a matter of personal preference in terms of comfort, support and leg protection.
Insulation provides dead air space in boot walls which traps and retains body heat. The more dead air space per square inch of insulation, the more efficient it is.
Some hunters have better circulation and greater tolerance to cold than others, so the "right amount" of boot insulation is a personal matter. Those who seldom have cold feet should stick with lighter insulation weights, while those who have chronic problems with cold feet should go heavier. Also, hunters who walk continuously will need less insulation than others who sit or stand inactively for long periods.
Boot insulation comes in three main forms: micro-fiber insulation (i.e., Thinsulate), felt, and foam. Micro-fiber insulation is a padding which contains thousands of tiny fibers which provide loft and dead air space. This type insulation is very effective at a reasonable cost. It comes in different weights (200 grams, 400 grams, 1000 grams). The higher the number, the greater the insulating capacity. Also, heavier insulations are thicker, so boots with 1000 gram Thinsulate have bulkier walls than similar boots with 400 or 200 grams insulation.
Felt booties inside "pac boots" are a traditional combination for extremely cold temperatures. However, felt is bulky and heavy, and it tends to hold foot moisture.
Foam insulation provides dead air space, but it is less efficient than other boot insulations. (It takes more quantity for an equivalent insulating index.) Thus, foam-insulated boots are bulky and typically lower in quality and price than similar boots with micro-fiber or felt insulation.
When deciding on the right amount of insulation, the following general guidelines will apply to most hunters. For bitter cold conditions and periods of inactivity, consider boots with felt liners or 1000 grams of Thinsulate. For general purpose wear in temperate climates, boots with 400 grams of Thinsulate are a good choice. For active wear in temperate to warm climates, consider boots with 200 grams of Thinsulate, or perhaps no insulation at all.
Another consideration is where insulation is applied in boots. Some boots have insulation over the instep and up the sides of the foot, but not over the toes. Properly insulated boots have insulation completely over the toes, top and sides of the foot. Heat rises, and it will escape through the top of boots if no insulation is present to hold it in.
A boot lining is the material which surrounds the foot and directly contacts it. Its purpose is to provide a good fit and feel. A lining decreases friction where the inner boot contacts the foot, thus reducing the chance of blisters. A boot lining also holds insulation in place, and it provides inside protection for waterproof membrane booties.
Most boots have linings of leather or manmade fabrics. Leather linings are a traditional mark of quality. However, modern nylon and polyester linings are softer, lighter, more comfortable and less expensive than leather linings. The best linings are nylon fabrics, which last longer and wear better than other linings. (A lining of Cambrelle is an industry standard.)
The insole is the inside bottom of the boot - what the foots stands on. It defines how much room the foot has to move and flex inside the boot. Overall, the insole determines the shape, size and fit of the boot as well as the comfort level.
Most modern insoles are made from fiberboard which is treated to prevent bacteria and odor buildup. These insoles are lighter in weight and less expensive than leather insoles, which they replaced. Also, some companies are now fitting hunting boots with removable orthotic inserts molded from foam. These inserts are in the form of a foot, with extra support in the arch and heel areas. They provide additional shock absorption, and they insulate the bottom of the foot from temperature extremes.
Waterproofness in boots in achieved by using waterproof leather, incorporating a waterproof membrane bootie, or molding boots from rubber.
Waterproof leather is treated with silicon or other chemicals which causes the fibers to swell and lock out water. These boots still "breathe" (allow foot moisture to pass from the inside of the boot to the outside), though not as well as do boots with waterproof membrane booties. The seams of waterproof leather boots are sealed with rubber cement, and non-absorbing nylon thread is used in the stitching. Top quality waterproof leather boots, properly maintained, will provide long-lasting service.
To maintain waterproof leather boots, hose off mud and dirt at the end of the day. If necessary, clean them with a soft bristle brush, then allow them to dry at room temperature (not by the fire!). Do not use soap or oil-based treatments on waterproof leather boots. Instead, treat them occasionally with a silicon spray.
Sewing a waterproof membrane bootie (i.e., Gore-Tex) between boots' outer and inner materials is another way to keep water out. These membranes have tiny pores which allow sweat vapor to escape from inside the boot but keep water molecules out. Thus, "Gore-Tex boots" are waterproof, but they also breathe, which keeps feet dry and warm. (Some boot models incorporate both waterproof leather and a waterproof membrane liner for ultimate waterproofness.)
Several types of eyelets, hooks and rings are available for lacing boots. Following is a list of these hardware types and their characteristics.
Eyelets: These round grommets are the strongest, least expensive lacing system. However, they also require the longest time to lace and unlace. Laces must be threaded through and tightened at each pair of eyelets for a snug fit.
D-Rings: Laces pass easily through these hanging D-shaped rings, which provide speed in lacing. Also, since D-rings put no tension on the laces, one pull will tighten or loosen several junctions simultaneously. However, D-rings won't hold tension on laces once they're tightened. For this reason, D-rings are typically used in combination with eyelets or cinch hooks to offer both lacing speed and a strong grip.
Hooks: Metal hooks are the fastest lacing system, but they are the least secure. If the laces loosen while the boots are worn, they may work out of a hook, and the boots will become unlaced. The strongest hooks (and most costly) are machined; stamped hooks are weaker and less expensive. Also, the best attachment system is with small steel washers to hold hooks in place. Hooks that are crimped directly onto the leather at the back of the hole tend to "eat" their way through the hole over time and pull free. Thus, hooks without washer backings are a sign of lesser quality.
Cinch hooks: These are similar to standard hooks, but they are narrower in the notch. When a lace is pulled tight through a cinch hook, the hook will hold it securely until a knot is tied. Cinch hooks are frequently used at the flex notch (where the boot is designed to bend). This allows someone lacing boots to keep tension in the lower eyelets or rings while the upper part of the boot is laced.
Many boots offer combinations of the above lacing hardware. The best way to test a particular lacing system is to put the boots on, then lace them completely. Check for security of lacing, speed/ease of lacing, tightness and overall comfort.
When it comes to laces, the best option is round braided nylon laces. These are long-lasting, and they flatten under tension and provide a good grip. Conversely, laces of leather or cotton will eventually rot and break when pulled tight during lacing.
Making the Right Choice
Great values exist in modern hunting boots, thanks to new materials and manufacturing technologies. Some insulated waterproof models retail for less than $100. These boots offer reliable service for hunters who don't get into the field very often and who have a hard time justifying big bucks for top line boots.
On the other hand, highest quality boots provide exceptional durability and comfort. They typically sell for $200 or more. These boots are for the avid, frequent hunter who needs the best footwear and is willing to pay for it.
Hunters shopping for new boots should carefully consider how they will be used. Will they be worn more for walking or stand hunting? Will the ground be rocky, muddy or sandy? Will the terrain be hilly or flat? How important is waterproofness, weight, insulation, ruggedness, ankle support, etc? What is the best lacing system?
By referring to the sections above, a hunter needing new boots can answer these questions, then pick a pair tailored to his specific needs. The guesswork is gone. Whim is replaced by knowledge, and the results are more comfortable feet and more enjoyable forays into the backcountry.