Walking Boot Review

Author: George Tod

The Relative Merits of Boots I Have Worn



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Boots - The Most Vital Part of a Walkers Equipment

I am generally of the opinion that it is not necessary to spend large sums of money on the very latest in walking equipment - suitable equipment for use in all but the most severe weather conditions can be bought for a modest price and can perform quite adequately for the type of walking detailed in these diaries.

There is one part of a walker's equipment, however, which should be given much more consideration than anything else, and that is footwear. Badly chosen footwear can be responsible for endless pain and misery and can ruin the enjoyment of a walk, so it is essential to make sure at the outset, that footwear is comfortable, fits properly and is suitable for the terrain and weather conditions that are likely to be encountered throughout the walk.

For most of the long distance walks that are detailed here, boots are the only sensible choice, although some walks which stick mainly to well established footpaths over less severe terrain could be attempted in trainers if the weather is not too wet. However, my choice has always been to use walking boots, so the following comments refer to those.

It should be noted that most of the boots referred to here are probably no longer obtainable, as designs change very frequently. However, these comparisons can still be useful when looking at general issues regarding boot construction.

Fabric or Leather

These days there is vast range of boots to choose from at prices from less than 30 to well over 100 and in a variety of different materials, from traditional leather to fabric and synthetic materials. There is also a lot of high technology design incorporated into many boots to improve water resistance and to provide cushioning on the soles as well as a variety of other features. The boots I have worn have all fallen into the medium price bracket, but have varied considerably in design and construction, which has given me an insight into the pros and cons of some of these features.

Probably the most significant starting point is the choice of leather or fabric for the construction of the uppers and here I will list some of the features of each type.

  Conventional Leather Fabric/Synthetic
Waterproofing Good Poor but improved by Gore-Tex lining
Comfort Hard Leather can take a long time to 'break in'.
Footbed sometimes very solid, needing extra insoles for comfort.
Instant comfort from first wearing
Weight Generally heavier, though some are of lighter construction Generally lighter
Cleaning Mud often sticks to leather and has to be scraped and washed off. Materials are generally water repellent so mud does not stick. Remaining mud brushes off easily when dry.
Re-proofing Dubbin or wax preparations Liquid waterproofing agent
Common faults Leather cracks where most flexing occurs.
Stitching rots or frays.
Footbed disintegrates.
Gore-Tex lining wears through.
Stitching rots or frays.
Fabric tears (not very common)
Drying Fairly slow Very slow when soaking wet

Possibly the two most important differences are in comfort and waterproofing.

As well as these two main types of boot, there are also ones which combine the characteristics of both. They are constructed with all the comfort features of a fabric boot but are finished with a leather outer, which is usually of thinner leather to save weight. This helps to give more foot support and better water resistance, especially in combination with a Gore-Tex lining.

Comfort

Fabric boots tend to give instant comfort and feel more like trainers when worn, whereas leather generally takes some time to be 'broken in' and can cause some discomfort when new, although this can be minimised by choosing boots made from supple leather with soft padding, particularly around the ankle. Some leather boots even have a soft leather lining throughout for extra comfort. One pair of 'Daisy Root' leather boots I had were made of such tough leather that they were never really 'broken in' with over a thousand miles of walking, whereas my fabric boots could be worn for a twenty mile walk on their first outing without any significant discomfort. Fabric boots frequently have a soft, cushioned sole as well as material that easily moulds to the shape of the foot, whereas leather boots are generally of more rigid design, which makes them tougher and more durable, but can detract from the comfort.

One area of discomfort to which I am particularly prone is rubbing on my anklebones. In this respect, my fabric boots have generally been far more comfortable than my leather ones, as they have had much softer padding in this area. However, some of my more recent pairs of leather boots have proved to be almost as comfortable due to their very supple leather, particularly around the ankle.

Another area of discomfort is from boots with a very hard foot-bed. This is more often found in leather boots, where it is designed to keep the sole more rigid and to protect the feet from feeling sharp stones. Without additional cushioning, this results in all of the weight being taken on small pressure points and can cause extreme discomfort to build up on a long distance walk, whereas it may not even be noticed on a day walk of say 15 miles. This need not be a problem provided that the boots have been chosen with enough spare room to take thick insoles without causing the feet to be cramped, but this is not always taken into account when getting the right fit in the shop. It is always worth remembering that most boots have only a rather thin insole built into them and it is frequently desirable to have extra cushioning for better comfort.

As well as adding cushioned insoles, it is also worth looking into arch supports, particularly if, like me, you have a high instep. The normal support given by boots, even with additional insoles, is not always enough,and it is surprising how much extra comfort can be gained by additional support under the arches. Commercially produced arch supports are available, but are generally extremely expensive for what they are, so I have never bought any. I have often improvised by putting extra padding under my insoles but, more recently, I made my own arch supports from some glass-fibre car body repair material. I moulded them to the right shape by putting the resin in small polythene bags, which I put into my boots under my arches. When the material had set, a little bit of trimming was all that was required to complete the job. These have worked very well, and have the advantage that they are tailor-made for my feet.

The important thing to consider when trying to prevent the very painful foot-ache that can develop on a long walk, is that the wider an area over which you can spread the load, the better. It is not as important to have something soft and springy, as it is to have something contoured to the shape of the foot, although springy materials do also help absorb the shock. This is particularly important with boots that have a very solid, flat, inflexible foot-bed, although it can be of benefit in any type of boot.

Another factor when trying to minimise foot-ache, is that boots should not be so tight that they restrict the blood flow, particularly to the points that are taking most of the weight. Every time the foot is lifted, the pressure on the sole of the foot should be released completely to allow free circulation of blood. This can be achieved by ensuring that boots have enough space to allow for thick socks, any additional insoles that are fitted, and any swelling that may occur whilst walking. This, however, is easier said than done, as few boots allow this amount of extra room. Slackening of the laces can help, but not if the boots are too small at the outset. On the other hand, boots that are too loose can help to cause blisters and fail to give proper support on uneven ground. A compromise has to be made to give some feeling of security whilst still allowing that little bit of freedom of movement.

Waterproofing

Traditional leather boots, when well waxed, tend to give a good level of proofing against water penetration provided that there are no areas of poor or damaged stitching to let in water. Over a period of exposure to the wet, leather gradually absorbs moisture and lets it soak through. In extreme conditions, where water has accumulated in the boot it is possible to empty it out and the only water left to be dried out is that which has soaked into the leather and insoles. In general, the more joins there are in the leather, the more potential there is for letting in water and also for stitching to deteriorate. The better quality leather boots are made of a 'one-piece' construction with the only join at the heel and, of course, around the lace area. This makes them more expensive because of there is more wastage from cutting the leather. If there are any other joins in the leather, the worst place for them to be is at the inward facing, widest parts of the heels, as this is where the two boots often come into contact whilst walking. This can result in more wear and damage to the stitching than would otherwise occur.

Fabric boots can be very deceptive in their apparent water resistance. In fact they usually let in far more water than a leather boot, but disguise the fact by having a Gore-Tex inner which keeps the wet from the foot. The water that enters the boot, firstly soaks into a foot-bed made of 'wicking' material and then enters a honeycomb of small cavities between the footbed and the sole of the boot. Feet can keep dry for a long time using this technology, but eventually the boots get very heavy from all the accumulated water. When it comes to drying them, there is no easy way to remove the excess water, which can take a very long time to get rid of, especially in poor drying conditions. What's more, if the foot-bed is left wet for long periods, the material disintegrates into a horrible pulp, leaving no proper support for the foot and is only able to be repaired by cutting through the Gore-Tex lining to obtain access. I do not know if this is true of all fabric boots but it certainly happened to both pairs that I have had, and other people I have spoken to have experienced the same problem.


Typical Fabric Boot Construction

Life Expectancy

Since 1993, I have kept a record of all the walks I have done and have generally come to the conclusion that a good pair of boots should last for about a thousand miles before they have reached the stage where they are no longer considered fit for use. During this time, however, it will generally have been necessary to undertake one or two running repairs for minor problems. After a thousand miles, most boots will have lost the effectiveness of their tread and will have started to suffer from other problems such as cracking of the leather or synthetic material where it flexes most, cracking of the sole, frayed stitching which allows water penetration, broken lace hooks etc. Whereas it may be possible to have some of these things repaired, it may not be worthwhile if the boots are deteriorating in other respects.

In my experience, traditional leather boots tend to last for a thousand miles or more without requiring major repairs, unless they have suffered some untoward mishap. Both pairs of fabric boots I have owned suffered from the same problem of disintegrating footbeds after about 400 miles. They did manage to last out a thousand miles (or about 850 miles for the NeeBee boots) after I replaced the footbeds with ones cut from a thin capret tile, but this entailed cutting through the Gore-Tex lining for access and, hence, detracted from their waterproofing. This is one of the reasons that I tend to prefer leather boots, although it has not put me off fabric boots completely and I may well take my chances with some more of them in the future.

Boot Lining

In more recent years, since about 2003, I have found that more boots, both fabric and leather, have a padded lining. This tends to give them a greater feeling of comfort, particularly in the early stages of wear, and helps reduce the problems associated with breaking in. However, the three pairs of boots I have had with this sort of lining have all caused problems after about 200 miles or even less, because this lining has started to break down. Generally, there is a layer of foam plastic covered by fabric or some other material, and the constant rubbing around the heel starts to wear away the covering material, thus exposing the foam underneath. The foam is quite abrasive, especially when it, in turn, starts to wear away leaving rough edges, and this can cause excessive wear to walking socks as well as increasing the chances of getting blisters. Earlier leather boots, if they any lining at all, tended to use a soft leather or some more durable material, which seldom caused any problems. Fabric boots usually had a layer of Gore-Tex but not the foam underneath so, even if it wore through, there was not the same abrasive surface to damage socks and heels.

Having suffered considerable problems because of the premature breakdown of boot linings, I am now very wary and will examine this aspect of construction very carefully on future purchases. It is a great pity when boots, which are otherwise of very sound construction, fall down because a feature that is supposed to give more comfort does exactly the opposite at a relatively early stage in the boots' lifetime. It can also cost a lot of money replacing ruined socks at regular intervals.


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