January 28, 2017
Over the years of my US Army experience, I have had a constant battle to find the best fitting boot. Equally, I have had a hard time winning the war against blisters while on long marches. In my hiking endeavors, I have learned that footwear and blisters are a continuing saga. Because of my troubles, I have developed heal spurs and chronic plantar fasciitis. I have gleaned some practical wisdom in this particular area. Therefore, I would like to share some of my tips regarding footwear.
The Hiking Boot:
Properly fitting footwear is critical to having a pleasant experience while out on the trail. Granted that most of you will not be lugging around a heavy military rucksack, thus, the wear and tear on your feet should not be as dramatic. As a small man at 64”, my feet can fit into a men’s 6.5 wide military issue boot and the men’s 6.5 wide Altama® Jungle Boot. I also can wear comfortably the men’s size 7, Danner® TFX military boot, and the men’s size 7 Matterhorn® military boot. The US Army has lost the art of the other essentials to proper fitting footwear—lacing and socks. It has been rather difficult to find commercial hiking boots in the sizes that I require, but it is possible to find them.
One thing that I have learned about boots, that will see a lot of time in the field, is the importance of breaking them in. Boots that fit snug when you try them on in the store will loosen up after a few days weeks in the field. The more uneven and rough the terrain, the more quickly the boot will lose its stiff and snug fit. Humidity, sweat, and wetness will also be factors in how your boot will “break in”. There are many different techniques to breaking in a new pair of hiking boots. We will not outline them here, except to say, that the one most often heard is “soaking” the boot. This, however, only works with an all leather (not suede) boots with removable insoles. The military issue all-leather Altama® boot can be done this way, but most reading this article are not going to buy a boot such as this. By the way, I have experimented with this technique and it is not as effective as claimed, so I do not recommend it. With commercial hiking boots with Teflon or Teflon/Leather combination material, breaking them in will require just wearing them for a couple of days or weeks as your primary footwear.
Another factor concerning breaking in the hiking boot is whether it has a Gore-Tex® liner. When you try Gore-Tex® boots on, your feet feel very snug in them. However, over time that “padded” feeling tends to lessen with the use of the boot. There are several reasons for this. First, Gore-Tex® does not have an extensively long lifecycle. Second, the principle material in Gore-Tex, latex, will lose its elasticity and other properties over time. Improper care of these type of boots will hasten this process also. For example, the Gore-Tex liner in the two pairs of Matterhorn boots that I owned while serving in the US Army, lost their moisture wicking and heat retention properties after about 18 months of continuous use. While the sweat from my feet was still being drawn away from my socks and into the liner, in cold weather, the water retained in the Gore-Tex liner became cold and the cold was transferred back to my feet, thus defeating the reason that I bought them to begin with. I have noticed this same problem with my Gore-Tex lined Danner TFX boots as well. The Gore-Tex lined boots break in more quickly than an all-leather boot and do not require as much maintenance, but their fit can be deceiving if you are not experienced with Gore-Tex lined footwear.
Another factor in breaking in new hiking boots is discovered when lacing them up. Boots that have Gore-Tex liners will tend to lace up with a wider gap between each line of eyelets when new. Over time and with use, this gap will decrease between each row of eyelets as the boot material becomes more flexible and you are able to pull the laces tighter for a continuing snug fit.
By contrast, the most comfortable pair of boots that I have worn thus far, have been the all-leather military issue boot produced by Altama®. In the Army, these boots were called “cruit boots”. I was not fond of these boots either, until I went through Infantry Officer training. However, after much use during the humid summer in Georgia, the leather softened and formed around my foot in a very comfortable manner. With the addition of Spenco® inserts and Vibram® soles, these boots were just as comfortable as my New Balance® Cross-training running shoes. To date, this has been the only boot that really fit me properly. With my growing problem with heel spurs, the Danner TFX boot became the next boot to fit me as good as my all-leather Altamas. To get a proper fit for your hiking boots, it is best to get them fitted by a knowledgeable person at your favorite outfitter store, such as REI. The links below will help you also.
Another thing to be mindful of about foot wear is the maintenance of your footwear. All-leather boots require much more diligence in keeping them maintained than Teflon material boots. The video links below will provide a good over view on maintenance of footwear. Remember, that boots with Gore-Tex liners cannot be put into clothes dryers after washing. The heat will cause the Gore-Tex liner to break down. You must let Gore-Tex boots air dry. You do this by removing all of the laces and folding out the tongue in order to open up the boot to as much air as possible. If you have a 5 to 8 inch tall boot, then you will need to try to fold down the top of the boot if it is flexible enough. Otherwise, just leave it as is. With Teflon or Teflon/Suede combination material, you can use a stiff, but flexible brush to clean the outside. If your Teflon boots have a Gore-Tex liner, then you can wash them in clear, clean, cold water and let them air dry on your porch or in your washroom.
In caring for all-leather boots (not suede), you can wash them in lukewarm water with a mild dish soap on the outside. Use a soft brush or tooth brush to clean off any excessive dirt. Let them air dry as described above for the Gore-Tex lined boots. You will notice after a while that your leather boots will have some white, chalky residue appearing on the surface of the boot. Do not be alarmed, this is some of the leather salts coming to the surface after being wet. After the boots have dried, you can take saddle soap and clean off the white chalky stuff. If you try to rewash them, you will just get more of the leather salts coming to the surface. Rub the saddle soap into the leather very thoroughly, this includes the boot tongue and seams. After using the saddle soap, you can wipe the boot down with a damp cloth to get the excess soap off. Let the boot sit for a couple hours or for a day to let the soap work its way into the leather. When this process is complete then you can apply the boot polish or, in some cases, mink oil, as a way of waterproofing the boot. However, I have found if your boot leather is not waterproofed already with oils, like the Matterhorn Boot, then a boot polish is the first layer of defense in keeping the leather in top condition. You do not have to polish the boot to a high sheen, put the boot polish is critical in keeping the boot leather from deteriorating. So do not ignore its importance.
As we move on from the hiking boot itself, we will move on to the next important factor in footwear, lacing. I did not understand the importance of proper lacing of the boot until after completing my military career. Lacing is important because properly lacing your boots will reduce foot fatigue, and reduce or eliminate blisters. Every once and a while, I would notice some Sergeant that would have a unique lacing pattern on his boots. One instance comes to mind, as I witnessed a sergeant with a big gap in the lacing pattern over the crook or bend of this foot. I asked him about it and he told me this was more comfortable to him than the ingrained left-over-right pattern that our Drill Sergeants pushed into our heads. Since I started hiking, I have come to understand that some lacing patterns are better than others. Since everyone’s feet are different, I cannot recommend a particular lacing pattern here. Like with anything else, you will have to experiment to see which lacing pattern works for you and helps eliminate or reduce blisters on your feet. The video links below can help.
As we move on, let us talk about socks. Socks are vital to the care and maintenance of your feet. Keeping your feet dry while hiking is important. Getting your feet dry after they have become wet while crossing a stream is equally important. The socks you are wearing are critical to ensuring these two objectives are met. The type of socks you are wearing will also determine whether or not you get blisters. When it comes to socks, I have not had a good experience with any of them living up to their billings as being blister reducers. On the other hand, keeping my feet dry and warm has been a positive experience with socks. I see the socks and the hiking boot as a unit. Your socks and your hiking boots should be complimentary to each other. Remember, that all things require a little trial-and-error in order to come to the best combination for your feet. So talk to people, talk to experts, and judge the validity of the sock you are wearing on your own experience.
In conclusion, the hiking boot is always a fun and interesting topic to discuss. Remember when it comes to boots and the things related to your boots, what works for you is what is best for you. My feet are not your feet. So have fun with the links below.
See you on the trail!
Fitting Hiking Boots or Shoes
Hiking Boot Maintenance and Care
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h-IR-IrfgQ (Dave Canterbury discusses care of hiking boots)
Lacing Hiking Boots or Shoes
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cs-5-DkUJiE (REI Instructional Video)
Hiking Boot Socks