Boots for the Path of Most Resistance

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1994

Boots for the Path of Most Resistance

With a big load on your back, your footwear standards had better be rigid
By Glenn Randall

Stiffness--in backpacking boots, anyway--is next to godliness. Stiffness is what shields your feet from roots and rocks when you've got serious weight to carry. Stiffness is what keeps you from torquing an ankle should you place a foot wrong. And stiffness is what's missing from those cushy lightweight hikers you bought for unburdened trail walking and kicking around town. So when you're getting ready to carry a big load on a big trip, it's time to shop for boots again.

What you need is...well, backpacking boots. Though they're clunkier than their lightweight brethren, today's models are considerably softer than the armorlike backpacking boots of old. Credit goes first to advances in midsoles. They're still firm enough to prevent rocks from bruising your arch and heel, yet flexible enough for comfortable striding. That happy combination is partly a function of materials--the steel shanks, nylon inserts, and various proprietary composites you'll hear about are almost all up to the task--but in good boots it's even more a matter of engineering: Shoemakers have learned to "tune" midsole rigidity in proportion to the boot's size. Hence smaller, lighter backpackers and taller, heavier ones can now enjoy the same relative degree of support.

Similar thoughtfulness has gone into uppers. With few exceptions, the best are made of leather. Leather is more supportive, protective, and durable than man-made fabrics, but today's tanning processes make it quickly comfortable. Those same tanning processes, by the way, have led some manufacturers to promise waterproofness, but there I must disagree--during prolonged slogging through slushy spring snow, the only boots that kept my feet absolutely dry were those incorporating Gore-Tex or a similar waterproof-breathable membrane. Such a boot would be my only choice if I lived where stormy weather was prevalent.

What remains to ponder, in increasing order of importance, are outsoles, weight, and price. Outsoles: Different backpacking boots offer different tread patterns, but disregard the hype you'll hear about such minutiae as lug shape. Just make sure the lugs are deep, so you can get ample traction even in muddy conditions. Weight: Differences under a half-pound per pair are insignificant (and boots of the same model and size can vary by a few ounces, because leather is not a uniform material). Basically, the heavier your load--or the heavier your body--the heavier the boot you'll need. Price: What you pay depends on what you want. Top-grain leather is more abrasion-resistant and more expensive than split-grain leather; fewer seams in the upper mean greater durability and water-resistance and demand a choicer and more costly piece of hide; and Gore-Tex adds $30-$40 to the cost of a pair of boots.

After stomping around with lots of worthy contenders on my feet and a 45-pound pack on my back, I've put together an all-star, 13-boot lineup. Weights range from just under three pounds per pair to over four; prices, from about $130 to nearly $200. Unless otherwise noted, all of these boots are highly water-resistant and available in unisex sizes. I've started with those that I see as fit for long weekends in the woods, and ended with a few models that will easily endure months on the trail.

Short of real backpacking-boot stature but beefier than any lightweight hikers are Fabiano's imported Scarpa Delta ($179), H. H. Brown's Rockmoc GT ($135), Nike's Air Krakatoa ($140), and Merrell's Cascade II($130). Each is adequate for loads of up to 35 pounds, and each has some nice touches. The Cascade II's midsole flexibility is based on size, and the boot is available in a women's last; the Krakatoa has a proprietary waterproof-breathable liner and spandex in its tongue to ensure a tight seal; and the comfortable Rockmoc is built around a Gore-Tex bootie. Of the four, I'd choose the admittedly expensive Delta for its one-piece full-grain leather upper, its well designed bellows tongue, and its rich, aesthetically pleasing redwood color. At three pounds, six ounces, it's only about five ounces heavier than its competition, and it comes in three widths, including one specifically for women.

Tecnica Acadia. The Acadia (three pounds, one ounce; $145) is a good choice because it's a good deal. The boot has a Gore-Tex liner, the upper is full-grain leather, and the midsole flexibility is proportional to size, enabling hikers of all dimensions to enjoy a similar degree of stiffness. It has a few more seams than I'd like, and it's not supportive enough for loads larger than 40 pounds or so, but it's immediately comfortable. I'd recommend it to any backpacker who occasionally heads out for a few days.

Reebok Surazo. For my load the Surazo (three pounds, two ounces; $160) was a fine choice. It offered plenty of support and a proprietary waterproof-breathable membrane to keep me dry. The boot's full-grain leather upper doesn't extend as high as some of the beefier uppers in this review, but that's additional ankle support you probably don't need for a four-day trip. As for the midsole, the stiffness isn't tuned according to boot size, though I didn't find that a problem. The arch support felt just right on the trail.

Asolo AFX 520 GTX. The 520 (two pounds, 12 ounces; $170) is of the same ilk as the Surazo: a lower-cut boot perfect for carrying the medium-sized load. Despite being the lightest boot in this review, the Asolo packs a lot of support into a nimble package rendered completely waterproof with Gore-Tex. The bellows tongue and scree collar are especially well designed, the midsole flexibility is tuned according to size, and the 520 is available in a women's last.

Vasque Super Hiker II. A boot as well constructed as the Super Hiker (three pounds; $187) takes a little getting used to. The one-piece full-grain leather upper is highly water-resistant, and with very few seams it should hold up to a lot of abuse. Unfortunately, the Super Hiker dished out some abuse of its own; it took a few hours of trail use before the leather relented and let my ankle move pain-free. With that break-in time behind me, the Super Hiker proved quite comfortable--and its tuned, supportive midsole left me no doubt about the safety of my feet.

Danner Explorer. The Explorer (three pounds, nine ounces; $190) is a bit of a throwback--the only boot in this review with a sole that's stitched to the upper. Danner claims that such a construction makes for a wider, more grippy footprint and a longer-lasting boot. Perhaps. The traction, while excellent, didn't stand out, and in years of trying I've never managed to delaminate the sole of a conventional cement-bonded boot. The split-leather insert over the ankle makes the otherwise full-grain upper slightly more flexible; that flexibility, however, seems to cost some ankle support--I wasn't comfortable carrying more than 45 pounds. The midsole isn't stiffened according to size either, but with women's sizing and two men's widths available the Explorer is still likely to please many people. And the built-in Gore-Tex liner will keep their feet dry.

Rockport 3290. Here's a boot that proves that a company can get it right the first time: Rockport's first serious backpacking boot provides immediate comfort, solid support underfoot, and superior stability in the upper. The full-grain leather 3290 (three pounds, ten ounces; $185) is steady under even heavy loads, but despite claims of waterproofness it isn't the boot of choice if the going gets wet: It admitted quite a trickle of water after an hour of walking up a small stream that masqueraded as a trail. Available in two widths--and in sizes down to a men's four.

One Sport Moraine. The Moraine (three pounds, 12 ounces; $180) is the entry point to the world of hyper-support. The upper extends plenty high to protect you from rolling over on an ankle, and the size-tuned midsole is so stiff that it flexes comfortably only when you've got a decent burden on your back. The thoughtfully designed bellows tongue easily folds into place, and a second, padded tongue fits snugly against your shin. The Moraine's leather is advertised as waterproof; it isn't, but it should be suitable for all but the wettest conditions. The beautiful black boot is available in men's and women's sizes.

50 Peaks Boundary II. Some boots have more than the requisite stiffness: The 50 Peaks Boundary II from Hi-Tec (four pounds, two ounces; $190) is one of them, and definitely needs breaking in. Its one-piece leather upper doesn't give willingly, and the shallow Achilles' tendon notch in the collar is a little deceptive--the boot, at least when new, tended to dig in from behind when I strode downhill. But if you're planning on carrying a 60-pound load, the sacrifice should ultimately pay off; after a little get-acquainted time, the Boundary II will fit like a charm and be a longtime trailmate. Finally, the company's own waterproof-breathable membrane delivers on the promise of keeping you dry.

Timberland Up Country Plus Backpacker. The Backpacker (four pounds, three ounces; $180) is also heavy and heavy-duty, but fortunately the designers paid careful attention to making the boot instantly comfortable. There are two "flex notches" in the full bellows tongue and another at the Achilles' tendon, and the area around and below the ankle is heavily reinforced. All in all it makes for a boot that allows for plenty of fore-and-aft freedom while retaining lots of side-to-side support. For a man or woman, this would be my choice for hauling 65-pound loads. A Gore-Tex liner and a nicely finished full-grain leather upper are icing on the cake.

Glenn Randall, a veteran mountaineer and hiker, wrote about internal-frame backpacks in the August issue.

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