Sturdy Boots Without the Burden

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1996

Sturdy Boots Without the Burden

Lightweight, trailworthy hikers for both fast-moving day hikes and overnight jaunts
By Douglas Gantenbein

Horrific tales of foot agony in decades past are the best argument for today's lightweight hiking boots, so here's mine: In 1974, I climbed Washington State's 7,965-foot Mount Olympus. The approach was a long one--nearly 20 miles--and hiking boots were big, heavy, and awkward, with inch-thick lug soles and beefy welt stitching. As I was trekking in, hordes of climbers were heading out. Roughly half of them were unshod--and their feet looked as if they'd been massaged with cheese graters.

Fortunately, the gory days are over. Running-shoe technology has influenced hiking footwear, and the notion that comfort and light weight are transferable to the trail has endured. In recent years, manufacturers have spun out dozens of lightweight boots that are ideal for a fast-moving day hike and the occasional overnight backpacking trip.

I've come up with ten hikers that are heavier than approach shoes but lighter than multiday backpacking boots. Some are best for day trips; others are capable of weekend jaunts. Most combine leather with fabric to strike a compromise between weight and durability. None will be quite as tough--or as much of a burden--as long-haul stalwarts.

These boots are built like running shoes--that is, the uppers, soles, and midsoles are bonded together with cement or injection molding, not the stitching that used to be the hallmark of "real" boots. It's a simpler, lighter construction that reduces cost and fatigue. Most of these boots have midsoles of polyurethane, which cushions better than the rubber-and-leather sandwich common in backpacking boots but is more supportive than the EVA foam found in running shoes. Insoles may be of nylon or fiberboard, with or without steel-shank reinforcement. Some of these shoes are made with waterproof-breathable membranes such as Gore-Tex; unless you tend to hike in the wet, however, skip it here and put the money you save into your full-on backpacking boots. As for soles, all these boots provide good traction. The Vibram logo is a sure sign of quality; it's not the only one, however, and in fact two proprietary soles offer the best traction of the bunch.

Despite their relatively comfy running-shoe influence, most of these boots require at least a little breaking in. And special attention to fitting will pay off--beyond minor rubs and pinches, if a boot hurts you in the store, it'll hurt you more on the trail. Now, on to our boots. All weights are per boot in a men's size nine.

At $65, Hi-Tec's Sierra (one pound, seven ounces) is affordable even at tax time. It's a comfortable, agile boot for light loads, with a steel-shank-reinforced fiberboard insole for moderate support and an EVA midsole for a lot of cushioning. The waterproof-breathable Sympatex lining is a bonus at this bargain price. On the trail, the Hi-Tec grips well and keeps out the wet, as long as you don't get water above its fairly low-cut design.

The aptly named Tecnica Hurricane ($89; one pound, one ounce) feels fast--and it is, with a smooth-striding polyurethane midsole and plenty of flex for covering miles. At the same time, its sturdy polyurethane midsole and suede uppers are supportive enough for carrying a load, while a carbon-rubber sole does a good job of deflecting stones. The light construction does haunt the wearer on descents, as it lets the foot slide forward. Still, I hated taking this boot off.

The Raichle Hudson II ($100; one pound, one ounce) is perhaps the most environmentally conscious boot in this lineup. Like several other makers, Raichle uses recycled rubber in the sole and insole. But it also employs fabric made from scrap cloth and recycled soda bottles, and the outsole's relatively shallow lugs are easy on the trail. You can feel good about that, but the Hudson II also is a reasonably capable performer for the money, with full-leather uppers and a polyurethane midsole. It has a bit of a street-shoe feel, however, with soles a bit too slippery and thin for really wet or rugged terrain.

The One Sport Serac ($115; one pound, nine ounces) is certainly substantial for the outlay, with Vibram soles, waterproof nubuck leather outers, and a well-padded tongue and ankle collar. I particularly like its all-leather toe construction with small 1,000-denier nylon patches on the side panels for a minimum of seams. Its full-length nylon insole provides a solid combination of flex and support, though I found the cut a little wide in the toe and tended to bottom out when hiking downhill.

Take the tiny logo off its heel and the Nike Air Karakor WS ($120; one pound, 11 ounces) might fit into the lineup of Vasque or Raichle. It has that classic look, with unadorned full-grain leather uppers and a businesslike black synthetic-leather rand. It performs like a big boot, too, with plenty of support, stability, and grip. Any cushioning added by the air insert in the heel is hard to detect, but otherwise the feel is all Nike: The Air Karakor moves very lightly on the trail. It's billed as waterproof, but don't let water get above the laces--it will run right along the tongue gusset and inside the boot.

Of all the good shoes in this review, the new Vasque Alpha GTX ($120; one pound, five ounces) is easily the best buy, with the cut and heft of a boot selling for much more, plus a Gore-Tex bootie identical to that found in Vasque's more expensive shoes. Vasque brought the price down by using first-split rather than full-grain leather, less expensive nylon, and a lighter EVA footbed, but the result is still an estimable day hiker or light backpacking boot. The Alpha GTX inspires confidence on the trail, with a firm but not constricting fit, a steel shank for rigidity, and a proprietary sole that grips well and sheds mud. Best of all, the tongue gusset extends right to the top of the boot, so you can wade a half-foot of water without getting wet.

The well-bred, Italian-made Asolo AFX 520 ($135; one pound, six ounces) is another of my favorites--a substantial, handsome boot that's both comfortable and secure-feeling. It's an all-leather boot, with uppers made of a single piece of durably beefy full-grain leather. That necessitates a bit more break-in time, but not much, and it quickly smooths out for a comfy ride. A high, snug collar keeps out trail gunk and is notched in back so it won't gouge your Achilles tendon. And a one-piece rubber midsole with a fiberglass-reinforced nylon board gives the AFX 520 stability to rival mountain boots.

Danner's Gemini ($155; one pound, eight ounces) feels like a lot of boot when you heft it, with full-grain nubuck leather, Cordura patches on the side panels, and a substantial heel counter. But on your feet, it's like the proverbial glove: snug and supple. The soft, padded tongue helps seal the boot around the shin but doesn't pinch or rub. The Vibram sole grips well on slick, muddy trails, and the Gore-Tex bootie keeps feet dry. This is a fine boot for light to medium loads.

The Salomon Adventure 8 ($165; one pound, six ounces) has support and stability enough for serious trips. But it feels so good that I wear it on day trips too--in fact, it's my favorite boot from this batch. What really sets it apart, aside from its moon-boot looks, is the near-custom fit that comes from a lace-up inner boot and zip-over outer. The Adventure 8 holds the foot securely in nearly all conditions but has the flex and comfort of a lighter boot. Salomon's proprietary sole is specially designed for good downhill traction, and in practice it works quite well. The Adventure 8 has a lot of seams, but they're taped for waterproofness and hold up nicely.

A few years back, a high-school-era ankle injury began to haunt me on trails, so I appreciate a boot with lots of stability. I walked with confidence in the La Sportiva Sherpa ($209; one pound, ten ounces). This is nearly a full-bore backpacking boot: essentially one piece of full-grain leather with Vibram soles and a Gore-Tex bootie. Despite its beefy construction, however, it's immediately comfortable and well worth its price.

Douglas Gantenbein writes frequently for Outside's Review pages and weighs in as the Interactive Gear Guy for Outside Online

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