Outside magazine, September 1997
A while back I joined a mountain rescue unit in hopes of performing heroic stuff: saving people from rockfalls, slipped climbing knots, and brutal storms. After five years, however, it turns out that what typically sets my pager screaming at 2 a.m. is somebody's sprained ankle, usually the result of a backpacker wearing flimsy footwear.
Not every trekker goes undershod, of course. Some folks buy crampon-compatible brutes meant to turn mountains into molehills. But since most of us tread a middle ground, what we need is shoes that do the same: midweight, leather backpacking boots. Ideally, such boots will extend high enough to support your ankle, possess a base sturdy enough to stand firm under a 40-pound load, and yet be nimble enough to allow you to dance over boulders. The best backpacking boots in this category feature uppers of full-grain leather, formed to cradle and support your ankle and forefoot. Look for minimal stitching there and you'll have to worry less about waterproof Gore-Tex liners, which up your cost $30 or so.
Beneath the uppers lies the real foundation of a boot. Starting at the rubber outsole, good soles are built with a protective shank of nylon or steel, a midsole cushion at your heel, and a supportive insole. The sole and uppers are bonded together using a process borrowed from running shoes, saving both weight and money. The result is a boot with a pliable footbed that's much easier to break in than those classic, stitched-soled clod-stompers. The best boots also have a rubber rand — a bumper of sorts — that covers and seals the seam between upper and sole.
Regardless of features, fit is what matters most. Match the shape of your prospective purchase to that of your foot: The boot should grasp your heel snugly, lightly hug your forefoot, and provide your toes with wiggle room, though your toes shouldn't jam into the front of the boot if you kick something. Women, whose feet can be narrower at the heel and trimmer across the forefoot than men's, may find that smaller sizes aren't enough; they may need a boot built on a women's last (the shape of the boot from heel to toe).
To get you going, we reviewed nine boots sure to serve you well on an overnight in the rugged Cascades or a long haul on the Appalachian Trail. Each is a sound investment in foot comfort and health, and at $200 or less, none will leave your wallet too sprained.
Dark-green and oddly lumpy, the Asolo Globaline Meridian (three pounds, ten ounces for a men's size nine; $180) resembles some sort of Spielbergian frog in armor. A thick, protective rubber rand encases your lower foot in waterproof protection, and Asolo's "Bioframe" — a tough plastic exoskeleton — provides terrific support without the weight penalty of extra leather. The Meridian is ideal for bog-hopping or stomping across boulder fields. My one reservation is that it so entombed my feet that I lost some sensitivity to trail features, making the boots feel a bit clumsy at times. Fit should be easy though, since Asolo makes three Globaline models for feet of various volumes.
As is appropriate for a boot bearing the time-honored L.L. Bean name, the all-leather Gore-Tex Cresta Hiker (three pounds, three ounces; women's last available; $159) feels nearly as comfortable as an old denim shirt. Fit is the main reason. The Cresta conforms to most feet like good wool socks, with something that's frustratingly absent from many boot lines: three widths. Among its standard features are a tough leather upper, a stabilizing thermoplastic shank, and a moderately deep lugged Vibram sole — everything you'd expect in a solid trail boot. Bonus: You get the Gore-Tex bootie for about $30 less than you'd normally pay, making this boot the best all-around value of the bunch.
La Sportiva's ATS 118 Talon (three pounds, six ounces; $198) is the Daniel Boone of this group of boots — a true trailblazer. The Talon features a sticky, lugged sole for grabbing uneven terrain, an Achilles notch so the cuff won't pinch, and a narrow rubber toe-cap that makes clambering up a boulder field a breeze because it wedges neatly into gaps in the rock. It's perfectly at home on the trail as well, with an air-cushioned midsole, a half-length steel shank, and a high-cut nubuck-leather upper to shore up your ankles. In all, this was my favorite boot for the kind of misbegotten shortcut-hunting operations that all too often end my treks.
Like to hike fast? Take a close look at the Merrell M2 Superlight (three pounds, two ounces; women's last available; $150), one of a new generation of boots that melds day-hiker responsiveness with heavy-load-schlepping structure. The racy M2's low-cut cuff and low-profile Vibram sole add up to a nimble shoe, which conversely won't provide bracing quite on the order of taller boots. An air chamber in the nylon midsole — which serves as the shank — and a prodigiously padded tongue make the M2 quite comfortable. A rubber toe-cap, for protection and waterproofing, is a nice touch.
One Sport's new Tundra (three pounds, four ounces; women's last available; $170) offers immediate comfort, thanks in large part to a pillowy collar and a choice of footbeds that help customize fit. But the Tundra is hardly soft. Constructed in Italy with thick nubuck leather, a full-length nylon shank for just-right stiffness, and a durable yet tacky sole, it's a robust trail performer. Particularly at home when stomping downhill (thanks to a notched heel block that provides good bite), the Tundra is good for anyone whose knees know just how much more difficult those descents can be.
Raichle's Mountain Trail (three pounds, one ounce; women's last available; $200) makes a good first impression with its lightly waxed green nubuck leather, neatly trimmed in tan. But looks only count for so much, and Raichle delivers performance to match with a stiff one-piece upper, a nylon shank, and a half-leather liner that adds durability without tipping the scales too much. Perhaps the narrowish Mountain Trail's most winning characteristic is a Vibram sole with grooves cut across the forefoot for flexibility and an easygoing break-in period.
Imposing as it seems with its high-cut, rough-hewn nubuck uppers, the Salomon Authentic 8 (three pounds; women's last available; $185) is actually quite the gentle giant. Soft leather in the forefoot makes it friendly from the start, yet the boot offers unparalleled ankle support. Inside, the Authentic 8 distinguishes itself with a full-leather liner — a luxury in this price range — which enhances durability and helps the boot mold to your foot. Its three-piece construction makes it more prone to leakage than a boot with a one-piece upper, although its sole performs well on wet trails.
Timberland took its reputation for making work boots you can stand in all day and combined it with the elements of a trail boot to come up with the new Fastpacker GTX (three pounds; $175). Though tromping off-trail isn't its strong suit, comfortably soft leather uppers — with features like a gusset of thinner leather at the forefoot to enhance flex — and a firm polyurethane sole make this a pleasantly supple boot for hiking on well-maintained tracks. All that stitching won't mean wet feet, either, since the Fastpacker has a Gore-Tex bootie.
Vasque's sleek Sundowner has long been a favorite among meat-and-potatoes backpackers, and now that burgundy classic has been rendered in a version they call the Journey. The lightest boot we tested, the brown Journey (two pounds, 14 ounces; women's last available; $198) proves that a sturdy boot doesn't need to be hefty. Indeed, with a one-piece Italian leather upper and steel shank, this boot will go most anywhere you'd care to pitch a tent. I'd be willing to trade the Gore-Tex bootie for a skosh more padding, but it's certainly a boot you can wear for miles on end — all the more so since it comes in three widths for men and two for women.
Douglas Gantenbein, a frequent contributor to Outside, is also the Interactive Gear Guy for Outside Online.
Photographs by Jim Cooper