By Ken Piper
-- Buying hunting boots today isn't easy. There have been as many advances in footwear as there have been in clothing and other gear, but for some reason we don't seem to pay as much attention to what we put on our feet. Maybe it's because boots aren't a "sexy" product -- our friends don't notice them, and there is no standard of measuring what differentiates one boot from another. I mean, there isn't a foot-per-second rating on a pair of boots; nor is there a light-gathering figure or foot-pounds of knockdown power with which to compare them. But there should be. A good pair of boots is dramatically different from a cheap chain-store brand -- different enough to make a big difference in your hunt.
Photo: Boot makers use a variety of different tread designs to handle different conditions -- everything from extra grip, mud shedding, snow travel to walking.
"I've seen it happen many times," said Mark Reilly, the director of product line management for LaCrosse and Danner. "A guy pays $5,000 for a hunt of a lifetime and ends up having to spend a day or two in camp recovering from wet, cold feet or even blistered feet. Not too many things end a hunt faster than cold feet."
Mark took some time recently to educate me about the finer points of boot-buying -- and it was quite an education.
The first step when shopping for boots is to decide how they'll be used. Think about what and how you'll be hunting. Next consider temperature, terrain, and hunting style. Just as one jacket isn't designed to last from early bow season to late muzzleloader season, no pair of boots is designed to be worn through that kind of variety of conditions. You need several pairs of boots in order to hunt comfortably.
Generally speaking, archers are best served with traditional-style knee-high rubber boots. No matter how careful you are or what kind of liner you have inside them, leather boots will leave scent; rubber won't. It's that simple. There have been several advances in burleys, as the rubber boots are called. Better materials allow the boots to last longer, and they're available with varying amounts of Thinsulate insulation. Better models also give arch support.
Photo: Traditional rubber boots are still the most popular among deer hunters for their no-scent characteristics. Fortunately, new designs are being introduced that include Thinsulate models and boots with shorter uppers.
But there are two big drawbacks to the burleys. First, they don't fit as tightly or give as much ankle support as leather and Cordura boots. "It depends on how much walking you are doing," Mark said. "Leather is hands-down the performance product if you are going to be doing a lot of walking. But if you ride an ATV to within 100 yards of your stand, rubber knee boots are still the way to go."
The second drawback is that rubber boots don't breathe -- and that breathability factor is what separates the men from the boys in the boot world.
"In the industry, we talk a lot about the environment inside the boot," Mark continued. "The big thing is moisture. Wet feet, whether from sweat inside or water from the outside, will get cold quickly. A moist foot is soft and susceptible to blisters."
Better boot companies use brand-name liners (Gore-Tex, to name one) that wick moisture better than generic liners. Cheap boots might keep outside water from getting in, but they don't do as much to get rid of moisture from the inside. Other factors to look for include arch support, cushion and ankle support. Top-of-the-line boots are now including anti-microbial materials to help stop foot odor before it starts. "You don't see serious runners go into a giant chain store to buy running shoes," Mark said. "There are reasons they shop for and buy high-performance shoes; the same should apply to your hunting boots. We recommend going to a knowledgeable dealer who can tell you the benefits of each boot to help you match your budget with the best boot you can afford."
Photo: Leather-upper boots are the most versatile and best fitting hunting boots. The choices are almost limitless, and you can find a leather boot to meet very specific needs in the field.
There are many different styles of leather-type hunting boots. Once you've decided what features you can afford, use common sense to select the proper insulation level. More insulation means more bulk and more weight, so consider that tradeoff. Again, think about your particular hunting style and make the appropriate choice. LaCrosse introduced a leather-style boot that seems to be the best of both worlds. Their new-for-2007 LaCrosse Hunting Pac features up to 2,000 grams of Thinsulate insulation in a light and surprisingly small package -- just one example of how different construction methods result in different benefits, even in boots of comparable insulation. But you would never want a 2,000-gram Thinsulate boot if you plan to do a lot of walking.
WHAT ABOUT SOCKS?
No matter what style or quality level of boot you purchase, your socks will either make or break your purchase. "You can make a great boot perform poorly with a cotton pair of tube socks, and you can make a mediocre pair of boots perform well with top-quality marino wool socks," Mark said. The wicking ability of the wool is the key. If the material on your feet holds the moisture, your boots won't be able to expel it, no matter the quality. The wool socks help pull the moisture from your feet and pass it on through to the liner and then out of the boot. The wool also remains warm when damp, further helping you stay comfortable.
Another tip about socks is that multiple layers of socks are not usually a good thing. The boots should have the right amount of insulation, so the job of the sock is to pull moisture, cushion, and provide a small air barrier. More than one pair of socks makes it that much more difficult to wick the moisture. The extra bulk often makes the boots too tight, cutting off valuable circulation and making your feet colder. There are times when a sock liner is helpful, but avoid wearing two heavy socks.
CHOOSING A SIZE
All boot manufacturers use different machinery to construct their boots, so sizes can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. It's always best to try boots on before you buy them. When doing so, wear the socks you plan to wear when hunting. Next, lace up the boot and simulate walking downhill by trying the boot on a sharp incline or bouncing the toe against the ground a few times. Your boot should be supportive without being constrictive.
"You don't want your boot to fit tight, because then you can't make any adjustments," Mark said. "With a rubber boot, you want it a little snug but not tight. A leather boot is going to fit and feel better. If you are going to err, you should err more on the loose side."
If you are in an emergency situation and find yourself ordering boots by mail, the safe thing to do is to order your normal shoe size, and the next half size up (or full size if that's all that is available). You'll have to return the pair that doesn't fit later, which drives the mail-order folks crazy, but at least they end up with one good sale and a happy customer.
THE MOST VERSATILE BOOT
Most hunters want to get by with as few different pairs of boots as possible. Mark says the most versatile is a 400-gram Thinsulate leather-type boot. The insulation provides some protection from the cold; and when combined with a good, thick sock, can be worn in chilly temperatures. At the same time, a 400-gram boot is not so hot that you can't do some walking, especially if you know ahead of time and wear thinner socks. If you are worried about scent, there are several products available to put on over your boots for short distances to eliminate boot odor.
Another plus to rubber boots is they are pretty much maintenance-free. Mark noted that LaCrosse's burleys have built-in U-V protection to help them last longer, but he still recommends not exposing rubber boots to direct sunlight for an extended time. He said he knows hunters who spray their rubber boots with a protectant such as Armor All once deer season is over. "If you wear them turkey hunting or scouting a few times, the scent from the Armor All will be gone by the time the next deer season rolls around."
Leather boots require some care and maintenance. It's important to keep oil in the leather to keep it from drying out and becoming brittle. "You need to recondition the leather when it needs it," Mark said. "Just take a look at your boots, and it's pretty obvious when the leather is dry." One thing you do not want to do is put waterproofing compounds on the leather or boot upper. The waterproof liner is designed to keep the water from your feet and requires no maintenance; but if the leather and upper can't breathe, then they can't allow the moisture to escape from inside the boot."
Mark noted that it's important to remove mud from your boots, not to keep from getting yelled at, but because the mud will dry out the leather quickly. "The mud acts like a sponge and pulls the moisture right out. Hose them off if you have to, but get that mud off your boots as soon as you can."
THE LAST WORD
As with any other hunting gear, the best use of your hard-earned dollars is to match your boots to the task at hand. There are limitless combinations of features in today's boots -- everything from built-in scent control, varying traction levels, extra cushioning, snake protection, different arch supports, and the list goes on. Think about the traits you are looking for in a boot and do some looking to find the one that fits your needs and budget. But just like your other hunting gear, in most cases, you get what you pay for.
Editor's Note: Now's the time to gear up for deer season. Check out the 2007 Buckmasters GearGuide to see the latest in hunting apparel, bows, rifles, ATVs and much more.