Walking Boot Advice from Clive Garrett

While visiting a museum a few years ago, I was intrigued to see a display of tools and machines once used to manufacture footwear. It was interesting to note that very little had changed since I was selling to the shoe trade in the early 1980's, just the addition of motors to replace treadle power. This lack of development reflects the original concept that shoe and boot manufacture was a craft. In fact, no other piece of a walkers equipment is so emotive as the choice of footwear and its care. However, things have changed with the introduction of light weight boots.

Once upon a time, boots and walking shoes were made upon a last. In a good quality boot this would be a thick slab of leather. To this last would be stitched the boot body, a shank for rigidity and the sole. To say that the traditional style boot was heavy and unforgiving would be an understatement. They were hell-holes! Imagine your foot on an anvil-hard footbed confined in an unyielding leather shell taken from a cow fed on bog deal. Add the solid bar stiffness of a stainless steel shank and slick hobnails...well!

All right, I can hear some traditionalists muttering how comfortable their boots are and how they have lasted for twenty years but it takes that length of time to dull the pain of "breaking" in your boots. Now, there's a word to intimidate even a most hardened walker. Given that the only real development in boot design until the 1950's was the Vibram sole in the late 1930's, then you can probably appreciate how some of the myths concerning "breaking" in a pair of boots have arisen. O.K. the stiffness of a full metal shank can be reduced by using a three quarters or half shank but how does one soften the leather uppers? You can almost hear the chuckles from experienced walkers as the gnarled guru sitting next to the fire and supping a stout (every club has one) is consulted upon this problem by the novice..."Soak'em in urine, youth".

Although traditional style boots still have their place in mountaineering conditions they have largely been replaced by the light weight boot. This new footwear philosophy hit the marketplace in the early 1980's with the leather Zamberlan Treklite and the fabric Karrimor Sports Boot (KSB). Out went hard leathers and clumpy soles; in came soft, sensuous leathers and more flexible soles without shank stiffening. So, what is the profile of the modern walking boot and shoe?


Uppers

Boots and shoes are either made out of leather or synthetic materials. To minimise points of water entry, it is desirable that seams are kept to a minimum and double stitched for strength. If the boot is made out of leather there may or may not be a side seam present. If this seam is not present then the boot is said to have one-piece leather uppers. If there is a seam each side then the boot is of two-piece leather construction and a boot with one inner side seam is said to have half-piece leather uppers.

Leathers come in various grades dependent upon such factors as the tanning process and the part of the beast that the leather comes from. The most supple leathers come from young beasts and the best cut is from the outer surface of the skin - known as top or full grain leather. Anfibio leather is full grain calf leather. Smooth grain leather results from a cosmetic process where full grain leather has been buffed up to remove the outer pores. Due to an animals hide being so thick it is often split; the inner surface being known as split leather. This is of an inferior grade to full grain leather for these inner layers are softer, less durable and harder to proof. They are utilised as lining material or suede. Avoid reconstituted leathers. The most waterproof part of a hide is the outer surface and this is how most boots use leather. There are some boots, however, that reverse the hide so that the rough inner surface is on the outside. In theory this is to protect the thin smooth waterproof layer from abrasion but in effect leaves the highly absorbent, easily degradable inner surface open to the elements.

Fabric boots are normally made from nylon protected by suede. This makes them very comfortable and highly breathable yet they leak like sieves. The advent of breathable, waterproof fabrics have done much to reinstate fabric boots as a viable option to leather. The two commonest forms of waterproof membranes used are Gore-Tex, which takes the form of a bootie insert, and Sympatex which is used as a lining in the actual boot construction.

For extreme use plastic boots are popular. Consisting of a hard plastic shell with a soft leather inner boot these are generally for specialist use. There are also boots made out of rubber which are particularly popular with vegans. Other upper features to look for when choosing a boot are sewn-in padded tongues; anodised, rust resistant D-rings and hooks; anti-wick laces; well padded ankle cuffs; a comfortable, hard wearing, perspiration wicking lining such as Cambrelle.


Soles

Where do you start? There is a vast array on the market; most being designed by computer to provide eco-friendly stability in a wide variety of conditions.

The composition of the sole is very important. Shallow tread boots with a high carbon content may well last longer than a deeper lug rubber sole. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that they will provide less grip in certain conditions.

Traditional heels and soles emphasise heel strike and do little to alleviate the forces generated through the knees and lower back as the foot strikes the ground. Modern soles try to minimise this in a number of ways. Some boots maintain the traditional heel which provides the best grip upon descent, and include energy absorbing plastic inserts. The most widely known material for this application is ethylene vinyl acetate or EVA for short. Another common way to absorb shock is by gluing materials of different densities together. Unfortunately, like in running shoes, these materials will collapse or separate with age and use.

True dual-density soles are created during molding and exist as a single unit which is not subject to collapsing or separation of layers. Another method used to cushion the foot is by using a flat sole with a cut away heel. Some of these soles are shaped to rock forward with the stride. Although these provide a far more comfortable rolling action they can be pretty desperate when descending steep slopes!

Some other sole features include rands to protect uppers and shaped soles used in conjunction with midsole stiffness to take crampons. Brand names to look out for are Skywalk and Vibram. Salmon's own branded sole is also very positive.


Midsoles

Here lies the real difference between the traditional boot and light weights. Instead of using a last and shank, the boots are constructed around a molded nylon midsole. Like sport shoes, these offer various grades of strength and flex to cater for different uses. These wonders of modern foot technology support and flex with the foot, offering instant comfort with little to no "breaking" in period. Further, they protect the foot from lateral twist and stone penetration. Midsoles are normally bonded to the sole by glue or vulcanisation. Sewing tends to be reserved for traditional style boots. Inner soles or footbeds are another great improvement to boots. These are normally shaped to the foot to provide instant cushioned support. Gone are the days of having to endure the agonies created by soft feet molding unyielding leather during the course of "breaking" in the boot. Comfort is offered in many ways. Some footbeds are made of closed cell materials which trap millions of tiny air pockets in their structure to absorb shock. Others have impact absorbing plastic inserts. Few absorb sweat and are, thus, quick drying. Others purposely hold sweat away from the foot until it has a chance to evaporate off. Al1 are anti-bacterial to prevent smell!

While footbeds generally do away with the need for two pairs of socks which used to fulfill the roles of padding and impact absorption, some people with "difficult" feet may feel that they still require additional support. Products taken from the ski industry allow tailored inserts to be made for your boot by certain specialist stockists. Although expensive, they do greatly assist people with foot and back problems.


Choosing Your Boots

Throughout this article I have referred to the footwear as being the boot. The facts can equally be applied to walking shoes. The change in footwear philosophy and the use of sport shoe manufacturing techniques (eg. to make the footwear upon a sprung midsole to provide roll) has meant that our footwear feels more of a training shoe than a scaled down mountaineering boot. This can cause problems to those used to the walking style of the traditional boot. No longer do you clump around. Modern footwear will mimic your natural gait. In fact, many are now wearing a new generation of "cross trainer or hiking" shoe favoured by fell runners, mountain bikers and extreme walkers. Sport sandals are also making their mark as people radically rethink their walking attire.

When buying a boot think about its use. If you require the use of crampons then a stiffened sole will be required. If you are tall and heavy then you will again require a stiffer boot. Narrow footed people will probably feel happier with a continental boot that is made on a narrower last while it may pay women to look at ladies boots specifically designed for a slim fit and easier flex.

There are three general rules about boot fit.

1. When you are standing in laced up boots, none of your toes should touch the end of the boot. Remember that you are not purchasing fashion shoes and that when the foot swells, after a few hours on the move or when you are descending a hill, you will need length to the boot to protect the toes from bruising. This will generally be provided by purchasing your footwear a half or full size larger than your regular shoes

2. A little movement in the heel is better than a sloppy or tight fit.

3. The boot should feel comfortable. Purchase your footwear as a trinity. Buy the boot, any change in footbed and your socks at the same time to ensure the correct fit. Try them on together. Buy your boots after you have been on your feet for a while to mimic feet swollen after a days walk. Keep them on in the shop for as long as possible to find out any bad points. Go to a good, specialist retailer who will be pleased to advise on boot fit and who has a good choice of boot in stock.

Remember that a stone encountered on the Grand Union Canal is just as hard as one on Snowdon. Try to twist a boot sole. A good boot will put up resistance to lateral twist yet still flex along its length; this provides support. Once flexed along its length a good boot should spring back into shape. The boot should not crease upon bending.

Finally, press the middle of the forefoot with your thumb to check that there is enough firmness to protect from those stones.


Boot Care

Your footwear suffers. Not only do you demand protection for your delicate appendages that pour out volatile coolants, but you then traipse through rough acidic bogs to scratch and scrape away at boulders. Your footwear comes home bruised and soaked. They need tending to; a bit of love and care...
First, wash off mud and debris. Take off the laces and remove the innersole. Stuff with newspaper to dry the inside of the boots and leave in a cool and well ventilated area. DO NOT DRY IN A HOT ENVIRONMENT. Water swells when warmed and this can damage the delicate, water-impregnated fibres of leather. It will crack and harden your investment.

While many boots utilise proofed leathers treated during the tanning stage, this will eventually wear away. Once dry, treat your boots with a modern, quality boot preparation such as Nikwax or Graingers. Dubbins etc are out for they can damage stitching. Apply wax in several thin layers allowing each layer to dry before putting on the next. Wipe off surplus wax between each wax treatment and allow each layer to dry naturally. The object is to get a thin rubbery protective wax layer on each boot.

If your boots have dried out or you need to remove the old wax layers then use a liquid treatment of the wax preparations. But remember that these are only meant for occasional use. Fabric boots should be dried and cleaned as their leather brethren. The outside of the boot should then be sprayed with a proofing agent to resist water impregnating. Remember, no boot is waterproof except those that incorporate a waterproof, breathable insert or a polythene bag! Resole your boots as soon as the tread starts to wear badly. Do not allow your boots to look like a bald tyre for this is when accidents occur. Boots resoled and serviced by a reputable specialist will provide many more years of pleasurable safe use.

Back to Start