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
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".
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largely been replaced by the light weight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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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