In order to talk about boots, we must first define them. A boot covers the foot and the ankle, at a minimum, and some are tall enough to cover the lower leg, knee, and thigh. The first boots were basically a moccasin and legging that were two separate parts and have been around for 14,000-17,000 years as depicted by cave drawings in Spain. The first boots which had the lower and upper portions joined were built around 1,000 BCE. In the 1200’s Mongols wore boots with heels after the invention of the stirrup, which allowed them to ride while standing and fire a recurve bow with more stability from horseback— they conquered about 12 million square miles in Asia, roughly the size of Africa.
The first standard-issue military boots were worn by Cavaliers in the English Civil war in the 1700’s and resembled hip waders folded down. This style was worn by horsemen, pirates, and maritime men through the 20th century. If you are picturing the three musketeers, you have it right.
Boots protect your feet from injury, keep them warm, and ideally, dry. They can add some stability to weak ankles and increase traction on different surface textures. Today’s offerings can even be purchased in your favorite camouflage in case you are concerned about wily wildlife seeing your feet.
A stiff boot will help you with climbing and side-hilling but tends to be louder than its softer soled cousins. Softer boots tend not to last as long— that flexibility tends to create cracks in the material. Look for reinforcement and build quality in the portions of the boot where you have worn-out boots in the past. For me, that’s where the sole connects at the toe and where the boot flexes near the base of my toes. I’ve found that the more time it takes me to break in a boot, the longer that boot lasts— I still have the Whites I fought fire in through college though I hope to never wear them again as the high heel doesn’t do my back any favors.
Talk to folks who spend months each year in the woods and they will usually tell you boots are among the most important pieces of gear. Napoleon is credited with saying an army marches on its stomach, but in reality, they march on their feet, and more than one war has been lost by the side with inadequate footwear. One of the reasons Marines had to withdraw from the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War was because of rampant frostbite to their feet. The 30,000 UN troops were surrounded by 120,000 Chinese. When asked about the retreat, the Marine commander said, “retreat hell, we are just attacking in a different direction.” Whether you are on the battlefield or in the backcountry, if your feet fall apart, you aren’t able to move effectively. At best your hunt is hampered, at worst you aren’t able to get back to the truck.
The human foot is an incredible body part in its own right, and a boot simply allows it to function better than it can on its own. The foot and ankle are composed of 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 250,000 sweat glands, which produce half a pint of sweat per day. A quarter of the bones in your body are in your feet. They allow us to stand on two legs instead of four (keeps our hands available for tasks), let us run long distances, walk quietly, climb trees and cliffs, and swim. It is a mistake to look at modern humans and see a physically weak species, before bows, spears, and atlatls we made our living running animals to death. A boot does to your foot what a boxing glove does to your hand, limits capabilities in some ways and increases them in others. If you want to get your feet stronger, I highly recommend walking barefoot and developing the 29 muscles associated with the human foot. Fair warning though, if you spend a bunch of time barefoot in the summer, your feet are going to feel like they just got sent to solitary confinement when you lace up your hunting boots in the fall.
Today you can buy a boot specifically designed for any task you care to take on but they aren’t necessarily ready to perform at the highest level straight out of the box. Boot break-in has a lot to do with your success in the field, and for how long your boots will last.
Finding the right boot starts with making sure it fits. Your foot changes sizes based on your weight, diet, elevation, and time of day. As a general rule, your foot is at its biggest in the afternoon after two meals and a period of activity that involves walking. That is the time to try on boots. You want a bit of room near the toe for descents and a secure feeling at the heel to reduce friction when climbing. When climbing you want your laces loose to prevent increased friction leading to blisters on the heels, and when descending you want your laces uncomfortably tight to keep from hurting your toes and toenails. The best hunting boots have a lace lock at the top of your foot so you can have a different tightness in the laces for your feet than you have on your ankle. Boots that have laces going all the way to your toes also allow for a more custom fit. I also look for eyelets with ball bearings to allow the laces to slide with less friction— this keeps laces from breaking in the field also.
Everyone’s feet have something unique about them and your boots need to accommodate that. This is why it isn’t a good idea to buy a specific boot just because it worked well for someone else. We all walk differently and in different conditions, so you need to find the right boot for you. I recommend evaluating them by their materials, stiffness, and brand reputation.
Once I get a new pair of boots home I insert a boot stretcher because my feet are somewhere between a EE (wide) and a D (regular width). I also once broke my right foot checking game cameras on a motorcycle while not wearing motorcycle boots, then proceeded to guide the next 28 days on said foot, which has caused it to have a weird shape. Long before that, I split my big toe in half lengthwise which caused some more malformation. I’ll spare you that picture.
A boot stretcher is a critical first step to making sure the boot fits the nuances of your feet. I leave the stretcher in overnight. This works best with leather boots since textiles tend not to stretch as much. Mink oil, bear grease, and even olive oil are good lubricants to allow the leather to stretch and shape to your foot as you begin wearing the boot.
After stretching the material, I start by taking a short walk in my new boots, less than a mile. Then I switch back into my old boots to keep from causing a foot injury. I begin rotating more and more into the new boot. Once I feel it is formed correctly, I’ll apply a coating of Obenhauf’s heavy-duty LP. This is a leather preservative and not only waterproofs your boots but also binds the leather fibers, if you apply this before your boots are broke in you’ll have a longer task ahead of you.
This can become a battle between your boot and foot, each trying to impose its will on the other. By rotating between old boots and new ones until the new boots fit perfectly, you won’t have to wear down parts of your feet or change their shape.
You are done with break-in when you slide your foot into the boot and it feels like home.
There is a faster process which tends to come with a bit of pain, and some reduction in the lifespan of your boot but if you are in a jam and need your boots to fit right tomorrow then fill both boots with hot water, let them soak for five minutes, slosh your feet into them, lace up tight, and walk until they are dry, tightening laces as needed. When you are done with this, apply some leather preservative.
There’s also such a thing as wearing out your boots before the season. That doesn’t mean they are falling apart and your toes are sticking out. That crisp edge of traction on new boots is pretty handy when digging into grassy sidehills, and that extra stiffness helps when climbing a rockslide with an elk quarter strapped to your pack.
If you are feeling pain in your arch you may need to change insoles. Arch pain can lead to plantar fasciitis which is basically a vampire bite that you may battle for months or years. Factory insoles don’t always cut it, they tend to be made of lightweight foam or felt that can slide around and don’t have much in the way of shock absorption. Barefoot, we absorb shock with the arch of our feet which collapses slightly on impact. We also tend to roll our feet from the outside to the inside slightly, which is called pronation. Too much pronation is a bad thing and can cause ankle problems, but a little helps absorb shock. Inside a boot with ankle support, much of our foot’s natural ability to accomplish these things is lost and a good insole like Superfeet really helps. You’ll need to use an insole that matches your natural arch while standing.
Don’t neglect your socks. Remember when I said each foot is producing half a pint of sweat each day? That needs to be wicked away from your skin. Dry feet are healthy feet. I wear smart wools or darn toughs most of the time. I carry a fresh pair in my pack with some foot powder already inside them. If I start to get a hot spot I stop immediately and put a piece of gorilla tape over the spot and then change socks. The other power play is to bring some dress socks. They are super lightweight and thin, and if your feet are swelling up because you are hiking 8,000 feet higher than where you live on a high sodium mountain house diet, they can be a perfect solution to reducing friction and preventing blisters. I do not believe socks provide much in the way of insulation since they tend to get crushed against your skin by the boots, so moisture-wicking and friction reduction become their primary jobs. A US Marine can be missing a limb and actively on fire, and if he goes to a Navy Corpsman for help, the first thing the Corpsman will do is tell them to change their socks. It’s an old joke, but it makes a point.
As a guide, the two red flags I commonly see are clients who show up with old boots that are about to breathe their last, and brand new boots that are going to treat feet like a piranha does hamburger. As a general rule, hunting boots cost about $1 per mile. That’s an uncomfortable truth for me, but the way I hunt and hike, I’ve found it to be accurate. The question becomes: how far do you want to go, and do you want your boots to be the reason you got there or the piece of gear that held you back?