The Proper Footwear

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Consider the potential weather and terrain when looking at buying a pair of hunting boots

While often an after-thought for many hunters, my footwear is most often right near the very top of my hunting preparation list, usually just a tad behind my guns and ammunition. Stimulated, no doubt, by my recollection of boots that all but ruined my first sheep hunt, or to a pheasant hunt, as recent as this past fall, where my wife ended up with cold, wet feet in mere minutes of trudging through a rain-soaked alfalfa field because she had forgotten her waterproof boots at home. I, on the other hand, was wearing a pair of kangaroo leather upland boots with a GORE-TEX liner, and had dry, comfortable feet all day long.

But prior to any discussion on footwear, I need to very briefly go back in time to what is often referred to as “the good ol’ days,” just to set the stage in determining how far we have come in recent years. I think that the best way to start may well be with the simple statement that when analyzing the spectrum of hunting gear that hunters have available to them these days, the gear of old has been quite literally left in the dust. Gone are the days of flat-soled leather boots that stretched beyond recognition the first time they encountered wet terrain, or where form-fitting rubber boots were a dream of the future. Today, the market is just crammed full of options for every type of hunt or hunting terrain. As an example, on an Alaskan peninsula brown bear hunt a couple of years back, I wore nothing but a lightweight pair of waders, that because the boot was a lace-up, form-fitting style that offered secure comfort and flexibility, I could walk miles in them across boggy terrain that would have ruined about any other boot, not to mention that my feet would have been wet and cold, adding to the potential for a miserable hunt. Whatever the hunt, the message is still the same: footwear can make or break any hunt, be it a once-in-a-lifetime hunt or simply a Saturday outing for upland birds.

Rather than detail this or that specific boot, or even manufacturer, I would rather lay out a general guideline for assisting you in making some fundamental choices.

When hunting in rugged terrain, where an ankle rollover or a slip can end your hunt, I like to look for a boot that has complete ankle coverage (minimum eight inches) with a firm shank in the sole, a very aggressive outsole and a very comfortable arch-supporting insole that can cushion your feet/arch on very rocky terrain. I would also recommend that the boots have some waterproofing, or at least water resistance capability, as you may often find yourself fording small creeks or hiking through the odd wet or boggy area. A GORE-TEX liner, or a boot with a breathable liner, is often just the ticket. I also prefer a boot that allows me to tighten the laces evenly and securely, so that there is no play or shifting in the support the boot is designed to give you.

If your hunt happens to be later in the year, you will most likely also want to consider a boot with at least some insulation. A 600 or 800-gram layer of Thinsulate would be about right for the majority of situations.

As with every boot, it is also vital to break them in prior to a hunt; but when it comes to an alpine hunt, this is a must. While a slip or fall can take you out of the game, the much more likely occurrence is blistered feet. For any of us who have faced this dilemma, it is not only a very painful experience, but also one that can spell days in camp just healing your feet. And during a lengthy sheep hunt, it doesn’t take a chartered accountant to tally your losses where an ounce of prevention would have kept you in the hunt.

My next stop is upland, early fall or moderate terrain hunts where we usually walk miles every day, but the conditions are not quite as demanding. Here I like a very lightweight boot that offers breathability, a very comfortable insole with a less aggressive outsole and plenty of flexibility. Just remember that those boots that weigh three or four pounds will seem like they weigh 20 at the end of the day. I also prefer that they have a waterproof membrane for those early mornings where you are hiking through wet grass, or around sloughs, or even crossing creek bottoms. They will keep your feet dry under most light wet conditions, just don’t expect to slog around in water with them. In early fall, un-insulated boots are just fine. In fact, in warmer weather, I find that insulated boots can become very uncomfortable, as they tend to overheat very quickly. I would only look to insulated boots if I were hunting later in fall when conditions have turned cold enough to warrant them, or when I was on a stand where inactivity warranted warmer boots.

I would like to take a bit of time to discuss leather versus synthetic boots. The best pair of upland/light terrain hunting boots I have ever owned are a pair of kangaroo leather boots. They are as light as a feather and kangaroo leather is extremely tough and durable. I have walked countless miles in these boots but, unfortunately, they are no longer made. Many companies have now introduced synthetic materials in the boot-making process. Generally speaking, leather boots require more care and offer less breathability than synthetic boots. I have and use both, however, I have found that some of the synthetic boots are lighter and great on hot-weather hunts.

Boots designed for hunting in marshes, swamps, muskegs or wetlands have quite possibly taken the greatest leap forward in recent years, and I all but cringe when I think back to the rubber boots of old. Today, lightweight boots made out of neoprene, that fit your feet like a glove and that let you walk all day in swamp water, have changed how we think of wetland hunting boots.

Late fall or winter presents another level of factors to consider when looking at footwear. Any number of companies make boots that are supposedly rated to extreme temperatures, but don’t expect them to keep your feet warm in those temperatures, especially if you are sitting on a stand. So I will deal with extreme weather boots for use on a stand first. Here I like a snow pac-type boot that has all the innovations that a company can pack into them, including a removable wool/felt liner designed to keep the heat in. For long sessions in late fall/early winter, I would add the new ThermaCELL Heated Pro-Flex remote controlled insoles. With their removable and rechargeable battery, they undoubtedly will keep you out there longer.

However, if still-hunting or where you are regularly on the move, I would opt for a lighter boot this is easier to walk in, but still keeps you secure in the snow and on the ice.

And, last, I can’t leave the discussion of footwear without at least mentioning buying a pair of boots. Foremost, make sure that you size them correctly in both length and width. While this may seem simplistic, it is not, as not every company fits the same. Companies, from boot to boot, don’t always get it right either, or possibly one has an internal flaw that is not visible until you put the boot on. For that reason, I highly recommend that you do not buy them online, but head down to your local sporting goods store and try them on; and not just one boot either – put both boots on and walk around in them with the socks that you would normally wear out hunting. Most often you will know quite quickly if they are right for you, but the longer you can walk about, the better. A good decision at the store can get you off on the right foot, providing years of comfortable and rewarding hunts.

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