By Brad Brooks
It’s important to set some ground rules before we get too far. First, all feet are like snowflakes. Everyone’s feet are unique and different, and therefore the shoe needs for many backcountry hunters and hikers will vary. However, for the vast majority of people, the criteria used to pick a hunting boot will only vary slightly, even though the specific brand and model to choose will be based on foot shape and structure.
This article is meant to help you pair down what kind of boots or shoes you may want to invest in before getting to the specific features a boot has. These principles should help you save time and money by honing in on the right boot or boots for the job before you start spending money on shoes that you may or may not like.
There are some guiding principles that I use when looking at what boot to use during different times of the year. These aren’t exactly like the laws of nature, but I do think they can help provide some context for how to pick the right hunting boot.
Principle #1: The later in the year, and the steeper the ground you walk on, the stiffer and more burly your boot should be.
The subtext to the golden rule is that lighter shoes and boots should be used when possible, particularly in the early season, but as the season progresses, particularly if you are backpack hunting in rugged terrain, a more stable and protective boot is going to be worth considering due to the likelihood of walking in colder, wet ground throughout the day.
Boots and shoes are built with different materials and mid-soles to create a stiff or a soft “shank” depending on what the boot will be used for. A stiff boot is going to give you more stability, and typically be a lot heavier, while a softer soled boot is going to be lighter and not provide as much arch support. There are pros and cons to each style of boot, but the main point here is that as conditions move towards winter, it can be worth wearing a more substantial boot to protect your feet from the elements and from walking on wet, uneven terrain.
As an aside, my favorite late season boot right now is the Lowa Tibet GTX. I won’t doddle on about it here, but I’ve been wearing it for the last two years during the late season and have been very impressed.
Principle #3: Go with the lightest Boot you can
There is science to back up the advantages of a lighter boot, and a fair bit of intuition. I will go into this point in depth later, but as a general rule, the more weight on your feet, the more energy you will expend with each step, which causes more fatigue. But as I will discuss later, tread (see what I did there) cautiously with thinking that lighter is always better.
There is data and science to back this up. There have been a number of studies on what happens when you add weight when hiking. Those studies have demonstrated the relative increase in energy expenditure from having more weight on your feet when you walk or run. The interesting part about putting weight on your feet versus your back is there is a multiplier effect that occurs in terms of how much weight added to your feet slows you down versus having the same amount of weight on your back.
Think about it for a minute. If a person taped a ten pound weight to each leg and tried walking, it would slow them down considerably. If a person put that same amount of weight, 20 pounds, in a backpack and tried to walk up a hill, they would not struggle nearly as much. If it isn’t making sense to you, conduct an experiment and you will notice the difference. Without getting into the body mechanics, an equal amount of weight on the end of your extremities versus your back is going to require more energy to be expended in order to move that weight.
Weight does matter, particularly for backcountry hunters that are putting on long miles, often in rough or steep terrain, where added weight to your feet can cause increased fatigue.
But (and this is a huge but), be careful about assuming lighter is always better. There is a point of diminishing returns. In fact, there are circumstances where I would argue lighter is not always the preferred choice in picking a backcountry hunting boot, which I will cover in the next article on Hiking Boots vs. Running Shoes for backcountry hunting. In that article I go into much more detail on the trade-offs and reasons for going lighter or heavier with your boots.
Principle #3: Don’t be cheap; Buy quality
I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but boots are perhaps the most important piece of gear besides your backpack for hunting. More than a fancy rifle or a top-of-the-line bow, your boots (and I would argue your backpack) are where you should not cut corners on investing in quality.
Now if money is an issue and you can’t afford an expensive pair of boots, I get it. But if you have a $1,500 setup for your bow or rifle and are complaining about the price of good boots, you have a priority issue. All the fancy clothes with matching camo patterns in the world won’t make up for a mediocre pair of boots.
Good boots are expensive, but nothing will ruin a good hunt faster than a foot full of blisters, and suddenly that once-a-year, or once-in-a-lifetime hunt, is over. So, get your spending priorities in shape and invest in a quality pair of boots. And when I say quality, be sure to do your homework. There are a lot of poorly made, mediocre boot brands out there that spend a lot on marketing. Pick a brand that has a solid reputation from people that have put the boots to the test in real hunting conditions, not worn them around the block.
Principle #4: Decide when and how you will use your bootsBefore a person starts looking at what brand to buy, it is important to be realistic about the most likely way you will use your hunting boots. Instead of thinking about all the ways you might use your boots, think about how you will actually use your boots and pick a boot that is best suited to the hunting, hiking and use you are most likely to do in the coming couple years.
Early archery season in the desert, October elk hunting in Colorado, late season coues deer hunting in Arizona, tree stand hunting in Minnesota and archery elk hunting in Wyoming are all going to have different ideal footwear requirements.
A one quiver pair of boots isn’t optimal if you hunt early archery seasons through the late season, or you hunt different states throughout the year. This doesn’t mean you need a closet full of boots . I spent years wearing the same boots throughout the season because I couldn’t afford anything else and managed to get by just fine. But there are consequences for doing that, and sometimes a small amount of suffering.
It is also important to decide what type of boot you want before you start looking at brands and models. Decide if you want a waterproof boot, a stiff sole, leather, synthetic, etc., before you start letting wide-ranging opinions of what is the “best hunting boot” out there dictate your thinking.
I hope these principles are helpful as a general guide for buying boots. Do you have any general guidelines you use when picking a hunting boot? I’d love to hear how you decide what to do when it comes to hunting and hiking boots, so leave any comments, thoughts and suggestions below.
For a more in-depth article on how to pick the perfect hunting or hiking boot, check out our article on finding the best hunting boot, and be sure to read our piece on running shoes vs. boots for hiking if you are considering using an ultralight shoe to hunt or hike with.