These Boots Are Made for Walking

I doubt that there is a single thing that spoils more outings in woods and fields than sore feet—unless it’s being three miles from the vehicle and discovering you forgot that one important item, whatever it may be.

We usually don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our feet, until they hurt and it’s too late. Keeping your feet in tip-top shape is easy to do, and as in so many other things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The place to help produce a comfortable day afield is at the boot store. Unfortunately, that is also where the confusion starts. There are walking shoes, hiking shoes (what’s the difference?), low-cut, mid-cut and high-top boots; and choices of all-leather boots, synthetic or mixed. And let’s not even get into the myriad of soles you have to choose from. Needless to say, the shoe and boot manufacturers would like you to buy several pairs of their shoes and boots for several different activities. The bottom line is that all the hoopla and the bells and whistles are meaningless if the shoes don’t fit.

There are some things that can help you make a better decision about the boots you purchase. When you go shopping, don’t go in the morning; go after you’ve been on your feet all day. Your feet swell (1/2 size or more), and you want to try on boots when your feet are the biggest. Don’t wear street shoes; put on your old hiking boots and wear them to the store. The weight, construction, and fit of hiking boots vs. street shoes are different enough to throw off your perceptions and feel. Wear the same socks (washed, please) that you are going to wear with the boots. This usually means a liner sock and a heavy sock. Try on both boots, and if possible, a couple different pairs of the same boot. On at least two occasions I have had to mix and match boots from two sets because the right of the first pair and the left of the second pair fit best.

Have you ever had the shoes or boots feel great in the store and after an hour in the woods they were terrible?

Before you buy them, ask what the return/exchange policy is. I like to at least be able to go home and walk around the house for an hour or two to see if any hidden defects or “hot spots” show up. To paraphrase an old saying: One man’s slipper is another man’s blister. Some people can be down right pleased after a day in bargain basement boots, while others need nothing less than top-of-the-line footwear.

As for style, you will find all sorts of different types: Upland, High Country, Multi-purpose, and the one I like, Hikers (as if you are going to buy boots and not walk or “hike” in them). To some degree, there are differences. For example, Uplands usually are more lightweight and have a “softer” lug design that sheds mud easier. The problem for me is that I don’t always know the type of terrain I’ll be on. Also, money constraints don’t let me purchase a pair of boots for each different situation. Therefore, I have two multi-purpose-style boots: one for warm weather and the other for cold. With the cold, I (personally) tend to stay away from insulated boots. For me, I can always layer up or down with different socks, whereas with my insulated boots, I am stuck with sweaty feet in warmer weather or higher activity—especially if they don’t wick away moisture.

The material of the upper part of the boot is the last consideration. You have a choice between leather, synthetic or a blend. In general, synthetic loses its shape faster, but will break in faster and usually not last as long. Also, synthetics need less care. Leather takes longer to break in, but will retain their shape to your foot much longer once broken in. I have a pair of 30-year-old summer boots that are still my favorite for general hiking. They do take more care, but a regular application of Neat’s Foot Oil or another mink oil with keep the leather supple and fairly water-resistant. In my experience, the extra initial cost of leather is actually a savings since I have not had to replace the boots as often or in this case at all.

The only other suggestion is get the “highest” ankle boot that is comfortable to you. The extra height gives you more support and more protection around your ankles.

Even with the best of boots you can still get blisters. These usually develop over the “knuckles” of the toes, the ball of the foot and the heel. A blister is caused when too much friction occurs between the skin and the boot. When this occurs, fluid collects between the layers of skin in an attempt to reduce that friction—ergo, a blister. You get downhill blisters on your toes from your foot sliding forward as you walk downhill and uphill blisters on your heels from walking uphill.

Prevention takes three forms: First, always wear two pairs of socks—a thin polypropylene sock and a thicker sock of wool or wool blend. Cotton absorbs and holds moisture and should be avoided. The polypropylene sock acts as a slick liner to reduce any friction and wick moisture away from the skin. Second, when walking on steep terrain, you should walk “with your body” with your feet parallel to the hill. This distributes your weight evenly over the entire bottom of your foot, and not just the ball or heel. And third, if you feel a hot spot begin to develop, stop immediately and cover the spot with Mole Skin, Vigilon or Spenco 2nd Skin. And in a pinch, even duct tape will do.

If a blister has already formed and is intact (still filled with fluid), drain it by puncturing the base with a sterilized needle. This loose skin acts as a good barrier to bacteria and can reattach to the underlying skin. Apply an antibiotic and a bandage. The blister may have to be punctured two or three times before fluid stops collecting. Remember to use a fresh bandage each time. If the blister has already popped and the skin is torn, treat it like an open wound. Cleanse the area with soapy water, hydrogen peroxide or other antiseptic cleanser. Cover the area with an antibiotic ointment, like Polysporin and apply a bandage. Do this at least twice a day until it heals.

Blisters can merely be an inconvenience or life threatening if it becomes infected. But of all the things that can happen to you in the wild, blisters are easily preventable and easily treatable.

Not to sound like a cliché, but your boots are the foundation of your daily outdoor activities. Of all your equipment (footwear), they are often the most overlooked. And, they can contribute to having a comfortable day afield and prevent you from being laid up with sore feet, calves and knees.