I’ve been asked a lot about my boots lately; what I like to walk and hike in and what boots I wear for expeditions. I’m not a gear expert, but I am an expert in feeling comfortable when I’m out on the trail, so I’ll happily share what works for me.
I started out walking in Wicklow 5 years ago with a pair of Meindl trail boots, on the recommendation of the lads at Great Outdoors in Chatham Street in Dublin. I went back about 4 months later because the boots were looking a bit rough and the guys asked me did I condition and waterproof them? I stared blankly and probably said something sensible like “what’s that then?” The boys replaced the boots, gave me a lecture on how to care for them, and I’ve been wearing them ever since, in fact, my trusty Meindl’s took me up and down the Galtee Montains just last week.
I clean my boots after every hike and condition them and spray them with waterproofing and it really does make a difference to their longevity and the comfort of my feet. My Meindl’s are Nubuck leather and have several seams running through them. Regardless of how well the boots are made and how well you look after them, stitchwork will eventually start to rot when you’re trekking relentlessly through peaty Irish bogland. The stitching is breaking down pretty badly on mine after 5 years of hard work, and yet with the boot’s waterproof Goretex lining – combined with a good spray of waterproofing on the outside, my feet are still warm and dry; even in heavy rain and even after forging through streams (with gaiters). They really are quite remarkable and comfy as a glove. As my mum would have said: “They don’t owe me a penny”.
I’m still not ready to throw away my Meindl’s, but I was beginning to look around for another boot for hiking at home here in Ireland. I had a hankering for a ‘single skin’ boot. In other words, I was looking for a pair of boots that were made from one piece of leather, which didn’t have many stitched seams. I overheard a couple of ‘old-timers’ discussing boots over a pint of Guinness and I heard them say that stitching will always rot when you’re hiking in Ireland because of the effect of the bog on the threads. I don’t know if that’s true, but I was willing to test the theory. So enter my new generation of heels; a pair of Zamberlan Vibram Gortex boots. All deep glossy chestnut and thick, deep sole – I spotted them in Pat Falvey’s Adventure Store in the Gap of Dunloe in Kerry, and it was love at first sight. The boots have a rigid sole and can hold an automatic crampon, which I’ll talk about later. I was a bit concerned the hard sole could be inflexible for walking on long trails; but they felt really supportive and being able to wear them with crampons has it’s own attraction, so I decided to take the chance. On the downside they weigh over 4lb which is a little bit weighty for me for general hiking. On the up, they fit really well, they’re comfortable, and they’re nicely padded around the high ankle support. I wore them for the first time last weekend when I was climbing Mount Errigal in Donegal. I had intended to wear them for a few short walks first, but when I thought of the scree-slope on Errigal, and the very worn soles on my old boots, I decided I’d chance the support of the new ones. I was glad. They were comfy, solid, edged nicely through the scree and caused me no problems. A day later I went for an eight-hour-hike in blistering heat in Wicklow, and wore them again. They should have punished me with blisters, but I got away with a single hot-spot on one of my big toes. That’s a really good result.
Enter the big boys. My pride and joy are my Boreal’s. I have two pairs, both with rigid soles and both for using on ice with snap-on or ‘automatic’ crampons. They were both sourced through Con Moriarty of Hidden Ireland Adventures.
My Boreal Super Latok ice-climbers have brought me to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, Grand Paradiso in the Alps and Mount Elgon in Uganda. They have a fully rigid sole and can take all crampons. They weigh just over 4lb and have a triple thermal insulation and dry-lining. The manufacturers recommend them for ‘very cold conditions. Himalayan and Alpine climbing. Technical ice and mixed climbing.’ I love these boots. They served me well in Nepal and the Alps, but were overkill in Africa. They’re suitable for cold-weather mixed climbing, but wearing them in the heat was silly. My feet sweated on the inside and got soft. I didn’t get blisters, but I just didn’t need this class of boot in the heat.
My Boreal G1 Lites brought me through a technical climb on Island Peak (20,305ft) and I’ll be wearing them again this year when I head to Elbrus in Russia. Another super boot, these are the equivalent of the old ‘plastic boot’. Suitable for extreme cold, they are a double boot, with an outer Neoprene and Carbon Glass boot, and an inner removable dry-line ‘bootie’. For the amount of insulation, they’re a real lightweight, at 4lb 12 ounces. As a girl, I can tell you, weight really does matter!
I’ve had my cold-weather boots since 2010 and I’m sure there are a lot more light-weight, warmer, super efficient, ‘go-faster’ materials on the market since then. A straw poll of female climbing buddies recommended Scarpa, Asolo and Keen, which apparently has a lightweight day-hiking boot that comes in at just 1.8lb for the pair.
Probably the best place to start is knowing what you want when you go shopping. Do your research and shop around. You need a cold-weather boot if you’re going to snow and ice at altitude. If you are going to travel all that way, spending lots of cash on the trip and spending months training to make a summit, it’s awful to think of failing because of a shortfall in gear. You need to check the manufacturers’ insulation claims and believe them. In other words, if you’re borderline on whether you should step up a level with gear – step it up. Don’t arrive somewhere and discover you’ve got it wrong. You can rent, but I’d be terrified of finding the boots felt uncomfortable when I arrived, I’d prefer to borrow from a friend at home and get a chance to try them out before I left. I found the Latoks were fine for the Alps, but I was super-glad of the G1 double-boots when I arrived on Island Peak. If I’m going to need crampons I would definitely go for something with a rigid sole and have the ability to use snap-on crampons, saving time and energy fiddling with ‘tie-ons’ out on a glacier. Good gear is especially important for me, because I’m a ‘newbie’ and I lack the skills of other seasoned climbers, so I’ll take every bit of help I can get. If you’re not sure about something – ask. There are plenty of great sports stores that will give you advice and who know better than most, what works and what doesn’t. If you’re already an expert, go for it. But when I need a bit of help, I prefer to skip buying online and go and find someone local who can give me advice and support me in my purchase.
I was recently asked about what to wear on Kilimanjaro. I haven’t been there so I have no personal experience, but from what I understand, you certainly wouldn’t need a killer, rigid, Alpine boot. The final day is the toughest and it’s mainly scree with some icy patches. I’ve heard of people wearing trail shoes the whole way up, others wearing boots, others wearing runners but switching to boots on the final day. If I was heading off to Africa tomorrow I’d bring a lightweight boot that would support my ankle and grip well on the scree, but wouldn’t be too warm that my feet would sweat and soften – and I’d wear them as soon as the ground got rough, for fear I’d twist an ankle.
When I first bought my gear I got a really good grounding on the benefits of wearing supportive boots, that would protect my feet and my ankles in rough terrain. I have since tempered the message to my own taste. I now often wear trail-runners rather than boots, particularly during the summer when trails are dry and when my feet tend to sweat easily. ‘Stay-dry’ linings are great in winter when you’re splashing through a stream but are less useful in summer if your feet are soaking little puddles of sweat. I’ve got two favourite pairs of trail shoes; a pair of pink Helly Hansen trail runners and a pair of very expensive, very swanky, very sporty-trendy Salomons. I prefer the Helly Hansens, partly because they’re pink, and partly because I think they’re a broader fit and my foot is short, fat, with high insteps and dropped arches. It’s a major point to make – along with getting the right technical footware, it’s vitally important that it FITS.
When trying on your new boot, it should feel like someone is holding your foot firmly across the instep. You need a little toe-room, but not enough that your foot is slipping down in the boot when you’re making a descent, or you’ll end up with battered toes and blackened nails. I generally find my boot is a size larger than my normal shoe size. You need to have enough room in the boot to allow for circulation, for your foot swelling, and to fit a thick sock along with a thin liner, to avoid friction. I’ve been told you need enough room to slip a finger down the back of your boot behind your foot; and I’ve found that rough guide works for me. Consider the shape of your foot, if you need a broad or narrow fit, you may need to try several different brands to get the right fit. Specialist stores will measure your foot and can even produce moulded insoles that could help. Never be tempted to walk away wearing something uncomfortable in the hope that it will get better later – it won’t. Also, don’t tie up the laces too tightly, and give yourself a chance to break your boots in, or they’ll break you! I may have chanced my new boots on a long hike without warning, but if you’re depending on comfy boots in high places, you really should be hiking in them for at least 3 months beforehand.
That’s about the size of it for me. Happy hiking – and let me know what works for you out on the hill. I love to hear other people’s hiking stories and recommendations, so send them on. Email me on: firstname.lastname@example.org and remember, if you’re going on a walking holiday with me in Spain this October – Great Outdoors will give you a discount on your gear! Check out the Travel Department advert at the top of the page.