July 15, 2021
By Joe Arterburn
On any backcountry hunt the most important thing in your survival kit is a good pair of boots. That’s according to Phil Francone, a boot expert who speaks from experience.
“Whether you pack in three miles or 13, if your boots fail, you are in a world of hurt,” said Francone, president of Meindl USA, the exclusive direct-to-consumer supplier of Meindl hunting boots in North America. If it sounds like he is trying to sell you boots, well, that’s how he began, selling boots in an outdoor store way back in 1995. His relationship with Meindl started in 2001, working—and hunting—with the late Alfons Meindl and now Alfons’s sons, Lukas and Lars, the ninth Meindl generation to run the company.
“If you’re on top of a mountain, or elbow deep in a backcountry elk hunt, and your boots fail, you’re in trouble," said Francone. "You’re going to be duct-taping those things to your feet to get out of there.”
Boot failure can be failure of materials, broken stitching, split seams, flapping outsoles, and the like, or it can be failure to protect your feet from blisters, bruises, and lost toenails, injuries that not only can cut short a hunting trip, but can also make the walk out painful, if not impossible.
“If you’re cut, you can stop the bleeding and walk out, but if you can’t walk out, you’re dead,” said Francone. “There are four things backcountry hunters need in boots: Support. Quality. Protection. Traction.”
“What I look for in a boot for backcountry hunting when I know I’m going to be wearing a backpack, and going to be hauling weight, is something that’s going to support my foot with a good solid platform,” said Francone.
Backcountry boots should be rigid to support your feet and ankles. Customers have commented on that, questioning why they’re so stiff. “They’re stiff on purpose,” said Francone. “They need to be to protect and support your feet under heavy loads.”
When boot shopping, beware of EVA midsoles, lightweight rubber outsoles, and poorly constructed leather/fabric uppers that “put yourself in a bad spot to begin with.”
According to Francone, if you lace up with some sort of soft boot, you’re going to wear out earlier. “Think about when you balance on something soft,” he said. “You have to use your entire foot and your entire body to keep your balance. But if you have a hard platform, you can stand there solidly without using your other muscles. I’m not a biomechanical engineer, but I believe weaker boots, lesser-built boots, wear you out faster because you have to use all your muscles to try to keep yourself balanced and level.”
Look for quality throughout, including the all-important midsole, the cushion zone between footbed and outsole. Instead of EVA midsoles, look for polyurethane. Polyurethane has better rebound, no memory, and said Francone, “If you put on a 70-pound pack, you’re not going to bottom that boot out. You’re not going to step through and hit something that’ll stone-bruise you. It gives you more torsional rigidity and more lateral stability, especially for sidehilling.”
Then there’s lacing. Meindl’s DIGAfix lacing system lets you custom-fit lacing, locking laces as snug or as loose (so as not to cut off crucial blood flow to toes) as you prefer over the metatarsal area. Also, a cinch held by another lace lock holds your heel in the heel counter of the boot, ensuring your foot doesn’t move in the boot.
Good backcountry boots—those built to stand up to rugged, off-trail travel—won’t have front- or side-facing seams. Instead, they’ll have a one-piece vamp cut from the thickest, strongest leather (from the top shoulder of cattle) with seams toward the back. “Anytime you introduce a seam into a boot you introduce a section that can fail,” said Francone. “Think about shale and rock slides and all that hard, craggy stuff you climb over. Those all have sharp edges, and when you have seams, you can cut those threads and that boot starts to fall apart.”
Quality needs to carry inside the boot as well. Meindl’s Comfort Fit footbed is made with silicone-impregnated cork that molds to your feet—plus foam to reinforce the arch, moisture-transferring fleece, and a polyurethane Poron heel insert for added cushioning. Yes, that’s part of the support system, but it also deserves to be under “Quality.”
Also, Francone said, Meindl boots are built on asymmetrical lasts “because your foot is not symmetrical. Traditional lasts look like an old dress shoe, round and real pointy in the toe, and nobody’s toes are pointed or shaped that way.” Meindl’s lasts are “actually shaped like a foot so if you look down over the top of the boot you can actually see where the big toe goes and how it falls off from there and comes out wider on the outside where your pinky toe should be—just like your foot is shaped.”
The protection aspect goes back to quality materials, technology, construction, and all the other aspects of the boots, but then you start talking insulation and waterproofing.
“The protection side of the equation is protection against the outside elements, but it’s also protection inside for the foot,” said Francone.
Gore-Tex “from top to bottom” provides waterproof, breathable protection, said Francone. And Meindl boots feature Prima-Loft Gold insulation—either 400 or 800 grams—which is lightweight and has excellent rebound, so it has a better heat retention, plus it transfers moisture, so it dries quickly. There are uninsulated versions as well.
Francone’s advice on insulation may be counterintuitive to what you’re thinking. “The higher up the mountain I go, the less insulation I want,” he said. “A lot of guys think they are going to freeze their asses off. Well, if you’re above treeline on one of those hunts, you’re not inactive, you’re usually on the move, and the more insulation in your boots the more you’re going to sweat, so the wetter you’re going to get. Not good.”
Another quick point about protection, boots designed for above-timberline travel should feature a protective band of rubber, called a rand, around the bottom of the upper to shield the leather from cuts and abrasions.
Francone recommends Vibram outsoles. Period. “Vibram has the highest-quality rubber outsoles produced for the market,” he said. “Nobody can compete with what they do technologically—their rubber compounds, their design, their skill set, and their understanding of grip and side-hilling and climbing and descending.”
Vibram’s Multi-Grip 6.0 outsole, a Meindl exclusive, is made of a rubber compound designed for gripping rocks and other demands of mountain travel. Multidirectional lugs and angles, including a sharp angle on the front of the heel, provide traction going up, from side to side, and coming down.
Francone said descending is the most important aspect an outsole should address. “You can get up the mountain, pull yourself up if you need to,” he said. “You can slip around a bit and do all kinds of fun stuff, but you’re going to find a way to get up there. But coming back down, if your footwear sucks, you could lose a big toenail, and nobody wants to lose their big toenail.”
Pressure on your foot shifts when you’re walking downhill, and if you have ill-fitting boots, your problems multiply. “If you don’t have the componentry to lace your foot in and keep your heel back in the heel counter and your foot gets to sliding in there, or if your boot is too small, you’ll start banging your big toe on the front of the boot as you come down,” said Francone. “I’ve done it. I didn’t have the right boots for the situation, and I was banging the crap out of my big toenail.” Francone didn’t lose the toenail, but it was painfully purple when he finally got down the mountain.
He’s seen the results when damage was worse. “You can absolutely rip your toenail off the top of your toe, and it is ugly.”
Footwear is not the place to cut expenses. You have thousands invested in the hunt: in travel, tags, in a bow or a rifle, and other equipment. “And then you’re going to buy a $115 pair of hunting boots?” said Francone. “I don’t suggest that to be an intelligent decision. Think of it as cheap insurance. With all the cost you put into your hunt, $300 on a pair of boots is the best money you can spend.”
One last bit of advice: Wear quality socks. “We can make a boot as technologically sound as we can make it, but if you wear a cheap pair of socks inside that boot, you’re making a mistake.”
This article was first featured in Backcountry Hunter, a magazine chock-full of in-depth articles related to must-have gear, tips and tactics, how-to columns, epic hunt stories, and more. The hunting world's leading experts fill the pages of this one-of-a-kind magazine with tips, tactics and stories from editor-in-chief Kali Parmley, David Draper, Joe Ferronato, Andrew McKean, Jace Bauserman and more. Click here to visit the OSG Newsstand to pick up your copy today.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.