If you can't walk or stand comfortably in a dry pair of boots, it's unlikely you'll tag a deer, or any other game this season. If you're even thinking about your hunting boots while in the field, then there's a problem.
Any foot problem is an issue. Once a blister or hot spot appears, it's not practical to take off a pair of boots, as you might with a jacket, and walk back to the truck.
So, before you drop $100 to $400 for a pair of boots in-store or online, you need to understand what you're buying and how they will perform. In this column we'll touch on the eight rules of fit that will keep your toes toasty and your heels blister free.
One Boot Won't Do it All
The most important rule is: one boot will not do it all. Winter boots don't work well in spring weather, a boot with little ankle support won't work well on the side of a mountain and slip-on rubber neoprene boots are less than ideal if you're walking multiple miles.
Fit and Last
If your fit is incorrect, you're in for some miserable miles. The way to a great fitting boot is to ensure the boot last "matches" your feet. A "last" is a mold the boot is constructed around. In days of old, they were made of wood. Today, they're usually made from aluminum.
Here's where it gets tricky. Don't assume that a size 10-D from one company will fit the same as the same size from a different manufacturer. Even within the same company's lasts often differ.
If you're a size nine, ten, or eleven in medium, most general lasts are built for you. If you're a "wide" or "narrow," you may have to spend a little extra effort locating hunting boots. On-line shopping puts you at greater risk unless you are specifically familiar with the product you selected.
End of Day Sizing
Now that you understand that all size 10D's are not created equal, consider the average person's foot will increase by a half size by the end of the day of walking. Always consider what sock you'll wear, and whether you need a liner sock. It's not uncommon for a guy who wears a liner and a heavy sock to move up a half size.
When treestand hunting, consider moving up one full size to give your feet plenty of room for the insulation to perform at its maximum potential. Any time a boot feels tight, you are restricting blood flow and can expect to experience cold feet sooner than if your toes move freely.
Support is Relative, yet Necessary
Hunters require different levels of support. If you're chasing big game in the West, a treestand boot isn't going to fit the bill. Western hunters often wear boots with plenty of ankle support, or even rugged athletic-style boots, that can weigh less than a pound each.
To determine if a boot offers enough footbed support, put the boot's toe in one hand and the heel in your other, and twist in opposite directions. Some hiking-style mountain boots will barely move, while athletic shoes will twist almost two inches. When your toes are wedged into an outcropping of rock at 8,000 feet, you'll be glad you selected boots with almost no twist.
Keep in mind, that these firm-support boots will take far more time to break-in than the athletic shoe that will feel great in the first hour, so always be sure your boots are broken in well before you go hunting.
Heavier, more supportive hunting boots, will offer far more protection and create fewer medical issues than an ultra-light athletic boot. That said, an athletic boot could be a pleasure to wear on a soft, level trail on the way to a bow stand.
Made in the USA
The list is not long or inexpensive, but a handful of companies are making boots for hunting, work, and military wear that are made in America.
Wolverine, Rocky, Danner and even Reebok have "Made in USA" lines. Other brands, like Filson, experimented with moving their $400 leather Upland Boot construction overseas and brought them back in just a season.
Warranties and Returns
Before you buy online, know the boot you're buying and how the boot fits. Understand the return policy before you hit "Buy Now." Most of the large outdoor stores (even online) have fairly liberal return policies. But again, never assume.
If your purchase is from a small eBay vendor, there are often no returns, or the return shipping can mitigate any savings. Ask questions first, and don't expect last-minute service. Many brick-and-mortar retailers will fit you on site, and offer a comfort return as long as it's within a few weeks. Again, ask to be sure.
As for waterproof performance, in the case of leather construction (not rubber/pac designs); many manufacturers only expect 100 days of leak-free performance. Check the warranty before you buy.
Understanding "Boot Speak"
The boot industry uses an array of terms, acronyms, and scientific jargon to explain product features. Here's a list of terms to help you wade through the confusion.
TPR: Used at the bottom of leather Pac boots. It's an acronym for "Thermo Plastics Resin." The stuff has the same properties as rubber, but it's injection molded and usually 60% lighter in weight.
PAC: Generally a rubber or TPR bottom with a heavily insulated, removable liner or insulated leather top.
EVA: An acronym for "Ethel Vinyl Acetate." This foamy material has multiple trapped air pockets that are soft to the touch but will still offer support and insulation. It's most often used in the midsole of many types of boots and athletic shoes.
Last: Historically made from wood; today's lasts are milled from machined aluminum and are used as a frame for your boot's construction. The cornerstone of fit, a last is wide or narrow and the boot will fit accordingly.
Stitch Down: A term used when a leather midsole and hard rubber tread bottom sole is sewn to a leather boot allowing resoling later. This construction requires vastly more break-in time.
Vamp: The section of the lower boot between the ankle and the ball of your foot.
Upper: The material above the ankle.
Insole: Often removable, replaceable and basically made from foam, it's the material your sock sits on that molds to the contour of your foot.
Midsole: Sewn or glued to the sole, the midsole is used to create comfort by absorbing shock and providing a thermal barrier.
Outsole: Simply put, the outsole has direct contact with the ground providing traction, support, and durability.
Shank: Often made from steel or fiberglass, the shank is sandwiched between the outsole and the midsole under your arch to offer protection and improve support.
The 8 Rules of Fit
1. Be realistic about matching your hunting style with a boot designed to perform on the terrain you hunt.
2. If cold weather is a factor, consider moving up a full size.
3. If you have special needs, like flat feet or high arches, consider using higher-grade insoles like Superfeet or Synergy Footbeds.
4. If a hunting boot can twist from side to side more than an inch, think of it as equal to the support of an athletic shoe.
5. Before you buy, check the vendor's return policies.
6. A hunter's fit changes by at least a half size by the afternoon under normal hiking conditions.
7. Give yourself plenty of break-in time before the boot's first day afield.
8. If you can see through a sock when you hold it up to a light, toss it in the can. Buy quality merino wool socks.
Pay attention to the 8 rules of fit and your hunts will be about the process we all enjoy, not the pain. The fact is, when you don't think about your boots on a hunt, you have chosen well.