Backcountry Performance…Selecting the Right Boot

Howdy Howdy! I hope you are having a fantastic day! Mine is indeed that because today I get the opportunity to discuss a topic about which I’m really passionate (honestly, there are a lot of those topics). As a self-acknowledged gearhead, I’m always interested in the functionality and ergonomics of equipment, and how that interfaces with human biomechanics.

Just one perspective among many!

Let’s say you head into the great outdoors for overland travel on natural terrain. You may call yourself a hiker, a backpacker, a fisherman, a backcountry hunter, a trail runner, a birder, or any other term that describes your passion. Doesn’t matter. It’s all good. You do what you love and get to places you desire using your two lower extremities as a bipedal, human athlete. That means your body-to-earth interface is your feet. And the communication device that exists between our feet and the ground is our footwear. 

Footwear for backcountry travel can look a bit different from person to person, depending on what you do, where you do it, and the time of year. Accepting all that, my task today is offering a few considerations when selecting the ideal boot for your needs.

I imagine that right away some of you are not too keen on my use of the word “boot.” Respectfully, I’ll ask you to bear with me here. 

The Lifetime Athlete
The Lifetime Athlete
Ep293 – Backcountry Performance…Selecting the Right Boot

As many of you know, I’m an advocate of barefoot and minimalist shoe training. Where appropriate and allowed, I endorse barefoot training in the gym. Socks alone can sometimes be used as well, but the totally barefoot condition is actually best because the nerves and receptors in the foot can feel the support surface without any interference.

I also personally do a fair amount of barefoot training outdoors on grass fields (frequently) and beaches (rarely). We live in a world of devices and corrective exercises targeting the many foot and lower limb issues that actually plague our society. Ironically, most of those problems could be improved or eliminated simply by walking, running, and exercising barefoot several times per week. This is true for most folks but there are a few who have issues and deformities for which such behavior is inappropriate, so I’m always careful with my recommendations. And even with those for whom barefoot training is warranted, we need to be cautious and intelligent with our workload progression.

Enter the minimalist shoe. That’s my dedicated gym shoe when I’m not training barefoot. Certain exercises, agility drills, jumps, etc. do better with a little foot coverage and protection. Not a ton, but a little. 

Some athletes also like to use minimalist shoes out on the trails as well. I think “on the trails” was the key phrase there. In fact, I’d add “during nice weather, with light loads.” There is a comfort and a freedom in padding along minimally shod, with just enough shoe to offer some traction and protection from rocks, etc. So I guess I would say that if you tend to travel mainly on trails, with loads under 25 or so pounds in your pack, during summer, and you build your foot strength up gradually for the distances you cover…you are good to go. 

But let’s say that your backcountry travel requirements are slightly different. What if some or a lot of your locomotion involves off-trail, steep and sidehill terrain, thick brush, snow and ice, and loads that can be 2-5 times the aforementioned 25 pounds? A bit more shoe, or foot protection and performance enhancement, may be in order. Thus the boot

I use a gladiator model when I compare training to expeditions. Many of the ancient gladiators trained naked, or at least without armor. But when they went into battle, they maximized their protective gear. Same goes for how I train backcountry athletes. I like having them do a lot of barefoot and minimal shoe wear in training, and on a daily basis. But when I send them out into the mountains for a 12-day trip (just one example), I want to stack the odds of success in their favor. This doesn’t mean I recommend a rock and ice mountaineering boot for a summer weekend backpacking trip, but it does mean that I make sure they have enough foot enhancement (again, the boot) for optimal performance and maximal enjoyment. This varies a bit from person to person, but there are 3 general classifications of boots for the backcountry. For simplicity, I’ll list them out and briefly describe each.

  • Lightweight, breathable hikers: These are basically “high-top” running shoes. Some are mid-cut but most run 6-7 inches in height, with a large amount of synthetic material (nylon, mesh, synthetic leather, etc.) in their upper. Most have moderately aggressive outsoles for traction, but they retain most of that running shoe flexibility.
  • Moderate-to-heavy duty hiking and hunting boots: Here we progress into sturdy boots with more weight, but more durability and protection. Usually with more leather (or plastic in some cases) in the upper. Often with full rubber rands. Uninsulated but with Gore-Tex or other water resistant-breathable membrane liners, highly aggressive outsoles, and uppers in the 8-10 inch category.
  • Insulated boots for winter conditions: Some of these can be like the previous category with the addition of Thinsulate insulation, but this category also includes a variety of pac and “snow” boots. The challenge with this grouping is that some of them are made for “making the hard miles in the mountains” and others are more for greater warmth in less active situations. 

Having described 4 types of shoes (the minimalist sneaker and the three kinds of boots), I’ll describe how I typically run that 4-shoe system through the season. My summer training outings are usually in a pair of ultralight trail running shoes. During nice weather in early fall I’ll use a 7-inch, fairly lightweight, very breathable hiker. Once we get some snow in the backcountry, I switch to a 10-inch leather, uninsulated model. And finally, when subzero is the norm, I’ll move to an insulated or pac boot that’s sized up ½ to a full size to accommodate thicker socks.

But if you said JZ, couldn’t you do 90% of what you do using just one boot? I’d say yes. I’ll lay this out in terms of what we might think about when selecting that 1, not much of a compromise, do almost everything boot. Some of this may seem obvious but I’m hoping there’s a pearl or two in there for everyone.

Terrain is the first thing to think about. The steeper and more challenging the footing gets, the taller, stiffer, and more aggressively treaded your boot should become. Just consider the boots used by expedition mountaineers, or sheep and goat hunting guides.

Temperature is another consideration. If you are primarily traveling in warm climates, desert country or at lower elevation, breathability is an important component of your boot. Likewise, if you are at higher elevations, later seasons, and colder temps, the warmth provided by an all-leather or plastic design, even if uninsulated, may be your best choice.

Moisture is up next. Practically every quality boot these days has a Gore-Tex or similar liner, so that’s a given. Generally speaking, when properly treated, the all or mostly leather boots generally have a higher or longer lasting degree of moisture resistance. In snow, I recommend a properly treated full leather model. One exception to this moisture issue I’ve found is during spring hiking and hunting. It seems there is often water everywhere and no matter how snug my gaiters are, I end up doing some wading through sloppy snowmelt or across swollen streams, and soaking my boots. In this case, I use the lighter synthetic boots if it’s warm enough because they don’t get so saturated and tend to dry a bit faster, at least partially.

The “3 S’s” are next. That’s because they are similar. Support, stability, and stiffness. The tougher the terrain and the heavier your loads, the beefier you want your boots to be. Boot makers use a lot of marketing terms here, but they tend to make obvious the amount of the 3 S’s that are featured in a particular model. This is also offset by how strong your feet are. If you train barefoot a lot, you’ll actually need less of the 3 S’s.

But after all of these considerations, the major thing is FIT. The fit of your boot is king and it trumps everything else. And this is exactly why I see no reason in recommending one specific brand. All the major brands of boots are of very high quality. But you have to find the one or two brands whose last – which is the brand-specific shape that is slightly different from one manufacturer to the next – matches best with your foot’s contours. There is no substitute for doing your diligence here. Try on lots of brands and narrow it down to your best one or two. Then, and only then, select the model from that brand’s product line that fits all the other criteria we discussed.

Here’s a quick question. Is it better to be under-booted or slightly over-booted? I’m gonna take over-booted every time. I learned this lesson once and never looked back. I was wearing fairly light, skimpy boots when out on an early autumn trip in glorious, pleasant weather. It had been so nice I never really thought about grabbing different shoes. Long story short, I had camped high above treeline and was preparing to descend. The sky suddenly got dark and things changed rapidly. Lightning, hail, sleet, snow, wind…you know the drill. Having to get down and off that mountain with cold, wet, poorly supported feet, slipping nearly catastrophically a few times, taught me a lesson I’ll never forget.

In the end, the goal is never to be thinking about your boots when you are in the field. If your feet are warm (or cool depending on the conditions), relatively dry, and comfortable, you’re winning. Get the best boots you can afford, that match your specific uses and needs, and you’ll never be sorry. Thanks as always and let me know your thoughts and questions. I didn’t mention boot-fitting and break-in, socks, orthotics, or some of the other topics I’ve covered in previous articles, videos, and podcasts…but they are all fair game.

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