Getting the Boot
What you wear on your feet can make or break your hunt.
By Craig Boddington
The last day I was in Estonia it finally turned cold--not really cold like it should be in mid-November, but a good hard frost. For that last evening we’d picked a remote stand overlooking a perfect meadow, and there were plenty of moose tracks around. No hunt is over until it’s over, and I thought I had a good chance. The Europeans don’t recognize our concept of “shooting hours,” so I was still sitting there in the cold dark a couple of hours after sundown. It wasn’t really dark; the moon was full, and the meadow was bathed in soft light.
I was just getting bored when I heard a ruckus off to my right as the first of perhaps twenty wild boars filed into the meadow. Suddenly things were interesting! There were a few youngsters, but no shoats; most of them were full grown, and there were at least three decent-sized boars in the group. I could have shot one, but I was there for a moose. I traded back and forth between binocular and riflescope, trying to figure out which one was biggest, and imagining the proper shot placement in the half-light.
So I sat and enjoyed the evening. I had several layers on, and for once even my feet were plenty warm. It wasn’t because of my boots. I was using the excellent Le Chameau leather-lined rubber boots, a wonderful choice for damp, boggy conditions—but un-insulated rubber boots aren’t very good in the cold unless you can get plenty of extra socks inside. At this moment, however, I wasn’t even wearing my boots. They were upside down right behind me, draining, and my feet were wrapped in an extra jacket with several thermal packs strategically placed around them.
In the late afternoon, on the way to the stand, I’d spotted a beaver sitting on a boggy slough. This is a fairly rare sight; I’d never shot a beaver, and I knew that the season was open in Estonia. So I had a European beaver, and I’d learned a valuable lesson: Don’t step into a freezing pond to recover a beaver. Honest, it looked solid and even felt so when I checked it with a stick. But I went in right over the tops, especially on my left boot, which filled up instantly. This was a problem; I’d be sitting in below-freezing temperatures for the next several hours. My feet, having been twice frostbitten, are cold-sensitive anyway, so while I didn’t have any dry socks (mistake!) I did have quite a few of those wonderful little chemical foot warmers. So I took my boots off, dumped them out, wrung out the socks as well as I could, activated some of the foot warmers and wrapped up my feet.
Footwear is critical to almost all types of hunting, and the right boots for the conditions have much to do not just with comfort, but also with safety and success. I’ve addressed the subject before, but it’s important and I keep learning! It seems to me I have four basic requirements for hunting boots: Hot, cold, wet, and climbing in steep country—obviously with some crossover.
Hot: This is not necessarily Africa, but often is. I’m thinking about warm weather without extreme terrain, which includes our pig hunting close to home as well as a lot of other hunting in warmer parts of the world. Any non-insulated hunting boot will do just fine, but I like ankle-height boots that are light, with a tread aggressive enough for mild hills, but soft enough so as to be quiet. There are many good brands; I’ve had good luck with Russell PH boots, and I’m really impressed by ankle-high boots from Irish Setter. The last couple of seasons I’ve been wearing Le Chameau’s ankle-height Serengeti boots, and they have worked very well. Comfort is the main thing, and if African hunting is a consideration, quiet soles are an absolute must. By the way, with ankle-high boots I normally wear short gaiters to keep out seeds and sand.
Wet: In seriously wet stuff, like a lot of tundra hunting, there is no substitute for tall rubber boots. (But you do have to be careful not to go in over the tops!) Comfort, however, is a major issue. My feet are fairly tough, but I’ve had world-class blisters on several tundra hunts. Perhaps the worst ever was on a moose hunt in Newfoundland, where we had to tramp several boggy miles from camp just to get into habitat. Both my partner, John Chaves, and I got great moose on that hunt, but man, did we suffer. The problem isn’t really with the rubber boots, but rather that we aren’t used to them. Northern guides wear them all the time and have few problems, but we mere mortals have issues. For me, the leather-lined Le Chameau boots are the answer. Obviously they are more expensive than plain old gum boots—but the leather lining makes a world of difference in one’s ability to walk in the darn things.
Cold: I always get boots sized so that I can fit a couple of pairs of socks—that’s primarily for blister prevention rather than warmth, but with two pairs of socks even my sensitive feet do just fine down to about freezing. At that point I need extra insulation. Obviously it depends on whether you’re going to be walking or hunting from a stand. The bigger, bulkier, and warmer your boots the harder they are to walk in, so compromises may be needed--but you’d better be careful about that. The last time my feet were frostbitten was on a cold morning on a Marco Polo sheep hunt. I was wearing a pair of comfortable climbing boots with all the wool socks I could stuff in them, and I was just fine as long as we were moving. But we got pinned down by a band of rams and had to hunker behind some rocks for an hour or so. It was six months before I had any feeling in my toes.
Since then, if I even suspect serious cold (for me, in the teens) I take Schnee insulated pacs. I’ve used them down to well below zero, and my feet have never been cold. They aren’t nearly as nice to walk in as true mountain boots, but I can’t afford another frostbite episode. So my compromise is to wear the heavier boots, and I’ve worn the Schnee’s on sheep and goat hunts as well as on late elk and mule deer hunts. Now, if we’re talking serious Arctic conditions or, perhaps worse, stand-hunting in extreme cold, then I haul out the Northern Outfitters “moon boots.” They are hard to walk in—but when it’s double-digit below zero they’re amazing.
It was on this muskox hunt in 1990 that I discovered Northern Outfitters’ “moon boots” for extreme cold. They aren’t great for walking any distance, but in really serious cold they’re the best I’ve found.
As a tip, it’s a good idea to carry a change of socks in your pack along with some of those chemical hand and foot warmers. (Two brands I’m familiar with are Heatmax and HotHands.) These little lifesavers are cheap, light, and take up little room—but they really work. I don’t use them very often, but they’re wonderful if the mercury drops unexpectedly. Or if you do something really stupid like I did and get your feet wet!
Steep: Over the years I’ve had good success with a variety of boots. However, my feet are long conditioned. I might get the occasional hotspot, but provided my boots fit I rarely have foot problems. Favorite brands include Danner, Irish Setter, L.L. Bean, and Russell; and I’ve done my last couple of (mild weather) mountain hunts with Le Chameau’s Mouflon boot. This is actually the first mountain boot from that company—but they did their homework, and they have provided very good service. Not everybody’s feet are as forgiving as mine. In terms of ability to hike, my wife, Donna, is tough as nails—but her feet blister readily and horribly. We have gone through a considerable fortune—and her feet have been through hell—trying to get boots that really work. She has tried several good brands, including most of my favorites, which suggests that no matter how good the boot, what works for one person might not work for another.
After viewing some world-class blisters on a chamois hunt last year, our friend Conrad Evarts suggested she should try Kenetrek. I didn’t know the brand, but at this point, with some potential that her feet were permanently damaged, we were ready to try anything. Presto, Kenetrek fixed the problem! In September 2011 we did a goat hunt in extremely steep, rough country, and her feet have never done so well. Interestingly, our Macedonian friend, Sasho Ivanov, joined us on that hunt, and he was also wearing Kenetrek boots. So although I wasn’t familiar with them, their reputation has spread pretty well.
On a recent goat hunt in British Columbia both Donna, left, and our Macedonian friend, Sasho Ivanov, used Kenetrek boots. Donna has tried several brands, and this is the first time she’s done a blister-free mountain hunt.
Again, everybody’s feet are different, so I’m convinced that there may not be one boot for every hunter’s foot. Experimentation is expensive, so you want to go with good brands and make sure they fit. Start slow and break them in as thoroughly as possible before heading out on a serious foot hunt. A bit of pain is almost unavoidable during the break-in period, but if your feet keep hurting you may need to start over. It won’t get any better in the mountains.
In terms of configuration, well, we’re all different. I’ve seen tough North American guides who climb serious stuff in cowboy boots—and you don’t even want to know about the shoddy footwear I’ve seen on Asian guides’ feet. And they’ll still walk you to death! Again, for us mere mortals, good boots are important. In the mountains I like a ten-inch boot that has good support for arch, heel, and ankle. A good, aggressive sole is essential to give you purchase on rocks. Vibram soles seem almost universal and they’re great, but the “air bob” sole with rounded lugs are almost as good in the rocks, and possibly better in ice, snow, and mud. Good mountain boots are probably the most serious of all footwear purchases, so take your time and, if possible, try on several different pairs at a good store. Other than a genuine injury, there’s almost nothing worse on a serious hunt than feet so sore you can hardly keep going.
Oh, that night in Estonia. I watched those pigs feeding for nearly an hour, so excited I could barely control myself. But I wasn’t there to hunt pigs, and the moose didn’t show. Eventually the pigs filed off into the dark forest, and when the appointed time came I took my warm feet out of their nest, put on the wet socks that I’d kept under my jacket, stuck my feet into now-frozen boots, and walked out to the pickup point. I was glad I didn’t have all that far to go!
Two essentials for the daypack in cold weather: Dry socks and chemical heat packs. These little heat packs are inexpensive and take up little room, but when activated they last for hours.