By Mike Deming and Sportsman’s News Staff
Whether you are an extreme outdoorsman or just a weekend warrior, picking the right boot for your circumstances is essential. Once you leave your vehicle, these are your wheels. Blisters on your feet from an improper fitting boot or the wrong kind of boot for the terrain has the ability to change the entire outcome of your trip.
One of my very first, hardcore, backpacking trips for elk, nearly three decades ago, provided me a lesson in this boot choice arena, which still lives strong with me today. Throughout the summer, I had packed in nearly 10 miles on numerous occasions to see the horn growth. This out-of-the-way place was turning out to be everything I was looking for in an early season archery hunt and hopefully would have no hunting pressure during the season. My scouting missions were fast and very lightweight, which consisted of a daypack, tarp, sleeping bag, pad, some snacks and obviously some good optics. However, my entire pack was only about 15 pounds. I wore a comfortable low-top boot, which was lightweight and perfect for my situation.
The day prior to the archery opener, myself and a few buddies departed the trailhead for our 10 day backcountry hunt. I still wore my lightweight boots as it was the last week of August, however, the load on my back was probably a hefty 65 pounds. Within three miles, I had already developed a large blister on the heel of each foot. The added weight on my back had stretched out my boots just enough to allow this to happen. I slowed the pace to a crawl, but the major damage was done – or so I thought. With one mile to go to our designated Shangri-La, I rolled my ankle which delivered a deep sprain. My entire foot, including the ankle was black by the end of the day. I wasn’t able to put any weight on it for days. Needless to say, I spent the first half of the elk hunt hobbling around camp while my buddies enjoyed my new found honey hole.
In retrospect, had I wore the right boot for the application, I wouldn’t have experienced these problems. Picking the right boot and getting it broken in and ready is essential for an enjoyable and successful trip. We know you can’t truly test a pair of boots walking the aisles of the shoe department at Sportsman’s Warehouse and real field experience is the way to go. But since a pair of boots isn’t cheap and it isn’t feasible to try them all, we here at Sportsman’s News took some of the best boots and put them to the test. We put some early season boots to the test and then we also put together some hard core later season stuff through some scrutiny as well.
Salomon XA Pro Mid GTX (tested by Dan Kidder)
From the hills of southern Utah to the streets of Washington, DC, I have been wearing the Salomon XA Pro Mid GTX hikers every day for more than two months and they are a very versatile daily wear hiker that also works for extreme terrain.
They are comfortable right out of the box, though they fit snuggly around the top of the toe bed. This isn’t a design flaw as they are designed this way to prevent slippage that can cause blisters. The use of neoprene to conform to the foot is part of their Sensifit system to wrap the foot from the top and the OrthoLite sockliner combining a specific Ortholite foam and an ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) heel cup. Ortholite foam creates a cooler, drier, healthier, better cushioned environment under the foot.
It will not break down or lose effectiveness over time (Recycled tire content to protect the environment). EVA heel cups allow for better heel support and added cushioning.
I have been wearing these hikers daily, in both cold weather and hot, on rocky terrain and city streets and their flexible comfort, glove-like fit, and aggressive terrain-tackling tread, have yet to let me down. Even after 12-14 hours of continual wear, my feet are comfortable and rested, and while they keep your dogs warm, they don’t overheat and they breathe amazingly well. The non-marring Contagrip blend of rubbers means they are soft enough for great traction, but hard enough to prevent wear. Gore-Tex lining keeps your feet dry, both by repelling external moisture and wicking away internal moisture. The rubber toecap seems innocuous enough, but I am pretty sure it is made of a blend of Kevlar and Kryptonite. It is dang near indestructible and doesn’t leave black smudges when it rubs against surfaces. This is an ideal material to protect your boots in rough terrain like lava beds. Additional features like waterproof bootie construction, wrap around mud guard, a Quicklace lacing system and a gusted tongue to prevent debris from entering the shoe, all contribute to making this a serious boot for serious outdoorsmen. These boots are very high-tech, integrating the best of textile engineering and footwear construction to create a serious boot for serious people that will also double as your daily footwear for those who, like me, can’t stand sneakers. If you want the ankle support of a hiker, the footbed comfort of a sneaker and the technology of a NASA designed Martian explorer boot, the Salomon XA Pro Mid GTX should be your first choice.
Northside Men’s Renegade Hunting Boot (tested by James Dansie)
Northside has been making affordable outdoor footwear for years and the Renegade Hunting Boot is as affordable as they come. Their price point is about $70 MSRP, so if you are looking for a very affordable boot that will still deliver as good early season footwear, these are the boots for you.
The Renegades are composed of leather and camo nylon mesh which is both breathable and fully water-proof. They also have 400gm of Thermolite, able to keep your feet warm in weather up to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Being breathable and having Thermolite means that these boots can be used all year in any season. I like my hunting boots to have adequate ankle support and ample toe room and the Renegades have just that – they are snug on my ankles, but have a large enough toe box to ensure my toes don’t rub on the side, causing blisters. Because of the leather, I would suggest putting some time in breaking the Renegades in though. They’re not really a grab-and-go boot and if you try to use them straight out of the box, prepare yourself for some pain. The rubber out-soles have deep ridges and provided exceptional traction on both steep inclines and declines. The Northside Renegades have hands down one of the best price performance ratios out there, so if you are looking for a boot to get you through summer months and winter snow, but not break the bank, then be sure to check them out for yourself.
Vasque Breeze 2.0 (tested by Eric Christensen)
This is my first pair of Vasque hiking boots that I’ve laced up on my feet. I was nervous to break them out on a recent trip to rugged west Texas. The terrain was steep and rocky, mixed with more steep and rocky. After five days of hiking, I was quite pleased with the feel and performance of the boot. I have narrow feet and I find the laces on most of the boots I have worn become loose over the duration of the hike. The Breeze never loosened or slipped during the trip. The full gussets on the air-breathable tongue kept out small rocks and twigs that fill the west Texas landscape. The Vibram Contact Sole with XSTrek Compound felt very solid when I walked up or down the rocky hills. Loose, fist sized rocks littered the ground and I could feel the sole flexing and bending when they caught the edge of one of them. The TPU torsion control chassis did its job, not allowing the sole to flex too far laterally. I wore a mid-weight ‘Smart’ wool sock and the weather was a sunny 40-60 degrees all week and the breathable and waterproof Nubuck leather allowed my feet to breathe comfortably. In the jagged rocks and brush that had nasty spikes wanting to tear open everything it came in contact with, the molded rubber toe bumper combined with highly abrasion-resistant air mesh stood up to the task and showed very minimal wear.
The next trip to test out the boots found me in the high desert looking for elk sheds. This two-day trip would offer similar loose rocky hills and even steeper mountains to traverse. We hiked for around 10 hours each day, which was even longer than on the Texas trip. Again, I personally enjoyed not having to stop a hundred times to retie my boots or double and triple tie them. Side-hilling a very steep slope with a full pack of elk sheds can test anyone’s ankle torsion, but the Breeze supported me firmly. The lug design on the sole held my weight pretty evenly across the steep terrain. Vasque is known for making quality footwear and after walking in their boots, I would absolutely recommend them to someone looking for a long lasting, dependable hiking boot.
Salomon Authentic (tested by Eric Christensen)
One of the first things I noticed about the Authentic hiking boot from Salomon was the feel when you slide them on. They really hugged my narrow feet without feeling too rigid. It didn’t have the traditional feel of most mid-hikers that are typically stiff on the rim of the shoe. Another personal feature I liked when lacing them up was in that the first hook you wrap your lace around actually locks the lace into place like a ski boot binding. This prevents the shoelace from becoming loose during your hike and it does not compromise the boot even if the top of the laces become untied. I love this feature as I have found most hiking and hunting boots become untied all too often or at the worst time of a hike. Salomon trail boots have been designed much in the same fashion as their ski boots. The process and development for each layer in the boot design works together for maximum motion control.
The Authentic felt great during the entire length of my hikes. The lightweight body of the boot helped with my longer hikes that would normally cause fatigue. The Contagrip sole did very well over a broad range of topography. It felt like it gripped the earth when I changed elevation or for steep horizontal hiking. The same feel was present when traversing boulders and large rocks. I felt the Authentic gave exceptional ankle support and stability on my hikes. The gusseted tongue kept out small annoying debris from trying to work itself into the boot when going cross country through sage and weeds. The boot also stood up to its waterproof claim, so long as you don’t let the water get in from the hole in the top of the boot. During longer and higher temperature hikes, the boot allowed my feet to breathe even while wearing medium hiking socks. The protective toe cap and suede leather held up to the beating that the heavy brush and rocky hillsides threw at it. The Authentic is going to be near impossible to beat for the price point. I would highly recommend that you try a pair out for your next outdoor adventure.
Danner Steadfast (tested by Mike Deming)
Being a Danner Pronghorn fan, I was a bit apprehensive about trying something else. I’ve worn out, over time, many sets of Pronghorns in the past and they have never failed me, so I greeted the Steadfast with an open mind. Danner is known for building a good, dependable boot which is well thought out. The Steadfast is an early season boot which is ideal for the archery hunter. It is designed with what is called the Danner Comfort System or DCS as it is referred to on their website. It puts your foot lower to the ground which almost lets you feel the terrain as you would barefooted. It has a thermoplastic polyurethane shank which provides good support, but it also can keep cactus from penetrating all the way through to the foot. This boot is as good as it gets for stalking. The Steadfast outsole not only grabs well on all terrain, but the softer rubber greatly deadens the sound. It comes with an oversized toe box which fits my unique foot shape extremely well. I also find this very comfortable when I’m forced to kneel down very quickly to avoid detection. This can often cause circulation problems in the toes, but this isn’t the case with the Steadfast. This is a 6” boot which is built with a durable Nubuck leather upper combined with 900 denier nylon for lightweight support. The waterproof Danner Dry liner not only pulls moisture away from the foot as you sweat, but also keeps your foot dry from the early morning dew.
The Deer Tracker model of shoes by Irish Setter is a boot that I found needs no break-in period, with no worries about blisters or aching feet. This model of shoes fits my narrow, high arch foot very well. I have tried a lot of different types of boots in my life, but very few of them were as comfortable as the Deer Tracker right out of the box. One problem I often experience with a new pair of boots is in the tongue. They have a tendency to be very uncomfortable on my shin, but with the Deer Tracker, Irish Setter incorporates a system called the CuShin that is designed to minimize the pressure that some feel in this area. It was sure the solution to my problem. This boot offers many unique features. Some of these features include, RPM Tech which is a composite soul material that lightens the weight of the boot, Scent Ban around the inside of the boot which helps to kill bacteria that causes odor, Armatec which is a protective covering that is placed in high wear areas and is abrasive resistant and incredibly tough and finally Ultra Dry, which is a waterproofing system which will keep your feet dry in the wettest conditions. The Deer Tracker 4837 with RealTree extra pattern is a 10 inch high design, which is excellent for keeping your feet high and dry on those wet days. It has 400 grams of Prima-Loft Gold Eco which helps insulate the boots and keeps your feet comfortable all day long. I have worn these boots many times shed hunting and I have been very impressed with the amount of traction that I have with such a light weight boot. They have held up extremely well in the tough terrain of the Rocky Mountains. I am very impressed with the Deer Tracker boot and its overall comfort and performance and I would recommend this boot to any hunter.
Kenetrek Hardscrabble Hiker (tested by Mike Deming)
The Kenetrek brand is well known throughout the hunting world. Just about everyone knows when you purchase a pair of Kenetrek boots, you are buying a boot which will last you a lifetime. It’s designed by hard-core hunters for hard-core hunters. This being said, it is also on the more expensive side. However, they can be sent back to Kenetrek for a new set of soles and complete tune-up for $150 whenever you feel the need. I have found the Hardscrabble Hiker to be just as comfortable off the trail as it is on the trail. I’ve broken in a pair of Kenetrek Mountain Extreme boots in my life and I know that it usually takes at least fifty miles before they really start to feel like a glove. So, this is what I was expecting when I put these on. I spent four straight days of nasty rocky terrain hiking without the slightest hot spot. Truly a boot you can grab out of the box and just go. This is a 7” boot which is made from 2.8mm full grain leather. The collars are heavily padded, which makes for an extremely comfortable fit just above the ankle. The lacing system on these boots is very unique in that it allows the laces to pivot and slide without loosening up as you work your way through the rocky terrain. The insoles provide the most comfortable support I’ve gotten out of a boot which is ideal for my extra high arches. The high traction K-Talon outsole is truly what makes these boots. This rubber compound provides the perfect amount of softness for a multidirectional grab and flexibility, yet durable enough to last. I don’t worry about my soles slipping with these boots and I’ve been able to get nearly 1,000 miles out of an outsole on my Mountain Extremes. It has a stiff nylon midsole which provides good support when walking on rocky ground. This does take a day or so to get used to, but once you have worn a boot of this caliber, you won’t ever want to go back. The rubber rand around the boot is completely abrasion resistant and is much needed in the areas for which you buy this type of boot. It also aids in the waterproofing, which combined with the Windtex membrane, insures your feet stay dry even in the wettest of conditions. If you can afford to spend the money on this boot, you won’t ever be disappointed. The fact that Kenetrek resoles over 10,000 pairs of boots a year is a testament of just how great the rest of the world thinks they are as well.
Vasque TAKU GTX (tested by Mike Deming)
The TAKU GTX model by Vasque is a boot you can purchase and walk right out of the store with them on and start a hardcore hike without the worry of a break-in period. The Vasque brand of shoes fit my foot extremely well as I have a very narrow foot with an extremely high arch. However, my toes spread out extremely wide as if I’m built like a duck. Not exactly a good situation when you are trying to find boots that fit and don’t cause fatigue in one place or the other. The TAKU GTX has a very generous toe box which allows for plenty of room for ample movement as well as circulation. They feel similar to a tennis shoe when you put them on, rather than a hard-core hiking boot. The build on this boot is anything but a tennis shoe though. The upper is all leather and built with Nubuck leather. It has a molded rubber toe cap which wears like iron, even in the harsh rocky terrain of places like southwest Texas. The lacing system provides a solid locking mechanism in the ankle hooks, a feature which keeps your boots tight. These boots are equipped with the GORE-TEX membrane (hence the GTX in the name) which will insure your feet stay dry even in the wettest conditions. We have put this to the test in a recent bear hunt in Idaho where we stood in the creek for 20 minutes and they didn’t leak a drop. The soles are made of Vibram which performs flawlessly in the extreme rocky and nasty conditions we usually call home. They grab the rocks and terrain like an extra set of hands and give you a secure feeling while hiking, even on wet and snowy terrain. On man-made surfaces like steel or tile, the Vibram is a bit on the slick side. I wouldn’t recommend these for a work boot high on the scaffolding, but for those of you looking for a lightweight boot you can grab and go to the hills, this is the boot for you.
Irish Setter Vaportrek (tested by Raymon Kemper)
The Vaportrek model by Irish Setter is a boot that needs very little break-in time. It must be mentioned that this boot is designed for people with a wide foot. This boot has an extremely good arch support. It is a very lightweight boot, with a lot of good features. It comes with the Armatrek System, which is a protective covering that is placed in high wear areas. It is abrasion resistant and incredibly tough. A ‘Scent Ban’ around the inside of the boot is designed to kill bacteria that causes odor. Ultra Dry, a waterproofing system which has a moisture managing liner, keeps your feet dry in the wettest conditions. The RPM Tech is a composite sole material that lightens the weight of the boot. The Vaportrek 2873 is an 8-inch high boot with 400 grams of a Prima-Loft Gold Eco that will keep your feet comfortable on those colder days in the woods. We tested these boots out on a long hiking trip in the Rocky Mountains in the early spring, where wet and cold is the norm. The overall performance of the boot was very good. The soles were a little slick on some of the wet rocky terrain, but I was very satisfied with the overall comfort of such a lightweight boot.
Kenetrek Mountain Extreme Boot (tested by James Dansie)
Looking for a pair of boots that will last in the harshest of environments? Kenetrek has the answer. As an outdoor videographer, good footwear is imperative to be able to complete my job. During the 2014 filming season, I had the opportunity to put Kenetrek’s Mountain Extreme boots to work and they performed beyond my expectations. Kenetrek has an eye for detail and that really comes through on the Mountain Extreme series. They are made from top grain leather, have a stiff nylon mid-sole and feature high traction K-Talon outsoles. I used and abused them on two desert sheep hunts last year and for those who have been in the rocky environments that desert sheep live in, you know how damaging it can be on a pair of boots. I came out of both trips with minimal damage to both the boots and my feet. The sole and ankle support of the Mountain Extremes were unparalleled from any other boot I had used previously and made navigating over rocks and cactus a whole lot safer. Rolling an ankle on top of a mountain is a serious concern of a lot of hunters and hikers, but with these boots you get the peace of mind that they will support you through anything. I was also able to use these boots on a spring bear hunt in Alaska. The 400gm Thinsulate insulation was perfect for the hours spent sitting on a knob, glassing for bears. Another great feature is that Kenetrek utilizes Windtex to make their boots fully waterproof and breathable, which made them excellent for the wet Alaskan environment. When we made our stalk, we had to cross a marsh and many different low level streams. I was able to do this with absolutely no leakage into the boots. The Mountain Extreme is one of the more expensive boots that we reviewed starting at around $470 MSRP, but they are built to out-perform and outlast any other boot on the market. So for those of you looking for a pair of outdoor footwear that will last for years in the harshest of environments, these are the boots for you.
Lacrosse Aerohead 18” 7MM (tested by Eric Christensen)
When I first slid my feet into the Lacrosse Aerohead 7MM, I thought the feel would be similar to a high lace type hunting boot. But in reality, you get the sensation of a tall boot without the feel of a laced boot that doesn’t move when your shin pushes on it while hiking. When I was walking around, I didn’t notice the rim or length of the boot rubbing on my shins or calves. I used a pair that were a size larger than I normally wear for a hunting boot. I wanted a little room to add foot warmers for times when I would be stationary in cold situations. If you have ever had cold and wet feet while hunting, you know that it makes for a miserable trip. Late and early hunts that require you to walk through snow or wet shrubbery can soak your feet in a matter of minutes, making for shorter and less meaningful trips. The 18-inches of height that the Areoheads offer is similar to wearing a pair of gaiters, but much more effective and comfortable. There has been over 4-years invested in the development of this boot. For users that have those large diamond sized calves, this boot offers an adjustable gusset strap for a secure fit. The neoprene is wrapped by a polyurethane shell that is lighter and more flexible than rubber and offers unparalleled waterproofing protection. Lacrosse’s new Aerohead Foam Technology is very comfortable and feels like your gellin’. The sole of the Aerohead is made of a lightweight, rubber compound that gives exceptional grip and resilience. Weighing in at 5-pounds per pair, they are right in comparison with the weight of the average fall hunting boot.
I used them on a spring bear hunt and was very impressed with the versatility of the boot. I was worry-free about crossing creeks and marshes and getting my feet wet. Even with a larger than normal size of boot on, I liked the feel and comfort they gave. I thought hiking steep terrain would make my feet sore by sliding around in the boot, however, they felt fine after all the hiking. One part of hunting I find less than desirable is getting hot and sweaty on hikes in cold weather and then stopping to glass or rest, allowing the wind to start to chill my body. I found these boots were fantastic at keeping the warmth inside the boot. My feet didn’t get too hot and the liquid polyurethane over neoprene design in the shell of the boot kept them warm and comfortable while I sat and spotted. I also like the scent control that the boots offer with the materials used in the design. I was very impressed with the Lacrosse Aerohead 7MM.