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10/21/2015 4:08 PM

Footwear is perhaps the most personal of outdoor gear. Everybody has a slightly different set of goals and expectations, different physiology, different terrain choices, etc. etc. My goal with this post is to outline some of the different trade-off relationships and truisms I've found in the search for my ideal boot. Perhaps it will help folks evaluate boots for their own needs. I'm reluctant to even name different brands and models, but it gives a whole lot more meat to hang my comments off of. So, keep my comments in perspective - particularly with regard to specific models. What works or doesn't work for me may be different for you. Remember also that a big part of my actual job is hiking so optimizing for footwear has some merit. Plus a discerning eye will recognize that I'm a sucker for a Sierra Trading Post 35% off coupon and a pair of boots that I think might just be perfect. I could get by with just about any one of the boots in the chart if I had to. When I'm introducing newcomers to hiking or backpacking, I usually recommend the most robust athletic shoe they already have (with lots of spare socks), particularly for a first trip.

First, my personal parameters / goals for "backcountry footwear"

  • I weigh 220, and even for day hikes am carrying an extra 30lbs in pack weight. Multiday load weight is 45 - 60lbs depending on season and duration.
  • My travel is a mix of groomed trail, beat up trail, off trail, and high angle off trail. Groomed trail is probably only 20% of what I need a boot to do. That is very important to keep in mind as it is a big factor.

And next, the matrix of boots I'll be talking about. Perhaps just skim it. It's arranged in weight from lowest to highest. The important stuff I've learned I'll cover below the matrix. 

Brand Salomon Salomon Lowa Asolo Kennetrek Lowa Asolo Alico
Model X-ultra mid quest 4d Catalan / Camino TPS 520 Desert Guide Baffin Pro Powermatic 500 Wind River
Weight 2 lb 4oz 3lb 8oz 4lb 4lb 6oz 4lb 6oz 4lb 8oz 5lb 5lb
Retail $160.00 $230.00 $270.00 $300.00 $410.00 $370.00 $315.00 $379.00
Midsole Cushion
EVA EVA PU PU unknown PU PU unknown (none?)
Midsole Stiffness none low medium - low medium medium medium high medium
Insole stock Sole Med stock Sole Low Sole Low Sole Low Sole Med Sole Low
Ankle Support none low medium medium low medium - high high skiable
Heel height medium high medium low high high low low
Cushioning high high medium low low high low none
Longevity low low unknown high low medium high high
Significant Trip Curecanti Elk Hunt
Piburn off trail loop glacier peak
Notes Kind of surprising to include these in discussion of backcountry travel boot, but they represent the "ultralight" end of the spectrum and I did test them as such. They're very much outclassed by real boots, but you can get the job done if you're very careful and precise. Kind of like elk hunting with a .223. They really fell on their face when it came to descent stability and I wouldn't want to do anything significant off trail. I was in love with these boots for the 4 months of use before they started to lose structure. Just barely supportive enough for serious use, but very light and cushy. After 4 months they significantly lost ankle support and sole cushiness and stiffness and I put them on the shelf to save for special occasions where I really need the light weight. Slightly more supportive than the 4ds - more backcountry capable. Not as cushy, but with the PU midsole and leather construction what they do have should last for a long time. Not too different than the Catalan but with a little bit stiffer of a midsole. Kind of a problem because the midsole outmatches the ankle in support. At 6oz less, I'll take the Catalan every time for the same role. Other than liking outsole in very loose off trail circumstances, nothing good to say about this boot -- particularly for the price. Just as cushy as the Quest 4d, considerably more supportive ankle, a little more supportive midsole, this is my go to for all around backcountry travel. I wish the heel was a little lower but that's the only change I'd make. A modern translation of the classic norwegian welt mountaineering boot with a stiff midsole that is well matched to a stiff ankle that gives extreme stability in off trail conditions. This boot is my pick for higher angle off trail travel -- think Dall Sheep country. An interesting boot that I'm going to continue to wring out. It has a fairly flexible midsole coupled with an ankle so stiff as to be skiable. Might have advantages over the powermatic for more dicey situations.


And now, the real meat of what I've learned:

  • positive correlation between weight and support - In general, if you tell me what a boot weighs (at least in size 12 as the reported weights are above), I can tell you exactly how well it's going to perform. You're always looking for anomalies - boots that provide support out of their weight class. This is a good thing if a boot outperforms it's weight class and a bad thing if it under performs it's weight class like the Kenetrek. So far, I haven't found anything that I can identify as a significant outperformer. There don't seem to be any free lunches when it comes to weight vs. support. Under 4lbs for a pair, it probably won't do what I need. 4 - 4.5 lbs should be a good all around performer, around 5 lbs gets you significant support for high angle off trail. Both pairs of Lowas (Catalan, Baffin Pro) are very similar (and exemplary) performers that simply fall at different spots on this trend line. For a day pack sized load, the 4lb boot works well for me. For a multiday pack load, I prefer the 4.5lb pound pair. I end up wearing the 4.5lb pair even on most day hikes for training purposes.
  • negative correlation between cushiness and stability - When it comes to shock absorption, there don't seem to be any miracles either. If you want your boots to absorb shock, that's going to come from midsole thickness. The more midsole there is underneath the heel, the more it's going to cushion shock. The problem with this is that a raised heel or footbed very quickly compromises stability, particularly off trail. If all you're on is trail, it's an easy call to optimize for cushiness. But for me, I'll often have at least a couple of miles of trail walking until the trail peters out or I get to my off trail jump off. So I'm constantly trying to walk a fine line between a boot that lets me pound out the miles but still has good low - heel stability when I go off trail. The Quest 4ds and Baffin Pros both provide very high levels of shock absorption at the expense of some off trail stability. In both cases, I'm willing to live with it. I really wish the Baffin Pro wasn't *quite* so high heeled. Maybe not as low heeled as it's little brother the Catalan, but enough lower to let me regain some off trail stability. I'll probably keep trying to tweak that with insole choice. I've tried a couple of insoles I had on the shelf but keep coming back to the Sole Low.
  • midsole to ankle stiffness ratio - If a midsole is stiff relative to the amount of ankle support, the boot will feel forever unstable. This is because the midsole keeps wanting to juke around the ankle with every surface irregularity but the ankle can't be locked tight enough to counter this. One pair of boots I didn't include on the chart above is the Asolo Powermatic 200. At 4lbs for the pair, I thought they were going to be a support anomaly and I did a pretty doggone long trip in them. The toebox was a little bit narrow for me (despite theoretically being the same fit as the Powermatic 500s which work well for me). But the real issue with them was that the midsole was too stiff relative to how tight you could get the ankle. Very unstable feeling off trail. My preference for the most part is good ankle support with a fair amount of midsole flex. Boots in that category are the Lowa Baffin Pro and the Alico Wind River. That combination works well making miles on a groomed trail and it also works pretty well off trail. The place where it falls down is high angle off trail travel. There is no substitute for a boot with enough midsole stiffness to kick step or edge on loose steep stuff - provided the ankle is commensurately stiff. This describes the Asolo Powermatic 500 and also the Asolo Yukon. A side note on the Yukon - this is a boot I didn't include on the chart either. It took me months of searching, but I found a virtually unused pair of these classic construction norwegian welt boots early on. I took the time to break them in and thought they'd be the only boots I needed. The longevity is surely there. They're simply not in the running because the pair weighs 6 lbs and they have zero midsole cushioning. As much as I love them and trust them, there are better options out there. I won't be getting rid of them though. Back to the Powermatic 500s as a "type" boot. They're the other contender for my one all around boot. They have excellent off trail support and they roll OK on the trail with some midsole cushioning. But they're a half pound heavier per pair than the Baffin Pros, which is enough extra on foot weight to make a noticeable difference over the course of a day. Still, any given trip depending on the type of trip, they might get the nod.
  • PU vs EVA - Most folks are probably hip to this, but here goes. EVA is a much softer and cushier foam. It's what tennis shoes use. Very nice right out of the box, but can flatten pretty quickly. PU on the other hand starts out firmer and does get softer over time but retains it's properties way longer. Shoes built with EVA midsoles are basically disposables. Wear them for a year (or less), throw them away. EVA is well paired with fabric uppers. That way the upper and midsole both have roughly the same service life. The Salomon mids are my choice in tennis shoes. They're good for anything athletic, slickrock scrambling, WAY comfortable, and in a pinch I can do a significant hike in them. Wait and buy them on sale for something less (hopefully way less) than the $160 asking price and know that in a year I'll be replacing them. Fine. The Quest 4Ds don't get the same pass. For something masquerading as a boot and carrying a nearly boot price, it should have a PU midsole. Then the midsole would outlast the upper and you'd want a leather upper. At which point you'd have the Lowa Catalan. At my weight and pack weight, I didn't get as long out of the 4Ds as some would. But even from guys smaller than me, "1 year" is a common refrain on the longevity of the 4Ds. It took me less time to wear out the 4Ds than it has taken me to break in most of my other boots. Maybe if I was sponsored by Salomon, but even so I'd have trouble endorsing boots with such a short useful life for a general backcountry travel boot.
  • No waterproof breathable liners please - I've had much better luck keeping my feet dry with unlined full leather boots than with boots that have liners such as goretex. Leather conditioner with sno seal over it a couple of times a year keeps leather boots fully waterproof and they retain less heat and breathe better than boots with liners. Which means your feet stay drier. As a bonus, higher end leather only boots are often lined on the interior with glove leather instead of a fabric such as cambrelle. If you want a luxurious perfectly broken in pair of boots that are unlikely to raise blisters, there is nothing like a pair that are glove leather lined. Boots with WPB liners don't suck, they're just not as nice as boots that don't have them.
  • Insoles - Know which insoles you like, and use an already broken in pair when trying out boots. For general wear, I try not to go too supportive on insoles to help with foot conditioning. In the lighter boots (4lb or below), I usually stick with a less supportive insole for hiking as well. My favorites in this class are the Lowa ones. I've used them in a lot of different non-lowa boots. For heavier loads and to help with cushioning in boots that don't have much, I like the Sole insoles. I also will use the Sole insoles to beef up the midsole performance of boots that don't have much. For example, I use mediums in the 4Ds which made a big difference. One one trip of several miles with a 50lb pack, I carried Superfeet and Sole green and switched out between the two. The Superfeet were nearly crippling in comparison to the Sole. I've seen some newer models from Superfeet that look pretty good though.
  • Boots that need breaking in are a roll of the dice - The types of boots that work for me all require break in. Sometimes significant break in. I think I had 60 miles on the Powermatic 500s before they were right. I wish I could tell you that there is some formula in knowing if a pair of boots that feel right (or even wrong) before break in will feel right after. Usually leather boots will fit better after break in than before. But how much better? Sometimes out of this world, and sometimes only a little better. Occasionally, worse. So far, I have only seen one attribute that is predictable - boots with a significant rubber toe rand are *not* going to feel better in the toe box after break in. In some cases, they'll be worse. If the boot has a big rubber toe rand (which does serve a protective function), you better be sure there isn't even a hint of toe impingement prior to break in. Other things can be hard to predict. For example, Alicos tend to have a secondary and heavier leather toe cap in the toe underneath the main upper. During break in, a very painful crease can form right on top of the toes due to the influence of this toe cap. Trying them on and walking around the store, this isn't something you'd ever think of. Once break in starts, you'll for sure know about it. Despite their quality and the general smartness of their design, I'd steer people away from Alico for this reason. It's kind of a high risk boot. I fought this tendency long and hard during break in of my Wind Rivers and I think I've got it licked. On a pair of New Guides, forget about it. I never did get it solved.
  • Lace to toe is almost always a bad idea - This is a pretty new trend in hiking boots, probably carried over from the climbing shoe world. It might work for some folks, but I have yet to run into that person. The good news is that it is an easy fix. Simply lace without using the bottom eyelets. Or use that lacing pattern where you do an overhand knot partway up the boot to isolate top tension from bottom. There's not a single pair of lace to toe boots I have that aren't modified in one of the above two ways. In the store, take the time to relace like this if you're having toe box problems. For me, it is the difference between a pair of boots being a complete no-go fit wise to being a great fit.
  • Ankle support and boot height have nothing to do with each other - After stiffness of materials, ankle support is a design attribute having to do with how the boot is contoured around the ankle and how it is stressed when tightened. Above a certain height (~7"), a tall upper is actually a design problem for ankle support and additional care must be taken by the designer to ensure good ankle support in spite of a tall upper.
  • Heel fit is key - How well and firmly the heel settles into the heel pocket of the boot is a big factor in ankle support, blister prevention, and stability. A loose sloppy fit is unstable and likely to cause blisters. A good insole like the Sole can make a big difference in this regard. If the heel won't settle firmly enough into the heel cup (overly shallow heel cup, or shallow heel with deep heel cup), it will be hard for the boot to support the ankle properly no matter how tight it is. All leather boots with a glove leather liner are the most likely to improve after break in in this regard. The Salewa system with a cable across the back of the heel is something to be very wary of. For me, unusable as a hiking boot because tightening them enough to support the ankle inevitably caused heel blisters where the steel cable dug into my heel. Great longevity on them though.

That's all I've got for now. Hopefully some of the above principles will help you more effectively evaluate options the next time you need a pair of boots.

We are fortunate in this matter that your conduct will be your marker and, thus, your reputation. The conduct of others on this forum has been, and will continue to be, their marker, and thus, their reputation. In the west, a person invests in one's reputation carefully. - 112Papa
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10/21/2015 5:23 PM
Thanks for an informative, thoughtful and thought provoking guide. I'm still liking my 4Ds, but haven't put that many miles on them yet. I'll have to try the Sole insoles after using SuperFeet all these years.
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10/21/2015 6:23 PM
Great chart!
Man, I have read this 3 times already.
My 4Ds are holding up well, but I'm 30 pounds lighter.

They are the best boot I've owned all around and that includes Everything from Whites to Trail Runners.

Now I'm nervous.

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10/21/2015 6:40 PM
was in the market for a new pair of boots this will help a lot thanks Evan.
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10/21/2015 7:38 PM
Thanks for the info! I've been wondering about the leather lined Lowas (Baffin Pro and Tibet LL), hard to find such informative (and concise) reviews on boots these days.
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10/24/2015 8:58 PM

I'd be curious to hear more about the Kenetreks, and how much you think what you hate about them applies to other models. Very few people seem to have the Desert Guides so I haven't heard much specifically; I thought the ones I had tried on (Hardscrabbles) where quite stiff and had heard mostly good things about durability on their more common models. I plan to try a pair at some point simply because I am running out of brands to try.

Heel fit is #1 for me, it is so rare to meet this requirement that none of the other criteria commonly gets assessed thoroughly. So far the Quests are the only boot I can wear for any length at all so I am forced to overlook its shortcomings. Buy 'em cheap and stack 'em deep; I keep a pair or two around for backup because of the short service life and never wear them around town or to work. A PU midsole would go a long way towards fixing them for me, my uppers tend to be in quite good shape when I get rid of them.

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10/27/2015 10:01 AM
I didn't hate the Kenes - they were just very disappointing particularly given the price. First, for a 4lb 6oz pair of boots, they offered support more in line with a 4lb or less boot. So an anomaly on that trend line, but not a good one. More importantly was longevity. The toe rand popped pretty quickly. This was more than cosmetic, because it admitted water directly into the boot via the midsole. I repaired them myself which ended up lasting longer than the two subsequent factory repairs combined. The third time I sent them back for repair Kenetrek sent me a new pair. Since I didn't see any reason longevity would be better and they were heavy relative to the support provided, I sold them. I know of about 6 other pair of Kenetrek boots. Out of those, only one pair hasn't needed to go back to Kenetrek for some kind of warranty issue. Usually repeatedly.

We are fortunate in this matter that your conduct will be your marker and, thus, your reputation. The conduct of others on this forum has been, and will continue to be, their marker, and thus, their reputation. In the west, a person invests in one's reputation carefully. - 112Papa
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10/28/2015 5:26 PM
I've had better luck with the Kenetreks. I've had the early lightweight boot, Hardscrabble hiker and Mountain Extremes. I never had a blister and break in was easy. My foot is low volume, narrow heel, medium forefoot and high instep. They were a fairly good fit. I used them mostly for hunting and durability seemed OK. I switched to the Quest 4D's in search of lighter weight and decent support. I like the 4D's, and hope they hold up.
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10/29/2015 8:54 AM

Evan, as always I appreciate the detailed and well organized thoughts.  Particularly as I'm not a boot person (skiing excepted).  I've played with a few light mountain/approach boots in the last few years, and aside from crampon use I personally cannot see any virtue in them.  The added weight and especially stiffness just seem to add to fatigue over the course of a long day, be it on trail or off.  Even for long, whole-deer packouts I've been quite content with trail runners.  Granted, I'm ~50 pounds lighter than you, usually carry less weight, and probably most significantly have always been gifted with good balance and ankle stability.  I do think that if time and physiology permit, getting to where you can do a rugged alpine traverse in 10 ounce shoes is the most efficient option, but for many this is an intensive multiyear project.  And going through 3+ pairs of shoes a year is lame.

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11/2/2015 2:07 AM
Having big feet (im a US 14) really makes it feel like I am wearing concrete blocks and fatigues me. I now wear minimalist footwear and will never go back to boots. Joe nimble trenkster (joe nimble is a minimalist, foot shaped, high quality german made shoe) are great but expensive. Ive got a pair and a couple of pairs of the high toes desert boots(?) for casual use but I even hike in my high toes, beautifully lined in calf skin.


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11/5/2015 9:42 AM
I remember someone on here mentioning Hanwag boots back awhile back. Anyone have anything else to say about those?
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11/6/2015 1:16 AM
I've got a pair of the Hanwag Tatra's that I'm pretty happy with. They replaced a close to 10 year old pair of Lowa Renegades that had long been due for retirement. I was actually a little concerned the Tatra's were going to be too stiff to walk in comfortably after being so used to the Lowa's, but they have enough "rocker" built into them they're fine. My only issue with them is the toe box being slightly narrow. Going to the bunion model (wider toe box) would have likely solved this but I got a screaming deal on these and the bunion wasn't an option. I tried compromising a bit and bought a half size bigger and it doesn't feel like I gave up any support elsewhere. The insoles that come with them also aren't much to speak of either. I'm also limited in choices because of limited toe box volume. So far the Superfeet blue's seem to be the closest fit, but there's 1-2 others I want to try before buying.

For lighter hikes or situations I know there's going to be lots of rock scrambling I've been liking the 5.10 Aescent. Not a boot by any stretch but when grip is a high priority their rubber is hard to beat. I've even tried some Vibram soled "approach" shoes and there's a noticeable difference to me in grip and stability. This obviously comes at the expense of wear but worth it to me.

Another pair of boots I've dubbed the "project boots" are some Bates combat boots L.A. Police gear was blowing out for $40 a couple years ago. I've had days where they've been fine, and others they've torn my feet up. I've tried most of the tricks out there to speed breaking in boots faster, none seemed to make nuch difference. I've also tried 4-5 different insoles in them which has made the biggest difference. I still haven't found the "one" but as they are now they make for good work boots that are comfortable enough to stand around most of the day in. And for the price I'm fine with them being resigned to work duty. But I'll continue to experiment and see if there isn't a magic sauce I haven't found yet that will let me get some more utility from them.

"Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children."
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2/3/2016 7:10 PM

Starting to look pretty hard at Alico boots, decided my Salewas will get passed on to fund the next hopeful quest 4d replacement.

any more feed back on the wind rivers? sizing suggestions? I'm an 11W in Lowa, 12R in Salomon and 11.5R in Asolo.

The "summit" is kind of arbitrarily the model I'm looking at most.

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2/4/2016 2:16 PM
Alicos fit true to size, so I'd probably go 11.5. The Summits do look about right on the weight / support continuum. Once the snow came, I started getting back into the Wind Rivers but discovered the sole is flexible enough that wearing trail crampons flexes the toe up enough to be a problem. That much forefoot flex can be an advantage in some cases, but not in the snow when I'm wearing trail crampons or snowshoes. Then I got a great deal on Scarpa Mont Blancs and they are about all I've worn in the field since then. Couldn't be happier with them for winter snow-on-the-ground use. Insulated just enough, stiff enough to drive skis and snowshoes well, light and flexible enough to be hikeable in the snow, stiff enough for crampon use. Once the snow is gone, they'll spend their time in the closet until it returns.

We are fortunate in this matter that your conduct will be your marker and, thus, your reputation. The conduct of others on this forum has been, and will continue to be, their marker, and thus, their reputation. In the west, a person invests in one's reputation carefully. - 112Papa
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2/4/2016 3:41 PM
I see that I should have done better research before buying my new shoes.
I have the Salamon 4D still and they have been fantastic on the foot! The problem is that the gore tex line lasted less than 1 year and that is why I went for leather on my new shoes. https://www.alfa.no/shop/fjellsko-tursko/mountain/glittertind-advance-m
These also have gore tex, but I figured if the membrane fails, I can always wax them since they are in leather.
Maybe the gore tex membrane will make them less breathable, but so will the wax.
I think the main breathablility in any hiking/mountain boot is through the opening when moving.

The thing I did not know was the EVA midsole. Unfortunaly my new boots have this. So from what I read here they will not last long.

Another thing is that I feel that they are very hard to walk on. They can not compare to my 4D in comfort, but they are much firmer and stiffer.
I have not been breaking them in for long and maybe they will get better. What are your experience when breaking in shoes? Is it only the leather that will form to the foot or will also the sole be better with time.

Thanks for this educational thread :)
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2/5/2016 10:23 AM
I got that deal on the Hanwag Tatra. They came in my hard to find 12.5. Very nice construction, and I'm a fan of all leather boots going way back to when Chaco made the perfect boot for my foot. I have a normal width, wide forefoot and have found the toe box to be roomy. Boots vary so much in fit, that is probably the single most important factor. Unfortunately, they have an EVA midsole, so I'm probably screwed. 😉

Thanks for all the detailed info Evan.
New Post
2/5/2016 9:23 PM
CCH I think the Tatra's are a PU midsole? Their website doesn't state specifically. But they are re-sole able. I've been told by an old timer boot fitter that that's only possible with PU midsoles and double stitched boots. Not sure how much truth there is or if the process has changed that allows them to do EVA now too?

I did finally get some new insoles, went with Superfeet blues. So much nicer. I've used the superfeet in tons of other boots/ shoes and have always had good luck. I did try the Sole brand as well as 3-4 others. The sole looked good but just didn't feel right. I know they're heat moldable, but my experience as a ski/ snowboard fitter for a few years told me they weren't going to mold enough to make up the difference. One thing of note for people to try, especially with the Superfeet insoles, try out a size up from recommended, it moves the placement and size of the arch support and can make or break the feel.

I've also put some more time into the Bates, they seem to be coming around and finally breaking in. The Superfeet insoles made a big difference in these too. I still wouldn't want to hike 20 miles in them, but for $40 they're earning their keep.

"Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children."
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2/6/2016 5:06 PM
I could have sworn the tags that came with them said EVA, as it made me smile after reading the chart (I thought I analyzed my gear pretty thoroughly... and then I met Evan.) ;) Could be wrong about the construction, but I do know they are very nicely made boots and so far I'm really happy with them. Like I said, they fit so far and aren't fully broken in. For me that is a huge accomplishment in and of itself.
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2/12/2016 7:45 AM
After having failed with my last boots (to stiff and hard), I got some boots from Lundhags.
I bought theese used boots for 95 dollars online. Cleand them well, greased and wax them and changed the insoles.
Having tried them for a 3 hours mountain hike, I am very pleased.
The reason I didnt buy them new is my privious experience that there are so many differnt types of shoes out there and the fit is so different. Some are to wide, some are to high over the forefoot and so on. Trying boots out in the store is difficult. They can fit fine at first, but after some miles they can change a lot.
I prefere thight boots, I hate to large boots. But thats just my preference.

I got the Lundhags Syncro Mid.

Check out the different models if you are interested in Swedish made shoes without membrane.

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3/28/2016 11:34 PM
Evan, I am about your weight/size (12) and my Salomon quest 4d's seem to be in the early stages of failure very early in their life. They haven't failed yet, but the signs are not encouraging. I wore nothing but Asolo FSN 95's for about 14 years but they quit making them.
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