Here is an other entry in the informal outdoor equipment series featured on this site. This time, we’re focused on boots. I wrote about training outdoors in minimalist footwear a long while ago–you know, before it was cool. It is important for martial artists–and most other athletes–to train barefoot as much as possible, as strengthening the feet improves striking, balance, and agility among other attributes.
That being said, after many years of training barefoot–or as close as is practical using minimalist shoes–I’ve changed my stance, so to speak, regarding footwear. This is especially true of outdoor training. As we age, it takes longer to recover from workouts: muscles stay sore, joints may ache, and our performance suffers. My greatest weak point as an athlete approaching middle age, however, has been my skin. Cuts and scrapes take much longer to heal. My hands stay dry and crack even after the winter passes. And, worst of all, I repeatedly tear up my feet with barefoot-style training. I had a cut on the bottom of my big toe that took more than a year-and-a-half to fully heal. Through constant abuse through training, hiking, yard work, travel, and by wearing minimalist shoes all day while teaching high school, my once-merely-callused feet look like I’ve been walking on hot coals.
This is the potential dark side to minimalist footwear no one mentions.
Further research and experimentation have helped. Collagen supplementation helps to repair skin damage and to maintain healthy joints. Darn Tough socks are probably the greatest clothing invention since the saber tooth tiger tunic: they’re comfortable, protective, and have a lifetime guarantee. Combining these have really helped my tired dogs. But, I think I waited too long to implement these changes to diet and equipment, and, in addition sustaining a separate foot injury, I decided to finally invest in some boots for outdoor training and other activities.
Over the years, I trashed a few pairs of Timberlands and killed a pair of Cabela’s boots and had nothing to switch to. Here are a few boots I’ve tried this year that are worth talking about. If you suffer from or are developing foot problems, wearing a good pairs of boots–even if only some of the time–can make a big difference.
L.L. Bean Gore Tex Ascender Hiking Shoes
My general criteria for selecting boots are as follows: minimally supportive, waterproof, warrantied/recraftable. (I truly would rather wear no shoes at all!) Bean’s low-top, light hikers seemingly met all three criteria. However, due to two design flaws, I returned them. First, while they don’t provide ankle support, they felt like a pair of Rockports that your grandfather wears to walk around the mall for exercise. There is so much squishy sole that feeling the trail is nearly impossible. Sure, your feet are protected, but it’s like walking on a Temperpedic. There is no feedback from the ground, and I kept tripping over rocks and roots while hiking. I don’t necessarily want to tiptoe around trail debris so as not to hurt my feet, but these shoes overdo it.
Second, the tongue is super short. You can see the laces resting on my right ankle in this picture. No matter how much I pulled and adjusted, I couldn’t keep this uncomfortable problem from recurring. I did try on the mid-cut boots in the store, and obviously this wasn’t an issue. However, the tongue is a deal breaker for these particular shoes. I love L.L. Bean and most of my clothes (to my wife’s embarrassment) and gear come from there. These boots just don’t work for me or most other people, I don’t think.
Danner Crater Rim Boots/Combat Hikers
I researched these Danner boots for a long time and the Crater Rims are almost universally acclaimed by those who value sturdy, stable leather boots that are made in America. They are thoughtfully engineered and meticulously crafted from nubuck leather, a Gore Tex lining, and a Vibram sole. The lacing system is simple but effective, and the boots are tough, comfortable, and grippy under all conditions. They clean up well and look good with jeans, I might add.
The one sticking point, however, is price. You can find some deals on Amazon. I opted to watch eBay for months until I found a pair of the Crater Rim’s alter ego, Danner’s Combat Hikers. A discontinued boot originally designed for Green Berets humping through the mountains in Afghanistan, the Combat Hikers can still be found on the Web and through military surplus for less than half the price of a pair of Crater Rims.
Another advantage of Combat Hikers is that they’re jump ready. This means that eyelets replace the hooks at the top of the boot–presumably so paratroopers will not get their shoelaces snagged on their way to the ground. I prefer eyelets so I can tromp around, shoelaces untied, without tripping. Additionally, these boots rock for sandbag lifts and other workouts for the same reason. My old boots’ hooks used to catch on things while training, and I prefer to avoid that potential for injury.
I’ve worn these boots through rain, snow, mud, over rocks, and even in the ocean. They’re watertight and strike the right balance between support and a realistic ground feel. The tongue and surrounding gusset are a little wide and squish out of the laces; this can be uncomfortable until you break them in. Also, if you require a lot of ankle support, these boots will not help you much. Otherwise, they are an excellent choice for most training and outdoors activities–especially if you can get them at the right price.
Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX Hiking Boots
I purchases these boots on a whim at an REI garage sale. I chose them also because of their military pedigree; Mark Owen extols them in No Easy Day. The Quests are light, tough, and waterproof. Even though they don’t meet all my criteria, getting them on clearance was a no-brainer.
What the Ascenders and Combat Hikers lack in support, this boot offers in spades. Once you cinch down the laces over your ankle, it will not bend or roll. Period. The Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX boots are by far the most supportive piece of footwear I’ve ever experienced, including a medical boot I was forced into after breaking my toe.
They wear like sneakers which is a blessing a curse. The Quests are light and comfy with just enough cushion to protect your feet without losing ground-feel. I’ve run and hiked in them on and off trail, with and without a weighted pack. Agility is a strong-suit for these boots. On the downside, I’ve destroyed more running shoes than I can count. I do not anticipate these boots lasting a long time under heavy use. Like many sneakers, then can be hot; the Gore Tex exacerbates this problem. Still, the Quests are an awesome boot for those who like them light and with lots of support.
Danner Mountain Light II Boots
This is a highly controversial boot. The Danner Mountain Light II is known as either the most comfortable boot you can buy or a leather torture device that cannot be returned after the infamously long break-in period. I found another good sale and decided to try my luck.
For me, these boots were perfect as soon as I slipped them on. Like true love, you can tell pretty quick if you’re in for a lasting relationship. I’ve worn them every day for the past few weeks: working, rucking, hiking, playing with my son, working out, hitting the heavy bag, and even doing katas. They are the most comfortable, best looking, most versatile piece of footwear I’ve ever owned.
I feel like I’m cheating on my wife each time I wear them.
The Mountain Light IIs combine all the best attributes of the aforementioned boots: light (duh), good feel and articulation, and made in America. But they do it all while maximizing comfort and style. Made from a single piece of leather, they are stitched down to an excellent Vibram sole and can be recrafted by Danner or local cobbler.
A lot has been written about the Mountain Light IIs online about whether to buy them or not. It comes down to this. If you like leather shoes and wear them on a regular basis, there will be no surprises with this boot throughout the break-in period and beyond. I experienced zero break in issues: no stiffness, no blisters–just happy, happy feet. I also haven’t had trouble with bunching tongues or major heel-slippage like other reviewers. They’re great for me, but everyone’s foot is different, and these boots might not work for you. Furthermore, if you’re more of a sneaker fan, you should probably consider another boot. Additional items to consider–the leather is soft and requires care and maintenance, plus the top hooks are a little wimpy compared to the rest of the hardware. The eyelets started to rust a little already. Cleaning them with some vegetable oil seems to have done the trick, and I’ve been in contact with Danner’s (excellent) customer service to see if this is a manufacturer’s defect. They mentioned I have the option to return them for repair. Other than that, these boots will meet just about any challenge you throw at them–on and off the trail.
If you mounted tank treads on a pair of boat shoes you’d get Mountain Light IIs. I love them. You’re mileage may vary. Here are some pictures and videos that highlight their different uses without sliding too far into shoe-porn territory. Enjoy, and let me know if you have any questions about these or the other boots from this post.