column By: Terry Wieland | January, 19
Here is a little-known fact: Your boots fit you differently when you are carrying an 80-pound pack than they do when you are walking around the living room. A mountain boot that is firm in the sole, and cradles your foot like a maiden’s hand when you are not burdened by a pack, may squish down and press on your toes with every step when you increase the weight by 60 or 70 pounds. This is no small thing when you are on top of a mountain or facing a five-mile hike across rocky desert with a deer on your back. The time to find out is not when you are on the mountain, but long before you ever get there.
We have all shared camps with guys who show up with a pair of boots with the price tag still hanging on them. It doesn’t take a great intellect to realize these fellows may have never hunted before – or at least, never where they had to depend on their legs and feet to carry them safely home from distant peaks.
Over the years, I have read dozens of stories that began “ . . . after your rifle, your most important piece of equipment is a . . . (binocular, spotting scope, hunting knife or rangefinder. Pick one).” Not for me. I long ago came to the conclusion that boots are the most important item – at least as important as your rifle, and maybe more so. Lose your rifle and you may come back without a trophy; without proper boots, you may not come back at all.
Assuming a hunter is heading for someplace truly fearsome, like coastal Alaska or the Chugach Mountains, there are two areas where economizing never pays off: Optics and boots. I would add rifles, too, but many guys will spend what it takes for a rifle, then try to save a few bucks on boots, binoculars or – and this one always astounds me – ammunition.
In Alaska one time, I was paired with a hunter from Alabama on his first out-of-state trip. He had put thousands into two custom rifles, then bought a cheap binocular. The lenses fogged up on the second or third day. Since our brown bear hunt involved of a lot of glassing across tidal flats, that was serious. Devotees of cheap glass usually justify it on the grounds that they can buy several binoculars for the price of one Leica, Swarovski or Zeiss. When the cheapie breaks down, they say, just buy a new one. That’s fine, if optical quality doesn’t matter to you, and if you are lucky enough to never have a glass go south when you’re halfway up a mountain. Like my erstwhile acquaintance, chances are you’ll have problems when you can least afford them – and when there is no shop handy to get a replacement.
The same is true of boots. I have never had a pair break down while they were sitting in the closet. I have, on the other hand, had a pair start to come apart when I was riding a horse through the Laurier Pass in northern British Columbia. With 10 days to go and a lot of climbing in between, that was pretty disconcerting. When I got home, Cabela’s (in 1989) replaced them with a pair of original Meindl Canada boots that have served me extremely well, and which I still have and still wear 30 years later. On a Dall sheep hunt in Alaska the next year, I got those Meindls soaking wet, then wore them until they were dry the next day. This was not planned – it just happened. Ever since, they have fitted and felt like soft slippers.
In this business, a hunter is rarely allowed to find something good and stick with it. There is always something new to try. Hunting on horseback in the Bitterroots in Idaho in 1996, my guide was wearing a pair of Otto White packer boots, which he swore by. When I went back the next year, I had a pair of custom-made Whites, as well as a new pair of custom Russell Sheephunters. The Whites felt as if my feet were clamped in a vise. Although the guide said they served equally well riding a horse or climbing a mountain; you had to get used to them. I never did.
As for the Russells, it poured rain for three days and they leaked badly. I sent them back, they were rebuilt, and now they’re fine. That was in 1997. I haven’t worn the Whites since, while the Russells serve pretty well as a general hunting boot. I would not wear them anywhere that involved serious mountaineering, however.
A valuable lesson was learned from those Meindls. I should add, by the way, that Meindl boots, as advertised by Cabela’s in subsequent years, were not the same as the German original. Without going into that further, Meindl compromised its reputation beyond repair by making a deal with Cabela’s, giving the company exclusivity and cheapening its product.
After the Meindls, I bought a pair of Lowa mountain boots, which were retailed by Schnee’s of Bozeman, Montana. This was just to have a spare pair, and also to start getting them conditioned for when the Meindls went to their reward. They are great boots, and I have worn them in various conditions for a decade. They went with me to the Yukon in 2008, where they served well coming down a mountain with a 95-pound pack consisting of my equipment and a third of another guy’s sheep. They are now my primary boots, with the aging but venerable Meindls in reserve.
The Otto Whites are still in the closet, by the way, looking almost new. They are too good to throw away and too uncomfortable to wear. Dilemmas, dilemmas.
Russell Birdshooters have been famous for many years. I first heard of them reading Robert Ruark in my teens. Later, I became hooked on custom-made Russells in every form: Moccasins, shoes and boots. Many I still have and still wear. They are not, however, mountain boots. There is more to building a technical climbing boot than extending the laces to the toes, regardless of what some salesman tells you.
Recently, I acquired a pair of leather mountain boots made by Le Chameau, the French boot company that makes the finest rubber boots in the world, bar none. These are considerably lighter than my Lowas, and I was suspicious because a lighter weight is usually gained by sacrificing endurance. Leather is not very light, as a rule, and leather is the only material that will form to your foot. Somehow Le Chameau seems to have done it, and so far, so good.
In years gone by, it was recommended that boots be broken in by soaking them in water overnight, then wearing them the next day until they dried – more or less what I did by accident with my Meindls in Alaska. Whether this is absolutely necessary now is hard to say. Generally speaking, top-quality, ready-made boots fit better today than they did in the past. However, as I see it, it can’t hurt. It’s also a good idea to wear a heavy pack to see how wet boots respond to greater weight. And, if soaking your boots and then wearing them wet causes them to fall apart, it’s far better to make that discovery when you are walking across your lawn than when you are halfway up a rocky canyon in the middle of nowhere.