Once I was firm about walking a 1000 km across the Gobi, I started a search for good boots in earnest; after all they would be on my feet for almost a 50 days. A lack of good quality long haul boots in the local market prompted me to look for them online. It was a tough decision to order online– without ever having handled the boots, or putting them on my feet even once. It was a risk I had to take. I looked at almost 20 odd websites before zeroing down on Backcountry.com. Not only do they have a lot of and very varied stock, but there is even a live chat with customer support where you can look for advice and opinions. I asked a lot of questions about brands, sizes, fit, material and then chose my Scarpas after much research. My only problem was that they did not ship to India, which I managed to circumvent with the help of some folks. So how do you choose excellent boots when you can only view them, talk about them, and read about them but not wear them? What do you really look for in good heavy duty boots? Let me take you through the journey.
1. Clarify your purpose – what are you going to use them for? Backpacking boots differ vastly from trekking/ hiking boots differ drastically from climbing boots. Each has a build, weight and structure to suit the activity it is intended for. With this at the back of my mind, I determined all the possible uses I’d put these boots to. I listed the surfaces I’d be walking on – sand, loose soil, pebbly surfaces, scree, wet soils, through streams, rock, and also tar roads. So hiking/trekking shoes definitely fitted my bill. I ruled out backpacking and lite trekking shoes simply because they were not up to the rigor I had planned for them and myself.
2. What build do I go for? My expedition activity involved walking endlessly day after day on all aforementioned surfaces through sun, rain and cold. The shoes had to definitely love my feet. I chose high ankle cut for my boots for the simple reason that it would keep small stones and sand out as I walked. Also, these boots support the foot far better than any other cut. From your ankle to your toe, it all acts as a collective in motion. Additionally, I observed that when you tie laces higher up your leg, they tend to stay in place more than they would when tied above ankle joint, in the usual place. So no bending down to retie laces often. One great advantage of an ankle length boot is that it prevents you from twisting your foot. Imaging walking continually over uneven surfaces, sometimes your foot just gives way to one side of the other. Not with these boots on. The weight is distributed evenly and with a big pack on my back, I had no issues with the boots.
3. Will it be leather or nylon or..? it is best to determine the material your boots are made from depending on the weather you will encounter. We had a mix of all—at the beginning we had cold weather, as we went into the plains it went on getting hot and then we met the occasional stream or oasis which we had to cross. Even some rain about 5 times or so. I chose boots that would allow my feet to breathe, not seal in my sweat, and yet seal out any water. My scarpas have Gortex lining which works just great with allowing breathability and are covered with a layer of suede on top which protects. The leather on top also kept the fine sand out. True I had blisters in at least 5 places when I started, but then that is to be expected after walking 35 km every day. Blisters apart, there was no trouble whatsoever with the shoes. One of my team mates sole came apart after just 14 days of walking. I cannot thanks my scarpas enough!
4. Soul of the sole – When the terrain is as varied as I walked on, the sole quality and material assumes equal importance. My boots had Vibram soles which they claim provides excellent traction on the widest range of surfaces, and have a high degree of abrasion resistance. I can definitely vouch for this claim because my boots have done close to 2000 KM to date and are not any worse for wear since they day I wore them first. Along with strength, flexibility is very important too since your foot is going to touch the ground in many different ways. The Scarpas I use particularly have a flex midsole that provides support and flexibility.
5. Weight issue – when it comes down to a choice between strength and weight, always go for weight. You’d rather have a weighty boot than one with weak build. The weight might seem a drag to begin with, but the boots hold your rock solid on any terrain. In any case, gone are the days when you had to lug your feet around in huge boots. The current breed are much lighter than their predecessors yet they are built for a happy feet experience.
6. Buying online – When you have decided what kind of boots you want, trawl the internet for sites which offer a lot of variety, give good deal, have a comparison feature and are quick to support with expert advice. Shortlist about 3-4 websites that meet the criteria. Read up all you can about the boots and related information. When you have finally shortlisted about 5-7 different boots online, don’t make haste in choosing and ordering one right away. The worst mistake you could make is to run out of patience at the end of painstaking research and order a boot only based on its looks/color. Drop a mail or chat with their customer support of all these websites, asking for advice, opinions and more importantly return/exchange process. From their response you will be able to gauge which website offers you more bang for your buck. Don’t dig out your credit card yet. Get rid of all the boots in your list until you have the best 3 left, price being the last criteria to factor in. All these should meet all the criteria above within 1 point +/- of each other. Let the customer reps help you with comparisons. Don’t forget to read the review comments from actual users. They can be extremely helpful.
7. Finally, size – Boots from different shoe companies come is slightly different dimensions for the same size. For example a size 32 from Scarpa might fit you well than a size 32 from Astro. If possible try all the boots you have shortlisted for a good fit. When trying make sure you put on the socks that you are actually going to use in the trek. And as they say, try them on in the evening when your feet are most swollen. Walking and trekking are going to sell your feet more so keep room to grow in the boots you choose. When choosing boots online, don’t forget to ask about this to the customer reps. They are your best guide on which brand has what fit for the same size. A good thumb rule that works very often is to order ½ size over your actual size. For example if you usually wear size 29 shoes and you have determined based on your research that 29 size Scarpa boots are an exact 29 size fit, then order for 29.5 size to allow for the swelling. If you conclude that 29 size Astro shoes are actually a good fit for people with size 28 feet, then go half a size lower.
Once you beauties have been delivered, they will need breaking in like any other boots do. Read the care instructions carefully, especially if you have gone for boots with a leather surface. You will go through your round of blisters and chaffing. But once past this, they will fit like a glove. It is time to enjoy them for a solid 8-10 years, for they will just last and last and last.