I am not a gadget guy or an equipment junkie. I usually settle on a good solid tool for the job and stick with it until it wears out. For instance, I’ve been shooting the same bow for eleven years. I have others, but they are sitting on a bow rack gathering dust. I’ve been using the same climbing tree stand for nearly as long.
However, I have an old cedar chest in my garage that is crammed full of hunting boots and footwear. Sometimes I’ll be rummaging through it and discover a boot or pair of socks I forgot I had, and think, “Darn it! I could’ve used those last week!” My wife shakes her head and calls me Imelda Marcos.
In my experience, not one type of boot works well in all hunting situations. Footwear really is where the rubber meets the trail. Let’s look at some factors that you might consider when choosing your hunting footwear.
Safety—Appropriate boots can prevent slips and falls. The softer the rubber sole, the better the traction. However, softer rubber wears out faster. My favorite boots for hiking into mountainous regions have a soft rubber sole. Unfortunately, the design prevents a simple sole replacement. These boots fit well, have great arch and ankle support, and offer very good traction. But, I’m stuck with having to replace the whole boot when the soles wear slick, and, they aren’t cheap!
On a recent hunt in the Na Pali Wilderness in Hawaii, my Hawaiian hunting companions all wore spiked tabis, a Japanese shoe with a separate big toe, knobby rubber lugs on the soles, and a steel spike on each lug. The trails were muddy, covered with wet, slick boulders, and a fall could have proven tragic. I was wearing korkers, wading shoes designed for anglers to wear over stocking-foot waders. These boots have interchangeable soles and I wore a sole with a knobby rubber tread and small steel spikes. They did well on slick rocks, but they were useless in deep mud. They were also very heavy. The spiked tabis look like something worn by a ninja or a hobbit, but they really work. My buddies were literally dancing across terrain that slowed me down to a crawl.
Bowhunters who venture into rocky peaks in search of sheep or mountain goats sometimes carry crampons. These are spikes on a metal frame that buckles onto the bottom of your hunting boots. They are critical if a hunter needs to cross ice on a slope where a fall may be fatal. Even in early bow seasons, there can be patches of ice on north slopes left over from previous winters. Speak with those familiar with the area—guides, other hunters, bush pilots—to determine if crampons are advisable.
Another safety issue is poisonous snakes. Several years ago, I was helping a fellow hunter gather firewood for our annual Kentucky elk camp. He was cutting up a deadfall with a chainsaw, and I was loading the wood in his pickup truck when I glanced down and saw a copperhead repeatedly striking my friend’s lower leg. Fortunately, he was wearing knee-high rubber Muck boots, and was completely oblivious to the danger. When I pointed out the critter, he really danced a jig! Rubber boots are fine if you don’t have to walk far and the weather is not too warm. Many of the elk guides in southeastern Kentucky wear knee-high gaiters in the early elk season, reasoning that a snake’s fangs won’t penetrate the gaiter, the trouser leg, the long underwear, and the socks. The gaiters will also keep your legs from getting soaked by early autumn morning dew.
Feet are particularly vulnerable to cold. If I can keep my feet and head warm, I’m usually warm enough to continue hunting. Boot blankets, those “moon boots” that you slip over your regular hunting boots, can mean the difference between staying warm and comfortable on your tree stand and being miserable. I have one pair that is quilted and very bulky, and is only appropriate for stand hunting. I have another pair that is thinner and lighter, and you can actually stalk or still hunt in them if you move slowly and aren’t going too far. They also fit nicely in a pack for long hikes to your hunting destination.
Wet feet, which promote blisters, can be prevented by using appropriate footwear. One of my favorite whitetail “honey holes” can only be reached by wading a river. In the early season, the water is usually low enough to wade using knee-high rubber boots if I stick to the riffled shallows. However, after a rain storm, this stream will float your hat. I regularly fish this stream as well, and I know the crossings, but I keep a pair of hip waders in my truck just in case. I also carry a couple of heavy-duty plastic garbage bags in my hunting pack. I can slip one over each leg, cinch it tight with a strap, large rubber band, or piece of rope, and have hip boots that will work in a pinch. Some brands even have a plastic tie strap that you can fasten to your belt.
I sometimes throw a handful of leaves or pine needles in each bag before pulling it on. This provides a cushion between the bag and your foot, and may provide just enough “give” to prevent tears in the plastic when you step on a rock. Plastic bags have kept my feet dry on many an elk hunt, when carrying hip boots is not practical. Of course, another option would be to sit down, remove your shoes and socks, roll up your trousers, and simply wade across. In cold water it can be hard to feel your feet and toes, which can lead to injury when wading barefoot. Some hunters who anticipate stream crossings carry a pair of lightweight sandals or beach flip-flops just for this purpose. There are also commercially-available lightweight nylon emergency waders that would work as well.
Boots that offer sewn-in membranes such as Gore-Tex and Dry-Plus are fine to a point. They are marketed as breathable and waterproof. However, I have found that repeated immersion will eventually result in wet feet regardless. That is where socks are important. Moisture wicking high-tech fabrics or wool blends will keep your feet reasonably dry in wet conditions. Sock liners, very thin socks you wear between your socks and your feet, work to wick moisture as well.
A hunting companion shared a new trick for preventing blisters. However, he made me swear that I would not reveal his identity. The trick is pantyhose. Really? Cut off the panty hose feet at the ankle and slip the foot portion over your feet before slipping on your socks. Guaranteed to prevent blisters! I recommend using an old pair, as the cashier at Macy’s may wonder why a camo-clad hunter is buying panty hose.
Stealth—Your sturdiest hunting boots may be noisy. This is no big deal, if you are in a tree stand. Noise is a very big deal if you are still hunting or stalking. Many experienced hunters won’t leave home without their favorite stalking shoes so that they can sit down and quietly change before closing that last few yards for the shot. Some hunters will carry a pair of oversized socks to slip on over their regular socks. Others may put on a pair of commercially available soft stalking shoes. I use an old pair of soft rubber Crocs. They are lightweight, and the soles are worn thin, which allows me to feel each rock and stick and gently place my foot to avoid making any noise. I even know one hunter who takes off his shoes and socks before the final push. He claims he can feel the ground better. A word of caution: Don’t forget where you leave your boots!
Scent Control—Leather boots stink. They are absorbent and smell like whatever they have touched, including leather conditioners, oil and gas on your car floor mat, and your smelly feet. For tree stand hunting, where you can not always predict the direction from which deer will approach, rubber boots are best. Deer cannot only smell where you are, but also where you have been. If a deer cuts your back trail and your feet stink, he will explode out of the area as if a firecracker went off. Always wear rubber boots to and from your tree stand. Take them off when you reach your vehicle, and keep them in a plastic bag sprinkled with baking soda. Step in puddles or cow manure going to your stand. Do everything in your power to keep deer from smelling your feet. When stalking and still hunting, the solution is simple. Hunt into the wind.
Comfort—This last factor will allow you to maximize your time in the field. Why invest money and time in your bow, travel, tags, and other equipment and neglect spending a few extra dollars on comfortable footwear? Boots that do not fit can cause blisters that make you limp, which will mess up your knees, back, and hips, and make you want to cut your hunt short.
As I have aged and put on weight, my feet have widened, and my arches have slightly fallen. I need wider boots with room for inserts or orthotic arch supports. Many boots are not made in wider widths, so I always search for boots in EE widths and a length larger than normal to handle extra socks and inserts. Ankle support is also important, as well as a sturdy connection between the heel and upper to prevent pronation, or ankle-lean.
Don’t embark on a hunting trip with brand new boots. Acquire them well in advance to field test them, break them in, and make sure they fit like an old friend.
Boot weight is also an important factor in footwear comfort. A serious backpacker once told me that every pound added to your feet is equivalent to five pounds on your back. Let’s say that each boot is one pound heavier than the boots you normally wear. That’s like carrying ten extra pounds on your back! Before I buy, I usually check boot weight in mail order catalogues, and inquire about weight in stores. Most boots weigh from 2.5 to 6.5 pounds per pair. Generally, the more leather in a boot, the heavier it is. However, leather can be more durable than synthetics. I like boots that have a combination of leather and synthetics, and weigh around 3.5 pounds. Wearing extremely heavy boots over any significant distance is asking for trouble.
Is there a perfect boot that is comfortable, lightweight, has good traction and support, is waterproof, snake-proof, quiet, and scent-free? I haven’t discovered one yet, but when I do, maybe I can clean out that old cedar chest in my garage.