Walking Safari: Boot Choices
Updated: Jun 19, 2020
Author: Lutz Otto
Author: Lutz Otto
Healthy feet are critical to enjoying longer walks, wilderness trails and backpacking safaris.
Choosing appropriate, fitting and comfortable footwear is regarded as fundamental in every walking, adventure or sporting activity.
Poor choices lead to a variety of problems including blisters, knee pain, back pain, blown ankles, long term injury, wasting money, putting a damper on your adventure and so forth. Put otherwise, this is a preparation area you want to take seriously.
What is the right boot?
Although certain boots fit many purposes, most boots are designed to fit within a range of applications - As a starting point, do not believe the story that “one-boot-fits-all-conditions”.
The picture above, shows four fantastic, but very different pairs of boots:
The boots first on the left are specifically made for moving stealthily. They are made of light single skinned leather, very comfortable and brilliant for moving quietly through the bush. These boots grip poorly on slopes or wet ground, fuel/ chemicals will destroy the crepe based soles, longer thorns [sicklebush] easily penetrate the sole and the the sole is not very long lasting.
The second pair is an awesome single skinned all-round bush boot. They are comfortable, robust [long-lasting leather and soles] and have very good grip. These boots are designed for the African bush, but they do not like very cold weather and are nosier than the first pair. Remember they are not made to walk day-in-and-day-out with a heavy backpack - See the backpacking notes below.
Boot pair number three, are great mountaineering and high-altitude backpacking boots. These are robust, reasonably rigid [they have a full shank], can fit certain crampons and are versatile in a range of weather conditions. They are truly outstanding in the mountains (up to a point) but are far too hot and rigid for the bush.
The final boot pair are fantastic ice climbing and high-altitude mountaineering boots. They comprise a synthetic inner boot and plastic outer boot. Both have laces and the inner is first put on and this is then pushed into the outer They are extremely rigid, fit crampons exceptionally well, relatively waterproof and warm. They are brilliant on snow and ice, but are not fun to wear in any other conditions.
For everyday bush use.
For normal walking in the bush I generally prefer light weight singled skinned leather boots with a sealed tongue. Sealed tongues stop dust, grass seeds and grit entering the boot through this point. You do not need anything higher than a mid-ankle boot - For this application higher ankle boots cause you to walk noiser and they are hot.
In the below picture, the boot first from the right is classic veld skoen, boots two and three are discussed in the above and boot five is a combination boot [synthetic and leather]. All have sealed tongues except the first one.
Pure synthetic boots are super comfortable and amazingly light. Danner and Lowa make great boots in this category - As with all quality products you will pay more for them.
Grass seeds and rough environments have a nasty habit of quickly destroying the entry [cheap] to early mid tier brands and we find them unsuitable for the high level of usage we place on them.
For backpacking safaris [not referring to mountain based activities] I use a better quality mixed leather and synthetic boot - Purpose built, they are made by people with decades of experience in this space. The research and development, as well as the subsequent technology built into the boot or shoe, is simply next level.
My preference leans strongly towards a mid-ankle boot with no more than a 1/4 to maximum 1/2 shank. Mountain boots that have a high ankle, are thicker [insulation] and have anywhere between a 1/2 to full full shank - As stated above they are no good for safari use.
Ideally your top one or two lacing eyes are hooks - This allows for versatile lacing which is very important for foot comfort and managing different feet shapes. A sealed tongue is on every high quality boot on the market and vibram soles have for the last few decades maintained market leadership position. If your ankles are strong enough, there are incredible approach shoes on the market - Explore brands like La Sportiva and Scarpa.
If you carry big packs regularly, remember that knee problems, lower back pain, plantar fasciitis and similar injuries are often caused by shoes with zero or low arch support [veld skoene that fit this category require orthopedic inners] or without shock absorption qualities. Orthopedic specialists will advise that these problems either catch up with us on trail as a repetitive injury or as we move over the forty year old mark [hmmmm]. Just as their is a good medical reason why we replace running shoes around 800 km's, retire boots past their effective life span.
It is worth noting that boot weight exerts a noticeable drain on our energy and consequently stamina. You might have heard the saying "a pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back" - Boots require somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5 more energy to carry! Light = More Fun!
Sizing and wearing them in.
Don’t make the mistake of buying boots that just fit – buy one size bigger – Your feet expand when they get hot and secondly when you walk downhill your toes will bang the front of the boots resulting in painfully blue toe nails.
Another top tip is to avoid various problems including “blister-hell”, by taking the time to “properly-walk-in” your new boots before taking them on their first trip. As a rule of thumb leather boots require longer periods of walking in and some synthetics need no walking in at all.
It is important to care for your boots to keep them in good condition. Regardless of boot construction, regularly remove dust and mud. Mud is particularly destructive to any boot when it dries. Any leather on boots, full or part leather, requires regular polishing that is supplemented regularly with a good leather food.
Do not dry your boots in front of a fire, or any direct heat, this will crack them - Crunch newspaper into the toe well and allow them to dry naturally in an area with flowing dry air.
Another tip is to store your boots with dry newspaper crunched into their toes to help keep their shape.
Oh yes, one last important point. Do not bring boots or shoes showing any sign of de-laminating or that you have not been worn for many years [properly test them prior trail].
Look after your feet.
Good boots are close friends with clean feet, good socks and gaiters.
For the periods when you are going to spend lots of time on your feet:
wash your feet.
try wear fresh socks daily [on long trails, when space and weight are a consideration, have at least three pairs and wash them].
put an anti-fungal powder into your boots before you put them on in the morning.
Many of us that spend a lot of time in the bush will wear our “vellies” without socks – If you are not used to doing this it will result in blisters and hot spots. Socks, especially purpose made hiking or activity designed socks, make a huge difference to foot health as well as endurance.
At the end of the day let both your boots and your feet air. Walk in your boots and pack camp shoes for afterwards. Camp shoes are generally adventure sandals, "crocs" or similar. As a note, the super lightweight flip-flops that are commonly used lack multi-functionality/ versatility [try using them if your boots fail, or cross a fast flowing river] and often result in thorn punctured feet.
Coming full circle.
The above form the basis of a good starting point. Good boots come at a higher price tag, HOWEVER as with all quality products you get what you pay for. Choose right, look after your feet, focus on the incredible experience and have fun.
See you soon!
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