A lifetime of walking boots
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“How do they feel?” asked my
grandmother, as she watched me march the length of the climbing shop.
“Fine,” I grunted monosyllabically.
I was only 12 years old.
Granny nodded. “We’ll have these,” she
declared to the shop assistant and pointed at the leather walking boots that were
weighing down my feet. “They’ll last forever and will see him out.”
Granny was wrong, as my feet grew,
the boots leaked and were soon replaced by others. Yet that was the
understanding of the era. Walking boots would last for life and be with you to
I now know differently. Granny’s
shopping was followed by a lifetime of poor footwear, including a spell in the
British Army, which seemed to feel that all feet were identical. One look at my
shoe cupboard and a disorganised pile of mountaineering footwear falls out. Boots,
trainers, approach shoes, even mountain sandals. My favourites are the
trainers, as they are lightweight, should not leak but do, and carry the Quicklace
system, which saves me tying a bow. One tug with ice-cold hands and the trainer
For a day’s walking in the
mountains, especially when carrying a rucksack, my trainers struggle. Should
that happen, on go my boots. I try to be lightweight, which means synthetic, as
leather is generally heavy. Lightweights can wear out quickly, so I buy a new
pair each year.
Be warned that lightweights can
pong. I once spent six weeks crossing the Alps, from Geneva to the
Mediterranean, and slept in many cramped mountain refuges. Walkers were usually
on bunks. One night it happened.
“What is that terrible smell?” I
heard a Frenchman say to his colleague. They were in a far corner of our crowded
“Disgusting,” the colleague replied.
“Ugh!” exclaimed another.
“I’m going to be sick,” said a
fourth, and headed for the door.
I lay in silence, feeling guilty.
The smell was my lightweights, positioned under my bunk. You make no friends
going lightweight, especially in a refuge.
The weight of footwear is
important, as mountain lore has long declared that one pound on the feet is
five pounds on the back. My two mountain trainers weigh 1.8 pounds (0.82 kg) and
I barely realise they are on. My winter boots, with crampons, weigh 10 pounds
(4.5 kg), a fifty-pound rucksack on my feet. I try to stay light.
There are no shortcuts when buying
new boots, as a wrong fitting can be ruinous. The secret is not the boot, but
the sock. I spend as long choosing the one as the other. My socks are woollen
for sure, merino especially, with something man-made thrown in. This gives socks
strength, allows them to stretch, as well as survive a washing machine.
Socks chosen, next the boots. I buy
them in the afternoon, when my feet will be bigger, and I do not do a
last-minute dash the day before a holiday. I know what design I seek before I enter
the shop, and I choose an assistant who understands mountains.
For most, a boot should be flexible
but not too bendy. If I seek full bend, I choose a trainer. I like a rand that
covers the toe, while for the sole, Vibram is my favourite. This
was named after Vitale Bramani who, in 1935, saw six of his friends slip to
their deaths in the Alps, thanks to leather soles and hobnails. Bramani set to
work and soon patented the sole now used worldwide. I go nowhere without
Then comes the fitting, but I do
not put on the boot. I remove the insole, lay it on the floor, and stand on it.
I can instantly see if the boot might fit. I keep a forefinger’s width between
the tip of my longest toe and the front of the insole, in case my foot slips
forward when descending.
Then it is time for the boots. Back go the insoles, in go my feet, and the laces are tied in a jiffy. If it is fine, that is good. If not, no worries. I keep trying until I am happy. Next stop the mountains.
However, perfect my boots, I still
think blisters. At the end of a long march in the Army, we would be stood barefoot
and to attention, ready for inspection. Anyone with a blister was punished.
Thanks to that experience, and before
I pull on a sock, I coat a whisker of petroleum jelly on my foot. I then slither
on the sock, wool on jelly, next the boot, tie the laces, and I’m done. Since jelly, I have never had a blister.
Thank you, Granny, for buying me
those boots. Over decades, I have learned plenty.
If you want to buy walking boots
Walking boots are widely available,
and you are spoiled for choice should you wish to buy any, so prepare to be
confused. Whatever they tell you, do not expect them to last forever. I work on
1000 miles of walking before I need a new pair. Some are expensive, some are
cheaper, and you do not always get what you pay for.
Some reputable brands include:
I wear Salomon
Men's XA Pro 3D V8 GTX trail running shoes for daily exercise on my nearby fells. They are
comfortable, but started crumbling less than two months after purchase,
although I do spend a lot of time in the mountains.
When I crossed the Alps, I wore Scarpa R-Evo GTX boots.
They were brilliant but did stink out the mountain refuges.
An icon of walking for over three
decades is the Scarpa
Manta. I have a pair. They are fantastic but slightly heavy by modern
My favourite shops for walking
16 steps to boot-buying
- Take your time - buying walking boots is not a rushed process.
- Try the boots on in the afternoon, when your feet may be slightly swollen.
- Do not buy new boots the day before a walk.
- Start by choosing the sock, one pair only. Bring your own, not one offered by the shop.
- Decide if you want trainers, walking shoes, walking boots, or something for snow and ice. Most seek walking boots, especially if a rucksack is involved, or trainers if they are athletic.
- Ignore the question a shop assistant may ask, “Where are you going walking?” All walks are varied, and it is impossible to generalise.
- Lightweight or leather? Lightweight is normally synthetic, leather is heavier.
- How flexible is it? There is a B-rating of boots. B0 (fully flexible) or B1 are right for most. Try B2 or B3 (stiff as a board), if you wish to fit a crampon.
- Waterproof? Mine are. Think Gore-Tex.
- What type of sole? I am a fan of Vibram, which is used the world over.
- Be sure there is a rand, in case you stub your toe.
- Do they fit? Take out the insole and place it on the floor. Put your foot on the insole and assess the fit. You need a single finger’s breadth between the tip of your longest toe and the front of the insole.
- Replace the insole, try on the boot, and lace it up. Check the tongue does not press uncomfortably on the top of your foot.
- Walk up and down a slope to see how the boot feels.
- Try the boot at home but stick to carpet in case you need to return the boot.
all is well, next stop are the mountains.
See alsoFitting the perfect rucksack
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