Over the past five hunting seasons, I’ve put a lot of miles on three different pairs of hunting boots. All were from different manufacturers, all were different in terms of function and style, and all had their pros and cons. When it comes to hunting (especially Western hunting), boots are one of the pieces of gear you don’t want to skimp on. I’ve done long treks in $50 boots in the past, and I definitely paid for it in terms of blisters and pain. However, boots and the way they work with your foot is a complicated equation, and just because your boots cost more than your truck payment doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be comfortable or last for years.
So, what are the best hunting boots? Which ones should you run out and buy right now? Sadly, I can’t tell you that…at least not so directly. Every foot is different and what works perfectly with my freak-foot might tear up your more normal foot. But, here are three considerations you should have in mind when shopping for a new pair of hunting boots…
This is the most obvious and most important aspect of a pair of boots. Nothing can ruin a hunt quicker or make you feel more miserable than an ill-fitting pair of boots. This was the story of my first pair of legit hunting boots – the Danners. Now, Danner makes a fine boot and they have a long-standing reputation for quality footwear and great customer service. However, I made a significant fitment mistake that I should have caught before heading out into the field.
Here is my problem: no one seems to make a boot in my actual size. I wear a size 14-Narrow…everyone makes a 14-Wide (because your typical dude sporting such long feet also has the foot-girth to support that…can I say foot-girth?...it sounds weird…oh well). My foot is essentially a short ski…long, skinny and flat. But, what drew me to the Danners in the first place was that they actually made a pair in 14-Narrow. As it turns out, their narrow was significantly too narrow – particularly in the toe-box. I broke them in and did a bunch of hiking before season like you’re supposed to, and it seemed like everything was fine. And then I spent seven days hiking 8-10 miles each day on an elk hunt, and by day four I was in some serious trouble. The inside of my big toes were under such pressure that they were numb by the end of every day…and by day four the feeling just stopped coming back altogether. Honestly, after that hunt, I didn’t have feeling in that part of my toes for at least a couple months (I wasn’t sure if it was ever going to come back).
These were also the first pair of boots that made me realize I should always upgrade the insoles. In addition to my cramped and numb toes, I started getting significant plantar-fasciitis while walking around out there. If you’ve never had that, it’s an arch issue in your foot (usually caused by lack of arch support) and it makes it feel like you’re stepping on a knife in the middle of your foot with every step. I won’t lie, those average miles-per-day started to drop towards the end of the hunt, and I found myself taking more breaks just to kick off my boots and try and get my feet to stop hurting so bad. I won’t blame the lack of elk killed that year on the boots entirely, but I definitely wasn’t able to hit the woods as hard with those things killing my feet.
What can you do with my tale of woe? It seems obvious, but make sure your boots fit extremely well. If you have access to a good outdoors store and normal sized feet, don’t feel bad about trying on every pair of boots they have. (I buy all my boots online just because when I walk into a store and ask for my size, they usually laugh me out of the place) But, if you’re buying yours online, wear them around your house for a couple days and don’t let the hassle of having to ship them back stop you from returning them if something is off with the fit. Take long hikes, throw weight on your back, experiment with different lacing solutions if something is hurting, too loose, etc. Whatever it takes, don’t hit the trail in a pair of boots that you are not 100% sure are going to be kind to your feet!
No, I don’t mean if the boots make your butt look big or if the camo matches. I’m talking about the particular type of boot and its intended function. In the hunting world, there are basically three types you’ll encounter: you have standard rugged mountain hunting boots, the more flexible almost tennis-shoe like boots, and then super hard-core mountaineering boots (like the stuff people climb Everest in). I’ve never owned a pair in that third category, because few places I hunt demand something like that. My first and third pair were of the rugged mountain hunting variety, which usually means an aggressive tread and stiffer sole. However, for my second pair of hunting boots (the ones I went running to after the Danners almost killed me), I decided to dip my toe (see what I did there?) into the shoe-boot waters. These were the Irish Setters (made by Red Wing). They still have a high ankle and all the support of standard hunting boots, but the soles are much softer rubber with less aggressive tread. They’re designed for the guy who’s in a hunting situation where moving quickly and quietly through the brush is more important than not slipping down a mountain (which describes much of the hunting I do out here in AZ).
With these boots, I made sure they fit and had plenty of room in the toe-box, added insoles immediately to avoid any repeated arch issues, and they were comfortable from day one! I can’t even say I had to break them in…much like a tennis shoe, they were just soft and ready to form to my foot right out of the box. The only issue I found with this style of boot was the tread durability. Over about two years, I probably put about 50 total days in the field on these bad boys (not a ton, by most standards), and by the end they had less tread than my bedroom slippers. I didn’t abuse them, melt them in a fire, or hike through anything terribly crazy…they just wore down so quickly that it became a bit of a safety hazard. In fact, I knew it was time to replace them on a hunt with 3-4 inches of snow on the ground…my feet almost went out from under me at least half-a-dozen times that weekend.
Now, I don’t want to necessarily discourage you from this type of boot. It was super comfortable to walk around in all day, and if you do a lot of warmer-weather/early season hunting in terrain that isn’t too wet or slippery, they can be a great option! The tread was the only durability issue I had, and if I wanted to stick with that style of boot, I could see myself buying a fresh pair every couple years because the price point is relatively low. Personally, I found myself missing that feeling of having invincible feet I get from a more rugged mountain boot, but if that feels more bulky or cumbersome to you, you might be very happy with the more shoe-style boot.
This has to do with more than simply how much the boots cost. Yes, you can spend $500 on a pair of hunting boots (have fun explaining that to your wife), but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the best boots. I have heard more than one horror story of boots on the higher end of the price spectrum failing or wearing out far sooner than you would expect from something that costs so much. On the other hand, if you find a pair of very budget-friendly boots that fit your foot really well and give you only a year of hard use…the comfort may outweigh the hassle/expense of having to replace them every year.
Everyone has a budget to work with, and you have to go with the boots that best fit your foot, hunting style, and financial situation. All I’m saying is you won’t always be best served with the most expensive boot on the market, but you also won’t get that great well-worn feel from a pair of cheap boots designed to wear out after a season or two…they just don’t last long enough to build that kind of relationship. Personally, I find myself landing in the middle of the road. The Danners were the most expensive of the three boots ($300), and they had fit and support issues I didn’t enjoy. At the same time, I would have hoped for a bit more use out of the Irish Setters (the cheapest of the three) since they still cost $150.
Currently, I’m still breaking in boot #3 – the Crispis. These are middle of the road in terms of hunting boot prices (ringing in at $230), but they have a solid reputation and were recommended by several different people for guys with narrow feet. So far, I’m loving them! I’m battling a couple very small hot spots as the leather softens up and forms around my foot, but I’m finding that a small tweak in my lacing method is keeping my foot tighter in the heel-pocket and eliminating that issue. Only time and more miles will tell how long they last and if they’re the best for my foot, but I’m hoping I’ve found “the one.” Personally, I’m a creature of habit and I would definitely prefer to find that one boot that I can count on and just order an identical replacement pair whenever needed.
Your Unique Boot-Print
Okay, if you’ve read this far, hopefully you’ve forgiven me for not being able to send you straight to a link for the perfect pair of boots. You will just have to do some research and try some stuff on to figure out what works best with your foot. All I will say is that it’s crucial to do your homework when it comes to your boots, because it could literally be the difference between tagging an animal or coming off the mountain early.
We haven’t even discussed insulation, waterproofing, ankle height…there are 1,001 considerations when it comes to boots, and you’ll also have to factor in where you do most of your hunting and the needs of that area. I’m blessed to hunt in a place where even January often feels like early season everywhere else…I’ve only had a couple hunts where insulation would have been helpful, but I just made up for it with hand-warmers and campfires. You, however, may need to consider some insulation if you’re hunting in snow or frigid weather a lot. You also want to check the reviews on the effectiveness of whatever waterproofing your boots have if you’re in a particularly damp environment. Keep your feet dry, and you’ll keep your feet happy! If you hunt in wildly varying climates, you honestly may need to look into some early season boots and a separate pair of winter boots. Yes, you’ve just doubled your boot budget, but you’ll also theoretically get twice the life out of each pair by sharing the load, so you might come out about even in the end.
Finally, let me close by encouraging you not to let boot prices keep you out of the field. If you’re stuck between buying nice boots or buying your tag so you can hunt, get out there and hunt with whatever you can afford to put on your feet. I’ve seen guys bag gigantic elk in white Costco tennis-shoes! Yes, you may be less comfortable, you may get a blister or two, and you may even cut your hunt short because of it…but at least you’ll have had a hunt. Better to be out there and give it a shot than to sit at home dreaming about it and saving your pennies for the best boots on the market!