Having a good set of tires goes a long way, literally. With good rubber between you and the road, there's going to be fewer complications, less stress, and an added bit of security to your trip.
Boots are our tires of the backcountry. They get us from point A to point B. A bad set of boots can ruin a trip in a hurry — whether it’s from a failure of the boot itself, or issues with your foot because of the boot. For this reason, you should put a lot of thought into your backcountry footwear. The last thing any of us want is for a hunt to be compromised by something we can control beforehand.
Here’s the “rub” though. Boots are pricey and not everyone has the means to order numerous models of boots in a frantic search for something that works. If you put on a boot that doesn’t quite feel right, what do you do? Sometimes boots feel great at home, but once in the field, it’s a different story.
What About Boot Break-In?
Along with all of the tricks we will dive into below, there is something else to keep in mind. Depending on what kind of boot you’re working with, there may very well be a break-in period to go through. Giving up too soon a boot that needs to be broken-in is kinda like not seeing a movie because you don’t like the cover art. You might be missing out on a great movie, or in this case, a great boot. Boot break-in time can vary from model to model. Some boots may work great from the first step you take, and other boots will need numerous hikes to break-in. As a general rule, the stiffer and more burly the boot, the longer it’ll take to break them in.
Whether seeking to break a boot in, or just get some miles in a boot for evaluation, it is important to try and put the boots through realistic hunting conditions. Well, as close as we can get to them. For instance, hiking with your boots off-trail is much different than on-trail hiking. If you really want to evaluate a boot, do some off-roading with them to see how they perform while side-hilling, on steep climbs, during steep ascents, on loose footing, etc. While you’re at it, consider throwing a weighted backpack on. These tests will reveal what it’ll be like to hunt in the boot, and hopefully to pack some meat out of the backcountry with that boot!
Moving on from boot break-in, here are a few things to try before completely giving up on a troublesome pair of boots...
One thing you can try before possibly throwing those boots to the wayside is changing the insoles. Most of the high-end boots out there come equipped with a very basic insole.
Just like boots are countless, there are a ton of different aftermarket insoles on the market. Many of these aftermarket insoles can be used to customize the fit of your boot for your foot shape. For instance, if your foot has a very low arch, you wouldn’t want to get an insole with a very high arch. That would work against you.
Think through what you don’t like about the fit of your boot. Is there not enough cushion? Are you getting what’s called “heel lift?” By being specific about what the problem is, we can aim our attention to certain types of aftermarket insoles that may remedy the issue. Insoles can be purchased that are super cushioned, provide more rigid support, or take up more room in the boot than others. If you have heel lift going on, this is one of the routes to try. By taking up more room in the boot, you’re giving your foot less room to move. It helps tighten things up a bit. I had an issue with heel lift, which led to friction and blisters, and it was solved by an insole with more volume, and a certain lacing technique, which is what we’ll chat about next.
Lacing helps to keep your foot in position in the boot. It’s how we secure our tires to our feet. I mentioned how I had an issue with heel lift in the paragraph above. A good portion of that issue was solved with the insole, but what really sealed the deal was figuring out a lacing technique that worked for me. There are lots of different techniques out there, which a person can easily look up videos on. The standard criss-cross up the whole boot is not the only lacing style or strategy out there.
With different lacing techniques, you can add additional security to lock your heel into place. The less movement inside the boot, the better. Rubbing is never good. A quick tip on lacing is try going over, under, and up on your ankle locks (the lace hooks on the ankle of the boot), opposed to going under and up like normal. This technique provides a strong hold for the ankle and decreases the chance of the boot loosening.
There are 3 parts to lacing up a boot, if you ask me. There is the foot, ankle lock, and then lastly the upper. It takes some experimenting to find out what your foot is going to like best in terms of tightness. For me, I like a medium tightness on my foot, followed by a strong tight ankle lock, and end it with a fairly tight upper. On that upper, make sure that you are pushing the tongue of the boot all the way in against your shin BEFORE tightening the laces. If you don’t, there will likely be a gap between the tongue and your shin. This doesn’t bode well for a snug fit.
The Magic of Leukotape
An unfortunate truth is that some folks are just going to be prone to foot issues that include hot spots and blisters. It seems that no matter what boot they try on, or what tricks they pull out of a hat, they still have issues. If you struggle with blisters, I’d like to introduce you to Leukotape.
Leukotape is an athletic tape that sticks like glue and works like a charm. I’ve had the same piece of Leukotape on for a week straight, and it never stopped working or came off. By applying this seemingly magic material to problem areas, it’ll eliminate hot spots, help prevent blisters, and keep you going when the going gets tough.
This stuff has literally saved hunts for me. Anyone that has any doubt about their feet in the hills, should absolutely have a roll of this stuff in their backpack. On top of that, it’s multi-use. We actually repaired a monopod in the field with Leukotape. It is crazy strong and built to last.
Be proactive with the application of Leukotape and don't wait for blisters to form before applying it. One time, I was 5 miles into a 6-mile hike at the start of a high country mule deer hunt. With all of the elevation gain, I started to feel some hot spots. Right away, I stopped and applied Leukotape over the areas. For the next 6 days, I chased mule deer through some truly gnarly terrain with no foot issues. Thank you Leukotape!
A Quick Note on Socks
Something else to consider here to possibly help alleviate foot issues is having a good quality pair of socks. A sock that will both wick moisture and stay in place is key. Moisture mitigation is huge for blister prevention. Of course there is comfort too. Merino wool socks are incredibly comfortable and not even in the same ballpark as the cotton socks you likely wear at home. Those cotton socks feel rough against the skin, don’t stay in place, and are awful at wicking moisture.
Remember that dry feet are happy feet. Even if you are using great socks, I would highly recommend that you have two pairs of socks on extended hunts and change to a dry pair of socks any time your feet get wet or significantly sweaty.
In the end, our feet are all different. Because of that, different issues might pop up with different boot models from person to person. And the only way to know if the boots are going to work, is to get them in the field, after you’ve already paid for them. One person might not need to make any modifications, while another might try them all and still have to do away with the boot completely. But before you write-off a pair of boots as something that won't work for you, be sure to try these strategies to improve the fit and comfort of your boots. Who knows. They could end up being a great set of tires after all.
Josh Kirchner is the voice behind Dialed in Hunter, a blog that not only documents his own journey, but provides gear reviews, tips/tactics for western hunting, and encourages other hunters to chase and achieve their goals. Josh is a passionate bowhunter that has been hunting with his family since he was a small boy, but for the last three years has been eating, sleeping, and breathing the hunting lifestyle. When he is not chasing elk, deer, bear, and javelina through the diverse Arizona terrain, he is spending time with his wife, two herding dogs, and mischievous cat. Connect with Josh on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.