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November 12, 2012 · 24 comments

I can’t remember when or why I got the walking bug. I do know that sometime in my late teens or early 20’s I bought a pair of “proper” walking boots. And I still have them. They are an Italian all leather boot by Suola and are called Robusta. I seem to remember they were quite expensive. And they are very heavy. Each boot weighs about 1900 grammes.

I have just had a look at them – actually examined  them- for the first time in decades. The soles are original and not very worn, indicating that my engagement with walking must have been short- lived. The soles are made by Vibram which still makes soles of boots today and many of the best makes use this brand. They would be called a “mid” boot today, coming up to a bit above the ankle, to give protection and support without being too restrictive. They were not waterproof, of course , but as far as I remember did keep me dry on boggy ground (if I regularly applied dubbin of whatever was recommended at the time). They would make a good work boot for my work in the wood maybe. I may just try them out.

When thinking about equipment, boots are the obvious place to start. If your boot doesn’t fit properly you will have aches and pains and blisters in no time and you will be miserable. For general walking – and by that I mean pretty well everything apart from scrabbling around mountain sides, I find that this “mid” style suits me best. When I recently walked part of the Way of St James in France I was shocked at how many people were walking long distances over some quite stony ground in trainer style shoes. However good these shoes might be, they are totally unsuitable for any terrain where you might be walking on stony or uneven surfaces.  Such ground,  particularly when wet, means that occasional slips and stumbles are inevitable. The mid boot gives your ankle the support it needs to avoid falling and protects you from painful blows and bruises.

Around the time that  I revived my interest in long distance walking and had resolved to walk the Coast to Coast Path, I found myself in Hay-on-Wye. There’s a really good outdoor gear shop there on the main street with a good range of equipment and helpful staff. Although leather boots are still made and sold, for this walk I wanted a boot that was lightweight and waterproof and pretty. Well, nearly all the boots are pretty these days.

Designers of boots must have a wonderful time making patterns with their combination of fabric and suede and COLOUR. I’m sure that the guys that shape and think about the fitting of the boot must roll their eyes to the sky when the appearance guys take over.  But the fact is that I wanted a boot that I liked the appearance of. Yes, I knew in my head that this lovely looking boot would not look that for very long. Clean them as you might (and should) used boots will never look as lovely as they do on the shelves.

I had plenty to choose from. I admit I did no research before hand other than to try several boots on in the shop. This was silly of me. But you know how it is. Sometimes you just want to get that thing there and then. I was struck by how differently boots felt. The fit between brands really is different in terms of the width and  toe room and flexibility. But when I put on a pair of Merrell Moabs with a Gore-Tex liner. I just knew that this was the boot for me.


I loved the two-tone khaki and dark brown colours and the way that they had combined the materials. But most they just felt so good. I was advised, and I advise you in the strongest terms, to try boots on wearing the socks that you intend to walk in. I was not at that time a convert to walking with a liner and an outer sock (I’ll come on to socks), but I did borrow a medium weight sock to try to be sure that the fit would be right.  Some shops have a little mini ramp and they get you to put the boots on and then stand and wiggle around on the ramp a bit facing down. This is a really good idea. You find out whether you need more toe room or not. If your toes are touching the end of the boot on a downward slope you are going to have a bad time.  Most people advise you to get a size of about a half or a whole size larger than your ordinary shoe. (remember, too, that your feet will swell slightly in even moderately warm conditions or on longish walks. Also that sizes vary between manufactures).

I bought the Merrells. These hybrid fabric and leather boots really don’t need much “wearing in” as leather ones do (or used to- maybe they don’t these days). However, you’d be daft to just buy a pair of boots and then go off on a weeks walking with them before doing 20 miles or so.

I was entirely happy with them and they served me well for  the Coast to Coast path. But they started leaking just over a year after I purchased them. The shop reasonably suggested that I try approaching Merrells.  They asked to inspect them and then offered me a replacement. Good on them. But then less than a year later they leaked again. I really hadn’t abused them or clocked up hundreds and hundreds of miles. And when I looked at them carefully I thought that I could see a design fault. The combined suede and fabric body starts just too near the sole. This means that the fabric element is vulnerable to perforation from a sharp stone or even thorn. I contacted Merrell again and they were willing to take them back for a inspection once more. The problem was that this time they lost my boots. And then the man dealing with me went on holiday. And I was walking weekly and after picking up a load of horrible blisters by walking in a trainer type shoe I decided that I could wait no longer for Merrells decision.

I took myself off to Bath, which has loads of really good outdoor shops. I tried on lots of boots. Blacks had that useful ramp thing and I was focussing in on a pair of Berghaus Explorer Trail Light. I liked their grey tri-toned livery with flashes of red. At just over 600 grammes each they were a little bit heavier than the Merrells but felt more substantial, too. And I was reassured that the fabric part of their construction doesn’t come in until higher up the side of the boot. They also are Gore-Tex lined. And they are wonderful. So wonderful that during the 10 days of day after day walking I have just done on The Way of St James , where we covered around 120 miles, I didn’t get a single blister and had no discomfort. And I came to really appreciate  the very positive way in which the laces fit into the cleats. This may sound trivial but it really isn’t.  Boots differ as to their lacing arrangements and some are very awkward and would become very irritating.

Before I left for France, I did get an apologetic reply from Merrells who said that they would replace the Moabs again. But for the last time. However the Moab wasn’t available in my size. So they invited me to choose any of their range. Now call be greedy but they might as well have said “please choose our most expensive boot”. Which (in the Mid- style boot) is what I did.  So my new pair of Chameleon Evo Mid Synthetic -Gore-Tex arrived and I felt like I had been given an early Christmas present. Visually they are quite understated in black and Grey. They have Vibram soles and are lighter than the Berghaus boots – about 540 grammes each. They look and feel lighter, too.  I decided though that it was really silly having two pairs of walking boots and thought I would put them on e-bay. I looked at them from time to time and got them out and put them back in their box. I tried them on and put them back in their box. And then I put them in the hall and put the box at the back of the garage. Just call me Mr Two-Boots. I may just wait until next summer to try them out. Or maybe I’ll think of them as my dry-day boots. But the fact is that as soon as I start using them they will never look as lovely again. which is sad. And inevitable.

 Cleaning boots

Everyone seems to think that you should clean your boots regularly and I agree. Why bother. Well firstly because if you have got them all muddy and horrible they will look much nicer the next time you go to use them if you have washed all that grot off .  I also think it’s a good idea in the same way as I think it’s a good idea to wash your car by hand once in a while. It means that you will look carefully at the boots and see if there is something wrong, like a fraying lace or a problem with the stitching.  By cleaning the boots you also remove particles of grit which might otherwise work their way into the boot and risk perforating the waterproof liner.

Some people recommend using a boot cleaning product for washing them off. I don’t see the point of this. Wash them under a gentle running tap using a softish nylon brush until they are clean and quite wet (outside, you don’t want them wet inside, obviously). Then apply a waterproofing agent whilst it’s still wet.

If you have a hybrid fabric/leather boot everyone recommends NikWax Fabric and Leather Proof, and I can’t think of any reason to do anything else. The point of this stuff is to keep the first layer of waterproofing intact. All such  boots have what’s called a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish. But it’s not very durable. You can tell if the DWR is OK if water beads on the surface of the boot.

Once you have applied the NikWax allow the boot to dry at room temperature. Well, a warmish room. On no account try and dry boots off artificially quickly by putting them on a radiator or other direct heat source.  A warm airing cupboard is fine. All waterproof boots have a waterproof membrane which is underneath the leather/fabric layer. If you dry the boots too quickly you risk damaging this layer and then you might as well thro the boots away. So don’t do that.




{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne Wareham November 12, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Love the pictures!! Luverly boots!

No, I don’t want any, thank you.. XXXXX


Charles Hawes November 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm

I’m just sorry I couldn’t work in a toilet reference for you. XX


Paul Steer November 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm

My Mammut boots held up well through waterfall and mud, feet dry as a bone and not sore. …I will go and clean them immediately !


Charles Hawes November 12, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Thanks for reminding me. I must clean mine. Yesterday was a very, very dirty walk.


elizabethm November 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm

I love walking boots. I had a pair of Merrills (now can’t remember the name of the particular design) in which I walked the Offa’s Dyke Path. They were great, really comfortable and fabulous to have boots that didn’t need breaking in. I wore them a lot, including on a trek in Austria where they were probably not quite up to the extremely stony terrain. At the beginning of this year they began to leak from a tear in the fabric so I bought a pair of leather Scarpa boots. These are a revelation. My previous pair of leather boots, also Scarpa, were a ton weight. These are nearly as light as the fabric boots and also super comfy. The Merrills have become gardening boots. I was going to throw them away but I couldn’t bring myself to. Personally I think you should keep both pairs. What is life for if you can’t have a pair to look at every now and then.


Charles Hawes November 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Hello Elizabeth! I love all walking gear, though I can’t get very excited about socks. That’s interesting that your Merrells also tore at the fabric. Do the new leather ones also have a waterproof lining? They sound good. But leather boots are not as pretty I think. I’ll let you look at my new Merrells when you visit next. Something to look forward to.


Nigel Buxton November 13, 2012 at 8:05 am

All well and good and very interesting but why ignore the existence of walking SHOES? With respect, all that business about “support for the ankles” is tosh. After half a lifetime swearing by boots I abandoned them for shoes (Meindles) and would as soon go back to boots as I would return to a cut-throat razor after a Gillette Mach3 or to a steam-driven typewriter after my beautiful iMac. I can’t send photos because I’ve run out of plates for my Thornton -Pickard.


Charles November 13, 2012 at 9:26 am

This is most intriguing! Do share with us what your objection to boots was. And how you found shoes to be superior? Without wishing to press you on your age, I wonder if boot construction has moved on since you last tried on some new boots?


Ross MacIntosh June 13, 2014 at 1:26 am

Hi Charles – I enjoy your writing!
With regards to shoes vs. boots I think it is largely a question of weight. I’ve heard that the US military did a study that found each pound of footwear has the same burden as six pounds in a backpack. Yikes! Each time you lift and swing your foot you are carrying the weight of your footwear – over & over again for thousands of steps. It makes sense that with light shoes and you’ll be less tired after a day on the trails. Another consideration is that ‘ankle support’ you mention. There is an argument that our feet have evolved with the ankle as the joint designed to best accommodate the effects of walking on uneven ground. With boots stiffening up your ankles the stresses get transferred to your knees, hips and perhaps even your lower back. Those other joints end up having to take on the work the ankles were designed for – while the ankles get a free ride.
Boot wearers assume that wearing shoes will result in rolling one’s ankle. That concern is reasonable if you suddenly shift from your ankle-coddling boots to shoes. After years of babying your ankles you can’t expect them to be able to do a proper day’s work. You need to bulk up and strengthen! If you start wearing walking shoes or trail runners on less rugged trails, then gradually your ankles will strengthen without the risk of the trauma of a rolled ankle. Eventually your happy well-toned ankles in light-weight shoes will be able to handle all the trails you are likely to challenge them with. You’ll have more energy too. [I just ordered some new runners to use on the trails – each shoe is 6.7 oz].


Charles June 13, 2014 at 6:54 am

Hi Ross. Thanks for the appreciation and for this interesting comment. What you say does make sense (not that know about the structure of our ankles to be able to judge). When I think about the walking I do on uneven and sometimes pretty rocky surfaces I know that I feel as if my feet are better protected with ankle support – if only to avoid the ankles getting bashed. I’d feel more vulnerable in shoes. And then having a boot has also meant that my feet have stayed dry as I paddle though streams and confidently splash though puddles and bogs. But the weight question must count and of course I want manly ankles not molly coddled wimpy ones. A good reason to buy anohter pair of shoes, though my wife will demand that I throw a pair out if I do.


Nigel Buxton November 13, 2012 at 8:13 am

If you ” can’t get very excited about socks” you have not lived. Socks are hardly less important than boots or shoes. I love my Bridgedales equally with my Meindles and my iMac.


Charles November 13, 2012 at 9:37 am

That I have not lived is, I think, a more philosophical assertion.


Charles November 13, 2012 at 9:35 am

I say that only because I have more than half a dozen pairs of recently bought socks- mostly Bridgedales- and I don’t notice much difference between them. Apart from their colour and overall thickness. Perhaps I have insensitive feet. However I find it hard to imagine getting as excited about a pair of socks as a new computer.


julia November 13, 2012 at 9:55 am

5 10 are the only boots to be seen in.


Charles November 13, 2012 at 10:12 am

I am not brave enough. Do they teach you how to be more brave?


Jessica A. Hawes November 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Many years ago when I used to go walking in the Welsh hills I bought a new pair of leather boots – Chris Brasher – size 6 1/2. I think you would call them “mid” boots as they came up snugly round the ankle. I’ve just weighed one and it came out at one and a quarter pounds. They were wonderful for scrambling up stony slopes and kept me dry through many a boggy terrain. (I wore all-wool socks – don’t remember the make) I don’t agree with my brother about ankle support – I think that was an important part of the fit of my boots. I never had blisters and was never aware of the weight of them. Now I cannot walk very far and make do with a pair of Hotter walking shoes which are leather and Goretex. I don’t know what the soles of my Chris Brasher boots are made of but there is still a lot of wear left in them and the boots are not mishapen at all. I wonder if anyone out there could use them? Ma


Charles November 13, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Thanks for this, Mum. Come to think of it, I think my old leather boots did a pretty good job of keeping me dry, though I think I did get the occasional blister. When you read about the sheer weight of the picnics that Nigel would carry, including wine and whisky combined with his sleeping bag you might think he could do with all the support he could get.


Dru November 14, 2012 at 10:24 am

I’ve never really thrived with ‘proper’ boots- my second hand German paratroop boots did me well for ages on mountains and on my motorbike (also jolly good for fording rivers…), but fell boots always hurt my ankles, and sustained attepts to break them in ended with my feet the ones that felt broken. Thus my abandoning my KSBs after two crippling days on the Offa’s Dyke path, and completing the walk in trainers.

For my across Wales walk a few years back, I used a pair of Karromor shoes, v comfy indeed.


Charles November 20, 2012 at 11:41 am

Love the fact that you are carrying a bottle of milk and a bottle of wine!


John Hutchison August 8, 2015 at 8:34 pm

Ref the discussion on boats versus shoes. I suggest you read Ray Jardine’s book on light weight backpacking. I use innovate trail shoes for long distance walking. I walked the Cape Wrath Trail in light weight fell running shoes and I had no problems. So Charles maybe you should keep an open mind. Boats have their place but so do walking/fell running shoes.


Charles August 8, 2015 at 10:12 pm

Hi John. Thanks for the comment. I hope I do have an open mind – apart from in relation to static caravan parks on the coast, which I think are the work of the devil. I don’t know the Caps Wrath Trail. I just wouldn’t want to risk a rocky/uneven path without ankle support. So maybe I’m not so open!


Ian Hill March 14, 2016 at 11:59 am

Hello Sir,
I recently bought a pair of La Robusta leather boots with vibram soles on them.I tried them out this morning for a few rambling miles in the hills.They are quite heavy but offer good protection and even on the road they seem to are comfortable to walk in.Of course they need broken in first and at the moment my heels are sore but I hope they will serve me well for many years just as your own boots have.Keep on walking.


Charles March 14, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Hello Ian. Wow , fancy Robusta still making my boots. It is a shame about the sore heels but I am sure you are right that they will settle in and serve you well. Keep in touch.


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