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.
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.