Stick the boot in
I heard an old saying once, it went something like this: Always buy good shoes and a good bed, because if you’re not in one, you’re in the other.
I like that, and in regards to kit it is very true. Two things can make and break a wilderness trip. Good boots and socks and a good system to allow you to sleep well and warm.
Footwear is a huge factor to travelling over rough terrain and we have many options. I will identify a few challenging environments and the best footwear I have found for them and some issues I have also had. This choice is very personal, you must get out there with your chosen footwear and learn its qualities and potential issues. You must also toughen up your feet AND your mind to covering distance with weight. There is no magic shoe that makes you levitate over bogs and hills. Travelling in remote areas is hard on you and your feet, get used to it, but give them a fighting chance!
I have had the great privilege to work in all the major habitats in the world. Below I will discuss what I choose and why.
When I worked in Oman as an expedition manager I spent more nights out on trips than I did back at the office, which is also where my room was. This was great and gave me lots of time to really dial my kit in. Oman has a very diverse and arid wilderness. From huge dunes to magical wadis, stunning coastline and very rough rocky mountains. It is hard on your gear, especially your boots. For this terrain we need three things from our boots. Ankle support, protection from thorns, rocks, snakes, scorpions and being stepped on by a pissed off camel! And a good solid sole that will provide grip and not melt and fall off. You see lots of shoe soles lying on the track in the desert, they just melt and fall apart, not a good day!
For me the Altberg Jungle Boot ticks all the above points. It is made in Richmond, North Yorkshire, near where I grew up and I find them incredibly tough, I’ve certainly tested them that’s for sure.
Ankle support – As a high military style boot the Altbergs offer really good support for the ankles. You never feel restrained by them, you just feel reassured that a slip won’t turn into a sprained ankle. I have read many studies now that have identified that “normal” height walking boots offer no ankle support whatsoever. In fact only high military style boots offer any support. I am afraid we all believed the hype and got it wrong. You may as well have been wearing trainers.
Protection – After all my time in Oman and Morocco I have never had a run in with a snake. I’ve bumped into a few scorpions though. However, the worst things are the thorns. I had one go right through the sole of a pair of trekking sandals I had, luckily it did not puncture my foot. The Altbergs are strong and the sole is thick. Nothing is getting through them!
Sole and grip – Again very good. I can’t fault them. They find traction really well in all conditions and I have always felt very secure. They have lasted years as well and I am sure I have pounded them over thousands of miles.
In short the Altbergs are my go to for any hot environment. They dry very quickly, breathe well and get the job done. I had an issue with a drain hole breaking but Altberg fixed it for me. I have replaced the laces with paracord and upgraded the foot bed. Top marks!
Well, you guessed it. It’s the Altbergs again. All of the above and more. However, let’s discuss why I would NOT take traditional Gore Tex boots to the jungle.
Gore Tex boots are probably the worst thing to wear in the jungle. They are very waterproof which means as well as keeping water out they also keep it in, because of this they will never dry. Your feet will spend the whole time sloshing about and slowly rotting and when they are wet they are very heavy. A miserable experience and a sure fire way to ruin an expensive pair of boots. If you’re going into this environment spend some cash and get the appropriate footwear.
I hate cold feet and I do suffer from them, I think it’s the height thing. My footwear choice is simple. Go for the warmest boots you can find.
For teaching survival in Sweden in winter I use the Sorel Glaciers. They are simply the best boots for the money for this environment and are very durable. Most importantly, even after a long day on snowmobiles crossing frozen lakes where you get wet as well as cold, my feet are still toasty and dry. Luxury!
Make sure you have some room to allow blood to circulate well and use good clean wool socks. The implications of getting it wrong here is that your toes drop off! Oh and top tip, use upgraded wool insoles.
I have spent a fair amount of time in the hills. Both in the UK and abroad. I’ve climbed various 4000m peaks and in a host of countries from Borneo to Ecuador and Morocco. I generally aim to go for a stiff soled mountaineering specific boot. In winter where I am using crampons I use the very old but proven La Sportiva Nepal Extremes. These are a fully rigid B3 boot and provide fantastic stability when climbing and front pointing in crampons. They are a bit stiff for long distance walking though.
For a good allrounder I am still abusing a relatively old pair of boots. The Scarpa SL Activs are bullet proof. As a B1 boot they have good stiffness and lots of foot support. I can kick platforms into steep hillsides and also wear a flexible crampon. I wear them a lot in the woods in winter as well as they just perform so well on rough ground. In the Lake District our woodland is very rugged and boots are generally the best option.
It is hard to move silently in big boots. In the last few years I have become a bit of a convert to Merrell Moab Mid boots. I have used them on every terrain I can think of and have carried 30+ pound packs on 17 mile training walks in them. They are great! However, they do have their limitations, and I am sure I do things in them that the designer never imagined, so I can’t really blame them. Now I have slipped over in them, but nobody saw me! I honestly reckon I could live in them for the rest of my days and other than full winter conditions I would not suffer too much. I usually destroy a pair a year but most people don’t spend the same amount of time dossing about outside as me. And as I have said before, I am hard on my gear.
When I need that ankle support in the woods I can recommend two very good options that fit my feet well. The Meindl Dovre Extreme and the Hanwag Trapper Top. Both a heavy duty leather full height Gore Tex boot. They are both very supportive and waterproof and get top marks.
Just before writing this I was in the garden scrubbing and reproofing the Merrells (now looking brand new!) I’ve given them a bit of a beating over a very muddy early January and they needed some love.
Maintenance is key to keeping your boots waterproof and comfortable. It also makes them last a hell of a lot longer so DON’T be lazy. You don’t need to keep them spit and polished but they should be clean.
This is not a how-to guide for all footwear. Do your research on your individual boots, I will however, cover the basics.
A Gore Tex lined boot needs cleaning inside and out. I firstly mix some cleaner solution (eg Grangers) into a bucket, take out the foot beds and clean them. I then fill the boots up with the solution and scrub the inside. This gets rid of the oils from sweat and the bits of grit etc, then rinse thoroughly. Gore Tex hates being dirty.
I will then scrub the outside of the boot with warm, clean water and maybe some more cleaning product for leather or fabric. Once they are clean and half dry I will apply either wax for leather or a spray for fabric. It’s not rocket science! Let them dry naturally somewhere warm and dry the foot beds separately. Shiny and new!
My jungle boots go in a bucket/river then get a load of leather wax polish lobbed at them. Sorted.
Right, let’s wrap this up. So in conclusion. Put a good pair of boots on your feet whenever you leave the house or have a pair in the boot of your car. When you most rely on your feet to get you out of trouble try to always equip them in the best way possible. Can you walk home in the rain in the shoes you have on? And when you go on a trip, really think about the environment and what are your best options.
You might well struggle to survive and thrive in your flip flops!!!