Image of the January 2012 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
January 2012 Issue
Home / Articles / Wild Gear

Keeping boot buying simple

Josh Gale goes in search of the perfect pair of tramping boots

Who would’ve thought buying a pair of boots could be so tough? With the numerous brands, price positions, materials plus the various seasons to consider, hunting for the perfect boots can feel more like buying a car.

Unsure of where to begin, I enlisted the expert help of Ben Sinclair, who, with his father Mark, owns the outdoor retail shop Living Simply in Auckland.

Choosing the right season boot

The seasonal rating of boots is a general guide to help define which conditions a particular model is made for. Three season are considered good for formed trails and light loads, three-four season help you carry heavier loads and can be used in rough country, while four-season boots are designed for alpine use.

However, there are many variables with some brands having different ideas on what constitutes three season, three-four or four season. That’s why your frist port of call has to be a good retail store with knowledgeable staff who can help you make the right decision.

Don’t forget, no one boot will be perfect for every situation so think about the most demanding terrain you’ll travel through and base your purchase around that.

Sole rigidity

“Rigidity of the sole is really what defines a boot’s season,” says Sinclair. “You choose the appropriate rigidity relative to the amount of weight that’s going into the boot.”

That weight is a combination of the wearer and the pack being carried.

Tramping boots are made to flex at specific places. Three and three-four season boots will flex at the ball of the foot, roughly a third of the way in from the front. Three season boots are noticeably more flexible. A fully rigid boot is really only for alpine use.

“Testing the flexibility of the sole by bending the ends in towards each other is the best way to understand what the boot was made to do,” says Sinclair.

Ankle height

Three season boots can be mid-cut; three-four season boots are always cut above the ankle.

“New boots will almost always need some breaking in to get the uppers fully comfortable,” says Ben. “Focus more on the fit around your heel and toes when trying on boots.”


Some trampers don’t like waterproof linings because while it keeps water out, if water gets in it stays in. Leather allows water to drain.

“It’s true Gore-Tex holds water, but I’d rather keep my feet as dry as possible until I have to cross a river,” Ben says. “If your boots are full of water, stop for a minute and tip them out.”

Leather boots offer greater durability and ease of cleaning.

Leather/synthetic combinations are lighter, more breathable and usually more comfortable out of the box.

“Everyone treats gear differently, if you know you are hard on your footwear choose the most robust design that works for you,” advises Sinclair.


Boots can be expensive – upwards of $600 for a top of the line three-four season pair. Typically, the more expensive a boot, the more intensive their construction. Boots handmade in Europe will likely last longer than machine made boots manufactured in China, though expect to pay a premium for these.

While it’s good to shop around to find the best deal, Sinclair warns this can ultimately be more costly if you make a poor decision. “Put comfort and quality first,” he says. “Buy the best boots you can afford.

“A few dollars here or there will mean nothing when you’re two days in the middle of nowhere with crippling blisters and black toenails.

“A good footwear purchase will see you through many memorable years of great tramping.”

Made in China

These boots won’t be made with the care of a handmade European boot, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be of a lesser quality. “It’s not something to be concerned about if you’re buying from a reputable footwear brand,” says Sinclair.

Bonus tip: Upgrade the insoles

Upgrading the insoles is an inexpensive and beneficial way of increasing a boot’s comfort. “If you’re going to spend $500 on a pair of boots you should definitely spend an extra $50 and get a really comfortable insole,” Ben says.

Classic mistake 1 – buying boots that are slightly too small

Solution: Patient in-store testing

  1. Even if you know your foot size, ask a staff member to measure both feet – one foot is often larger than the other.
  1. With the laces undone, keep your feet flat on the ground and push your feet as far forward as you can. You should be able to slip your index finger comfortably behind your heel without it being too tight or too loose.
  1. Now push your heels firmly into the back of the boots and lace them up, locking your heels into place.
  1. Walk around the store for several minutes to get a feel for the fit.
  1. Walk on the store’s incline step to check for heel lift and to make sure your toes are not hitting the front of the boot.
  1. When you’ve made your purchase, wear your new boots around the house for a few hours to make sure they’re right for you.

 Classic mistake 2 – buying too light

“People often buy footwear with a midsole that’s too soft or flexible because it feels better in-store than a heavier, more supportive boot,” says Ben. “What feels light and comfy in-store may not be adequately supporting you when you’re out on the track with a heavy pack on.

“If you’ve got a boot that’s too soft for the job your feet will twist as you walk and be extremely fatigued by the end of the day.”