Choosing the Right Footwear, by Desert Rat

I am relatively new to prepping, but one thing I have noticed is that there are quite a few “oh by the way” mini-lectures on footwear that sneak in among other topics.  This is unfortunate, because footwear should not be relegated to a bunny trail or an afterthought when planning for an uncertain future.  Your choice of shoes can be the difference between comfort and misery, so they deserve careful consideration.  By careful consideration, I don’t mean going to the nearest military surplus store to buy the most expensive tactical boot you can afford.  As I have discovered, there can be some huge functional differences between one boot design and another, and there are also times that you don’t want to draw extra attention by wearing a tactical boot at all (especially in the security line at airports).  The bottom line is that there is no such thing as “the ultimate survival shoe”, nor should there be.  As an engineer, I understand that life is all about trade-offs, and while some shoes are better than others, every single design is the result of give-and-take.

As a field engineer, I have been working for the last several years as a contractor for a three, four, and/or five-letter government agency or agencies conducting experiments in an arid or semi-arid environment somewhere west of the Mississippi.  The areas I work in are very remote, and it has been an excellent training ground for learning how to prepare for the unexpected, because I do not have easy access to retail resupplies while I am out there.  There are a lot of lessons I could share from these experiences, but I would like to focus on footwear today.  I have had the opportunity to put a lot of miles on many pairs of boots in some very rugged terrain, and I hope that I can help others learn from my mistakes and victories.  I will talk about the specific boots that I have used, but my focus is not on the “best brands” so much as the features that worked and didn’t work for the various situations I encountered.

On my first trip, I spent about ten days testing electronic equipment in the middle of nowhere.  Right before the trip, I bought a brand new pair of high-top Redwing steel-toed construction boots.  They were rugged, had good treads, speed laces, excellent ankle support, and a tough leather construction.  It was everything I thought I would need for my work in the field, except that I could barely walk for a week because my feet hurt so much.  Don’t get me wrong, my Redwing boots are over seven years old now and I still wear them.  They are wonderful boots, and well worth the $200 price tag, but you have to break them in before they wear comfortably.  I made the mistake of not breaking them in before trying to walk long distances in them, and I paid a steep price in blisters and sore feet.

Well, about a year later, I went out again, but this time it was for an entire month.  I took my Redwings again, but, of course, they were already broken in.  I hiked for miles in those boots without much trouble… no trouble, that is, unless you count a mild case of heat exhaustion.  The temperatures reached well over 120F, and, even with plenty of water to drink, those tall boots with the thick leather construction held in a lot of body heat.  That’s a good trait for a winter boot perhaps, but not for a summertime sand-stomper.  

As an aside, I was glad to have my rugged leather boots that year in spite of the heat.  A lot of people try to work out there while wearing tennis shoes or low-top hiking boots, but that year one of my colleagues was struck in the ankle by a sidewinder while stepping out of his vehicle.  He was lucky.  He wasn’t one of the tennis shoe crowd, and his boots saved him from the snakebite, but the unexpected strike scared him so much that he leapt over the hood of the vehicle and pulled a muscle in the process.  It’s always the little things.  Since that incident, I have always made sure to keep a respectable distance from those shady little desert bushes.  You can assume that you won’t see a snake until it moves, and by that time, it may be too late.  Whenever I do have to step through or over a bush, I probe it with a walking stick first, and I make enough noise that the snakes know I’m coming.  Well that’s enough about snakes.  Back to footwear. 

Well, year two in the desert was a marked improvement over year one.  Even though the trip lasted more than twice as long, my mobility was much improved, and the boots protected me from all of the sharp, pointy plants and animals in the wilderness.  The over-heating issue was minor, but still a problem.  If I was running for my life instead of casually walking through the desert, I would have had some serious thermal problems to deal with. 

On to year three:  Because the Redwing boots kept me too warm and didn’t breathe well, I went to the local sporting goods store and bought a pair of Bates tactical police boots.  I specifically avoided the tan military-style boots, because tan is more conspicuous against a pair of khakis, and I wanted to be able to wear the boots around the office on days when I would be working outside.  My secondary motivation for going with a black boot instead of the tan was that I work with a lot of military and former military types, and the last thing I want to do is come across as a wannabe soldier by wearing imitation-issue gear.  That’s not a good way to earn respect as a civvie among combat veterans.
 
Well my Bates jungle boots had fabric sides which breathed better than the leather Redwings, but the fabric was still thick enough to protect me from snakes.  The boots had speed laces (the hook type, not the enclosed eyelets) and a side zipper which made them very easy to get in and out of, and the soles were made of a relatively soft rubber that was quite comfortable for walking long distances.  Also, the Bates boots did not have a steel toe, so my toes were able to flex and breathe better than in my Redwings.  I wore the Bates boots around the office for about a week before my third trip so that I could break them in, but as it turned out, I didn’t need to.  They wore comfortably like a tennis shoe right out of the box. 

When I got out to the remote work area, my Bates boots were wonderful.  They were comfortable to walk in, breathed well, and protected my feet, but like I said before, every shoe has trade-offs.  After two weeks of tromping, I discovered that cushy soft soles don’t stand up too well to the kind of abuse that sharp rocks and cacti can dish out.  The tread wore out quickly, and the edges of the soles were  totally shredded in places.  Every once in a while I pulled a few cactus spines out of the soles with a pair of pliers because the spines were poking through and irritating my feet, but even so, the boots survived two more trips to the desert before I had the heart to toss them. 

Actually I only threw my first pair of jungle boots away after I took a winter trip to Washington State.  In Washington, I really should have worn my waterproof Redwings instead.  The cactus-induced pin-holes in my Bates boots allowed freezing water to seep straight up into my socks every time I walked through a puddle.  I longed for the Redwings even more every morning when I had to put on the same soggy pair of jungle boots as the day before.  The motel hair dryer didn’t work well enough to make up for the pungent smell of steaming foot sweat when I tried to dry my boots at night.  yuck. 

That wet winter Washington trip led to my next big lesson in footwear.  Sometimes you can’t avoid getting wet either from rain or from just your own sweat, but if you have a second pair of boots, you can at least start the day off with clean, dry feet.  From then on, I always carried a backup pair, and I’ve started alternating pairs every-other day whenever I can.  During most of these trips, I have had the luxury of not having to carry all of my gear on my person, so I can afford the extra weight and space of a second pair of boots.  Let me tell you: it is a wonderful thing to be able to put on a fresh pair of dry boots every morning.  By giving each pair a day to air out, I can keep my feet healthier and reduce bad odors too.

By this time, I had a pretty good idea of what I thought I wanted in a good field boot:

  • Tall sides to protect my ankles from snakes and cacti
  • Breathable fabric
  • Inconspicuous under a pair of khakis
  • A quick and easy side-zipper
  • Tough steel quick-lace hooks (not eyelets) with smooth edges to prevent shredded laces
  • Soft, comfortable soles that feel like tennis shoes
  • No break-in time required before use
  • Inexpensive (less than $75)
  • A backup pair (preferably identical)

You may notice that longevity was not my top priority at that point.  For me, the fact that the soles seemed to wear down fast was acceptable as long as I could plan ahead and pick up a fresh pair before I went out to the field again.  The boots only cost about $60, so a pair every nine months or every year was manageable.  By “wear down fast”, I mean that my boots were completely trashed after about 6 weeks of walking in the desert, and by “desert”, I don’t mean a bunch of sand dunes.  I was walking off-the-beaten path in a hot, mountainous terrain filled with sharp rocks and even sharper cacti.  The boots would probably have lasted a lot longer under less strenuous conditions. 

Unfortunately, Bates made some “improvements” to my favorite boots about two years ago. They changed out the metal speed laces for these weird, chunky plastic blocks.  They also got rid of the metal zipper and replaced it with a plastic one.  I guess that this switch to an all-plastic design might have been a selling point for security officers who work around metal detectors.  That’s the best I can come up with, but for me it was a horrible change.  On my first “new and improved” pair, the plastic zipper jammed up and pulled apart about half-way through a trip.  Not only were the boots harder to put on and tale off, but the broken zipper also compromised the integrity of the ankle support, making the boot more flimsy.  It also allowed sand and small rocks to sneak into the crack where the zipper was split.  Bates generously offered to replace the faulty boots, but that would have taken weeks, and I was in the middle of nowhere.  On that trip, I was stuck with my stuffy Redwings as a backup because I was too cheap to buy a second pair of tactical boot.  My wonderful wife mailed a new pair of the Bates boots right away, but a week after I received the new pair, the plastic zipper broke again. 

I don’t want to be too harsh on Bates.  They are generally a good brand, but the lesson I learned was that I cannot rely on a company’s reputation to keep my feet happy.  The model number was identical, but the “new and improved” product was far inferior to the old one.  I should have bought five pairs of the good boots while I could, but I foolishly assumed they’d always be equally good and that they’d always be easy to come by at a reasonable price.  Those assumptions didn’t do me much good when I was stuck in the middle of nowhere with two pairs of broken boots.  The experience forced me put “reliability” back on the critical feature list, and as a result, I have also removed the side-zipper from my personal list of desired features in a boot.  Zippers are convenient, but they are also unnecessary and prone to failure.  So my boot feature wish-list now looks like this:

  • Tall sides to protect my ankles from snakes and cacti
  • Breathable fabric
  • Inconspicuous under a pair of khakis
  • NO zippers or gimmicky mechanisms
  • Tough steel quick-lace hooks (not eyelets) that will not shred the laces
  • Soft, comfortable soles that feel like tennis shoes
  • No break-in time required before use
  • Inexpensive
  • A backup pair (preferably identical)
  • Reliable and proven to work in the environment I plan to use them in

(For a cold or wet-weather boot, I would add “waterproof” to that list at the expense of “breathable”, but otherwise it would be about the same).

The back-to-back zipper failures were annoying, but I was lucky that it was only an annoyance.  I can be a slow learner, but I eventually adapted to the situation.  I whip-stitched the zippers permanently closed using a needle from my first aid kit and some 80-pound fishing line that I always carry in my wallet.  Because Bates swapped the steel lace hooks out for large, enclosed plastic chunky eyelets, the boots were a big pain to put on, but they still did a good job of protecting my feet while on the move.

So that is where I stand today on footwear for rugged environments.  My personal experience certainly reinforces the “two is one and one is none” philosophy, and it is only through several years of hard use and abuse that I really learned what to look for in an outdoor boot.  Some of my lessons learned will apply generally, but others are specific to the environment I was working in.  There are quite a few readers who may never encounter the kind of harsh environments I have worked in, but even if you do, I cannot recommend walking for miles through a mountainous desert with no trails.
 
Well so far, I have focused on the functional aspects of boots for a rugged desert environment, because that is where I have learned the most about what matters on my feet.  In the city under normal conditions, it doesn’t really matter whether you wear flip-flops or medieval stirrups, because the controlled conditions don’t really put your footwear to the test.  In a rugged off-road environment, I would not consider anything but a good sturdy tactical boot (plus a backup pair).  Low-top hiking boots or cross-country trainers might work okay if you don’t have snakes and cactus to deal with, but don’t just assume that something which is designed for a well-traveled path will also hold up equally well off-road in the wild.

I would argue that every prepper needs at least four good pairs of tactical boots: two for warm weather and two for cold weather, but like I said before, every shoe involves trade-offs.  There are many times when a boot is not the right answer, especially in a city environment.  In fact, in a city, there is a much wider variety of footwear that would not slow you down during an emergency but will hold up long enough to get you out of Dodge.  Boots are big, heavy, and can sometimes draw unwanted attention, so you will have to choose the footwear that works best for your situation, but the most important thing here is to wear something comfortable that you can also run in if necessary.  If you can’t wear a “run-capable” shoe all the time, then at least keep a pair nearby. 

For urban wear, one shoe style that probably has not been considered enough is the minimalist running shoe.  There are many advantages to a sturdy tactical boot, but personally, I also love my Vibram Five Fingers running shoes.  Yes, these are the silly-looking shoes that have slots for individual toes.  They don’t fit the “avoid attention” category at all, because I look like a big dork when I wear them, but I’m more likely to be pegged a tree-hugger than a prepper.  With a minimalist shoe like the Vibrams, I give up the “armor” that I would have with a big pair of boots, but I make up for it in other ways.  The Vibrams are compact, light weight, and extremely quiet. 

When I say extremely quiet, I mean these shoes are scary quiet, literally.  The other day while jogging, I came up behind a female walker.  I probably  got a little too close to her personal space while zipping around her, but I also assumed that she would make some room for me on the sidewalk.  She probably would have, but she never heard me coming up behind her.  She didn’t know I was coming until I was within her peripheral vision!  She jumped sideways, screamed, and then turned really red.  I’m glad she wasn’t carrying pepper spray, because it wouldn’t have been quite as funny for me.  I didn’t scare her on purpose, but I learned that it would not be hard to sneak up on somebody or sneak past them in the dark while wearing these shoes.  It’s a lot like the old stories of Native Americans running silent and barefoot.  If you run on the balls of your feet instead of running heel-to-toe, you can move very fast without making much noise in a minimalist shoe.  Obviously, it would be foolish to run through a cactus patch in such a thin shoe, but it protects my feet enough in the city to keep broken bottles out of my toes.

To finish up, I want to make just a few comments about the “barefoot running” movement that is popular right now.  If you want to learn more about it, start with the book Born to Run by Chris McDougall or visit GoodFormRunning.com and try it for yourself, but don’t just try it once and then give up.  It takes time to re-train your muscles for this type of exercise, even if you are already a runner.  The first few times you try it, I guarantee that your calves will hate you.  You might also discover sore tendons where you didn’t know tendons existed in your feet.  It took me months to re-learn how to run in a minimalist shoe, but now that I do it regularly, it has helped me learn to run more efficiently even if I am wearing boots.  Much like prepping, there are a lot of “crazy” sounding people who are into barefoot running.  Some of them will greatly abuse the facts while promoting barefoot running (for example, do a web search on “Barefoot Ken Bob”).  There is nothing magical or mystical about running barefoot, but as an engineer, several things about it make sense to me.  First, landing with a mid-foot stride allows your Achilles tendon to recover some kinetic energy as your foot comes down on the ground.  To see what I mean, try running in place while landing on your heels; now run in place the normal way, landing on the balls of your feet.  By flexing your ankle on the landing, you are recovering and releasing some of that kinetic energy through your Achilles tendon.  When you land on your heels, there is no shock absorption and the impact shoots straight through your knees, hips, and back.  Of course, you don’t have to wear silly looking toe shoes to run on the balls of your feet, but if you don’t have a big cushion on your heels, you will learn pretty quickly to not heel strike, because landing on your heels hurts.  The second barefoot running concept that makes sense to my engineer self is this: too much arch support can be crippling.  As an engineer (not a doctor!), I will tell you that the best way to de-stabilize a mechanical arch is by pushing up from underneath (this point is made in Born to Run… it’s not my original idea).  Your foot has an arch because it is designed by our Creator to stand up to the forces your body puts on it.  An arch is an ideal design, because it forms a light-weight structure that is still able to withstand significant downward pressures.  If a shoe provides that arch support instead of your own foot, you may weaken your foot’s muscles and tendons and be more prone to injury.  Thus, even if you plan to wear combat boots, it’s a good idea to try strengthening those muscles by training with a minimalist shoe from time to time.

Well, since sewing up the zippers on my last two pairs of boots, I have yet to purchase a new pair of warm-weather tactical boots.  My old Redwings are still the best winter boots I own (but I still need a backup pair).  For warm weather, I think my next boots will be the Adidas GSG9 (named after a German anti-terrorism team).  The GSG9 doesn’t have the quick laces, which are a personal preference of mine, but they do have most of other the features I want, including the “tennis shoe feel” that I liked about my Bates boots.  The GSG9 is well proven in the tactical world, but until I try them for myself, there is no guarantee that what works for an elite German police team (and a few Navy Seals) will also work equally well for a field engineer working west of the Mississippi.  I’m sure there are lots of other good tactical boots out there to try, but I’ll let you know how the GSG9’s work out when I get the chance to try them.  

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