Even the best of weapons, flashlights, knives, bugout bags, et cetera are practically useless if the user has become immobile due to an unnecessary foot injury or footwear related problem. It all starts with selecting the right boots for the job and having a good working knowledge of how to care for one’s feet and then doing it.
From the simple Roman (or Ho Chi Minh) sandals to the newest synthetic lined mountain boot, dependable footwear has been an essential for covering rugged terrain, or even not-so-rugged terrain, by foot. The comfortable, lightweight boots that are popular with the military and police these days are okay for around the house or work, and I have owned several pair, but for the most part they were never really intended for extended hard use.
As is the norm with other important equipment items, various trade-offs are usually involved where overall performance issues are concerned, and one size doesn’t necessary fit all. This is also meant in the literal sense, as I have footwear ranging in size between 9 ½ regular to 13 wide, and they all fit about the same way. While the size of my feet is pretty consistent, there is a bit of inconsistency between various manufacturers as far as sizing goes. On occasion, I have even seen boots of the same make, model, and marked size that were not the same size. The only way to know for sure is to try them on. They should have a half-inch to an inch of space between the toes and the front of the boot and should be snug everywhere else but not tight.
The selection and breaking-in of appropriate footwear is something that should be done well in advance of any extended outdoor activity. One should pay particular attention to the climate where the activity is going to take place and plan accordingly. Wearing jungle boots to an Arctic environment is no wiser than wearing 1400 gram Thinsulate insulated boots in the tropics, no matter how cool they may look. Neither scenario ends well.
Breaking In Boots
Some boot manufacturers claim that there is no break-in time at all required for their boots. They are lying. They may have remarkably short and pain-free break-in periods, depending on the quality of construction and the materials the boots are constructed of, but the boot must be allowed the chance to mold itself to the wearer’s feet in order to avoid problems.
There are many ways to break in boots. There’s the old classic– the “soak them and walk them dry” approach– which has been employed for centuries and is one of the quickest methods, should one need a pair of boots to be broken-in in a hurry. While it takes longer, I prefer wearing them with thick socks for short periods until they mold themselves to my feet, and cleaning, moisturizing, or polishing them once in a while, depending on the material. Also keep in mind that the wearer’s feet will spread out a bit if carrying a heavy load.
Often the result of ill-fitting or poorly broken-in boots, blisters can be very painful and debilitating. They can also become infected or worse, if not dealt with promptly, and if ignored blisters can turn someone into a casualty in a relatively short amount of time. The old remedy of popping a blister when it first appears (at the base) with a flame-sterilized needle and then masking it with adhesive moleskin is still effective and relatively pain free.
On one occasion, an old friend of mine decided to save some time by breaking in a new pair of boots all at once during a long hike while carrying sixty pounds plus. He insisted on doing this, in spite of the collective advice of the rest of the squad that it was not a good idea. Naturally, his feet became covered with blisters, and being determined not to drop out of the hike he ignored the problem. At some point, the blisters popped and began to heal around his socks. After his wool socks were removed by the corpsman and he was evacuated, the resulting injuries kept him off his feet for days. The team was deprived of a valuable member, and it was all completely avoidable.
Climate inappropriate footwear can also quickly turn the wearer into a casualty. Immersion foot (also known as Non-Freezing Cold Injury or Trench-Foot) develops if the feet stay wet for too long. Frostbite (a condition that develops in cold temperature when the blood is drawn back to the heart and the capillaries in the extremities begin to constrict) is capable of rendering someone immobile in a very short period of time. Not keeping one’s feet as dry as possible and the blood circulating is a sure recipe for disaster in colder climates.
While I have owned several pairs of modern synthetic-lined boots, I still prefer plain old leather uppers with RoSearch soles and wool socks for the colder climates or hard use in general. Wool still provides insulation when wet and leather will eventually dry, although usually slower than a synthetic. As the temperature changes, more socks (even different materials such as cotton) may be added or subtracted, but it is best not do this to the point where circulation is impeded. Since socks usually weigh less than boots, carrying a variety of socks would seem to be the practical way to go. Although I’ve never actually used them, there are waterproof socks.
Synethetic Boot Liner Problems
Modern, synthetic-lined boots can have their own unique problems. The Vibram outsole of an expensive pair that I particularly liked began to separate from the EVA midsole at about the halfway point of a long walk one day. A little later on the same walk, the midsole of the same boot warped, and the boot became useless. Fortunately, I wasn’t carrying very much at the time and the terrain was fairly hospitable, so I was able to make it home barefoot without much difficulty. Another problem that has plagued me with modern synthetic-lined boots is the Chinese Finger Puzzle Effect. This occurs when the heel, shank, or both areas of a boot lining decide to separate from the inside of the boot, thus causing the lining (still stitched to the collar and tongue of the boot, of course) to grasp the wearer’s foot in the manner of a Chinese Finger Puzzle. In most instances, the boot will neither come off nor go back on without a great struggle. It’s not something to look forward to at the end of a long hike.
I have since begun to experiment with a method by which to remedy this problem, as it has occurred in a couple of pair of my more expensive boots. With the ever handy Swiss Army Knife, I punched a small incision near the heel of the loose synthetic liner and inserted the precision tip of a tube of Krazy Glue into the opening. I then squeezed the glue and worked it around the edges of the hole (careful to avoid getting any too close to the hole where it could seep out) with a circular motion, I carefully patted the liner back into place, put a plastic bag full of sand in the liner to secure it, and waited a day or so until the glue had a chance to set. While this is probably not necessarily the best for waterproof membranes, it has done okay so far with a quick-drying one. It is still too early to tell whether or not this is a permanent fix.
Without prompt and proper attention, even athlete’s foot can get seriously out of hand in warmer climates, to the point where it can work its way down into muscle tissue, as happened to me once during an extended period in the field. It had been a long patrol, and I did not get the chance to change socks or dry my feet for five or six days. While I’m still not sure why this didn’t happen to anyone else who was on the patrol, I wound up getting evacuated and placed on oral anti-fungal for two weeks. (I was returned to the company a day or two later and relegated to answering the phone while wearing shower shoes.) After that, I made it a point to change into dry socks and to powder my feet as often as possible. I also began to carry shower shoes to allow my feet to dry in the sun when time and weather would allow.
More Boot Break-in Ideas
Let’s say you’ve found the perfect pair of expensive, high-quality boots, and you’ve meticulously broken them in, loved them, nurtured them, and put them away for a rainy day. Four or five months later, you retrieve the boots and attempt to put them on, only to discover that the boots have shrunk, you don’t have a boot stretcher, the nearest cobbler is a hundred miles away, and Western Civilization has slipped into total chaos for whatever reason.
If you’re willing to risk the blisters and can get the boots on at all, soak them thoroughly (while wearing them) and walk them until they are absolutely dry. Then they must be moisturized somehow. (Even petroleum jelly will work in a pinch.) If taken off before they dry, the problem can actually get worse. If it happens to be freezing outside (not the best time to walk boots dry) or you happen to have access to a working freezer that is big enough, plastic bags of water can be firmly tucked inside the boots, and they can be allowed to freeze. As the water in the bags freezes, it will expand and stretch the boots. There is, of course, an easier solution. Simply wear the boots around the house a few times a month.
Boot Material Terms
If for some reason I’m not wearing boots, I usually have a well broken-in/climate appropriate pair nearby. Here are some helpful boot terms, to aid you in purchasing yours:
Dry-Lex is a quick drying synthetic lining. However, all Dry-Lex linings are not created equal. I have one pair of boots that begins to dry as soon as they come out of the water to the point where one can actually see a waterline moving up the boot. I have another pair with the same kind of lining, and they don’t really seem to work at all.
EVA (or ethyl vinyl acetate) is a cushioning material that is usually found sandwiched between the outsole and the insole of the boot.
Gore-Tex is a waterproof, synthetic fabric developed in the late 1960s. It basically works as a result of micro pores that are large enough to allow perspiration or moisture to escape in its vaporous form, while the pores are still small enough to keep water droplets out. As a boot-lining material it works quite well in temperate climates. However, the performance is limited in areas with high humidity (such as the Tropics or the Subtropics). When water comes in over the top, they take forever to dry, compared to the simple and relatively inexpensive Vietnam pattern jungle boots.
RoSearch soles came about as the result of a direct molded vulcanization process, which actually molds hard rubberized soles to the welted leather of the boot’s upper. Some examples would be the old black G.I issue boots (chevron ripples or the later “jeep tread” speed-lace model), and the Panama soles of the classic Vietnam jungle boots or tan desert boots from the First Gulf War.
Thinsulate is a synthetic lining material often combined with Gore-Tex in boot liners to keep feet warm and dry in cold, damp climates. They generally come in various ratings ranging from 100 grams (for kinda cold) to 2000+ grams (for very, very cold). If using such a liner, it should be removable, as they can warm up very quickly as the temperature rises.
Vibram is the brand name of a popular vulcanized rubber outsole that is usually cemented onto a stitched-down EVA midsole. One of the great advantages of Vibram is that it can usually be repaired or resoled by a cobbler without great difficulty.