Special Series: Effective Gear for the Backcountry Bowhunter. Part 1: Footwear and Boots

NFAA USA

Many of you will be gearing up for your first Western hunt as you read this, and my intention is to help save you quite a bit of money and frustrations that I’ve had over the years.  There are TONS of products and several areas where you can spend massive amounts of cash on and TONS of products that you really don’t need.  Here I’ll show you what works for me and why. Trust me, when it comes to all of these categories, I’ve tried to cut my expenses down as much as possible.  This article is for the budget minded hunter.  As a result, I’m going to mention products that I have largely paid for myself over the years.  I’ve learned the hard and expensive way, which things are absolutely necessary, and what things are luxury items.  I’ll tell you where you should spend money primarily, and what areas and products you can get by without spending crazy cash on…all while knowing that everything mentioned has been plenty effective and reliable or they would not be mentioned.

If you’re reading this, more than likely, you’re already an NFAA member. If you’re not, please consider becoming one. As an NFAA Bowhunting Member, you’re provided insurance that helps safeguard landowners with up to $5000 of liability protection insurance.  That can be a good card to have in your wallet to present to the landowner when asking for permission to hunt. You can sign up today by visiting: NFAA Membership.

Membership with the NFAA may also qualify you for Group Term Life Insurance, Major Medical, Catastrophic Major Medical, Personal Accident and All-Risk Archery Equipment Insurance.  And more than likely, I’m going to assume you already have your bow setup nailed for this fall.  But if not, your NFAA membership includes an annual subscription to Archery Magazine. This quarterly publication is full of articles containing everything from bowhunting tactics, target archery tips, upcoming events, and even gear lists and articles like this one!

Lastly, when you start adding up all my suggestions (before you have a budget heart attack) there are a lot of resources to find most of these items rather than paying full retail.  You can cut your total budget in half by searching online forums like Rokslide, Archerytalk, (click either of those to head to those forums) and a huge number of Facebook Groups!  The only downside is that some of the items you find are likely to be used.  It’s my suggestion is to use common sense when purchasing from individuals.  Ask for plenty of pictures, read descriptions carefully, and where possible, read seller ratings from other members in the groups or forums.

Because of the depth of information that I’ll be diving into, I’ve decided to break this article up into sections, with a new posts throughout the week.  So if you aren’t already following us on social media, be sure to click to like our page on Facebook or follow us on Instagram to be notified of each gear category!

 

Footwear and Boots

I’m beginning here because this will be the first item to fail and ruin your hunt if you aren’t careful.  You have two options, in my opinion. Although the first is more realistic for a bowhunter on a budget, the second is the one category that I am convinced is one that I will forever drop more money on than all other categories. The first choice is to purchase your boots weeks in advance and wear them virtually every day- which really sucks when you’re doing your summer training hikes; or you make a phone call to Lathrop and Sons or similar orthotic service that specializes in hunting footwear.

The first option is stock boots, or boots off the shelf. You can literally spend upwards of $400 easily on boots, even at big box stores. Factors in pricing include brand, specific use, materials, construction, tread, lacing systems, breathability, and whether they will be waterproof or just water repellent.  The cost of the boot, however, does not always relate to the comfort, stability, and overall fit.  This is largely because everyone’s feet are different.  You’ll hear this repeatedly about all kinds of products throughout this series.  Just because a pair of Danner Pronghorns have been your best friend’s go-to boot for years and he’s never had any problems or blisters and hotspots with them, doesn’t mean that you won’t.  When it comes to which boots to recommend, that’s an impossible question to answer on my end.  If you decide to roll with off the shelf boots, I can suggest looking for the boot that fits your foot best first.  Although I’m not an expert in orthotics, I will make some generalizations for you based on my own experience with off the shelf boots.

Having personally suffered through poor choices in the past, sizing is extremely important.  But that comes into play after choosing the right boot for your hunt and the terrain involved.  Rocky terrain usually requires a stiffer sole. It’s extremely beneficial when packing in and out with heavy loads if you’re not hunting with a guide or outfitter to pack your animal out for you.  The downside to a stiff sole is that they are extremely noisy for stalking.  So plan on taking your shoes off for slipping in on bedded animals, packing a pair of “Sneaky Pete’s”, or pack a pair of super soft tennis shoes to slip through the dark timber and crunchy vegetation when it’s dry.  I personally keep a pair of “Sneaky Pete’s” in my pack, when sneaking in on bedded elk throughout the day as a solo-hunter.  “Sneaky Pete’s” were originally sold by PSE Archery and are a great option on a budget, but there are several new products out now that are very similar.  The last pair of these that I bought I purchased at Sportsman’s Warehouse last fall but I believe, and they were manufactured under a different name, Crooked Horn Safari Sneakers.  Or, at the least, they are an almost identical product.  Some of the other options I’ve seen include Sneak Boots Pro and RimRok Stalkers (which actually require you to take off your boot and do not fit over your boots).  All of these options though seem to slide around on the bottom of my boots or feet.  So if any of you reading this come up with a better solution than tying extra paracord around them to keep your boots from slipping in them, I’m all ears!

All of these types of silent boot covers have seemed very sketchy when it comes to stability, but that’s the price you pay for silence with a stiff soled boot.  For me, the risk of a twisted ankle at any point of my hunt in the backcountry is something I’ll do everything I can to minimize.  Carrying the boot covers and putting them only when necessary is worth the extra 8 ounces in my pack for the overall security I gain from the stiff soled boots.

To sum that all up, stiff soles (in general) will usually have a stiffer or stronger upper in most brands, strong ankle support, be easier on your knees and skeletal structure in the rocks, and minimize the possibility of injury overall.  Especially with heavy loads on your back.  The down side of this kind of boot style is noise.  Unless you can stalk in bare feet or wool socks (not for me), you’ll need to pack some kind of boot cover for silence in stalking.  There is one possible solution, that’s to carry a significantly larger wool sock than you would normally use and you could roll it over your boots, but since I’ve got a size 13 boot, it’s tough for me to even explore that option.

As you can imagine, the soft sole option is the polar opposite to all of the above.  If you get a soft enough sole, you can even feel branches under your boots with ease and often feel loose rocks.  Realizing that you’re about to put your weight on objects like that before you do it, can save a busted stalk before it happens.  These boot options are usually lighter as well with short and soft uppers.  If you are headed on a guided adventure, I would say that’s the only situation that I would lean toward this option.  That all being said…you may have individual foot issues that require a soft sole and leave the stiff sole option completely out for you.  I’ll come back to that shortly.

Materials are the other significant option that you’ll need to consider in your boot purchase.  Choosing a lightweight material that breathes well is going to provide you with way more comfort than a waterproof type of material.  But, if you’re hunting in wet environments, even the mild temperatures can cause hypothermic issues. Although they would dry out faster, you’re taking big risks that will force you off the mountain fast.  Moist feet also cause complications if you choose a boot that doesn’t breathe well, but is waterproof.  If there is significant moisture in your boots, you face easy opportunities for blisters to form as well as overall discomfort.  And again, wet feet can be dangerous in the temperature category.

If you choose a waterproof boot, I would suggest running with a breathable material.  Gore-Tex has been my go-to material for rainwear and footwear material for years.  However, e-vent has taken a stronghold in the waterproofing and breathability market and is an option many choose.  Insulation should also play a factor in your decision.  Keeping moisture production from your feet in mind, consider all of the above as relative to your hunting environment.  If you’re hunting Roosevelts in Oregon, bulls in the panhandle of Idaho, or chasing bears in NW Montana…know that your odds of rain issues are high.  If you’re hunting many areas of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, you may not even need any kind of waterproof material.

Now back to fit and sizing.  Off the shelf, as a general rule, you want to be able to slightly wiggle your toes. Too much toe space and you’ll suffer potential blisters during the descents with heavy loads on your back.  If not enough room the tips of your toes will have painful sores on the sides and front of your toes with heavy loads as well.  The fit across the top of your foot should be snug and locking laces can help provide you with a consistent fit all day.  Your heel needs to fit fairly tight to the back of your boots, this is usually the area where most people fail in self-fitting boots.  If that heel slides around at all in there, you’re going to get those horrible heal blisters that will definitely end your hunt early.  In the lower area of your calf, above your ankle where your last lace loops are located, the fit should be just loose enough that you can slide two fingers in behind your calf muscles.  Again, I’m not an orthotics specialist, but I am pretty versed in the results of incorrectly fit boots on a hunt.  That’s a lot of information in all of that!  IF you have the funds, the option outside of stock boots off the shelf is to consult an orthotics specialist.  It’s especially important to find one that specializes in hunting footwear, in my opinion, such as Lathrop and Sons.

What makes Lathrop and Sons unique, is that they are in the business of fitting you properly to the boot that fits you specifically, for your specific needs.  And although they do sell two of their own brand boots, they will recommend which boot make, model, and particular size is right for you.  In my case, they actually recommended a pair of Scarpa’s that I would have never considered.  You pay for the consultation service (which is quite lengthy) where you’ll be asked more questions about your feet than you can imagine.  They’ll identify problem areas and issues including sizing, blister prevention, stiffness requirements, and even family background questions to diagnose any potential issues that may be hereditary that will save not only your feet, but also help you avoid back pain and other knee and calf injuries.

Here’s how it works. First, you will receive a packet in the mail containing materials that will take a carbon footprint of the bottom of your foot.  That’s used to identify the amount of pressure you apply in certain areas, helping them identify the arch and form requirements for your custom footbeds that they’ll build for you specifically and for each foot.  That’s right, each foot.  It’s highly, highly unlikely that both of your feet are the same size, let alone how they distribute weight the same across the bottom of the boot.  After carefully tracing your foot outline, you send the packet back to them for analysis.  I know you’re probably thinking this is way, way too extreme, but here’s the deal- if you make a poor decision in footwear, within hours of hitting the trailhead you could completely ruin your hunt.  Blisters and hot-spots will destroy a hunt faster than anything else. Even if you make it through the first day, if you’re on a backcountry hunt, imagine hobbling miles back to the truck with a heavy pack on your back…not fun.  Been there done that!

The cost of this service depends on the boot mainly, you generally save some cash if you order the boots through them, they can get most anything from light hikers to mountaineering boots.  The cost of the actual consultation, foot mapping materials, and custom footbeds will run you a little over $300.  But, the best part of this service is that it will likely be 7 to 10 years before you will need another consultation as your feet age.  And, I’ll say this, they have given me way more advice over time than you pay for up front.  I spend 35 to 45 days some years in the backcountry and have packed out more than my fair share of heavy loads.  My custom footbeds are still running strong since I’ve taken the dive into them 3 years ago.  You will not regret spending a single dollar when you’re watching your buddy struggle and hobble from a poor boot choice.  The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from Stephen and James Lathrop is that you don’t necessarily need expensive boots, you need the right boot.  That’s the real value of their services.  And should you ever need another set of footbeds, this family owned business keeps detailed records to kick you out a replacement set immediately.  More than likely though, it will take most readers 12 years or more of boot wear to do the kind of damage that I do to mine in just a couple seasons.

I’m sure there are others out there that specialize in this kind of service, but my only experience with custom boot systems has been with Lathrop and Sons.  Stephen and James Lathrop have been in this business for a long time, are easy to talk to, and I can’t tell you enough how valuable even just one consultation is worth!  If stock boots are still on your list for this season, choose the boot that’s right for your environment, and then make sure your fit is correct.  Some of the better built brands I would recommend are Scarpa, Lowa, Crispi, Kenetrek, Schnee’s and Zamberlan, and Hanwag.  In the lower price range, consider Danner, Saloman, Meindl, Irish Setter, and Under Armour.

To reach Lathrop and Son’s, click on one of the many links in this article or call (618) 544-8782.  Other sources of boots are of course retailers like local archery shops and retailers as well as a wide array of online stores.

Photo Credits: Rod White, Lathrop and Sons, Crooked Horn Safari Sneakers, Michael Lloyd of 41digital

About the author:  Rod White is an Olympic Archery Gold Medalist who has guided and outfitted in 5 states including Montana, New Mexico, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. His career as a professional archer paralleled his career as professional hunter working for and contracted by major outdoor and bowhunting corporations such as Mathews, Inc., Gander Mountain, and Gore-Tex Outdoors to name a few.  As a co-founder of the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP), Rod trained and certified 33 Fish and Wildlife State Agencies to distribute NASP.

He now works for the National Field Archery Association (NFAA) as the Bowhunting Coordinator and provides both hunting and target archery content for their social media platforms.  You can also follow him on his personal Instagram account by clicking here, OlympicBowhunter, and on Facebook by clicking here RodWhiteOlympicBowhunter.