Ask Me: How Do I Find Waterproof Boots That Won’t Leak on Rugged, Wet Hikes?
I am an active backpacker and trekker. I have become disappointed in the use of Gore-Tex in hiking boots. I know you test many boots, but I wonder if you use many of those you test to experience the durability of the Gore-Tex and other waterproof-breathable linings. In addition to the extra warmth and the longer drying time of Gore-Tex-lined boots, my experience in the past year has me thinking I will be better off going back to a heavier, quality leather boot such as a La Sportiva Karakoram (the non-Gore-Tex version).
Roughly a year ago I updated and “down weighted” my backpacking gear. My first boots were a pair of Zamberlan Sport Hiker SH230. Within a few weeks I noticed leaking in the forefoot area. I live near Vancouver, British Columbia, thus rain and wetness is a frequent companion. REI, where I bought the boots, replaced them. I used the new boots, after probably less than 150 km of hiking around home and on a five-week trip to South America that included the Inca Trail and the backcountry route of Torre del Paine National Park, where we were extremely lucky to only have rain on the first and ninth days of the trek. The second pair was leaking on that last day.
I switched to La Sportiva Hyper Mid boots, which are also Gore-Tex lined, and after wearing out one pair of soles and well on the way of a second pair I have yet to experience leakage. My theory is the Hyper Mid boots use mostly a suede leather that I regularly treat, which provides superior protection. The Zamberlans are mostly fabric, thus the Gore-Tex is the primary waterproof protection. The leather is also less flexible, which reduces the creasing and likelihood of damage to the Gore-Tex.
My third boot is the Salewa Firetail EVO. I unexpectedly had to replace my Hyper Mids after walking the Walkers Haute Route between Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland. The Firetail EVO were the closest boot to the Hyper Mids I could find in Zermatt prior to walking the Camino de Santiago with my fiancée. Within 200 km, I noticed a moist spot on the left boot approximately at the base of my big toe. There was a crease in the nylon fabric where the boot was flexing. The moisture was perspiration as we were walking in afternoon temperatures in the low to mid-30s C (High 80s to 90 F). The first rainfall confirmed the Gore-Tex had failed.
Our tour leader on the Haute Route spends half his time working, leading and training in Scotland. He and most of his compatriots find that 10 working days (8-10 hours of walking or working in a pair of Gore-Tex-lined boots) is about the limit for the waterproofness. I heard a similar refrain from my mountain guide.
What is your experience? I rarely if ever read of boot reviews where boots were used more than a few days. Have boot manufacturers started using lighter-weight Gore-Tex? Is it a technology that is used to address consumer desire to have lighter footwear and easy waterproofing (since there is virtually no treatment required), but does not really work? Cost-wise, I have spent nearly more on boots that leak than on my Karakorams, which are just getting broken in and I am sure will last me several years. The extra two pounds is the penalty.
Can you recommend some lighter, but good-quality leather boots that do not have Gore-Tex or another waterproof liner, that will work as all-around boots for hiking on the rugged and often wet Pacific Northwest trails, backpacking (regularly 10-15 kg and up to 25+ kg) in the Andes, Alps, Sierras, Rockies and into K2 Basecamp? I am planning two overseas treks in 2015. The first, in July, is to K2 Basecamp with an opportunity to climb (not a technical climb) the Kharut Pyramid, a subsidiary peak with great view of K2 and Broad Peak. Then in October I am going to do the Snowman Trek in Bhutan.
The rest of my time is hiking/training mainly in the Vancouver area—everything I need except elevation.
Maple Ridge, B.C. (near Vancouver)
I’ve had similar experiences with boots for many years, with all brands of waterproof-breathable membranes—although I think Gore-Tex and eVent are superior to others (with the price usually reflecting that). I’ve seen boots wet through completely, overwhelming the membrane and rendering it unable to dry out overnight, in sustained, wet conditions like days of heavy rain on Vermont’s Long Trail, and even in just hours of kicking steps through summer snow in the mountains—snow that’s firm underneath but soft on the surface from the sun. I made the mistake a couple of summers ago of taking lightweight, supposedly waterproof-breathable boots with fabric uppers on a weeklong trek in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, where we had several days of rain and hiked through a lot of snow. My feet were wet for hours every day. I noticed all the Norwegians on the trail wore midweight or heavy-duty, leather boots.
But I’ve also found greatly varying performance between boot models, and I think it simply boils down to quality of construction. And I have hiked in wet conditions and snow in places like Iceland (lead photo, above) in leather boots that had no waterproof-breathable membrane, and water quickly penetrated the boot seams.
You’re correct that boot manufacturers rarely make models that lack a waterproof-breathable membrane because of consumer demand for waterproofing in boots—especially mid-weight and heavier boots for backpacking.
Lightweight, fabric boots tend to have a lot of seams, all of which are potential points of entry for moisture. In wet conditions, your feet are constantly bombarded with moisture penetrating those seams, and boots take a lot of abuse and are constantly folding where your foot flexes, so fabric boots may eventually develop a compromised spot in the membrane that becomes a leak. With a waterproof-breathable rain jacket, your body creates a lot of heat to force moisture outward, and a jacket doesn’t have the same level of constant contact with moisture that boots have (puddles, mud, wet vegetation, snow, etc.), not to mention that your feet don’t produce nearly as much heat (to push moisture out through the membrane) as your torso. I have used lightweight boots that are better at repelling water, but I still think it comes down to the quality of construction, and lighter boots generally are more susceptible to leaking in really wet conditions. They are also made to be priced competitively, and a low price does not usually equate with top-quality construction.
Leather and suede are more water repellent than fabric, especially when you treat the leather to keep it supple and prevent it from drying out. The fewer the seams in the uppers, the fewer the places for moisture to get through, which is why one-piece leather uppers are usually the best for that (and more expensive). High-end leather boots also sell for a higher price, which enables the boot manufacturer to invest more in the quality of construction of those models.
I’ll suggest some models you might consider, bearing in mind that fit is the top priority when picking boots, as I’m sure you know, so any of these may or may not work well for you. But I think they all have high-quality construction and waterproofing, and they are examples of the type of boot I suggest for really rugged, consistently wet conditions:
Those are all fairly heavy, though not the heaviest boots out there. If you want mid-weight boots, a model I really liked when it first came out (Backpacker gave it an Editors Choice Award based on my recommendation) was the Kayland Vertigo Light. I was really impressed with how well the eVent membrane allowed the boots to dry quickly when the uppers got wet on the outside, yet still kept my feet dry inside, even hiking through a lot of snow. They’re hard to find in the U.S. these days (they’re available in Europe), but you might score a pair in good condition through a closeouts site like Sierra Trading Post.
If you haven’t already, take a look at my boots reviews at The Big Outside.
Some very experienced hikers and backpackers eschew waterproof-breathable membranes in boots altogether and instead wear shoes or boots with highly-breathable (usually fabric and mesh) uppers that will dry very quickly, and wear them with waterproof-breathable socks like SealSkinz to keep feet warm and dry. I use that system when hiking or backpacking canyons that involve miles of river wading, when there’s no way to keep water out of boots.
One final thought regarding boots like the La Sportiva Karakoram: Besides weight, boots in that category are very stiff, and I prefer a lighter, more flexible boot when I’m just hiking and not getting into any technical mountaineering.
I hope that’s helpful. Let me know if you have further questions.
Thank you for the response, it was as thorough and thoughtful as your Big Outside and Backpacker articles and reviews.
The Karakorams are heavy and stiff, although La Sportiva seems to have done better at designing in walkability than some of the other manufacturers. At least for me. Still. 25-30 days trekking at 3-5000+ meters with them, even with only a 10 kg pack, could get tiring.
I will check out your suggestions.
I find people who do more rugged and adventurous walking, backpacking and trekking have similar experience. Dayhikers seem to be happier with the lighter, fabric boots. Finally, your comment about seams and stitching is bang on. I have often thought fewer seams would reduce production costs and make better boots, but I may be missing something.
Thank you again.
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