Anatomy of a Hunting Boot

You might be walking one mile or 15 miles during a hunt, and if there’s one thing hunters depend on nearly as much as their weapon it’s a pair of boots. From keeping your feet warm and dry to supporting the long haul back to the truck after a successful hunt, your hunting boots will keep you happy if you don’t have to think about them or make you miserable if they fail. But what makes a pair of hunting boots “good”? We talked with a few experts in the industry to shed light on the anatomy of a good hunting boot. 

“If you put it on and it feels like a tennis shoe, you’re wearing a tennis shoe,” says Siller’s Boot and Shoe Repair owner Tom Barrett. “If you put it on and it feels like a boot, you’re wearing a boot.” 

Based in Great Falls, Montana, Siller’s Boot and Shoe Repair is one of only six boot repair shops in the state. When it was on the verge of closing its doors in 2019 after the owners, Dennis and Jeri Siller, were ready to hang up the hammer after running it for 50 of the 93 years it has been open, in walked Tom Barrett. Barrett grew up on a farm in Idaho and always worked with his hands. His father was a large animal veterinarian and hunting was always his passion. After taking his own pair of boots in for repair at Siller’s he asked Dennis about buying the business. Now Barrett is stitching, buffing, and resoling all types of boots and shoes. 

Expanding on his first rule of advice for anyone looking for a good pair of hunting boots, Barrett says, “Just trust your feet and what it is you’re feeling. If you put it on and it feels like your sneakers, it’s probably going to give you that same level of support, regardless of what you’re doing–if you’re going up a mountain or if you’re going for an afternoon jog. So really if you want a boot, you have to earn it. In my opinion, you need to buy something that you need to break in.”

“My second piece of advice is when you go to buy a boot, look inside to what you’re standing on,” says Barrett. “There are some notable exceptions to this, and those will be in high-end, specialized mountaineering boots, but most boots will come with removable insoles. Take those out and look at what’s underneath. If you’re standing on synthetic material, there’s a big difference between that and standing on natural material. I’m talking about a real leather insole.”

“If a boot company cares enough about their product to put a true leather insole into their shoe, generally speaking, that’s a quality shoe, and the company cares enough about the quality and longevity of their product to put that level of concern into their manufacturing process.”

In Siller’s you’ll find a boot that’s been cut in half. It’s from a name-brand, reputable manufacturer that makes boots for hunting, law enforcement, hiking, military, and leisurely strolls in midtown. This particular boot is marketed as a “Hunting Boot.” 

“I cut it in half so I could show people what they’re buying when they get it,” says Barrett, “and, you know, other than a couple layers of insulation and how high it is, it really doesn’t look that much different than if I cut a New Balance running shoe in half.”

It’s a fair assumption that because hunting boots look different than running shoes, they should be built differently. But that one recurring comparison you find in a lot gear reviews revolves around form and function, and it applies here too. It follows, then, that what goes into a boot should be what you can get out of it. 

One of the most obvious and drastic distinctions you’ll find in the “hunting boot” category is the distinction between leather boots and synthetic boots. These materials for boots’ uppers (the part of the boot above the sole) also play a huge role in how much a pair costs. But which is better? Here’s Barrett’s take: 

“Boy, you know, you can start a fight really quick talking about the pros and cons of leather materials versus synthetics. But let me put it this way. I have seen Nicks and White’s boots come into the shop for repair 15 to 20 years after they were built. I have never seen a synthetic boot come in here that’s older than five years and is in good shape.”

“So we’re talking about longevity. Natural materials provide that longevity, if that’s what you’re looking for. Synthetic materials hold up really, really well, but once they wear out, it’s almost like overnight or over the course of two or three outings, they went from, ‘they were my favorite shoe’ to now ‘they just don’t feel right,’ and they’re never gonna feel right again. Because once that synthetic material stretches, or wears out, or breaks down, it just never comes back in my experience.”

The last piece of advice Barrett has for hunters looking for a good pair of boots is to buy something rebuildable. “My minimum charge to work on a pair of boots is about $8-10, and that covers most stitching. On a pair of $200 or $300 boots, if something goes wrong and you have the slightest interest in getting it repaired, just look into it and ask the question.” 

A Boot’s Anatomy

Upper

A boot’s upper refers to the part that covers the foot (top, sides, and back). The upper can be cut from a single piece of material or be built from a number of pieces stitched together. The upper can be further broken down into parts that include the vamp, back, tongue, quarter, and the lining.

The upper in a hunting boot can be different heights. You’ll find “boots” that barely cover the ankle up to ones that creep up near the knees. Those in the 9-10” range offer a lot of support and stability and keeps out most water, snow, and dirt.

Insulation

The insulation layer is usually under the upper. Insulation is why some hunters have more than one pair of boots. For an early-season archery hunt, you might want a pair that’s light and breathable since you have almost 250,000 sweat glands in your pair of feet and you can produce about a half of a pint of perspiration in a day.  

Trudging through a foot of snow and you’ll be thankful for as many grams of Thinsulate as you can get.

A boot with 200 grams of insulation is great for mildly cool days or evening hunts and high activity levels. You’ll find 1,200 grams in a hunting boot for extremely cold weather, typically in harsh winter months of 30-degree weather or less.

Footbed

The footbed, or insole, is the inside part of a boot that runs under the bottom on the foot. As noted earlier, it could be made of synthetic materials or leather.

Shank

The shank is a supportive structure that lies between the insole and outsole. It typically sits between the ball and heel of your foot, under the arch. The shank is what provides rigidity and stability in hunting boots, and it can be made from steel, Nylon, carbon fiber, fiberglass, or Kevlar. The presence of a quality shank is crucial to the functionality of hunting boots because they reduce the load incurred by the hunter’s feet and calves over the course of a steep climb.

Lasts

Some high-end boot manufacturers, like Crispi and Danner, do not primarily use shanks in their boots for support. Instead, they build their boots around lasts, which are foot-shaped molds that determine the fit of the finished product. The entire boot is built around the last and that’s where the stiffness of the boot comes from. Advantages to using the last system are there’s no pivot point (or flex point) like you might have with a steel shank, and it’s lighter weight. All Crispi boots are built on a last system, and Danner uses no less than 15 custom lasts milled down to ½ sizes for the best possible fit. 

Midsole

The midsole sits between the footbed and the outsole and provides shock absorption and support for the wearer. It’s the part that wears down in running shoes that makes you buy a new pair every eight months.

Outsole

The bottom-most part of boots provides stability, traction, and protection. Chances are your pair of hunting boots has a Vibram logo on the outsole, as they are used by over 1,000 shoe manufacturers around the world. If your boots are rebuildable, your outsole is likely replaceable if it wears out.

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Understanding the Hunting Boot Fit

For the last 45 years, Crispi has been building boots by hand in Italy for outdoor sports and hunting. Today, they are top-of-mind for many hunters, so we explored with them what goes into a quality hunting boot. 

“The number one thing that’s going to come with hunting footwear is the quality of materials and the quality of construction,” says Crispi’s Jon Willis. At Crispi, Willis works in a variety of roles, from customer service and training companies about its footwear to guiding fittings for customers at trade shows. 

“When I’m talking to people about the boot that’s right for them, it’s not a copy-and-paste answer,” explains Willis. “Even guys going on a very similar hunt, even the exact same hunt, might end up finding a boot that’s completely different than the one that their buddy’s wearing. Everybody’s feet behave a little bit differently. There’s high and low arches. There’s guys’ feet that are high volume and low volume, narrow, and wide. I think hunters can have a pattern of following the trend. They see a guy using a backpack and they buy that backpack because if it worked for that guy is going to work for them. And generally with boots, that’s a little bit hard to do.”

So what kind of fit should a hunting boot have? How would you know what to look for when going after your own pair of boots instead of what you saw worn on a TV show? 

“If you go into a shop to try on a pair of boots, you should be bringing the socks that you plan on hunting in with you,” suggests Willis. “Second of all, it’s about footwear fit, and it’s a little bit tricky, but the general rule I look for is that you want your heel to be locked into the heel cup of the boot as best as it can be. If you’re stepping in a boot and you’re feeling your heel rub and slide up and down in the back, that boot’s too big for you and that’s going to cause a blister and you’re going to have a bad time.”

“Then you want to start focusing on how the actual boot fits around your foot,” says Willis. “On the sides of your feet, is it too tight, too narrow, too wide? You don’t want it to feel so sloppy that you can move your foot around left and right. And then I would look at the total length in the front of the boot. If everything else fits really, really well and you’ve got two inches in the front of a boot, technically, and performance-wise, that doesn’t matter. You can have as much room in the front as you can possibly want as long as everything else locks into place.”

Lastly (or firstly), when you know the boot fits and you’re ready to buy it, it comes back to quality. 

“I think that the number one thing you should look for as a consumer, no matter what manufacturer it is, is the boot rebuildable?” says Willis. “Can they put a new sole on it? Because if a company is making a pair of boots and they don’t offer a resole for that boot they’re guessing that the lifetime of that boot is the lifetime of that boot, which could be six months or six years. And then once that boot wears out, they’re just buying a new pair of boots.”

“So if a company offers a resole option for a pair of boots,” Willis continues, “you can pretty much bet that the company has enough confidence in the construction of that boot that they think as long as you take care of it, the average guy is going to be able to wear a sole out and the leather or synthetic upper will still be in good enough shape that they can resole the boot and you can get more life out of it.”

Crispi’s boots are rebuildable, and the company offers about 10 insulated models and 15 uninsulated models, along with women’s boots.

Hunting Boot Maintenance

As soon as you get your new pair of hunting boots you should be thinking about how to take care of them. With guidance from our experts above and having put in many boots-on-the-ground miles ourselves, here are a few tips for keeping your hunting boots in their best shape. 

  • Do not immediately oil or treat new boots. Most new boots need a break-in period, and you want your boots to break in based on the mold of your foot. After you wear your boots for about 100 hours you can then start applying oil or treatments as part of a preservation process. 
  • Keep your boots dry. Tom Barrett at Siller’s Boot and Shoe Repair highly recommends using a Peet Shoe Dryer. Excessive moisture will break down your boots quickly. A boot dryer will dry them from the inside out. Never dry your boots with direct heat, especially over a campfire. 
  • Keep them clean. If you let mud dry on your boots it will pull out the moisture in the leather or synthetic materials, causing your boots to break down many years too soon.
  • Treat your boots after cleaning, or as-needed. Most boot brands will have products and guidelines for treating your new boots. It’s best to follow their advice because they know their boots best. In essence, you treat your boots to maintain a bit of moisture in the leather or synthetic material. You also treat them to provide a protective barrier against dirt or from letting in excessive moisture. Lastly, you treat them so they continue to be soft and form-fitting to your foot. Dried-out leather boots will crack. Dried-out synthetic boots will come apart. 

Invest in a pair of boots that will treat you right and are right for your hunting conditions. Whether you already own a pair or are planning to buy a new pair, don’t neglect them during the non-season months. Good boots in the field will inevitably serve as good boots in other situations, so use them, clean them, and they’ll get you where you want to go. 

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Ryan Newhouse

Though raised hunting squirrels and whitetails in the South, Ryan Newhouse has spent nearly the last two decades chasing Western big game in Montana and writing professionally about his travels and the craft beers he’s consumed along the way. He loves camping, fishing, boating, and teaching his two kids the art of building campfires and playing the ukulele. And yes, he's related to Sewell Newhouse, inventor of the steel animal traps.