Photograph by Dan Saelinger
For the past few years, hunting boots have been shedding weight, getting lighter and slimmer. That's good news for guys who stalk in forgiving country, but big-game hunters who scale rugged, mountainous terrain need stout, sturdy footwear. Heavy-duty alpine boots provide serious ankle support and commonly feature a rand (a rubber or plastic strip that protects the heel and toe) for extra toughness. We asked four Western big-game guides to spend an entire season wearing these four versions—which range in height from 7 to 10 inches and weigh around 4 pounds—to determine which boot is king of the mountain. (Scroll to bottom for test panel info.)
★★★★★ — Sole Mate
★★★★ — Step Above
★★★ — Basic Boot
★★ — Flip-Flop
★ — Barefoot
Photographs by Luke Nilsson
The Lowdown: For having the best overall performance, the Bighorn climbed to the top of the testers' list. "I wore them daylight till dark in steep, rocky terrain," said Childers, "and at the end of the day, my feet were dry, warm, and comfortable."
The boot delivered "excellent support and comfort whether going uphill, downhill, or sidehill," Atwood said, and the "lacing system is outstanding." Zmek noted that the "lace guide on the tongue is big enough to catch the laces every time, yet small enough not to be intrusive." And he praised the boot's overall flexibility, which made even long walks on uneven ground comfortable.
Wilcox agreed with the other testers that the boot required no break-in period, a big plus for hunters in demanding terrain. He also awarded high marks for durability: "The boot stood up to everything I put it to—mud, ice, and snow. No signs of wear and tear."
Hits: "Perfect blend of flexibility and stability." —Zmek
Misses: "A deeper-lugged sole would be an improvement." —Atwood
MSRP: $450; lowaboots.com
The Lowdown: Its "plain Jane" appearance cost the Alaska Hunter a few points, but the boot still scored high enough to claim second place, due to its solid construction and rugged durability. Everyone appreciated that it was the tallest boot; Zmek said it "provided excellent ankle support without giving up any flexibility."
The boot was built to "take a lot of abuse," offered good traction, and was warm and waterproof, Wilcox said. Atwood concurred, saying, "These boots have good leather and are stitched well. The soles will last." But he wasn't satisfied with the footbed insert designed to provide cushioning in rough terrain. "It doesn't seem to give proper support to the bottom of the foot. The bottoms of my feet ached after a long day with a lot of miles. On the positive side, the boots broke in quickly."
Hits: "Easy to put on and lace up." —Childers
Misses: "A little heavy and big, these boots can slow you down a bit at the end of the day." —Wilcox
MSRP: $320; cabelas.com
The Lowdown: Every tester praised this boot's quality of construction and durability in the field. All agreed that it delivered outstanding ankle support, though two found the boot to be too stiff for the kind of hunting they do. The thorniest issue for all, however, was the long break-in time that these boots required. "Sore toes," complained Wilcox.
Atwood appreciated the high quality of the leather and other materials, but he especially liked the "good, deep Vibram soles," which he felt were a real plus in the high country he hunts. Childers, on the other hand, felt the soles were too hard and didn't grip rock well enough to suit him. He also said the boots were "squeaky" when walking and stalking. But he singled out the thick padded tongue for being "comfortable and supportive." Zmek felt the tongue "was bulky and got in the way when lacing up the boot."
Hits: "Easy to slip on." —Zmek
Misses: "A little too stiff for my liking." —Atwood
MSRP: $359; scarpa.com
THE LOWDOWN Testers found a lot to like with this boot, and yet they felt there was room for improvement. In the plus column, Wilcox said, "The boot is very easy to get on and off. It also delivered great traction, even for steep climbs over scree."
Zmek liked the "extra-large rand," calling it "essential if you do a lot of sidehill hiking." But he thought the 7-inch boot simply wasn't tall enough to deliver the kind of ankle support needed in tough terrain. "With a low top, ankle mobility is at a maximum, but support is at a minimum."
Because of their lower height, Atwood said, "these boots perform well on trails, but simply aren't supportive enough on a tough hunt, especially sidehilling." He added that the nylon uppers would not be as durable as leather in rocky areas.
Childers agreed the boots were not made for sidehilling with the lack of ankle support, but he awarded points for "solid construction."
Hits: "Very light for an insulated boot." —Wilcox
Misses: "Break-in issues." —Childers
MSRP: $240; danner.com
Jim Atwood, 57
Home Hunting Area: Colorado
Days Hunted Per Year: 50
Gordon Childers, 67
Home Hunting Area: Oregon
Days Hunted Per Year: 60
Layne Wilcox, 44
Home Hunting Area: Southwest Montana
Days Hunted Per Year: 120
Michael Zmek, 29
Home Hunting Area: Southeast Montana
Days Hunted Per Year: 135