Let's take a minute to appreciate why boots can make or break your time in the backcountry. Your feet are literally where the rubber meets the road - or more accurately, where your boots meet the rocky mountain trails, muddy ravines, or snowy ridges. It doesn't matter how fit you are, how high-tech your gear is, or how keen your hunter's instinct is - when your footwear fails, your hunt will inevitably follow suit. So how should you go about choosing hunting boots?
When choosing hunting boots, consider the terrain, season, and weight (bodyweight coupled with pack weight). These three conditions influence a boot's insulation, stiffness, and height, which are the keys to finding a comfortable-fitting hunting boot, allowing hunters to go longer and further.
Boot selection is more of a science than an art, so for this guide, we've partnered with Matt Miller of Schnee's Boots - the legendary boot brand that invented this category decades ago. Matt's going to help you answer those three big questions, show you the impact of your answers, and drop some pro tips along the way. So lace up, and get ready to take a vital step towards hunting success - picking the right hunting boots.
3 Questions to Answer When Choosing Hunting Boots
Choosing the right pair of hunting boots can be as challenging as the hunt itself. The crew at Schnee's helps customers demystify this process daily, using three big yet simple questions:
- Where are you hunting?
- When are you hunting?
- What's your weight plus the weight of your pack?
Answer each of these and you'll quickly refine your choices to fit the optimal insulation, stiffness, and height of your hunting boots. Matt of Schnee's Boots puts it this way, "If you’re a big guy with a heavy pack, hunting late season in the Rockies, we're going to recommend a much different boot than if you’re 150lbs and hunting prairie antelope in August.”
Answering each question correctly can make the difference between a successful outing and a painful experience. So let's walk through each in great detail and make sure you get it right.
1. Where Are You Hunting?
'Where are you hunting?' is an onion-like question, where even smaller questions are built into answering it. So to tackle this question the right way, we're going to break it down into smaller pieces for you to consider, including:
- Vegetation and Water
- Altitude or Elevation
Dissecting the Terrain
Hunting grounds come in all shapes and sizes, where even the same excursion can cover terrains that range like a teenager's mood - from the relatively mild to the dangerously unpredictable. Yet, each terrain possesses unique features that demand specific hunting boots. Whether you're hunting in a dry, arid environment, or tackling mountainous terrains, the right boot is a non-negotiable for navigating the elements. It's like picking out the right tool from a Swiss Army knife; each one is designed for a particular purpose.
In an area that's as rocky as a meteor shower a boot that breathes well, is lighter and can resist the unkindness of sharp rocks is your best bet. But if you're scaling steep slopes, a boot with excellent ankle support and a grip that would make a vice proud are what you need. Selecting your hunting boots is less of a choice and more of a strategic decision. So let's get a bit more specific about the common terrains you might encounter:
- Rough and Uneven: Opt for boots with strong ankle support and aggressive soles to maintain traction and stability. Without these, you'll find it hard to have a solid footing when traversing the terrain and may easily sprain your ankle too.
- Wet and Muddy: Aside from the obvious waterproofness needed, if your terrain is wet or muddy, you'll need taller boots - the goal of being dry and comfortable is even more important in this type of environment.
- Flat or Worn: Although broken-in trails are nearly non-existent in the backcountry, if you're hitting flatter or semi-well-trodden areas, lighter and more flexible boots will serve you well. They're less like armor and more like a second skin, offering just the right balance of protection and comfort.
Getting the right boot for the terrain you're hunting in is like hitting the bullseye in darts - the sweet spot that can make or break your hunting expedition. It's the crucial first step in conquering the wilderness.
Handling Water and Vegetation
Think of water and vegetation like the in-laws to the terrain - sometimes, they make things easier, and other times, they add an extra layer of complexity. If you're hunting around bodies of water or in a terrain that requires crossing water constantly, you know the drill on waterproof and water resistance. Water protection is nearly a given if you're purchasing hunting boots, but still, don't underestimate the importance of the concept. Especially late season, as you'll likely take on snowy conditions. Any moisture that comes into your boots will likely cause your feet to go cold very quickly.
A real quick PSA - if you're unsure what the difference between waterproof and water resistance is, check this out:
What's The Difference Between Waterproof and Water-Resistant?
Waterproof refers to surfaces that repel water or fluids completely. Water-resistant surfaces may repel small volumes of fluids, such as splashes, however, larger volumes or prolonged exposure may break the protection. Water resistance is often not able to be fully submerged.
Although a bit subtle, the differences in the field are profound and certainly felt by hunters. If you're shopping for hunting boots, definitely check whether they're waterproof or water-resistant. You may see some boots claiming to be water resistant while some claim to be waterproof. What do they truly mean? Waterproof hunting boots can keep water out completely, regardless of volume or exposure. Water-resistant boots can repel some water, but not at the performance of waterproof shoes. These boots usually are given some coatings to help repel water. Water-resistant boots may handle smaller volumes of water, such as splashes, mud, or light rain, and keep your feet dry.
As for the vegetation. If it's dense, you'll need boots that provide ample protection from pricks and scratches. A boot that is kind to your feet but ruthless to the harshness of the wilderness - that's the balance you're looking for here. Anything less than this will essentially deconstruct during your hike.
What's the Altitude or Elevation?
Altitude and elevation add an interesting spin to the hunting equation. The higher you go, the harsher the conditions become. The terrain can get unpredictable, the temperature can dip, and the risk of injuries can increase. Therefore, your boots need to be up for the challenge. Look for boots with excellent insulation for colder temperatures and sturdy ankle support to prevent injuries. Think of these boots as the Sherpa to your Everest - designed to help you conquer the heights and come back safely.
Breaking down the question 'Where are you hunting?[ to these key components: terrain, water and vegetation, altitude or elevation, you'll have a better idea of what you're dealing with. Knowing your hunting ground is like studying for an exam; the more you understand about it, the better prepared you are to face it head-on. Your boots are your secret weapon, your silent companion, that stands with you through the trials of the wild, and choosing the right one can make all the difference. Now then, let's look at the second question on the list - the one that handles the seasonality of the quest.
2. When Are You Hunting?
When exactly do you plan on plunging into the wild? Seasonal variations aren't just about pretty calendar pictures. They dictate the weather, the climate, and the terrain to some extent, and consequently, the boots that will faithfully carry you through to the end.
If you're hunting in the summer in a humid location, you'll want breathability and moisture-wicking capabilities. Whereas, winter is going to force heavier insulation to make sure you don't lose any toes on the trip. And somewhere in between, during the spring and autumn, you'll need a boot that can handle more of the unpredictable conditions of backcountry hunting, such as moderate insulation, and typically solid waterproofing.
- Cold and Snowy: For cold and snowy weather, your shoes need to have good insulation and protection from water. With your boots providing proper insulation to your feet, your body can focus on warming other areas, such as your hands, face, and head. Waterproofing elements are important to any type of hunting boot since wet feet are extremely dangerous in the wilderness. Depending on the climate, issues can range from frostbite to blister proneness.
- Warm and Humid: Your needs will differ greatly if you hunt in warm, hot locations. You want light insulation but a lot of ventilation on your boots. This ventilation allows the heat from your feet to escape, keeping them cool and dry. Overheated feet are bound to sweat a lot, which is uncomfortable for miles and days on end. More importantly, just like wet feet in snowy conditions, the sweat from your feet will easily create conditions that foster blisters and fungus
Don't forget to think of the seasonal conditions and how they affect the terrain, because this will challenge your boots' needed durability, traction, and waterproofing characteristics every time.
Change can either be a gentle breeze on your face or an icy chill down your spine. The average temperatures of your hunting period aren't trivial details, they're vital tidbits that dictate your boot's best friend – insulation. On frosty days, boots hugging thermal liners might be your saviors, while on the hotter days, breathability triumphs, your boots turning into your personal air conditioners.
Where most hunters make a mistake on hunting boots is thinking that if it's cold out they need boots that are always warm, or if it's hot out, they should pick less insulated boots. To a certain level, this is true.
But the main goal is to create thermal regulation, one where breathability is critical to the boot's technology. Comfort is the end goal, not being hot or cold. As your body temperature naturally changes throughout a hike, your boots should flex along with it.
Hunting in the rain might seem like a scene from a thrilling movie, but without the right boots, it's a quick route to dampened danger. Not to mention the chaos unleashed by a sudden snowfall. Choosing boots armed with the right waterproofing, moisture-wicking capabilities, and slip resistance transforms your hunting experience from a survival task to an enjoyable journey. So, when you're preparing for your hunting spree, remember to pack the weather forecast along with your gear.
Remember, understanding the season, temperature, and weather conditions isn't just about survival, it's about thriving in the wild. It's about being as adaptable as the wilderness that we respect and admire. Because at the end of the day, the right pair of boots make your hunting journey less about the destination and more about the exhilarating path that gets you there.
3. Your Weight + Pack Weight?
Think about this: when you're out on a backcountry hunting trip, your body weight isn't the only load your boots need to support. The weight of your pack also plays a substantial role. Maybe your pack starts a trip at 50 lbs, and 5 days in you take a bull elk - you now need to haul 100s of pounds of meat back and forth. That added weight significantly impacts the stress your boots undergo.
Even without shooting a single arrow or bullet, the reality is, as you walk or hike, the force your feet, and thus your boots, bear is greater than your actual body weight. As you ascend a steep incline with a hefty pack, this force becomes magnified. The added pack weight contributes extra strain to your boots, particularly affecting the soles and upper construction.
And if you're a heavier individual or carrying a substantial pack, your boots need to be even sturdier and more durable. Crucially, they should provide excellent support in the midsole and outsole. Your boots are your reliable bridge over difficult terrain, bearing your weight and the added stress of the journey. Comfort, though, shouldn't be overlooked. As you know, backcountry hunting can be long and strenuous. And uncomfortable boots can turn an adventure into a struggle. Consider boots with ample cushioning to ease your feet on challenging terrain. But beware, while lightweight boots might feel more comfortable initially, they could wear out quickly under heavy loads. Your hunting boots are your most critical tool in the wild, aside from your mind, supporting not just your weight, but your hunting ambitions. So, when you're preparing for your next hunting expedition, remember that your boots carry more than your weight; they can make or break your success.
3 Ways Your Answers Determine the Right Hunting Boot
Once you've covered the three questions above, move on to figure out how to find the best option for your hunt. As you know by now, choosing your hunting boots isn't just a matter of personal style. It's about finding the right balance of support, durability, and comfort for your specific needs. And it's about making sure they find the right balance between where you're hunting, when you're hunting, and account for the total weight involved (your body and your pack). There's no silver bullet for every single variable at play, so it's best to cover the biggest factors as thoroughly as possible. The questions we've answered in the prior section are the foundations of finding the right boot. It's time to go one level beyond that because when choosing hunting boots, you can't get away from having to look into the more technical side.
On the technical side, you'll need to account for aspects like flexibility and stiffness should be tailored to the terrain and style of hunting. Insulation and weight should also account for weather and hunting activity. All technical aspects of a hunting boot should ladder up to comfort and fit. Let's zoom the lens a bit closer on this one.
1. Flexibility And Stiffness: Balancing Support and Comfort
Of the many variables that go into determining the right stiffness and flexibility of a hunting boot, there are a few common patterns you may want to use as a starting point. They include:Schnee's Flex Scale
|Ideal for early season hunting, long walks on flat terrain, and quiet movement
|Suitable for mixed terrain and hunts requiring some support
|Good for mountain hunting and steep inclines, offering better ankle support
|Designed for challenging terrain and heavy loads, providing maximum support
|Perfect for extreme conditions and the toughest hunts, with unrivaled support and stability
Flex Scale: Stiffness Rating
Most bootmakers have a flex scale to describe the boots' flexibility. Some may call it the stiffness scale and may even use a unique scale, but they start at a low number with the greatest flex and end with a high number at the highest stiffness. Schnee's Flex Scale is a great resource for this - see the table above.
At '0', the boots are at the most flexible. The stiffest boots are given the score '4'. The scale also explains in detail the suitable activities with the boots. This means you can look at the flex scale descriptions to determine the flexibility or stiffness you need for your hunting boots. Let's bring this back to some of the more fundamental questions we looked at earlier in this article.
Flexibility and Time of Year: Early Or Late Season
If you're hunting earlier in the season, you'll most likely face warmer weather and more foliage, with branches on the ground to boot. In that case, think about opting for more flexible boots. You don't want to be stomping around in stiff boots, snapping every twig you step across.
On the flip side, late-season hunting means colder temps and snowy, icy ground. A stiffer pair of boots will give you solid footing and the confidence you need when stepping onto slippery terrain.
Stiffness and Terrain: Flat Or Steep Incline
For flatter ground or mild inclines, boots with more flexibility might be just the ticket. They'll make it more comfortable to cover long distances on foot. But if you're tackling steep mountain slopes in pursuit of goats or elk, you'll want sturdy boots with top-notch grip. That usually means stiff shoes with thick outer soles and deep tread patterns.
2. Picking the Right Weight And Insulation for Hunting Boots
Every ounce counts in the backcountry, and the weight of your boots is no exception. This, along with insulation are two additional aspects that merit balancing when it comes to picking the right hunting boots. On paper, they seem unrelated, but they're intrinsically tied to one another, where greater insulation means warmer boots but greater weight, and the inverse is true for less insulation. So how do you figure out the right balance between the two? Answer the following questions as a starting point:
How Much Should Hunting Boots Weigh?
Hunting boots' weight depends on the insulation and materials used. Lightweight boots usually weigh around 1.5 to 2.5 pounds (about 0.68 - 1.13 kg), while heavy boots for extreme weather and terrains may weigh up to 4 pounds a pair (about 1.81 kg). Generally, a good pair of hunting boots should weigh between 2 to 4 pounds per pair.
Many things may influence the final weight of your hunting boots. These may include size, shape, materials, insulations, and more. For example, suppose your boots are up to your calf, have stiff and thick soles, and are packed with insulation. Boots like these should weigh a lot, maybe up to 4 pounds a pair.
But, if you're getting ankle-height boots with flexible soles with limited insulation and breathable foam, they could be as light as 1.5 pounds (about 0.68 kg) a pair.
What Do Grams Mean in Hunting Boots?
Grams in hunting boots point to the amount of insulation inside each of the boots. For example, a boot with 400 grams of insulation has that amount of insulation per square meter of fabric. The higher the grams, the more insulation is packed into the boots, and the greater the warmth provided.
When looking for hunting boots, you may notice mentions of 'grams' in the spec sheet - for the uninitiated, this is an easy thing to confuse with the weight of a boot, but remember this is simply the insulation factor.
How Much Insulation Do You Need in Hunting Boots?
For cooler to mild temperatures, aim for 200-400 grams of insulation. If you move through snow or you're stationary, you'll want to start with 600-800 grams of insulation. If you move around a lot, you may reduce insulation slightly since your movement will help keep your feet warm.
Hunting boot insulation can range from 200 to 1600 grams - that's a broad spectrum, so the key is to select the right amount of insulation to ensure your feet remain comfortable. Make sure to factor in the type of socks you'll be wearing as well. Generally, boots with 200 grams of insulation are good enough for cool temperatures, with slight movement.
3. Deciding on the Right Boot Height for Your Hunting Needs
Choosing the perfect height for your hunting boots is a task that should be approached with strategic precision. These boots are your pillars of strength, comfort, mobility, and protection when the wilderness throws its challenges at you. Much like a tailored suit fits better than a generic size, your hunting boot's height should be custom-fitted to your hunting needs; considering factors like your hunting environment, the climate you'll face, and the level of protection you require.
The Different Heights of Hunting Boots
Hunting boots come in a wide spread of heights, each offering unique benefits to meet different hunting conditions. Here's a quick look at what you can expect in each height class:
- 6-8 Inches: Low-profile boots (ankle high) which provide adequate ankle support and protection for light hunting sessions without hindering mobility.
- 9-12 Inches: These boots offer enhanced ankle support and are ideal for hunting in rugged terrains. They're also excellent for wading through shallow water, and marshy areas, and start to handle decent depths of snow toward the 12" mark.
- 13-16 Inches: Then there are the sturdy 13-16 inch boots, your fortress when you're hunting in extreme conditions, providing the highest level of protection against environmental elements - from deep snow, high water, and thorny brambles.
Factors Influencing the Choice of Boot Height
Factors we looked at early in this article - such as terrain and season - play a critical role in the boot height needed to get the job done. Here's what you need to know.
Your hunting terrain is your boots' playground. As the ground beneath your feet gets rugged and uneven, the height of your boots should rise, providing maximum ankle support and stability. Conversely, during the summer months, when Mother Nature is kinder, shorter boots offer more breathability and comfort. If your hunting ventures lead you to wetlands or across small streams, taller boots would be your best bet, keeping your feet dry is all too important.
Final Thoughts: Low vs. High
When you're unsure, it's safer to opt for a boot height of +9" versus ankle-high boots. Any amount of hiking calls for the extra support and stability offered by higher boots. They might seem like obvious protective shields, keeping out water, snow, dirt, and debris, but there's still a faction of hunters who prefer lower, ankle-high hiking boots due to their lightweight and speed. These boots are ideal for milder terrains or cruising down a trail, but the compromise often shows when hunters' feet get wet during creek crossings or an unexpected snowstorm. Uneven terrains pose their challenges, navigating steep sidehills with lower boots might not be as safe or easy as with higher boots. Ultimately, the boot height you choose should align with your comfort, safety, hunting requirements, and preference, but if you're spending any decent amount of time in the backcountry and hunting, you shouldn't go lower than 9". After all, a good hunt is as much about the journey as the catch.
What Is The Difference Between Hunting and Hiking Boots?
Hunting and hiking boots differ in purpose, design, durability, traction, insulation, etc. Hunting boots typically possess the durability needed for challenging terrains, climates, and heavy body and pack weights that hiking boots do not. This difference adds comfort through extreme conditions.
On the surface, hunting and hiking boots look similar, but they perform different tasks. It's easy to assume that hunting boots are essentially hiking shoes on steroids, but the truth is hunting boots provide better protection, support, and insulation - they're a different breed altogether. Matt from Schnee's gets asked about the difference a lot. In fact, before mastering hunting boots as part of Schnee's team, at one point he rocked a pair of hiking boots for backcountry hunts instead of hunting boots. Here's what he'd advise you if you're considering following in his footsteps.
'I’ve done exactly that before I worked at Schnee’s. It might get you by for a bit, but the rough country will take its toll on your feet and boots. Most hiking boots just aren’t built to handle serious mountain abuse and lack the torsional rigidity to stabilize your feet and ankles. This is apparent when side hilling in trail boots vs mountain boots - there's no comparison between the two - your mountain boots do much of the work so your feet and ankles don't have to.'
Convinced yet? Perfect - let's talk about fit then.
Finding the Best Comfort and Fit in Hunting Boots
Hunting boots are performance-oriented - they have to be to keep your feet warm and protected from the elements. But for your boots to perform well, they also need to fit you well. Generally, a properly fitting pair of hunting boots should feel comfortable. You should know though that new hunting boots may be slightly uncomfortable to wear at first and require some break-in period before you head into the mountains.
How Should Hunting Boots Fit?
Hunting boots should fit your feet like other shoes, snug but not too tight. You should feel comfortable wearing them without excessive tightness - you want roughly a finger's width between your toes and the end of the boot when it’s tightened.
According to Matt, the finger's width is a real difference maker in the comfort and fit of your boots. If you get it right, it will ensure 'your toes don't hit the end when descending.' Matt would tell you to start the process by sizing your feet on a Brannock device. You're in luck if you go this route too because unlike many of the boot brands out there, Schnee's Boots strictly adhere to the Brannock device for sizing. Think of this as a boot maker's way of guaranteeing fit and comfort across styles. Generally, you can consider your hunting boot to fit your feet well when:
- They Are Comfortable: Your boots should not pinch or rub against your feet in any way. If they are, get a larger size. Your boots should not be too loose; they slide around your feet too.
- They Are Just Wide Enough: Your hunting boots must be wide enough to fit the widest part of your foot. If they are too tight, you may feel pain and chafe your feet.
- They Give You Enough Heel Room: The heel cup of your hunting boot should feel snug yet offer some wriggling space. Try to fit your index between your heel and the cup if possible. If you fit with some resistance, you have the right heel fit.
- They Give The Right Arch Support: Our foot arch moves differently when we walk, a motion known as pronation. Depending on your pronation, you may need different types of arch support. You can usually check your pronunciation when shopping for boots at specialty stores.
A hunting boot that fits perfectly will hit a sweet spot that balances comfort, protection, and support. It's the harmonious state where your foot, boot, and ground function as one, and getting it just right can be a game of millimeters. If your hunting boots are too tight, you might initially think you've got excellent support, but it's a wolf in sheep's clothing. A tight fit can squeeze the life out of your feet, causing aches and even the dreaded numbness, like a long, slow torture. As blood flow gets constricted, your feet may turn into ice blocks, which isn't ideal when you're trying to stalk your quarry quietly. The excessive rubbing can also lead to nasty blisters at your heel or toes, adding insult to injury.
On the other hand, a loose fit will leave your feet sliding around in your boots as you navigate the rugged terrain. Picture your feet running a marathon inside your boots while you're just walking - that's what a loose fit does. It amplifies friction, causing blisters and wearing your feet out quicker than a dog chasing its tail.
Since comfort is more a feeling than a measurement, throw on your hunting socks and where your boots around. This will give you the best idea of what's in store before you hit the backcountry.
Two Common Mistakes When Buying Hunting Boots
There are two mistakes that Schnee's Boots hates to see hunters make - buying the expensive hype of marketing on boots and trying to find a boot that does everything. Both are impossible and often unnecessary. Here's what Matt from Schnee's would have you know:
Mistake Expensive for the Best
We've all felt the allure of the latest, top-of-the-range items with elite-sounding names - and the pricier they are, the better. Unfortunately, this is rarely the right approach. And it's not the right one to take with your hunting boots. Matt puts it like this, 'A lot of people now gravitate towards the most expensive model or something that says “pro” in the name and think it’s just the best, but end up buying super stiff sheep hunting boots for hunting whitetail or something like that. That's one of the reasons we always tell folks to just give us a call, so we can help them pick the appropriate boot.'
What may seem like the pinnacle of outdoor footwear could turn out to be akin to strapping iron bars to your feet - because it prioritized all the factors that have no bearing on what you need for your hunt. Remember, where, when, and the weight. Cool names slapped on expensive boots won't help anywhere it matters.
Expect One Boot to Do Everything
And just as every chef has more than one knife, every hunter should ideally have more than one boot. 'I also tell everyone, there isn’t one boot to do everything.' Matt goes on to say, 'I usually recommend a two-boot system to get hunters through an entire year. Typically this would be a Beartooth for the majority of the hunting, then a pac boot like our Hunter II for late season, cold weather hunts.' Investing in two types of boots - one that is a versatile solution then another that can take the harsh cold winters.
Remember, the right gear is not just about comfort - it's about ensuring your focus stays where it should: on the hunt. This approach gives you a couple of options to maintain comfort and focus when hunting, no matter how cold the weather.
Hunting Boots Aren't Everything
Picking the right boots for backcountry hunting requires quite a bit of planning. It's not as simple as finding a boot in your size. With so many factors to weigh, be sure to account for terrain, weather, hunting style, and fit. At a minimum, these will make sure you're in a good place for your hunt. However, as much as you can get the best boots for your hunting expedition, remember that they're not a substitute for the hunter's readiness - that is, even the best hunting boots around, like Schnee's, can only carry you as far as you can go.
So the more important question ultimately is how far can you go. Can you hike up mountains when it's freezing cold with a full pack on? What about heading back after packing out an elk or sheep? When things get difficult, how strong is your mind that you can keep going? You still need to keep yourself physically and mentally ready for hunting. Are you keeping up with that?
Build your physical and mental fitness for the next hunting season with us. We'll cover your first two weeks of training with a free 14-day trial.
Big Thanks to Matt Miller, Schnee's Boots Director of Marketing & Web
For the past 8 years, Matt has been not only a key figure in the Schnee's team but also an ardent hunter, tracking deer, elk, bear, waterfowl, turkey, and more. Schnee’s Boots is renowned for its pioneering spirit in the realm of mountain hunting footwear.
The company created a new category of boots in the 2000s with the introduction of the "Sheephunter," the first mountaineering class boot specifically designed for the demanding requirements of serious mountain hunters. This boot quickly became legendary among guides, outfitters, and dedicated outdoorsmen.
Schnee’s Boots has been crafting rugged mountain boots for four decades. Designed in Montana to withstand the demanding conditions of western hunting and the rough terrain it entails, these boots have stood the test of time and elements.