If you spend your whole time walking along designated paths, then there may not be too much of relevance in this article. If however, you have a more "as the crow flies" approach to distance trekking, and tackle territory that has not been civilised, then you'll know that some "short-cuts" are nightmarishly illusory while others are a joyous success accompanied by the (equally illusory) feeling that nature itself has been cheated. So, if you enjoy the partial lottery of venturing off the beaten path, read on ...
We've updated this post to include a lightweight ("approach shoe") option for mixed terrain in (warmer) non-winter conditions.
Test subject: Reference Foot Size: 9 (EU43) / Medium Width
Kit Tests: Winter, Summer
Disclaimer: None required (items not provided by manufacturers)
- Context / Don't Let Me Down
- Ultralight vs Durability
- Conditions: Wet & Cold (Sub-Zero)
- Conditions: Dry, Warm (Mixed Terrain)
- - A brief note on the Goretex Fetish
- Conditions: Arid, Hot (Dusty, Rocky)
- Product Images
- Postscript: Scramble vs Ultralight (pack weights in context)
Don't Let Me Down
The fit of footwear is so individual that we're not going to do our normal review. Instead we're simply going to mention a few items of footwear that have impressed us. If you're trekking in places where you cannot afford your footwear to fail, these items may be of interest.
The point of Scramble can be summed up in two words: "trekking independence". What this means is a) kit should facilitate trekking over terrain that isn't prescribed in any way as suitable "trail", and b) carrying sufficient food supplies to allow one to roam freely without being tethered to re-supply points. Due to where we test gear: Scotland and Wales (mainly Wales recently), this is simulated (i.e. it's a discipline - we simply ban ourselves during gear tests from re-supplying unless pre-planned on very long trips - thus during tests we carry between 7 [winter] and 10 days [summer] of food supplies).
Food is heavy, and amid all the gear hype in ultralight reviews it is rarely mentioned, yet carrying a lot of food will stress packs and footwear. During a trek, I'll burn approximately 6000 kcals per day, yet carry only 2200 kcals. That 3800 kcal deficit, after a few days begins to use up body fat stores. But just 2200 kcals per day (which is low) comes to around 600g (at a calorie density of 3.75 kcal / gram). 600g per day over one week = 4.2kg, 10 days = 6kg. This amount of food will take up (approximately) 14 to 20L of pack space.
Adding 5kg to your kit will put a load burden on your pack and also on your knees and ankles. At Scramble we're completely on board with much of what the ultralight community preach, but there are two categories of kit where we part company: packs and footwear.
If you're in the middle of nowhere, you simply cannot afford for either one of these to fail. So although we recommend a small and frameless pack, it's certainly not ultralight - but I'd put my house on it not failing. Likewise with footwear. But there are other reasons for our departure from lightweight when it comes to footwear, and we'll go into these in this article / review.
Ultralight vs Durability
Reading reviews and articles from the ultralight community the impression one is left with is that ultralight backpackers cover the ground like zen monks, gliding tippy-toed across the surfaces of high grass, golden petals and shimmering rock.
Like any religion, there's often a disparity between stated orthodoxy and actual experience. There's nothing wrong whatsoever about reducing pack weight, but I would suggest that such a quest can be taken too far. It's interesting to read ultralight articles and reviews and to note a particular recommended product, then search for customer reviews in outlets selling that product. I've done this numerous times and it's quite illuminating. One often discovers customers detailing their disappointment about how the product failed, sometimes during its initial outing. Specs are one thing, actuality another.
"You also have to honestly ask yourself whether you really need the kind of protection that high boots give on the kind of trails you hike" - backpackingnorth.com
That's a fair point (from a Finnish ultralight trekker who spent a number of years in the US) and belies a particular assumption: you're actually on a path or trail. My impression, especially of the US ultralight community is that they spend an awful lot of time walking along trails. Well if I'm on a path, then of course trail shoes will suffice, but for anyone who covers many miles over uncultivated terrain, a pair of ultralight trekking sandals or trail running shoes are, in our assessment, insufficient.
For example, just in Wales (pictured right above and also below), there's a great deal of marsh, often it's covered in large clumpy mounds which are in turn covered in long, wind-strewn, dry "horeshair" grass, like some demonic side-parting, which acts to cover the clumpy ups and boggy downs hidden beneath. The step differential between your foot going into bog and standing on hard uneven grassy clumps can be 3 or 4 feet (sometimes more); the problem is you often can't tell whether your next step's footing is going to be a solid jolt or an empty slide into bog.
I'd question Chris Townsend's claim that this simply boils down to untrained ankles: "doing exercises to strengthen your ankles is better than splinting them in heavy, rigid boots". I think you can do both. Yoga and Tai Chi will provide you with strong flexible ankles, for example.
Below we'll mention a pair of approach shoes (pictured above) that have worked well, but such items sacrifice ankle support and require gaiters. Deep, sucking bog and marsh simply swallows shoes; they're ripped off your feet as you yank yourself out - if you're lucky, you'll locate them; if not, you've an uncomfortable time ahead. So it's not just about ankle support.
To sum up, there are many excellent points raised by the ultralight community in regard to footwear and I'd strongly recommend the article from Backpacking North called "Give your feet a break". It provides an almost direct counter to much of what is said here, and for that reason alone is well worth a read.
For me it comes down to outright reliability, durable protection from all kinds of terrain (not just rugged rocky trails), support and a secure fit (i.e. something that can't be ripped, pulled or sucked off your feet).
Wet & Cold (Sub-Zero)
|Weight (per boot, stated / measured):||770g (9 Med) / 855g (9 Med)|
|Height (size 9, including heel):||20.5 cm|
|Upper: Leather (Anfibio cullate 2.6-2.8mm, full grain, waterproof, first grade European hide)||-|
|Lining: Sympatex® waterproof, breathable||-|
|Sole: Vibram Tsavo (now Masai) and micro cushion midlayer and full rubber abrasion resistant rand||-|
Altberg Bergen Boots
"Possibly the best all terrain combat boot that Altberg have ever made"
The history of Altberg is an interesting one and begins in the 1920s. One of the few companies that have resisted the desire to move manufacturing outside the UK, they've become the premier boot maker in the country, making boots for walkers, motorcyclists, gamekeepers, farmers, military and police personnel. The Bergens are aimed at the latter category, but it's not just the army that lug heavy loads over long distances. We do too.
Altberg offer their boots in half sizes and uncommonly in three widths (narrow, medium and wide).
For reference I'm a size 9 medium width. The Bergens fit like a glove. Ideal in cold and wet weather, I wear a thick pair of trekking socks which don't necessitate the use of a liner sock.
Lightweight, cold, wet weather boot, with a Sympatex waterproof, breathable lining, and a Vibram micro, shock absorbing sole. The Alpine design one piece leather upper is suited to more extreme conditions, and the excellent ankle support and underfoot protection are suited to rough, mountainous terrain – however, the boot is lightweight enough for use in more urban, mixed terrain, conditions. The Bergen boot has seen operational use in Canada, Finland, and Northern Germany, and has been acknowledged as one of the best cold/wet weather boots in Europe.
That's a pretty fair summary. The key is their use of just one piece of leather for the upper, minimising stitching. The lacing system is superb, locks and doesn't loosen throughout the day.
The only thing I'd add is that these boots excel in the snow, mud, marsh, bog, across streams and up in the mountains. The only time my feet have felt battered in these boots is after a long bridging road section, where I covered just over 20 miles most of which was on road and paving.
As with all waterproof boots, what keeps water out will keep water in! For this reason a pair of waterproof trousers that seal at the ankle are very useful, this can prevent ingress during a quick dash across even deep streams.
Altberg's Bergens are the most comfortable boots I've ever worn. If the world ever turns to shit, this is the boot I'm taking with me.
Warm, Dry (Mixed Terrain)
|Weight (per shoe, stated [9, EUR43] / measured [9.5 EUR 44]):||340g / 350g|
|Heel Drop:||9 mm|
|Materials: Mesh with PU reinforcements; Nubuck leather||-|
|Sole: Vibram Pinter with ESS shank in midsole||-|
|Manufacturer RRP||~ £140.00|
Dachstein Spursinn Approach Shoe
The Spursinn is (was) an approach / speed hiking shoe with a fortified midsole that provides support and reduces torsional twisting. The Vibram Pinter sole is superb on harsh rocky surfaces and really comes into its own scrambling over rock and scree. It's less effective in the lowlands on wet boggy terrain; so that's the compromise. However, we found with the addition of a trail running gaiter (like the Kantju from Alpkit) the shoe stays on your feet as you retrieve your leg from deep sucking marsh.
One of the reasons the Spursinn has been so good in the mountains is its strong ESS shank in the mid-sole which protects the arch of the foot. ESS stands for EVA-Solid-Sponge, a highly compressed Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) which is lightweight and flexible (and has a high upper/lower temperature tolerance). The ESS shank acts like a steel shank but with more flex and provides superb protection for the sole of the foot on sharp rock edges.
Although the Spursinn (or at least the incarnation referenced here) is no longer made by Dachstein, a strong shank is a useful feature to look out for and something I'd want to see in any serious approach / scrambling shoe.
Goretex Fetish Avoided
Fortunately, at least for this model, Dachstein avoided the idiotic and increasingly common trend of putting Goretex or some other waterproof membrane (no one pushes as aggressively as Gore) into everything.
When it comes to waterproof membranes in boots and shoes there is a simple condition-dependent question to ask.
In cold conditions it's this:
- Do I want to prevent water entering my footwear? The answer is YES.
For hot conditions it's this:
- Do I want to prevent water exiting my footwear? The answer is NO.
What you want for a warm / hot weather boot or shoe is the ability for it to drain. What keeps water out also keeps water in. For winter footwear, waterproofing makes sense as you'll often wear it in combination with gaiters or waterproofs and thus the likelihood of water ingress is minimised. However, this is not the case in the warmer seasons, where it matters much less if your feet get wet as (with reasonable drainage) they will dry out (rather than freeze).
If you trap water inside the shoe (via a GTX membrane for example) it won't dry out and your feet will remain moist and prone to blister. In summer, I carry lightweight waterproof shorts for the simple reason that my trousers (below the knee) will dry out quickly and so getting wet in warm weather is no big deal. However, if my shoes or boots are waterproof, then water will slowly migrate from trouser to sock into boot and remain trapped there. So I'd have to stop, take off the shoes and try and dry them out (and this will happen with or without gaiters). Genius! In hot conditions (regardless of elevation), whether dry and dusty or hot and saturated you want water to exit your footwear. As importantly, you want your footwear to "breathe" and no matter the marketing spin, waterproof (membrane) footwear will never be as breathable as its non-waterproof counterpart.
Solution: Resist waterproof membranes in warm / hot weather footwear and demand proper drainage solutions from manufacturers.
For reference I'm a size 9 (medium width). Dachstein's tend to be on the small and narrow side. I went up half a size for mine and pairing the 9.5s (EUR44) with Darn Tough's Via Ferrata sock makes a great fit. If you have wide feet, in our experience many of Dachstein's offerings may be too narrow.
There are a couple of negatives that relate to this type of footwear option, as much as the Spursinn specifically. When traversing the kind of clumpy, uneven and unpredictable marshland (pictured above), a shoe (rather than a boot) will have a greater tendency to "roll" (think of a ship movement) around the foot. This creates friction and on uneven clumpy surfaces, if your feet are wet, can lead to blistering across the arch of the foot (a strange place to get blisters - something that leukoplast tape will sort out).
This leads to the second negative that is something to look out for in approach shoes but is often lacking. The Spursinn's drainage is okay but certainly not great (the final footwear option in this post, the Meindl Desert Fox boots have far better drainage).
In our view, approach shoes should be free of waterproof membranes and instead offer efficient drainage solutions (perhaps like those featured on Altberg's Jungle Boots).
The Spursinn is extremely comfortable and can handle long distances just as well (and in some cases better, depending on the terrain) than many trekking boots (including those mentioned in this post). They are light and agile in the mountains and that's really where they come into their own - the ideal scrambling shoe. With the addition of a trail gaiter they can manage boggy lowlands too. Ideally they'd drain faster - then they'd have been close to perfect (at least for those without wide feet).
Scramble's ideal warm / hot weather boot is yet to be invented, but it would likely be a cross between the Spursinn Approach Shoe (~80%) and the next boot in this post, the Meindl Desert Fox (~20%). Taking the Meindl's drainage ability, a little of its ankle support and some of its outright toughness and keeping the fundaments of the Spursinn, you'd have a great lightweight scrambling boot for all but the non-winter months.
Arid, Hot (Dusty, Rocky)
|Weight (per boot, stated / measured):||740g (size not specified) / 780g (8.5)|
|Height (size 9, including heel):||22 cm|
|Upper: Nubuck and Cordura Mesh||-|
|Lining: ClimaDry® (breathable)||-|
|Sole: Meindl Multigrip||-|
Meindl Desert Fox Boots
Not just for the desert
Unlike the Altberg Bergens, which required almost nil breaking in, I found the Meindl Desert Fox boots, which are initially quite stiff, took quite a bit of breaking in and, at first I didn't like them. However, after some time giving them 3 to 6 mile mini walks and getting the right sock combination, I went on a 160 mile trek and at the end was completely turned around.
These boots are superb over hard rocky terrain, providing excellent traction over loose gravel, sand and rock. However, they're also pretty good over wetland in warm conditions. I've waded across rivers in these and they drain extremely well. Hiking when they are drenched is surprisingly comfortable.
Unlike many "desert" boots which often use a synthetic nylon upper, the Desert Fox use a robust combination of Nubuck and Cordura, giving them a good degree of torsional rigidity, which in turn makes them very stable over rocky terrain.
They are quite heavy for a warm weather boot but they breathe very well. The ClimaDry lining helps wick moisture and the Cordura panels and ventilation / drainage holes help keep your feet cool, while preventing the intrusion of dirt and sand.
The Desert Fox boots have a thick, Multigrip sole with a noticeable drop (raised heel) and an aggressive tread. They are a little narrower than the Altberg's (and don't come in a variety of widths); they're on the narrow side of an Altberg medium, so if you have wide feet, these definitely aren't for you.
I'm a size 9 in the Altberg's but take an 8.5 in the Meindl, though with a lighter sock: Darn Tough's Via Ferrata (which feature a mid-level cushion density under foot, but no additional cushioning above) with a thin liner sock.
Unlike the Altbergs these can't be re-soled.
Nubuck is very tough, but requires a little more after-care than some other leathers. I use Meindl's own Conditioner & Proofer, Nikwax's Nubuck and Suede Leather Proofer and spray McNett's Mirazyme Odour Eliminator inside the boot if they've been saturated over many days - they can end up pretty stinky and this gets them back to neutral.
Though ideal for use in safari and desert conditions, from Africa to the Middle East, much of South and Central Asia and anywhere arid, dusty and rocky, these boots are a great option for long distance treks in any warm weather where conditions are going to be mainly dry (i.e. no good for the jungle or the arctic, but certainly fine for UK summers, rain or shine).
So if you want a warm weather boot that's tough, durable and provides great support and comfort, the Meindl Desert Fox are certainly worth considering. Furthermore, due to these being issued to certain NATO forces in areas where they really shouldn't be, you can pick these up in new and grade 1 condition for a fraction of their retail price (eBay and army surplus stores are your friend).
Postscript: Scramble vs Ultralight - Pack weights in context
An 8kg base pack weight (i.e. without food and water) would widely be regarded as ultralight. This upcoming Summer Kit Test, my base pack weight will be 10.5kg.
An ultralight pack (for a 10 day trek) might weigh around 800g. My Karrimor SF Predator 30 pack (1300g) with external Karrimor SF, Ortlieb and Tatonka pockets, pouches and drybags will total 1800g - so that's 1 extra kg. On top of that I'm taking additional stuff for review purposes, photography etc. These additions come to about 800g. So 10.5 - 1.8 = 8.7kg. So, discounting the choice of pack (and extras for the purpose of review) we're not far off ultralight (for a 10 day trek).
As you can see, we're absolutely not against the ultralight perspective at all. But when it comes to packs and footwear, we draw the line - choosing robust and reliable over ultralight and (potentially) failure prone.
Last Updated: 01/05/20 (updated "Goretex Fetish Avoided" section)
26/04/20: Added approach shoe, updated product images, other minor changes