The Niche of Waterproof Boots
One of the most conspicuous differences between the stereotypical ultralight hiker and the traditional backpacker is footwear. Tall leather boots to protect the feet and ankles are still the conventional recommendation for the latter, while most ultralight hikers favor trail runners of some sort, low cut shoes with soles that are typically much more flexible. One need look no further than the BPL forums to see that while this generalization may not be true for every individual, the zeitgeist of traditional, heavier backpacking sees boots as necessary and proper. The threads, which appears at least fortnightly, invariable ask some variation of the following: will my feet and ankles be ok if I give up my big boots?
For this review I will stand this question on its head – assuming that light and flexible trail shoes are best for the de facto hiker, largely irrespective of pack weight, and from this ask rather under what circumstances might a waterproof boot be useful. There are actually two questions here, for the utility of boots and the utility of waterproof footwear for hiking should be addressed separately. After these questions are examined, I will in conclusion discuss the virtues of the Timberland LiteTrace, how the boot does and does not fit into the conclusions concerning the utility of boots for lightweight wilderness travel, and compare the LiteTrace to the closest currently available competitors.
The LiteTrace, which in the shown men’s 11.5 (European size 45) weighed in at 14.8 oz per boot on my scale.
The Appropriateness of Waterproof Footwear for Wilderness Travel
One piece of backcountry dogma that is as inexorable, and quite coextensive with, the need for protective boots is the need for dry feet. Ultralight backpacking at its best questions such assumptions, with the result being new systems which enhance safety and enjoyment. The role of waterproof footwear is one such example, with the majority of ultralight backpackers having discovered the acute limitations of shoes and boots with waterproofing built in. I discuss the reasons for this in detail in my Fast and Light Shoulder Season Footwear, as well as my own preferences insofar as shoe fit and performance are concerned.
As the aforementioned article shows, I’m not the most likely candidate to review a waterproof boot. When the LiteTrace arrived I did my best to suspend prejudice and disbelief, and focus on the areas in which a waterproof shoe might be useful. My feet and I were pleasantly surprised, and while I still hold to the opinions expressed in my other article, I now think that there are circumstances under which a waterproof shoe is quite handy for lightweight wilderness travel.
Arrow Lake, Glacier National Park, winter.
Those circumstances are, in short, winter. To be more exact, moderately cold conditions (say, 40-0 F) with modest amounts of snow, where a mix of hiking, snowshoeing, and perhaps the use of crampons or other traction devices might be efficacious. Where I live in northwest Montana, we had just such a start to the winter of 2011-2012, with few nights below zero (F) and so little snow that lower elevation backpacking trips (without the need for skis or snowshoes) were possible well into January. With flowing water largely absent, the concern for stream crossings soaking the shoes disappeared, and the ability of the LiteTrace when coupled with high gaiters to keep snow out and my feet dry meant warm feet all the time. The Hydroskin sock system mentioned above works in below freezing conditions, but is entirely dependent on movement to generate heat. With the LiteTrace and wool socks, I was able to hike all day in the snow, and have dry enough feet to take a 45 minute coffee break at a particularly inspiring vista and still have warm feet by the time I set off hiking again. This enhanced ability to keep heat in would be especially beneficial for folks with cold feet and poor circulation. It’s also useful for slower-paced endeavors. I wore the LiteTraces during a snowy, backcountry hunt, where the slow pace of still hunting removed the source of heat upon which my usual hiking footwear is dependent. With a thin wool liner, vapor barrier sock, and wool insulating sock my feet were quite warm. Hikers who enjoy birding, photography, or simply prefer to walk in a leisurely fashion might, under certain conditions, benefit from the warmth inherent in a waterproof shoe or boot.
It would seem that during colder conditions, especially when snow is present and flowing water is not, that a light waterproof shoe or boot has significant advantages which might justify a place in some hikers quivers.
Packing up to packraft back to the truck after a backcountry deer hunt. Waterproof footwear helps preserve foot warmth during slower activities which generate less heat.
The Role of Boots in Hiking Success
Hiking boots and hiking shoes (the latter being usually but not always the same as trail runners) have two attributes which often distinguish one category from the other: height of the boot itself, and stiffness of the sole. While these two influence each other and typically work towards the same end, it is worth discussing them separately.
Having uppers which cover and even go above the ankles serve to provide additional support and stability, acting as low grade ankle braces, as well as protecting the ankles from rocks and other sources of abrasion. The traditional justification for the first purpose is that carrying a heavy pack puts enough stress on the ankles that the support of boots is necessary. A light pack removes much of the integrity from this reasoning, and my personal experience has shown that proper conditioning makes carrying a heavy pack (by this I mean 40 pounds or more) with low cut trail runners no more arduous or hazardous than with the beefiest of boots. Indeed, a central tenant of lightweight backpacking is that carrying a heavy load is almost inherently problematic, and that safety and pleasure can be greatly enhanced by judicious equipment selection. For those circumstances, when carrying a heavy load is unavoidable (when climbing, packrafting, doing serious photography, or carrying gear for family members), prudence still dictates that all reasonable steps be taken to lighten up, and that proper physical preparation be considered essential. I am in short still very skeptical that tall uppers have much to offer the lightweight hiker.
It should be said that the uppers of the LiteTrace are neither particularly high nor especially supportive or rigid. I eschewed the top set of lace holes most of the time and largely forgot the uppers existed. They do provide a bit more waterproof protection, which makes sense in such a boot.
The issue of sole stiffness in a boot or shoe is a more nuanced one, particularly now that the minimalist shoe movement has given the lightweight hiker a full spectrum of choices in this regard. The key here seems to be matching personal physiology, preference, and style with the most suitable balance of flex and protection. Stereotypically smoother terrain will lend itself better to more flexible shoes, while stiffer shoes will better smooth out sharp rocks and thus ensure healthy feet. Of course, very thin and flexible shoes can and have been used in very rough terrain, an approach which generally demands more strength and care from the user. I tend to favor this approach myself, thinking that stronger feet and legs are safer. Less protective shoes also tend to be lighter. In any case, sole rigidity is a very personal choice.
Additional factors come into play in the debate over sole stiffness which are peculiar to the wintery use to which the LiteTrace seems likely to be predisposed. Many hikers find snowshoes and crampons easier to use and more comfortable with stiffer footwear, given the pressure those bindings and straps often place on the feet when fitted properly. The sole of the LiteTrace is on the stiff side when compared to contemporary trail runners, and thus well suited to use with winter traction and flotation devices. While I’m not at all swayed in my stance that traditional boots are largely inappropriate for hiking, I do think that the stiffer (by some standards) sole and modest upper of the LiteTrace do offer advantages for the likely use of winter hiking.
The sole stiffness and rand structure of the LiteTrace was well matched to the flexible, ten point steel crampons I often find useful for winter hiking in the mountains (Camp Magix 10s). Such crampons can be used on flexible shoes, but provide a bit more security on steep slopes and in peculiar snow conditions than products such a Microspikes.
|Model||LiteTrace Mid Waterproof Hiker|
|Size Tested||US Mens 11.5 (EU 45)|
|Manufacturer Weight||23.8 oz (675 g) per pair|
|Measured Weight||29.6 oz (839 g) per pair for US11.5|
The LiteTrace then seems to be a well-considered boot. The primary features, namely the stiffer sole, taller upper, and waterproof membrane, come together in a coherent fashion to produce a product which is well suited to lightweight hiking in colder, snowy environments. Other design elements seem to fit in line with this end. The sole features minimal rubber, presumably to save weight, and the resultant widely spaced lugs provides good traction in loose snow and mud. The necessary downside is that the hard rubber compound and minimal rubber contact makes friction minimal, and thus traction of wet rocks and damp logs is decidedly sketchy. The rest of the boot is well put together, testing revealed no weak points or significant problems, save one.
Unfortunately, that problem is rather huge. The stock toe rand includes a piece of rubber which runs back across the top of the toes to the base of the lacing. This flexes harshly downward in one big fold, and in initial strolls around town gave me nasty abrasions on the top of my middle toes within a matter of a few miles. Left as is this would have made the boots unusable. In the interest of testing I removed this piece of rubber by cutting across where it met the toe rand and then gently heating it with a lighter, which softened the glue enough to make removal fairly easy. The problem still existed after this modification, due I would speculate to the presence of glue still on the fabric. After some use this stiffness broke in, leaving the boot useable, though the problem still existed enough to leave gentle abrasions in the aforementioned areas, but only after around a day and a half of hiking. A workable, but far from optimal state of affairs, which prevented me from using the boots as much as I would have otherwise (I was unwilling to take them on my most serious trips this past fall/winter). For this reason, I did not use the boots enough to report meaningfully on the issue of durability. A cursory survey of online feedback reveals that a significant percentage of users report a similar issue with the toe rand. Until Timberland changes this on the next iteration of the boot (which I expect they will), buyers would do well to break in cautiously, and buy from a retailer with a good return policy.
A modification to the toe rand which I found essential before serious use could take place.
Lastly, fit, that most crucial aspect of a shoe. I have peculiar feet, with long toes, very narrow heels, medium width toes and midfeet, and very low volume feet all around. I’ve favored LaSportiva and Inov8 shoes in the last few years because many other brands are too big. More often than not the size which fits me length-wise can be laced entirely shut without beginning to grip my feet. I find any manner of arch support to be intolerable, and often replace stock insoles with others which are entirely flat through the arch. Others have the opposite issue with regard to width, and those seeking good testimony from hikers whose feet have seemingly been replaced with miniature barrels need look no further than Rietveld and Caffin’s State of the Market Report on Mid-Height Trail Shoes. As I mentioned in my Shoulder Season Footwear article, fit should not be compromised with hiking footwear. Better to get a heavier shoe with less-than-ideal features but perfect fit than the opposite.
I found the LiteTrace to be rather long for its size, a good ½ to ⅔ of a standard size bigger than my same size shoes from Inov8 and LaSportiva. The toe box is voluminous, the midfoot thoroughly middling in width, and the heel fit about the same. I was able to get a good fit with a bit of room left in the laces for further tightening. There was no noticeable arch support, a welcome surprise in a boot. While the overall fit was not ideal, with the heel a bit loose, but not enough to cause blisters. For a boot which is I contend ideally suited to winter hiking, being oversized is not a bad thing. I had plenty of room for thick socks and VBL layering, and the roomy toe box made it easy to keep digits warm. Overall the fit seems middle of the road, and likely to please most folks with average feet.
There are several other mid-height boots which are both waterproof and fairly lightweight. One is the Salomon XA Pro 3D GTX Ultra, discussed in the aforementioned State of the Market Report. The Salomon has a comparable height and weight, and might provide a good alternative for those whom the LiteTrace does not fit. Other options, especially ones suited to the block-footed, are outlined in that report. Another light, waterproof boot is the Inov8 Roclite 286 GTX. Substantially lighter than the LiteTrace or other options mentioned here, the Roclite is also likely more flexible and narrow than anything else here discussed. For those hikers who see a place for a light, waterproof boot in their gear closet, several options exist which should allow for a good fit. Once Timberland sorts out the toe rand issue, the LiteTrace should compare favorably to the extent options.
Disclosure: The manufacturer provided this product to the author and/or Backpacking Light at no charge and is owned by the author/BPL. The author/Backpacking Light has no obligation to the manufacturer to review this product under the terms of this agreement.