As my students prepare for their various archaeological summer field schools, one of the most common questions I am getting concerns footwear. What kind of boots should I buy? When buying boots for the field, there are two basic concerns: features and cost. Brand is not very important in my experience, but I have some recommendations below based on my time in the jungle. Beware – brands change their products all the time. My experiences from two (or ten) years ago may not exactly correlate to today’s offerings.
1. What features should my boots have?
First, don’t bring dad’s old army boots – they may look cool and be full of great memories, but they will murder your feet. The single most important feature of boots for archaeology is their fit. Make sure they are comfortable on your feet! Make sure the little voice in your head says “yes” when you put them on. Try on as many as you can before making your decision. This is one of those times where it is best to go to a store and try on the choices rather than buying online, or at least try them on in-store before buying online. Any sporting goods or camping store (Sport Chalet, REI, Big 5) will have a large selection. Don’t be shy! Sit in the store and try them on. If you feel like you are taking too much time away from the salesperson, go to a different store and do it again. Take your time. Everything else I say about boots is secondary to their fit. For serious hiking on bad terrain, I like a boot that can be tightened very tight and does not slip at all, so I will make sure the width is correct (I have narrow feet). Make sure your boots don’t slip when you walk! Slipping boots = blisters.
Do not waste money on boots that are full of silly features aimed at the pseudo “hard core” types. You don’t need a “shank.” This is for climbing mountains, and only adds discomfort for archaeological needs. You will be walking a lot, not climbing Everest. 100% leather exterior is a fine choice, but can get hot. Some fabric inserts for breathability within the leather are nice. Fully fabric boots with no leather (or very little) may be too weak for archaeological work. They will be super breathe-able and comfortable, but every jungle thorn will go right through them, and there will come a time when you aim to cut a high branch with your machete, miss, and continue the swing all the way around and right into your foot. No big deal if you have fully leather boots on (just a little cut in the leather), but the wearer of weak boots will have a different experience entirely. I have missed with my machete many times, but I had sturdy boots on, and can still proudly show off all ten of my toes! In the battle between sturdiness and breathe-ability, error on the side of sturdiness when in doubt. Overall, you want boots that are simple, sturdy, and comfortable. Fewer features are better than too many. Simple and sturdy is your friend. If they get a little hot, so be it.
In the jungle, I find waterproofing to be pointless. It is probably a good choice in other climates (especially the snow), but not really in the jungle. I am not a fan of Gortex. Gortex is a layer of material put into boots to make them waterproof. They say this does not affect the feel of the boot, but it does – it makes the boot sweatier. If you are walking in the rain or snow, this is fine. If you step in a foot-deep puddle (common in the rainforest), not only does Gortex become pointless as “waterproofing,” but you get the additional bonus that your boot now acts like a plastic bag, keeping the wetness in for much longer than you thought possible. I explain it to my students like this – put on your Gortex boots and Gortex raincoat, then jump into a swimming pool. How dry are your feet? I much prefer boots that will dry as quickly as possible, instead of attempting to never get wet (because they just will). If your boots have Gortex in them, don’t worry – it is not a deal-breaker. Almost all boots seem to these days. Gortex or no, your feet will be damp much of the time.
2. What brand should I buy, and how much should I spend?
After making sure the fit is correct, your real choice will be based on cost. When in doubt (and if you have the money), spending a bit more on nicer boots is money well spent. More money usually gets you more comfort and more durability in boots that will ultimately last longer. It may also get you extra features you don’t need. I look for simple, sturdy boots from a reputable brand that cost somewhere in the $130 dollar range (these are usually the most basic boots from the more expensive brands, so you get the durability and comfort without additional silly add-ons). I don’t think I would ever spend over $160 or so (and those better be some damn nice boots!). With that said, I did use a cheap pair of $35 Novatos (bought at Big 5) for one field season and they were okay. In the early days (1990s), I would buy Wolverine work boots, which are pretty good (very durable!) except the soles can be a bit slippy in the jungle (these boots usually focus on construction needs more than hiking needs). If you are doing lots of excavation and not too much survey or long-range hiking, these can be a very good choice. Lastly, no matter how much you spend, your boots will come back after one field season with a moldy stench to them that will never, ever go away.
I currently have a pair of Vasque hiking boots that I bought about seven years ago. As is obvious from the previous sentence, these boots have been possessed with incredible durability. They have lasted several field seasons (although they are on the edge of destruction at this point). These boots hit the happy medium of leather durability plus fabric breathability. Here is a picture of my boot being used for scale during a recent field season in Belize:
This photo of my boot (and the associated Giant Sloth fossil, which most archaeologists care about much more than my boot) actually made it into an article that you can check out here. I have also had good luck with Timberland footwear, and I have seen other crew members with Merrell boots that seem pretty nice. There are many other brands out there (Columbia, etc) – just try them on, see what you think, and listen for the little voice in your head that says “these feel good.” Cheap boots that fit are always much better than expensive boots that don’t. And if you find yourself exhausted from hiking at the end of the day, it ain’t the boots.