Comparing, contrasting & torture testing nine pairs of pull-ons
By Ralph P. Stuart
Waterproof leather is an oxymoron.
There, I’ve said it. I don’t care how much silicone, wax or miracle goo you slather on tanned animal hide; keep treated leather wet for long enough, and water’s going to seep through.
Nowhere is this more evident than with boots. It doesn’t matter what the manufacturer says or what dressing you use, if you strap on a pair of leather boots and rinse, dry and repeat enough times, you’re going to wind up with wet feet.
And nothing ruins a hunt faster than wet feet.
That said, there are plenty of situations where leather boots work great—like walking prairie grasslands, trekking the high country and crisscrossing dry cropfields. But when my plans call for slogging through cattail sloughs or mucking around in alder bottoms, I reach for footwear that’s going to keep out water: rubber boots.
I went to rubber when I started snow-tracking deer. Uninsulated knee-highs served well for all-day walking, and though they were too thin (read: cold) for standing around long, they allowed me to feel every stick underfoot as I tried slipping up on a buck. In time I began wearing rubber boots for other purposes: waterfowling in swamps and wet fields, turkey hunting during spring mud season, bird planting and laying drag trails for dog training. Finally I made the leap to wearing them for upland hunting in my often-wet New England coverts. And I never looked back.
For upland pursuits, I look for boots made for walking. Something over the calf and close to the knee. Lighter is better, and when it comes to insulation, less is more. I like boots that fit at the ankle and are roomy enough for tucking in pant legs in tick country. I need ample arch support and soles that provide traction and purge mud. I also like boots that I can remove without a jack or giving myself a hernia.
With these criteria in mind, this past spring I approached manufacturers with the idea of wear-testing their boots. I told them that they could choose the model, but I was looking for boots suitable for early season upland hunting. Size 10, thank you very much. And, no, I don’t have a preference in camo patterns.
As the boxes began piling up in my office, I designed a test course that would make a ninja warrior proud. From the trailhead, I would walk a half-mile on a flat two-track before stepping into a stream and following it up-current for a hundred yards. Next I would stand in a calf-deep pool for five minutes before exiting into ankle-deep mud, climbing a steep embankment, sidehilling in loose dirt, scrambling up a rocky slope and returning to the main trail. Then there would be a half-mile trek across tablelands before I cut through the woods—pushing through thick growth and scrambling over deadfalls—on a steep descent back to the trail. The last quarter-mile would be a jog to the trailhead. All this would be navigated in the morning before my first cup of coffee while trying to avoid the family’s bootlicking hound. Brutal.
The test took several weeks to complete, and in that time I traveled countless miles, traversed mountains’ worth of vertical feet and spent hours weighing, measuring, stretching and otherwise analyzing the various boots. After all was said and done, I’m happy to report that none of the subjects failed to the point of leaking, but I did find that all were not created equal. As with any piece of gear, some were simply better designed or suited for different purposes. Hopefully my findings will help you narrow the choices in your own rubber match.
Bogs World Slam (Editor’s Pick)
The third-lightest boots in the test, Bogs World Slams are built on a running-shoe platform—and it shows. I felt like I could have walked in theseall day. Combining rubber with neoprene, the boots also have 3mm Neo-Tech insulation and 2mm Airmesh, giving them just enough warmth to ward off the morning chill. They slipped on easily and offered good ankle support and plenty of room at the foot. The thermo-molded EVA midsole provided good arch support, and the air-bob sole gripped rocks well and expelled mud quickly. These boots excelled in overall comfort and were fine to run in—and at the end of the test they pulled off easily. My feet remained dry, thanks to the interior moisture-management system. These boots would work very well for hunting in warm or cold weather throughout the season. Available in Realtree, Mossy Oak and green. Price: $180.
Bogs, 877-321- 2647; www.bogsfootwear.com.
Bushnell Archers, as the name suggests, were designed for bowhunting. With 400 grams of Thinsulate Ultra insulation and a removable insole with a compartment for inserting a heat pack, they were fashioned for getting to and from a stand and waiting in the cold for a buck to walk by. They were certainly the funkiest-looking boots in the bunch, with Realtree fabric uppers, suede side patches, brown rubber bottoms, a camo-wrap EVA midsole, and a brown sole with orange heel accents. Inside is a 3.5mm full neoprene sock with a fleece lining and a dual-density heel cushioning system. The boots pulled on easily and were form-fitting at the foot. In fact the Archers provided one of the most pleasant walks, with my feet feeling like they were being cradled in comfort. There was good ankle and arch support, and the boots performed well while sidehilling and clambering over rocks. The mistake I made was cinching the top drawstring, as my feet heated up like they were in an oven. (I loosened it halfway through the test and cooled down again.) Another drawback is that the boots would not pull off without a jack. I could see going to these boots later in the year, but for an early season hunt they are simply too warm. Price: $180.
Bushnell Performance Footwear, 800-325-6116; www.bushnellfootwear.com.
Cabela’s Dura-Trax II Pro
With an 8mm-thick combination of neoprene, breathable mesh and fleece as well as fully clad (for puncture resistance) rubber uppers, Cabela’s Dura-Trax II Pros were some of the heaviest boots in the test. Even so, they felt lighter than they are, thanks to a good fit and slim design. The boots pulled on easily, and cinching side gussets at the top provided plenty of room for large calves and tucking in pant legs. EVA midsoles and fiberglass shanks offered ample support for crossing uneven terrain, and self-cleaning outsoles gripped slippery surfaces well. A kick plate at the heel made for easy removal. These boots are designed to be comfortable in temperatures from 50°F to -40°F, which explains why my feet heated up quickly while walking. For this reason, I would hold off wearing these until at least midseason. Available in Mossy Oak
Break-Up Infinity and Realtree AP. Price: $150.
Cabela’s, 800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com.
Grub’s Treeline 8.5 SP
Grub’s is not a name well known in the US—yet. With roots dating to 1776 in England and ties to Reebok, Rockport and The Original Muck Boot Company, Grub’s-brand footwear did not launch in North America until 2011. Now it is steadily gaining traction. The Treeline 8.5 SP incorporates 8.5 Technology (5mm light insulating foam plus a 3mm Highloft lining plus .5mm moisture-wicking polyester fleece), as well as “super protective” (SP) ripstop nylon in the leg and a rubber outsole. The comfort range is said to be 60°F to -40°F. The boots pulled on hard and were snug at the ankle and foot. There also wasn’t much room for large calves or pant legs. These were the second-lightest boots in the group, which made walking in them a breeze, and plenty of ankle support helped in uneven terrain. The Vibram sole gripped well on a variety of surfaces and was self-cleaning. Unfortunately, the tight fit and lack of anything to get purchase on made removing the boots difficult without a jack. These boots would work well during the early season, and I could see wearing them for long treks in warm weather.
Available in Mossy Oak New Break-Up. Price: $155.
Irish Setter Rutmaster
Despite a name indicating they were designed for deer hunting, Rutmasters can still serve wingshooters. They are made of 4.5mm neoprene and vulcanized rubber, with rubber overlays in high-wear areas. A rear gusset with an adjustment strap provides plenty of room for large calves or tucking in pant legs. The ExoFlex Performance Fit System, above the heel, expands to accommodate the foot while putting on the boot, and then contracts to lock in the foot securely. I will say that the boots were relatively easy to put on, but once they were on, they almost contracted too much—and this combined with their thin profile actually squeezed my feet. The tight feeling subsided as I put on distance, and the EVA midsole made for comfortable walking. The Mud Claw sole’s deep cleats gripped well and expelled dirt easily. Unfortunately, even with the ExoFlex panel and a heel kick plate, I could not remove the boots without a jack. I could see wearing these boots to hit a series of small coverts, but their heavier weight would discourage me from using them for long treks. Available in Realtree APG. Price: $180.
Irish Setter, 888-738-8370; www.irishsetterboots.com.
LaCrosse AeroHead 3.5
I am a longtime fan of LaCrosse boots, but I found this pair disappointing. It seemed like a classic case of fixing something that wasn’t broke. The boots look like something a Stormtrooper would wear, with a 3.5mm neoprene sock covered by a polyurethane shell at the foot and ankle and up the shin. Is this really necessary? I wouldn’t mind if it didn’t seem to come at the expense of comfort. The boots pulled on easily—and there was plenty of room at the top with an adjustable back gusset—but there was too much room at the foot, and gone was the ankle fit I have come to expect from LaCrosse. As a result, my foot was constantly slipping while walking, and there was little support on uneven surfaces. The wide profile also made the boots bulky and clumsy. That said, there was plenty of arch support and cushioning, and the chevron patterns on the sole did a good job gripping. Thankfully, these boots were easy to pull off. Give me back my Alphaburlys. Available in Mossy Oak Break-Up Infinity and Realtree Xtra Green. Price: $130.
LaCrosse, 800-323-2668; www.lacrossefootwear.com.
Muck Woody Sport Cool
Woody Sport Cools were the lightest boots in our test, and they were made for covering ground. They were snug at the ankle, making them tough to slip into, but once they were on, they felt as comfortable as sneakers. Made with 4mm neoprene uppers and a molded rubber outsole, these boots were designed for temperatures from sub-freezing to 95°. The XpressCool lining pulls moisture away from the foot and spreads it out to evaporate quicker and create a cooling effect in warm conditions. The boots’ slim profile combined with a molded EVA midsole and 6mm Nitracel sock liner made for pleasurable walking (and running), and good ankle support and tread aided in climbing steep banks. The neoprene did bunch a bit at the ankle and ended up rubbing, but it wasn’t bad. And a jack was required to remove the boots. Another downside is that there was very little room at the top for large calves or tucking in pant legs. Overall, these boots would be fine for early season long-distance trekking.
Available in Mossy Oak Obsession. Price: $155.
The Original Muck Boot Co., 800-777-9021; www.muckbootcompany.com.
Rocky MudSox Neoprene
These were the heaviest boots in the test, and it weighed a lot on their performance. They have a 5mm full neoprene sock and contain 800 grams of Thinsulate Ultra insulation. They also have a thick rubber outsole, with messaging on the bottom that reads “Mud Releasing Lugs,” “Self Cleaning,” “Traction Zone,” “Oil & Slip Resistant” and “Deceleration Brake.” Unfortunately these benefits aren’t worth their price in added ounces. The boots pulled on easily, and though they were loose at the ankle, they felt snug around the foot. It wasn’t long, however, before their wide profile and bulky feel began taking a toll, and as my feet (quickly) warmed up and my legs grew tired, I started tripping over roots and rocks. The loose ankle fit made cutting cross-slope difficult, and one of the boots almost pulled off in the ankle-deep mud. I will say that the thick sole offered plenty of arch support, and the tread provided excellent traction on rocks. But these boots are better suited for a cold-weather deer stand or late-season waterfowl hunt where you won’t do a lot of walking in boot-sucking snow or mud. Available in Mossy Oak Break-Up Infinity and Realtree AP. Price: $145.
Rocky Boot, 866-442-4908; www.rockyboots.com.
Under Armour H.A.W. (Best Value)
With their name an acronym for Hurry-Up And Wait (H.A.W.), these boots were designed for chasing deer—or spending time with your spouse. Marketing materials claim that the boots were “built for the treestand,” but they also were made for covering ground. Under Armour has made major inroads into the hunting segment in recent years, thanks to an athletic-minded approach. Examples in the H.A.W. include light weight, an air-mesh lining that increases airflow and wicks moisture away from the foot, and an internal foam pad that molds to the heel for a customized fit. The boots required using the built-in backstrap to pull on, but once my feet were inside the rubber bottoms, they felt secure. The neoprene uppers left plenty of room for pant legs. At first the rear locking pad felt awkward, but it quickly formed to my heel and indeed prevented slippage. The boots were comfortable to walk in and offered good arch support and grip on a variety of surfaces. They also were easy to remove. I could see wearing H.A.W.s throughout the year and when putting on plenty of miles. Available in Timber/Mossy Oak Bottomland and Timber/Realtree APX. Price: $140.
Under Armour, 888-427-6687; www.underarmour.com.