Boots for Caving
by John Ganter
For a boot, it is hard to imagine a more torturous environment than a cave. First the boot is loaded with 100 to 300 pounds of caver and gear (or more). Then it is forced into water, mud, cobbles, gravel and sand. It is dragged over bedrock and jammed into cracks, expected to grip on the softest mud and the hardest limestone. The life of a caving boot is usually brutish and short. How can we choose the best boots for the caving we do, and make them last as long as possible?
This article looks at some requirements for caving boots, the tradeoffs involved, and the major types of boots from plastic through traditional leather. The focus is on wet, muddy caving, but there is information relevant to more benign caves as well.
Most cavers would include the following requirements for boots. Below, I have listed them from most to least important in terms of safety:
It would be nice for one pair of boots to meet all these requirements. But that is difficult to do because there are inherent tradeoffs. A boot with a good Vibram sole and stiff leather may give great traction and impact protection, but its weight will make you more fatigued and its cost may be more than you want to pay.
Different cavers rank these requirements differently. As we will see below, some cavers prefer low cost and low maintenance over traction and impact protection.
Some cavers are blessed with rugged feet that could cave comfortably in anything from sneakers to mountaineering boots. Others have more trouble, and may have to try different types of boots to find what works for them.
Lets look at some of the major types of boots and how they fulfill the requirements in different ways.
You would think that high-tech plastic would have displaced animal skins long ago, but that is not the case. Plastic is, however, used for expensive, stiff-soled, insulated mountaineering boots. Some alpine cavers have for years walked to the caves in these boots, then gone caving in them. They work well in this environment, providing great support, impact protection, and abrasion resistance. Lighter, more flexible versions have become available, but they are still expensive and heavy relative to leather.
The classic rubber boot is the Wellington or "Welly," which comes up to just below the knee. Wellies are cheap, light, abrasion resistant, and dry quickly. The toes can be wedged into cracks for climbing. They have poor soles, since they are molded from a single variety of rubber that must work for all sections of the boot. They provide very little ankle support or impact resistance, and they tend to get sucked off by deep mud. Soles can be stiffened somewhat by making insoles from electronic "perfboard" or similar thin, flexible materials.
I wear Wellies for walking around dewy pastures looking for caves on Sunday morning. I have seen British cavers traverse hard-packed mudslopes and do wicked climbs while wearing them, leading me to theorize that the British would have explored every cave on earth if they only had proper footwear. While expounding on this theory to a British caver recently, I stood up in my Vibram-soled boots and promptly slipped. He was quite amused, and as we walked away he recommended Wellies.
Another rubber boot is the lace-up, manufactured by Bata and other companies for industrial uses such as chemical plants. These boots come up to just above the ankle, and have laces up the front. They have most of the advantages of the Welly, but they stay on better and give a bit more ankle support. The sole does not compare to a quality hiking-boot sole like the Vibram, and some TAG cavers refer to these boots as "Bata skis."
Bata lace-up industrial boot. This 1999 model has a fairly good sole ("UltraGrip" ?) that appears to be a different composition than the upper. (photo by Barbara am Ende).
But they keep using them because the Batas hold up well in wet, abrasive caving and they can be used weekend after weekend with almost no maintenance.
Leather and rubber boots
For many years the combination of rubber sole and leather upper has been hard to beat. Just like tires, the sole is usually designed as a tradeoff between soft (to grip smooth rock) and hard (to dig into mud, and to last a long time).
Leather is very tough and light, but it softens greatly when wet. It has to be dried slowly between trips, and treated with a wax like Snow Seal to prevent cracking. This is a significant amount of work, and it is why cavers who get their boots wet all the time start to lean towards all-rubber boots. But for doing climbs, hauling loads, and walking far, a light to medium weight hiking boot suits many cavers.
Heavier boots are of course available, but their support comes at a price both in weight and dollars. One pound is a big difference when it is on your feet. You may get more support, but your feet and legs will be a lot more fatigued at the end of the day. And that can lead to slips, falls, and accidents. So there is a tradeoff with heavier boots. I have even wondered if the light weight and minimal protection of the Welly makes the wearer more sensitive to what they are walking on and alert to hazards. One user comments that Wellies "perhaps make one more inclined to look for geometrically-supportive foot placements rather than friction-reliant placements."
Many boots are now made of three materials: rubber soles, leather for high impact and stress areas, and fabric for breathability. These have more seams and may not hold up well for abrasive caving, but they can be nice for hot, dry caving. In the cheaper price ranges, the leather is often a leather-and-plastic sandwich that does not hold up well.
Most caving boots are destroyed long before the sole wears out from walking. There are two approaches to a leather boot that will survive longer. First, manufacturers are finally selling boots with a rand: a part of the sole that wraps around and protects the toe and the sides of the boot. These are sometimes called toe bumpers. Asolo offers them on some of their pricier boots, but they are beginning to appear on Merrell and Vasque boots as well. The rand protects all the areas that usually fail on a caving boot. One disadvantage of some rands is the lack of a sharp edge between boot and sole, which can help grip on mud and some ledges.
An Asolo Meridian boot about to go caving. The rubber rand wraps around the heel, sides, and toe of the boot to protect against abrasion. The lacing runs through stainless steel pulleys that are strong, rustproof and reduce snagging. (The webbing running under the arch is a stirrup to keep the caving suit leg from rolling up.) (J. Ganter photo)
The Asolo Meridian (courtesy of Sierra Trading Post)
The second approach is to coat the high-impact areas of your boots with a tough sealant. Cavers have tried all sorts of epoxies and the like over the years, but nothing seems to compare to Aquaseal. This is a urethane rubber sealant that is sold in dive shops. It is very tough, flexible, and adheres well to leather. Aquaseal should be applied when the leather is well scuffed and dry. Use lots of ventilation, and put down newspaper because it will stay runny for several hours. Complete details on obtaining and using Aquaseal for cave gear is available on the website below.
Soled boot failures: The connection between a boot upper and sole is both critical and hard to inspect for wear and weakness. Many cave projects have a "When Joes boot ripped 2 miles from the entrance" story. Joe always gets out with duct tape, webbing, and helpful companions, but it is never a pleasant journey. If you have a favorite pair of boots that are getting some hours on them, think carefully before taking them on a long trip or expedition.
Boot makers try to save money on hardware: the eyelets and speed-lace hooks that laces run through. More expensive boots may have rugged, stainless steel hardware. Cheaper boots use thinner brass or brass-plated steel, neither of which hold up very well under caving conditions.
Speed-lace hooks tend to catch on things and bend. (If you have occasion to use a cable ladder, note that hooks tend to snag on the cables.) Everything rusts, which thins the metal and makes laces hard to tighten. Try to get the hardware dried out quickly, then coat it with WD-40 and extra Snow Seal.
Stiff soles are more comfortable when used with vertical gear. Loops and stirrups dig into softer boots and can cause great discomfort on long drops. Even with stiff boots, some cavers have to use 3-inch wide webbing stirrups when ascending long drops.
Non-marking soles are often desirable or required in caves where surfaces can be smudged. You can usually tell if a sole will mark by rubbing it on concrete. Unfortunately, some non-marking soles do not grip well. This is a situation where safety and conservation may have to be balanced. In some cases, boots are removed and "Aquasocks" are worn in sensitive areas.
Steel toes are available on some boots. These offer more protection from impact but add weight, contribute to cold feet, and cause the material over the toes to wear faster.
Low boots let mud and gravel in, but they are easier to put on and take off, and some feel that they allow more movement for technical climbing.
Jungle boots have long been popular with cavers. They are tough, light boots with drain holes and fabric uppers. Unfortunately, most of them are now cheap imitations that have been known to fall apart on the first cave trip. The jungle boot design is now fairly primitive compared to modern hiking boots, but some cavers like them.
Wetsocks are wonderful accessories if you plan to get your feet wet. For most people, they completely eliminate cold feet. You can get them from dive shops or even Wal-Mart has them in the hunting section seasonally. A single seam down the center is usually most comfortable. SealSkins are a form of wetsock that some cavers are also using.
If you get blisters when hiking or caving, try synthetic liner socks under Thorlo socks. The patented Thorlo has pile padding in areas that blister. The pile fibers spread out the pressure that causes blisters. I got blisters on long hikes for decades, but have not had one since using Thorlos. Highly recommended. They sell a bunch of different models to protect different parts of the foot for different activities; the Trekking model is about right for hiking to caves with a moderate backpack. It is important to launder the socks in liquid fabric softener to keep the pile slippery.
Foot problems: If your feet pronate (turn in), you get sore ankles, shin splints or have other leg/back problems, orthotic insoles customized to your feet may help. Consult a podiatrist. If you plan to wear your orthotics in wet caves, try to get the kind that are molded from a single piece of plastic. Orthotics that are composites of multiple types of plastic do not hold up well if you get them wet. Orthotics are not cheap and they are not usually covered by health insurance, but they can make a big difference.
Worn soles are dangerous. Cavers have been seriously injured in "minor" slips and short falls. A tiny bit more friction could have made the difference. Dont try to get that last bit of wear out of your soles. Its false economy.
I have two main pairs of caving boots. (Boot models change constantly, so the model names are just for reference. You may be able to find reviews of a pair you are considering at the websites below.)
There is no substitute for looking at boots and trying them on. Various full-cost and discount retailers sell work or hiking boots; value (quality for price) is variable.
Companies that supply construction and industrial users often sell rugged boots at good prices. Wal-Mart often stocks reasonable hiking boots (sometimes with rands) at around $35 a pair.
Outdoor suppliers carry major brands, which are generally better made, more technically advanced, and more expensive. One mail-order source is Sierra Trading Post (see below). They have discontinued and closeouts of major brands at excellent prices.
The Future of Boots
The last twenty years has seen impressive developments in boots, and the future looks good. Exotic boots for watersports and extreme running are beginning to appear. Women and others with smaller feet finally have reasonable options.
Since every caver has their own requirements and ranking of those requirements, we can look forward to new options in our personal searches for "good boots."
Sources and Acknowledgements
Aquaseal for cave gear: http://nerve-net.zocalo.com/jg/c/tech/
Hiking boot reviews: http://www.outdoorreview.com/, http://www.gearreview.com/, http://www.gearoom.com/
Sierra Trading Post, 1-800-713-4534, http://www.SierraTradingPost.com
Thorlo socks (http://www.thorlo.com) available from Campmor, 1-800-226-7667, http://www.campmor.com
Thanks to the following contributors and reviewers: Nevin W. Davis, Mike Ficco, Preston Forsythe, Phil Lucas, Ben Schwartz, and Simeon Warner.
Version 1 appeared in the NSS News, July 2000, p. 57.
Version 2, 14 October 2000
visits since 14 January 2006
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