Recently, a footwear company called Vivobarefoot released a new hiking boot called the Tracker Forest ESC. The boot is remarkable in the crowded hiking boot category not only because it's flexible enough to scrunch up into a wad the size of a piece of fruit but also because that ability is enabled in part by the lack of a waterproof membrane. Which raises the a pertinent question: do we need waterproof hiking boots at all?
The benefits of including a waterproof barrier in hiking footwear are obvious. Plainly, they'll keep your toes dry walking through mud and puddles and fording rivers. On a long hike or a multi-day backpacking trip, wet, clammy feet can lead to issues that might even be cause for turning back.
"No outdoor adventure proves [the] point more than 30 days in Norway's arctic wilderness," argues one Gear Patrol staffer. "Of the 30 days I was there backpacking across the tundra, it rained for 27 of them. Everything got wet. Short of those river crossings, my feet stayed perfectly dry through mud, tall grasses and shrubs. My socks remained dry and my feet toasty. I was even able to wear my socks to bed most evenings."
But there are downsides to waterproof hiking footwear, too.
First of all, they are a bit heavier and more expensive. For example, one of our favorite light hiking shoes, Danner's Trail 2650, weighs 24 ounces per pair and costs $150. The waterproof version, the Trail 2650 GTX, weights 27 ounces and costs $170. (Danner now also makes a lighter hiker for dry climates, the Trail 2650 Ocampo, which is just 22 ounces and $140.)
They also fit differently than their non-waterproof counterparts (online shoppers beware). And unless you're wearing gaiters, any stream or river crossing above the top of your cuff will fill your boots with water. If it rains, water is getting in through the top. Hiking shoes — which leave the ankles free, like the aforementioned Danners — are even more susceptible.
But the main argument against waterproof hiking boots is sweat. Any waterproof membrane, be it Gore-Tex, eVent or otherwise, will diminish breathability no matter how much their makers describe them so. In warm weather, that means sweaty feet. No, it's not the same as stepping into a river, but you'll wind up with damp toes at the end of the day anyway, and breathable, non-waterproof hiking boots will give your feet a better chance to dry while you wear them.
So what's the best option? As with all outdoor gear, it depends on how and where you're going to use it. For 30 days in the Norwegian Arctic, a waterproof membrane might be the way to go. But a trip through the desert, probably not.
Vivobarefoot's Tracker Forest ESC manages to find some middle ground. Its upper is made of leather, which is naturally water-resistant, and it's lined with moisture-wicking mesh. It's a natural solution that provides the best of both worlds. (And, each pair comes with a 50-milliliter tin of leather balsam for additional wet protection.)