Killing of a Sacred Cowhide: Why Combat Boots Are Bad
I've got a lot of hot takes, but so far none have received as much feedback (from both sides) as this.
THE TL;DR VERSION
Combat boots are a crappy compromise between a work boot and a hiking boot
As a civilian, you have free choice of footwear, and should pick a high performance shoe for patrolling (AKA not a combat boot)
Combat boots slow you down, wear you out faster, and are more likely to cause foot and leg injury
Combat boots are used by civilians because they incorrectly have assumed that military gear = best gear
Trail Runners like the Salomon Speedcross are my #1 choice
For terrain with a lot of sharp objects, the Salomon Quest 4D are my #2 choice
One could argue that there is NO situation in which combat boots are good. But I don't wanna bite off more than I can chew here, so let's define the context in which we are speaking: we are talking about civilian/paramilitary dismounted patrolling. Walking long distances, with or without breaks, carrying some amount of gear (say 20-50 lbs) over the type of terrain you see in the rural CONUS (forest and field, often hilly, interspersed with a lot of paved and dirt roads) in all manner of weather. Still a pretty wide context, but note that we are NOT talking about doing work around the farmyard, operating out of a vehicle, or doing intense urban combat operations.
WHAT IS A COMBAT BOOT?
It is defined by US Army Regulation 670-1, which Patriot Outfitters summarizes well:
Tan or coyote in color
8 to 10 inches in height
Made of tan or coyote flesh-side out cattle hide leather
Soles match the color of the tan or coyote upper materials
Rubber and polyether polyurethane are the only outsole materials that are authorized
Sole not to exceed 2 inches in height, when measured from the bottom of the outsole, and will not extend up the back of the heel or boot or over the top of the toe
Exterior of the boot upper will not contain mesh but will be constructed of either all leather or a combination of leather and non-mesh fabric
Combat boot regulations from other countries are basically identical for our purposes.
Combat boots and their consequences have been a disaster for human feet. But in all seriousness, they are bad footwear. This is independent of any brand, or any slight variation of design. The problem lies in the fundamental features that define a combat boot. If a boot has these features, it is, by definition, a combat boot. Correspondingly, to change (AKA fix) these problemed features would produce a boot that is no longer a combat boot. Hence, I derive the boldness to say sweepingly that "combat boots are bad footwear."
What fundamental features do I think are bad? They are discussed in detail below, but I'll rattle them off here:
LITTLE ANKLE SUPPORT
DIFFICULT TO DON AND DOFF
Note that some combat boots may work around some of these bad features, but that doesn't make them good. I can find plenty of footwear that has worked around all of these bad features, and I will talk about good footwear later on. I'm specifically looking at all the exotic "half combat boot / half something else" mutants that you can't wait to mention. I've seen them all. Something that is 50% combat boot and 50% hiking boot is still shittier for patrolling than something that is 100% hiking boot, so why use it?
Why are combat boots like this? I've thought about this a lot and I think it's the same reason why military uniforms are pretty bad for patrolling: big army needs troops to both patrol and do manual labor using the same set of clothing. So imagine trying to combine a pair of work boots and a pair of hiking boots. They have conflicting, mutually exclusive features, and if you combined them you'd have a boot that isn't very good for work or for hiking. As civilians, we don't have to live our entire lives using only a single type of boot. We have the freedom to put on our work boots on the days we work around the homestead, and our trail runners on the day we need to patrol across rural countryside. So we can afford to have a variety of different footwear types that are optimized for different situations. Here are the reasons why combat boots are NOT the ideal choice for patrolling:
Ever wondered what the purpose of heels on a boot are? Me too. Search online and you'll find a bunch of possible explanations. Use in stirrups (not useful to you or me), encouraging better leg mechanics when running (tenuous as far as I can tell) but the most common explanation is "fashion." "Because it makes you look taller." And what military wouldn't want their troops looking big and strong?
The problem is that heels have a downside: higher heel elevation is pretty strongly linked to higher incidence of ankle injuries such as breaks and sprains. Higher heel = less ankle stability = higher risk of rolling your ankle. Now I will caveat this by saying there are two measurements, "heel stack height" and "heel to toe drop." High numbers of either seem to contribute to ankle injury, and guess what, combat boots have high numbers of both. You can read about it here, here, and here.
Combat boots have really hard, rigid soles. Now this can be good in some circumstances. If you're going over a lot of really hard, sharp terrain like sharp rock fields, especially if hauling a really, really heavy load, it will cushion your feet more to prevent foot bruising. A harder sole also takes longer to wear out. But when I'm patrolling in the CONUS, these things aren't that important to me. My AO is not a talus field, I'm not carrying a 70lb pack, and if my outsoles start to wear out I'll just replace my old boots with a fresh pair from the literal duffel bag full of boots I've collected for cheap over the years. I'd rather take the advantages of soft, flexible soles such as those found on trail runners. On a micro level, I think the lugs on softer outsoles are more grippy, and less likely to slide when walking up steep smooth slopes such as rooftops or muddy hillsides or large rocks. On a macro level, I think a soft sole allows your entire foot to bend and flex to better grip the uneven ground, such as when stepping on medium size rocks, logs, or ladder rungs, much like the way your hand curls around something to grip it.
LITTLE ANKLE SUPPORT
You've probably heard the common belief that "boots with high tops and laces that go over and above your ankle support the ankle, thus preventing ankle injuries such as breaks and sprains." As such you will be appalled later in this post when I recommend extremely low top footwear. Why? Because that common belief is a myth. It has no solid basis in fact. See, basketball players get a lot of ankle injuries, and as such, a lot of research has been done into whether good footwear can prevent this. Studies comparing high tops vs low tops found no change in the frequency of injury. In fact, many believe that high tops increase the chance of an ankle injury. If you want you can read about it here, here, and here.
All those detrimental combat boot features that I've discussed above also come with a weight cost. A pretty substantial one too.
As you can see in the above photo, a pair of combat boots can weigh almost THREE TIMES as much as a pair of trail runners. And to make matters worse, weight on your feet matters a lot more than weight on your back or belt. How much more? Studies have shown that it costs you between four and six times as much energy to carry an ounce of weight on your feet versus an ounce of weight on your back. So the weight difference between that combat boot and the trail runner, when multiplied by five, will feel like carrying an extra 7.28 pounds on your back. You can read about these findings here, here, and here.
New advances in synthetic performances textiles allow much better breathability than in past decades. Civilian outdoor footwear, constantly pushing the envelope, takes advantage of these textiles while military footwear doesn't. Leather in particular is not great for breathability (of course the US Army dictates your boots MUST be leather), and if you've recently waxed your leather boots, you've stuffed all the tiny pores with wax, so they're not going to breathe at all. This same concept applies to waterproof breathable (WBP) materials such as Goretex. They have tiny pores that are designed to let out air and moisture from your sweating feet while preventing moisture ingress from the outside. But once those pores get clogged with wax, or perhaps dirt (as boots inevitably do) then those pores can't do their job and your breathable boots no longer breathe.
Why is breathability important? Because it allows moisture from your feet to be expelled, keeping your feet dry. Wet feet get blisters more easily, freeze more easily when temperatures drop, and eventually can host fungal infections. Footwear that breathes and that dries quickly (AKA not combat boots) are critical to keeping your feet dry and in good working order.
There is an exception to breathability, where in extremely cold or wet climates you actually can benefit from non breathable footwear, but I'll save that for a future post.
DIFFICULT TO DON AND DOFF
I don't have any fancy studies to post about this one but I don't have to. Military gear is victim to a lot of inertia, where old ideas die pretty hard. The shoe lace, invented around 2000 BC, is no exception. You all know how long it takes to lace and unlace your 8" combat boots with your 50" boot laces. Pretty fucking long. Because of the tall height of combat boots, they need a lot of hardware to cinch them around your feet and ankles, so this is always going to be a problem. Some companies have tried to alleviate this by putting zippers on their boots. I hate this. Zippers are one of the most common failure points on gear. The moment you break one of those zipper teeth, your boots are pretty fucked.
But if your footwear has low tops instead of incredibly high tops, it requires less lacing, less hardware, and therefore less fiddling on your part to get them on and off. Check this out:
It's a BOA Dial. Push in and twist to tighten, yank out to instantly loosen. Your shoes are literally on and off in a couple seconds. There's also the Salomon Quicklace, which is basically a cordlock for your laces. Also way faster than normal laces. Even the venerable speed hook, which even the most basic hiking boots have, are often hard to find on combat boots.
Furthermore, I think that the easier it is to take your boots off, the more likely you are to properly care for your feet in the field, and the quicker you'll be able to put them back on in an emergency. This small feature can mean quite a lot for your performance.
COMMON ARGUMENTS DEFENDING COMBAT BOOTS
"If [civilian hiking boot] were better, then the military would use them."
It's a common joke that government equipment is "made by the lowest bidder." What do you think costs more to produce, a snazzy pair of speedcrosses with hypalon anchor points and little cable locks, or the same pair of basic belleville combat boots that gov contractors have been making for 25 years? People are smart enough to recognize that a "mil spec" AR-15 is FAR inferior to a high performance civilian AR-15. But they inexplicably fail to carry that logic over to other pieces of gear. It is critical, critical, that you decouple the association that military issue = good. I would honestly err more on the side that military issue = bad. I've made both a hobby and a living out of evaluating milsurp personal equipment, and I can tell you that more often than not, it is inferior to its civilian counterpart. Footwear in particular is perhaps the STRONGEST example of this that I can think of.
"But I've used combat boots for years and never had any problem"
This is faulty logic, I'm afraid. It's the same as saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." People who say this usually have never tried better footwear designs, and therefore have no basis of comparison. They're just being complacent. Henry Ford once said that “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” You can't know what you're missing if you don't try it, or even consider a serious, unbiased comparison between it and what you currently have.
"[civilian hiking boot] doesn't fit my foot shape, but combat boots do"
There isn't some ideal single specific foot shape that all modern hiking footwear is made for. Trust me, I don't care how fucked up your feet are, there IS a hiking boot that fits you. Do you think the entire outdoor footwear industry just ignores a subset of the population because they have feet of a certain shape, and doesn't make boots for them? Do you think that the only alternative that fits your feet is some weird milsurp design from 50 years ago? I mean come on. Admittedly, not everyone has the same shape of foot. I have high insteps, and as such, I sadly cannot wear La Sportiva Bushidos. But Salomon Speedcrosses and Altra King MTs fit fine. Just block out an hour or so, go to an REI, and try on different shoes. I promise you will find a pair that fits the shape of your feet. You're not that special.
"I had [civilian hiking boot] and it fell apart in six months, my combat boots last for years!"
This is like how for any item on Amazon, I can find enough good or bad reviews to argue either that it's the best product ever or the worst product ever. You can always find someone who has destroyed X pair of boots, and you can always find someone else who has used X pair of boots for years without issue. So this kind of argument degrades into your word versus mine. But What I can tell you is that out of six or seven different types of combat boots I've owned, I've destroyed three or four of them. Out of twelve or so different types of hiking boots or trail runners I've owned, I've destroyed one. It's a pair of Salomon Quests I bought in 2016 and have seen occasional but continuous use since then. The soles are worn smooth and there's tears in the upper from repeated creasing. But they still work as exercise shoes and if I had no other footwear to replace them, they'd do good work in a pinch. Now to be fair, a lot of those hiking boots I haven't owned for long enough to destroy them, but they've already lasted for more years than the combat boots. So in my personal experience versus yours, I've found modern hiking boots to actually be MORE durable than combat boots.
"But combat boots have drainage holes"
Completely fucking unnecessary. This stems back to having poor breathability. Sure, if you are wearing fully leather boots that are well waxed, then maybe they take a while to drain. But as discussed above, don't wear those. If you have breathable boots (like basically any non-leather modern hiking footwear) then all the water will drain out of them in seconds, whether they have drain holes or not. After that the only moisture left is that which is absorbed and held within the materials of the boot itself, and drainage holes don't really help with that. So basically every good modern boot drains itself fine, and there's no reason to specifically hunt down boots that have drainage holes.
"But the USGI Jungle Boots have a steel plate in the sole so that punji sticks don't jab my feet from below"
Someone actually made this argument to me unironically. It's wild. What do you think your chances are of actually stepping on a punji stake in the CONUS? I'm not talking about the odd rusty nail, because regular soles will actually stop those in many cases. I'm talking about a real, vietcong style booby trap. Now compare that likelyhood to the likelyhood of you not being able to keep up because you have plates of steel in the bottom of your boots. Which do you think is a more realistic threat?
SO WHAT BOOTS DO YOU RECOMMEND?
For most people, I recommend trail runners. They're the lightest, grippiest, fastest drying, most-comfy-over-many-miles footwear I've ever worn. My personal favorite is the Salomon Speedcross line (or Speed Assault, which is their military line equivalent):
These are relatively representative of most trail runner shoes, so there are many similar makes and models that do just as good. Altra and La Sportiva are great brands too. You can find these shoes used for cheap on ebay, so you can get a used pair for $50-70 to try out before dropping money on new ones. Just make sure the tread looks fresh and not worn down.
Now, if A: your brain isn't big enough to handle the superior trail runners, or B: you operate somewhere that has really sharp objects on the ground like cacti or razor sharp rocks, I recommend a nice non-leather, non-goretex low or mid ankle hiking boot. Salomon Quests are a classic that special forces guys have been using for 15+ years now, and so are Merrell Moabs.
These can also be had on ebay or in thrift stores for $50-70. They even come in nice subdued colors so they match your pretty camo outfit.
Perhaps one day I'll do a blog post specifically on cold weather footwear and water footwear, but these above shoes will fit those roles alright in a pinch. As always, if you have any questions feel free to message me on instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org. God bless you and good luck.