- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Fall calls to the hiking fan, lured by visions of the season’s multicolored leaves and splendor.

Consumers looking to buy hiking boots see visions of another sort: a bewildering variety of styles accompanied by some equally confusing brand names.

For instance, the product information sheet on hiking boots put out for retail customers by REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) lists 77 styles for men and women under three different categories: backpacking; extended backpacking and mountaineering; and lightweight hiking.

Details are given for each model regarding price, weight and the nature of the materials used in the lining, midsole, outsole, upper and support sections as well as whether the boot can be resoled and, where applicable, whether crampons can be applied.

Generally, form follows function as well as common sense. A heavier shoe is needed for backpacking and mountaineering excursions when a hiker carries provisions and extra clothing.

Technology plays a large part in making any boot, with most manufacturers using many of the same materials but in different ways, says Mike Brown, a store manager and footwear specialist at REI in Baileys Crossroads.

The basic materials are leather, steel (for shanks, the hard support piece in the sole), rubber and synthetics such as polyester and nylon. Amount and textures vary according to the design and purpose of each model.

One of the best-known advances in recent years is a thin waterproof breathable material called Gore-Tex from W.L Gore & Associates Inc., in Elkton, Md., whose latest version is called Gore-Tex XCR. A protective membrane, it is found between the outer covering and inner lining of the boot.

“Quite often, people mistakenly think Gore-Tex refers to a treatment on the outside of the boot,” Mr. Brown says.

Gore-Tex prevents water from penetrating to the foot while allowing perspiration vapor to escape. The company describes the technology of the membrane as a film containing 9 billion pores per square inch, each pore 20,000 times smaller than a raindrop. Perspiration vapor can escape from the inside of the boot because the membrane’s pores are 700 times larger than a water molecule.

Gore-Tex XCR is described as having a second chemical compound that can keep body oils and similar negative factors from affecting the membrane’s waterproof properties.

“There are zillions of fabrics out there that are waterproof,” notes Sandy Cohan, general manager of Hudson Trail Outfitters, based in Gaithersburg, which has nine locations in Greater Washington. “The trick is to make something that actually repels water and is lightweight. The industry leader is W.L. Gore.”

The lightweight element is key these days, he observes, claiming that “less bulk” is a current trend in footwear, what some customers consider a trail shoe.

“It can be a dangerous process for customers to pick out shoes based on appearance,” Mr. Cohan says. “We see people choosing footwear too light for its application. Fit is the key.”

Timberland as well as Nike are going along with the lightweight trend by using more mesh in the construction, says Nate Tobecksen, public relations manager for Nike in New York.

The latest of these from Nike is advertised as a “lightweight load-bearing boot” with the name Air Zoom Tallac. A unisex model, it fits under a company category labeled ACG, for All Conditions Gear. (Tallac is a mountain in California, a Nike spokesman says.)

Air Zoom Tallac was designed after a basketball shoe.

“There is a post on the outside of the boot near the ankle to give more structure, but the majority of the design is left open,” Mr. Tobecksen says. “We’ve learned through basketball that ankle rollover is similar to what you get in hiking.”

Better lacing methods also help with support. Laces are attached to webbing that runs from the back of the heel.

A good approach when considering a purchase is to look at a boot from the inside out, suggests Mr. Brown, who breaks down a boot’s construction into five parts: the insole, the outer sole, the midsole, the uppers and the lining.

“The difference in price [among various models] is going to be differences in all these areas,” he says. “But a lot of what you are paying for in a boot is actually the midsole, the part that does the work of the boot. That is where the firmness is, where weight distribution is, where most of the shock absorption is. The rest of it — the uppers, which is the leather that wraps your foot, and the outsole, which is material permitting traction — is secondary.”

An outsole, he explains, usually is rubber, and often made of Vibram, which is well-known for its traction. Vibram is both the name of the company and the material.

The midsole, which contains a lot of the boot’s weight, might also contain Vibram but is likely to be a combination of polyurethane and another plastic material called EVA, short for ethyl vinyl acetate.

“EVA is what you see in most tennis shoes because it is lighter and offers the most shock absorption,” Mr. Brown says.

“Its downside is that itty-bitty air bubbles are built into it, giving it its lightness and springiness,” he says. “But over time those bubbles break down. Which is why you aren’t going to see much EVA in heavier-duty hiking boots. It’s a trade-off. Polyurethane is much better for weight distribution, but it is tougher and weighs more.”

The shank, which is built into the middle of the midsole, comes in several versions. A half-steel shank can take more impact and is reserved for heavier-duty boots.

A normal hiking boot will have a nylon or plastic composite shank that offers much of the same rigidity but is not as heavy.

Most shank designs start at the heel, go through the arch area and end just before the ball of the foot where the boot needs to flex. “It’s like a miniature sole except the toe part has been cut off,” he says.

The latest design in lacing systems is a reinforced synthetic that adapts to the foot with just a single pull.

“The snugger the laces, the firmer will be the support,” Mr. Brown says, cautioning that it is not widely available and, hence, difficult to replace when it wears out.

In addition to checking the Web sites of retail stores, consumers can find further information on the following: www.outdoorreview.com; www.outside mag.com; and www.consumersearch. com.

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