When it comes to choosing suitable equipment for a trek on Africa’s highest mountain, the one question we get asked more than any other is ‘What boots should I wear’. And understandably so: bad footwear can seriously hamper your progress up the mountain, make your trek an incredibly uncomfortable experience, and can, in extreme cases, cause you to abandon your climb. While a good pair of boots can make you feel like you’re walking on air and ensure your feet stay warm, dry and blister-free – thereby allowing you to concentrate on all the other aches and pains the rest of your body is suffering. So it’s very important that you choose the right pair of boots, ones that are durable, waterproof and, more importantly, comfortable.
In the book, we write the following: “Mountaineering boots (ie ones with stiff soles that take a crampon) are unnecessary unless you’re taking an unusual route or trekking in the low season when crampons may be required. If you’re not, a decent pair of trekking boots will be fine. The important thing about boots is comfort, with enough toe room: remember that on the ascent up Kibo you might be wearing an extra pair or two of socks, and that on the descent your toes will be shoved into the front of the boots with every step. Remember these points when trying on trekking boots in the shop. Make sure they are also sturdy, waterproof, durable and high enough to provide support for your ankles. Finally, ensure you break them in before you go to Tanzania, so that if they do give you blisters, you can recover before you set foot on the mountain.”
So how much should you spend on a pair of boots? Well, I should start by saying that, as usual, I don’t accept any ‘bribes’ or ‘incentives’ to promote one brand over another, so the following is simply my unbiased opinion, based on my experience of climbing Kilimanjaro for the past 15 years or so – as well as walking and writing guidebooks to several of Britain’s national trails.
And in my opinion is this: how much you spend on a pair of boots should largely depend on how often you think you’re going to use them. Because I’ve found that the main advantage with a more expensive boot is that they tend to last longer – which is great for someone in my line of work. In other words, if you are planning on walking regularly before or after your Kilimanjaro climb, then a more expensive pair of boots is recommended because they do tend to last longer, and thus investing in a pair makes sound financial sense.
But, that said, if you are sure that you’re not going to be doing much trekking after you’ve finished with Kilimanjaro, then there is a case to be made for buying a cheap pair (by which I mean a pair that costs about £30-60 (US$50-90), as long as they are a) tough enough to survive a strenuous week’s walking on rugged terrain; b) waterproof; and c) comfortable. And you can, of course, influence the last two of these qualities, by using a special chemical spray or dubbin to improve the water-resistant capabilities of the boot; and by breaking the boots in properly.
This last action is, of course, vital, however much you’ve spent on your boots, and needs to be done well before you reach Kilimanjaro. So, long before you even arrive in Tanzania, wear the boots everywhere you go for both long and short walks just to make sure that, by the time you get to Africa, you aren’t going to succumb to blisters.
All of which, of course, is just basic common sense – but you’re going to ask me about brands next, aren’t you? So once again, I repeat the statement I made at the start: I do not get paid by anybody to mention their products, so this is very much a personal review of the boots that I have bought over the years (or at least the ones I can remember).
I can think of five boot manufacturers that I have been impressed with over the past couple of decades: Salomon; Asolo, Merrell, Meindl and Brasher. The first thing you will note is that these are all at the medium to expensive end of the market. But then, what do you expect: I make my living by walking, I also spend much of my leisure time walking (I do, after all, own a dog) and so you would probably expect me to spend much of the laughably meagre pittance that I earn as an author on a decent pair of footwear.
So what impressed me about the footwear of each of these five manufacturers? Well, for one thing, they all felt right from the moment I put them on. There was little in the way of ‘breaking in’ to be done as they were pretty much comfortable from Day One. They were all reliably durable too, even though I am ashamed to admit that am largely neglectful when it comes to looking after my boots and am a virtual stranger to polish. So the fact that these boots all hung around long enough to imprint themselves on my memory is testament to their toughness.
As to the choice between the five brands, Merrell, Asolo and Salomon are fairly similar in terms of quality and durability, and your choice between these will depend largely on the style and whether any of them are on sale. As for Meindl, these are pretty much top of the range, and the price reflects this. I’ve had about four pairs now, and have yet to be let down by any of them; though at around £150-200 for a pair, I’d be very disappointed if I was.
Regarding Brasher, well these are my current pair and I have to say I’m very impressed: very comfortable from the off, wonderfully waterproof, fairly attractive (or, rather, as it’s trekking boots we’re talking about here, at least not hideously unattractive!) And whilst I have had them only about three months now (having picked them up for £115 in the January sales – I think the RRP was about £150) they feel well-made and durable and I think they’ll be accompanying me on several trips up Kilimanjaro, as well as my trek along Offa’s Dyke in May this year).
Having said all this, the above is only my thoughts and opinions based on my experience. And like I say, as long as you obey the advice we give in the book and which is reprinted above, you should be fine. And don’t worry too much if you think your boots aren’t up to it. I have, after all, led one Indian hiker up the mountain (take a bow Mr Rao) who wore a pair of patent leather slip-on loafers – and yes, he did make it to the summit!