As I was gearing up for a week-long backpacking trip in Glacier National Park a few years back, I came to the sad realization that my hiking boots, Asolo GTXs, were just too small. When I bought them, they were the most expensive boots I'd ever purchased, and I'd planned on keeping them indefinitely. However, my already huge feet, which barely fit in the boots when they were purchased, had spread as I got older, and I'd stupidly left my Asolos in a hot garage, which I suspect shrunk the leather a bit. So, as comfortable as my Asolos were, I could now only slip into them with one thinnish sock—and that wasn't going to cut it for a week of backpacking in the mountains. I was having nightmare flashbacks to a painful hike through the Grand Canyon years ago in undersized boots. So, what to do about my upcoming trip?
Ultra-light or Traditional Hiking Boots?
I had options. First, I could jump on the ultra-light wagon, ditch the boots to go with lightweight trail shoes. Or, I could hunt down a new pair of traditional hiking boots.
I know several ultra-light backpackers who have had success with trail shoes and now scoff at fools in traditional heavy boots. I like trail shoes if I'm day hiking on a trail (they were wonderful for hiking along the Napali Coast on the Kalalau Trail in Kauai). In the 80s, well before the trail shoe boom, I wore running shoes on my first week-long backpacking trip—a 65-mile trip through Wyoming's Cloud Peak Wilderness. So, I would do another backpacking trip in trail shoes if the trail and weather conditions warranted it, but I'm not a "trail shoe all the time, every time" guy. Ultra-light shoes frequently leave you cold and wet—not a big deal while on the move, but frequently miserable in camp. Another potential issue is the lightweight sole. A friend who had previously hiked Glacier's backcountry specifically mentioned his feet being sore from so many sharp-edged rocks on the trail. One of my frustrations with backpacking in beautiful high mountain settings is the amount of time I spend studying the trail, closely watching where and how to place each step instead of enjoying the panoramic views. I think ultra-light shoes (instead of sturdy boots) would only compound this issue. Also, a lot of my outdoor time is off-trail, often in woods choked with dead, down, tangled conifers, and boggy areas. There's no comparison between the protection of a solid waterproof boot with gaiters and the vulnerability of low-cut shoes in these areas. I don't like having to pussy-foot around when things get rough.
So, I opted for new boots. Big problem: my shoe size is now 15, which really narrows my choices. I couldn't buy another pair of the Asolos I'd previously liked so much because they (and most other quality boots) top out at size 14. I had the Cordura version of the Vasque Sundowners about 20 years ago and loved the way they fit. Although the Sundowners are available in a size 15, I was scared away from them by recent consumer reviews blasting their quality now that they're produced overseas.
After quite a bit of research, I nervously ordered a pair of Danner Mountain Light II boots. I definitely recommend trying boots on in person, but this option wasn't available to me. I based my Danner choice on a few factors:
- Quality, American-made construction. "Made in the USA" is pretty rare these days, and while I recognize that quality products are made in many countries, I like to support great American companies. The Danners are designed to last a lifetime and can be rebuilt and resoled, unlike cheaper lightweight fabric boots with glued-on soles. If I do my part to keep them in good shape, I'll still be wearing these Danners years after I would've worn through several pairs of cheaper boots.
- Full leather boot. The Danners have a Gore-tex lining, but after a couple of years, Gore-tex in boots is likely to fail. With full leather, all I have to do is keep the boots oiled, and they will help keep my feet dry for a lifetime.
- They were available in size 15! Thank you, Danner!
- Very good consumer/user reviews.
- Their solid traditional look that reminded me of the boots I wanted so badly as a youngster during the hiking boot craze of the 70s! The classic "waffle stompers." When I'm paying a lot of money for quality outdoor gear, I prefer versatility so I'm able to get plenty of use out of it during my day-to-day life, as well as on the trail. Similar to the Maine Hunting Shoe from L.L. Bean, the full-leather Danners, with their movie star good looks, will get plenty of use as casual wear during the wet, cold, and mucky seasons, which is everything except July and August here in Minnesota.
Danners on the Trail in Glacier
So, how did my new Danners hold up on the trails in Glacier? Good. Actually, a solid "very good." In Glacier, our crew covered 60 miles through the Northern Loop, including the Highline Trail, one of the most grandious in the park. The Danners were comfortable, protected my toes and soles over miles of jagged rocks, and kept my feet dry and blister free. Once I got my system figured out, they were plenty comfortable, although not without some quirks:
- The Asolos and old Sundowners I mentioned both had a wonderful, contoured, form-fitting sole, and firm support in the boot. The Danner Mountain Light IIs are different. The soles feel very flat, and they're not particluarly cushioned. Before the trip, I tossed the weird plastic arch support that came with them and bought a pair of SuperFeet premium insoles. These were golden! The SuperFeet in the Danners offered the contoured cushioned support I wanted and helped my foot comfortably fill the boot that otherwise felt sort of boxy. Without the SuperFeet insert, I'm not sure I would've enjoyed the week of hiking in the mountains under full pack.
- The leather in the boot is sumptuously smooth and soft and requires almost no break-in period, but it didn't feel as supportive as other hiking boots I'd worn in the past. Although, truth be told, I think there are very few hiking boots available that truly provide enough ankle support to prevent a sprained ankle. I look to the leather boots to primarily provide protection against bumps, scrapes, stubs, abrasions, and the elements.
- The boot's tongue had to be aligned just right; otherwise, it bunched and gathered in uncomfortable ways. This was a manageable nuisance, but after hiking for days, fixing that tongue got a little old. I also preemptively applied a strip of duct tape running vertically down the heel portion of the boot. There were some exposed seems in this area, and I had just a bit of heel slipping, so I started right off with the duct tape in the boots and moleskin on my heels to ward off any blister problems. It worked—I didn't have one blister the entire trip.
- Despite the "Mountain Light" name, these are heavyweight contenders. Their poundage didn't help any when tackling the serious climbs and descents in Glacier National Park.
- I usually wore gaiters with my Danners to stay dry and keep sand and rocks out of my boots, which helps prevent blisters. It took me a bit of messing around each morning to get the Danners laced up just right and married to my gaiters, but I thought it was worth the time knowing my feet were protected. Once I was armored up, I was ready to take on the trail ahead.
Overall, Danners are very comfortable (with the SuperFeet modification I mentioned above). They're solidly built, reliable protection for your feet on even the toughest trails, and keep your feet dry. But if you want an ultra-light boot, don't be fooled by the "Mountain Light" name because these Danners are anything but light; however, if you want a boot you know you can trust to take care of your feet on a rough hike and keep on trucking with for the next 20 years, consider investing in the Danner Mountain Light II.