Boots seem to be the most controversial piece of gear a mountain hunter can discuss these days. Like most folks who are frustrated by how fast they burn boot leather, I have often times been caught up in the hullabaloo surrounding the topic. After blowing out my 5th pair of hiking boots in 2 years, I had enough of throwing my money at various mid-tier hiking boots and tossed my feet into a pair of Kenetrek Hardscrabble Hikers to see if they were the magical glass slippers I had been looking for. For 30 days, I put my Kenetrek boots to the test shed hunting, bear hunting, and scouting for my fall deer and elk hunts. Throughout this test, I recorded mileage, total vertical feet gain and loss, weather and terrain. Luckily (or unluckily) I had a hodgepodge of conditions to run these boots in since winter did not let it’s thumb off us in southern Wyoming until the first week of June. I looked at their performance, their ideal performance conditions, as well as the fit and durability of these full leather boots. There is no doubt in my mind, each boot on the market is going to lend itself to a slightly different fit and function for each wearer. As many folks remark, you just have to find the right fit for you in a boot that accomplishes the tasks you set forth for it. That said, I was looking for a boot with great versatility, solid support, relentless waterproofing, and more than anything, durability. With 62.4 miles and 25,560 vertical feet of mostly off-trail use on my Hardscrabble Hikers, I can confidently say these boots fit the bill for me.
I have true 8.5 size feet with c-d widths and a medium arch (and if you don’t know these three measurements, I would highly recommend you check out a Brannock device before moving forward with any online purchase). When I approached Wyatt at Kenetrek with these measurements, he recommended the size 9 boots in medium width. He NAILED it with the recommendation. In our conversation, Wyatt mentioned Kenetrek boots have a fit rate of nearly 97% among Americans with their different width and length offerings. Chances are good they can fit a boot to your foot with the proper sizing selection. One of the first things I usually do when I get a hiking boot is swap out the factory insole for either Superfeet or one of my customs I made for myself while working in as a ski and mountaineering boot-fitter in college. Instead, Wyatt suggested I give their factory insoles a chance, especially given my average arch height and normal support needs. Man, I am glad I listened to him there. The insole fit great and after working with a ton of different boot companies, these are the first I can confidently recommend giving a try before swapping to something else (unless you have some foot problems that need to be addressed, like a severe case of plantar fasciitis).
The first day out with my boots, I braced for hot spots and potentially other foot issues, but they never came. Since they are full leather boots with a rubber rand I expected them to take some serious ground pounding to break in. I was pleasantly surprised to have back to back 4+ mile hikes over 2000 vertical feet with ZERO issues. We had just received some May snow in those first couple days of wearing the boots, so I was also able to test them out in some inclement weather right off the bat. I have a knack for poor route choices off-trail. As a result, I gained intimate experience with their grip on big rocks, cliffsides, scree, and slick grassy terrain. To be fair, the Mountain Extreme is probably a better-designed boot for this seriously rocky terrain with the added ankle support, but for a guy like me who has decent ankle strength, I found the boots very nimble and light enough weight to make some delicate maneuvers when the terrain got hairy. One thing I noticed is that the outsole prioritizes durability (which I love) but as a result, they are not built for gripping to icy slick rocks as some softer soled boot might. I just found it important to pay attention to foot placement in those extreme, icy slick conditions, as one should with any all-around hiking and hunting boot.
Socks and Lacing Tips
Throughout most of my testing, I alternated between the Montana and Yellowstone socks from Kenetrek. They both performed great, with the Montana socks being preferred for snowier and colder conditions and the Yellowstone for everything else. One day, I tried out a lightweight Darn Tough pair of socks built for trail running with no padding as a test. I noticed that day I had some slippage forward and aft at ball of my foot (where the Kenetrek socks are padded) and slight movement side to side. I would not want those thin socks to be my only ones on a week-long trip since they aren’t padded in the first place, but I discovered a little lacing tip from Michael Parente, one of Randy Newberg’s cameramen, that locked my heel to the back of the boot while wearing those thinner socks and got rid of any slippage at all.
It goes like this:
1.Skip the first (bottom) eyelet hook while lacing and hit the second
2.Double back to the first eyelet hook
3.Come back to the very top eyelet hook
I noticed this lacing technique was not necessary with my padded socks but ended up being a lacing preference that I ran with from day 4 on.
I spent 10 of my 14 testing days in these boots chasing spring bears in Wyoming. I did not register a bait site with Wyoming Game and Fish Department, so went with spot and stalk methods to fill my tag. As with most hunts, there were a roller coaster of events throughout my hunting season that included a completely whiffed shot at a bear on day 8 of hunting.
After returning to that same spot where I missed and waiting out a heckuva windy and rainy Wyoming thunderstorm, I punched my tag on a great black bear just as the storm broke. This allowed me to put the boots to the test under significantly heavier loads than normal. Though I put on quite a few miles looking for bears in the backcountry, I ended up punching my tag only a short hike from the pickup. Since it wasn’t too far of a hike, I loaded up my pack with the hide, skull, 4 quarters, and additional meat I pulled my 5’6” bear in one load on my Mystery Ranch pack to see what these boots were made of. My quads and glutes were not too happy with the extra burden on my back, but I felt zero abnormal foot fatigue or other issues with my feet. They passed the heavy pack-out with flying colors.
All in all, these Kenetrek Hardscrabble hikers fit the bill for an all-around supportive but lightweight hunting and hiking boot perfectly. I never once found any sign of leakage from waterproofing (even when the creek crossing came in over the top of my Kenetrek gaiters). While I need to condition the boots again very soon, the leather uppers are in fantastic shape with only a couple pock-marks from my clumsy foot placement among rocks. Most importantly for me, the rubber rand and K-Talon outsole are holding up, unlike any other boot I’ve had on my feet. If someone is looking for a versatile mountain hunting boot setup, grab the Hardscrabble Hikers, a couple of pairs of quality socks and hunting gaiters by Kenetrek and you’ll be confident your feet are taken care of for the vast majority of your hunting and hiking around the west.