The importance of getting the right boots for an expedition sits head and shoulders above almost all over kit decisions. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the years we’ve been running jungle expeditions, it’s that Rick Morales knows more than most about what makes a good jungle boot. For over 12 years he’s worked as one of the leading guides in Central America with an affinity for the exploration of the regions people seldom venture, and in 2011, he became the first person to hike the TransPanama Trail – from the border of Costa Rica to the border of Colombia.
He also leads the Secret Compass Darien Gap expedition and our Jungle Guides course in Panama’s Chagres National Park, bearing witness to more than his fair share of boot calamities in the humidity of the jungle. So who better to talk us through the basics of choosing footwear for your next jungle expedition? The following guide has been put together to help teammates choose the right footwear for the jungle guides course.
Over the years we’ve experimented with different types of footwear, and even though there’s not an absolute one-stop answer to the question which is the best shoe for job? we can all agree that it’s important to avoid the conventional hiking boots used in temperate regions and invest in good jungle boots. Avoid also trail-running sneakers, even though they are very comfortable and drain water well, they don’t offer any ankle protection against injuries, and the upper material is not thick enough to withstand a snakebite. So, for this course jungle boots are the way to go. If you already own a pair of hiking boots or trail runners, leave them at home and get yourself a good pair of jungle boots. The former would be forever ruined in the jungle environment anyway, so save those for more benign terrain and conditions.
Some of the key features of jungle boots are their height, well above the ankle; they have decent grip on wet, slippy surfaces such as river rocks; they have drain holes to purge the excess water out; and they lack a waterproof lining.
Your feet are going to be wet from crossing rivers all day. In the high humidity of the rainforest once boots (all boots) get wet, they will stay wet, at least for the duration of the course. Waterproof boots are designed to keep water out when it’s coming from the sides and the bottom, but they do nothing against water that’s coming from the top of the boot. In fact, that waterproof lining effectively becomes a water vessel that retains water inside, so boots that have this lining breathe very poorly. Even if you’re not crossing rivers, your feet are going to sweat profusely. Therefore in the jungle, Gore-Tex or a similar lining is to be avoided at all costs.
When venturing into a tropical jungle, you should get used to the idea that your feet are going to be wet during the daytime. There are ways to maintain foot hygiene at camp and during the night, which we will discuss at length at the start of the course. But for now start getting accustomed to the idea of having your boots wet every day.
The next important step after purchasing your jungle boots is trying them on, making sure they fit correctly, and breaking them in. Please do this at least one month before the start of the course. The best jungle boot can turn into an evil form of torture if you don’t break them in properly. One good rule of thumb is to buy boots one size bigger than your normal size. Some brands run small, and also your feet get swollen with the exercise, so try to account for that by going one size bigger.
If the boots don’t fit well the first time you try them on, return them right away. Don’t even bother with breaking them in. Take them back to the store and get another size or another brand/model, until you’re happy with the way they fit and feel on first impression.
Once you’re happy with the fit, you should make a point of taking them out for a morning hike. If possible try to emulate the wet condition of the jungle, cross a stream, hike through a waterlogged field, climb up and down slopes. Get a feel for any rubbing, hot spots or any discomfort. If the boots fit well at the beginning but after putting them through their paces they cause you some discomfort, check and see if you can remedy the problem by wearing other types of socks or playing around with the boot laces. Lubricate your feet with vaseline and/or wear a sock liner.
Here are a few popular models from some of the jungle expeditions I’ve run:
Salomon Jungle Ultras
These are great all round jungle boots. They have drain holes on the instep and the outer shank for quicker drainage and the traction is good. These aren’t the best boots but a good all round option.
Belleville Tactical Research
These are a great option which offer a roomy toe box. They have good drainage and boast some of the best traction on the market. Unfortunately they don’t last very long. It’s worth putting a line of stitching around the sole for extra strength.
5.11 Speed 3.0 Jungle Boots.
These are one of the most popular jungle boots nowadays, they tick all the boxes. I think they’re ugly as hell but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Alt-berg Jungle Microlite Panama Classic
For customers in the UK and Europe, these boots are bomb-proof, and will last a lifetime. They are a bit stiff so a good break-in period is essential. Be sure to get the option with drain holes on the instep – if they don’t have drainage holes they are not jungle boots. Also, the “Panama Classic” label is a reference to the tread design of the sole. In general the Alt-berg soles are stiff, so good for muddy terrain but not ideal for slippy rocks, but the Panama Classic fair a bit better than the regular Jungle Microlite which features a Vibram sole, stay away from this one. This Vibram sole is terrible on wet and hard surfaces.
While the information above may be relevant to most jungle expeditions, this guide was put together specifically with the Secret Compass Panama: Jungle Guides Course in mind. You can find more information about this expedition here or call us on +44 (0)20 7096 8428.