The Science of Boots

Comfort, protection, practical, stylish? What is this? A fashion parade? Not quite, but what you put on your feet is clearly important. Important like your helmet is what we’re saying. So we’ve put a guide together, not to name names but to highlight the pro’s and con’s of boot styles and look at how armour protects your feet, why you might need it and what you might want from a boot to use on an adventure.

It seems pretty damn important to us here at Brake that a boot protects those things we stand on.

The chief weapon of a good adventure bike boot is protection, protection and feel. No wait, the TWO chief weapons of a good adventure bike boot are protection, feel and comfort. No wait, the THREE chief weapons of a good adventure bike boot are protection, feel, comfort and all-weather abilities…Let’s start this again. The point is, and you may have missed it, there are many elements to a good adventure bike boot and plenty to consider when you’re shopping for a pair.

 

It all boils down a few key aspects: where you do or are planning to ride, in what weather conditions, what your priorities are in terms of feel or protection, whether you want to stand up on the footrests a lot, walk a lot, want short boots, grippy tread on the soles…no, wait, I’m doing it again. Ok, boot manufacturers will tell you it boils down to: protection, performance and comfort. In the real world that means do they look after you? Do they work? And are they nice to wear?

 

Talking to several boot manufactures in the process of writing this feature meant we got a pretty good idea that these elements are often conflicting. Particularly so for adventure-specific boots which makes the design process difficult.

 

It seems pretty damn important to us here at Brake that a boot protects those things we stand on – it’s pretty hard to do it without them that’s for sure. But adventure boots need a wide range of skills because we have a habit of using them in a wide range of situations rather than just to sit and commute in, race with or ride to coffee shops in.

 

Adventure riders can often sit (or should that be stand?) at different ends of the scale; some prefer solid boots with maximum protection while others happily forsake that for some comfort and the ability to go for a walk when you get off the bike. There are plenty of people in both camps. What you need to know and what we hopefully explain in this feature, is that different boots provide different levels of protection and feel. So have a read and make your mind up if you’re already on the right road or if you need to look at a new set.

 

Types of boots nailed down…

Motocross or enduro boots – High spec and high tech protection against impact and abrasion, limiting ankle movement to what is needed and generally very solid in construction. MX boots are a more solid boot if you’re standing up on the footpegs all day too but usually offer very little in the way of climate protection or sensitivity for the controls until you get used to them. In short there are three rules with MX boots: they are protective like ski boots, you can’t feel the controls as much and they leak like a sieve. They make you look cool too. Especially when worn in white.

 

Trials (sometimes labeled ‘courier’) boots – similar to MX boots in some ways but usually smaller and without the armour. Typically a grippy (grippier than MX boot) and strong sole, with some toe, heel, ankle and shin armour but lots of flexibility and soft leather to allow plenty of movement. Usually very light comparatively but, again, usually with very little in the way of climate protection. Trials boots are made for use with light bikes going slowly but trade on being very good if you want to feel what your feet are doing.

 

Adventure boots – as ever with us ADV riders these boots are crossbreeds. Typically a mixture looking a bit like trials-type boots but with armour more along the lines of a road bike boot. The rules are somewhat more blurred than other styles, with some boots being very soft, flexible and clearly comfort orientated and some with substantially more armour. Most Manufacturers often claim the protection levels of their road boot equivalent but with a far grippier sole, more consideration to climate and in some cases more comfort too. Many of the better-known manufacturers make their version, with and without waterproof linings.

 

Road bike boots – can vary wildly in terms of feel and protection depending on price. Generally the high-spec ones offer good levels of protection, broadly because they too are race developed in similar ways to the MX boots. The negatives are usually no tread pattern, they’re shorter up the leg and less protective of the foot itself. Some are waterproof.

 

Short/ankle boots – as favoured by Charlie Boorman (look at our ‘What I wear’ feature on Charlie). Generally speaking we’re talking either motorcycle boot manufacturer ‘city-type’ boots or sturdy walking boots. Both types are available with waterproofing, armour in the toes, heel and ankles. Some even limit ankle movement like their fully-grown siblings. The obvious negative is they stop just above the ankle and walking boots offer no consideration to crush protection. There are several schools of thought, they offer movement and sometimes more feel but quite obviously any impact to the shin has no protection.

 

Wellies, sandals, flip-flops and trainers – not very good. Obviously. Although the wellie boot was pretty popular at one time with the trials riding community anything soft and flimsy is not going to be very protective or comfortable to stand on a footrest for any length of time. If you’re going on holiday, hiring a scooter and don’t like your toe nails or skin on your ankles, then maybe flip-flops and/or sandals make more sense…

 

R&D

For many years the leading brands of bike footwear have used the expertise of their sponsored riders to develop their products. If you’re looking for protection from a boot then, as in other areas, the MX and enduro boot is the one most likely to deliver because it is race developed in extreme conditions for maximum protection. Obviously riders take a pretty pay-cheque but large manufacturers do use their sponsored riders to good effect as test dummies.

 

The recently retired Marc Coma surely got a lot of dosh from Alpinestars for wearing their Tech-series boots but he wouldn’t race in something which didn’t work or distracted him from the not inconsiderable goal of winning the Dakar. Through his racing and testing programme he’s also part of Alpinestars’ boots development and provides valuable information which directly to the boots we can buy.

 

As a general rule feedback from the likes of Coma and the many sponsored off-road racers filters through into the boots we can buy. The type of boots developed by Rally or Enduro riders is more relevant to us as adventure riders because those two sports demand a heck of a lot of time on the bike. That means they’re designed to be protective to a high level but also relatively comfortable because both sports mean long days standing on the footrest.

 

It’s not always easy to make the connection but you could do worse than have a look at a few of your off-road heroes and see what they’re wearing.

 

Climate changes

Boots can feel incredibly uncomfortable very quickly when you’re feet are too hot. Similarly you’re whole body temperature can be affected by cold, wet feet. What works in northern Europe isn’t going to mean a fig in the middle of Australia.

 

So, as is often the case, consider what you’re doing and particularly where you’re riding. MX boots often have venting so can be cooler to wear but less waterproof. The other end of the scale the adventure boot can be Gore-lined, padded, warm and comfortable in colder climes.

 

A tip of many experienced travellers is to carry a range of socks and possibly wear a boot a size larger than normal. Socks can be waterproof, thin, thick, thermal and worn in layers depending on the weather, which will keep your feet more comfortable. Socks being small items of clothing are easy to carry of course.

 

What are boots made of?

A top-spec MX/Enduro boot is quite a piece of mechanical engineering when you start to look at them closely. Fully-molded plastic shoes with interlocking mechanisms to limit ankle movement, even aerodynamic shin and buckle systems add to the spec list.

 

Commonly boots, whichever type your talking, are made from a combination of leather (or man-made equivalent) and Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU), with a micro-fibre layer or three for the inner linings. Leather is an obvious construction material because it is flexible, durable, abrasion resistant and well-used across the range of motorcycle clothing.

 

TPU is durable and comes in many forms of hardness and rubberiness (this isn’t a word but you know what we mean). You’ll find TPU protecting your smartphone when you drop it outside the pub, keeping your wet hands away from electrocuting yourself as you dry your hair or stopping you getting a headache when you crash your mountain bike. It’s everywhere and quite obviously an incredibly versatile man-made material.

 

On boots it is used to primarily to protect, both in terms of impact and limitation of movement. Where it is used, what it feels like and how much it does varies across each boot; a hard impact resistant shin protection plate feels different to the buckle clasp, which is different again to the grippy and durable sole. The point is it can be adjusted to purpose across a boot.

 

You’ll also find many different design features like gaiters to help keep out the water (though no proper off-road boot ever is waterproof – fact), venting, replaceable parts (buckles and soles are most common), steel protectors over the tip of the front sole, grippier inside leg patches, gear change pads, water-deflecting rims around the top and many more.

 

Love some bootie?

Some modern boot designs, particularly off-road ones, use an internal bootie (for want of a better word) to either add comfort and/or armour. Some boot designs have lots of external armour which would make the boot uncomfortable inside so a padded ankle-high slipper keeps the sticky-out bits of your foot cushioned. Others incorporate part of the ankle bracing into the bootie to direct protection in a specific area.

 

Some like a bootie, some riders don’t and it usually comes down to comfort, specifically how hot the bootie makes your foot. Even within a single boot manufacturer you can find a ‘line’ with and one without booties because opinion is divided on whether it is actually comfortable. Again, it boils down to personal experience and the conditions you ride in. Do pay particular attention to the boot sizing and fit because booties can be constricting if you get the wrong size.

 

How boot armour works

The basic mindset behind the different boot designs, or at least how to think of the most protective boots versus the rest is laid out by Alpinestars: “protection philosophy is demonstrated at its highest level in the Tech 10, but concepts of this technology are present throughout the range of Off-road motorcycling footwear.” The Tech 10 is the peak of the Astars boot design and, along with other top-spec MX boots, it’s right to benchmark protection provided by other boots against them.

 

The protection systems in place on many full-on MX or enduro boots usually means it has an external ‘shell’ of TPU. Its job is to protect from impact and abrasion but also, on the better ones, to limit the movement of your lower leg and foot. Stopping your ankle moving too much in ways it shouldn’t naturally is vital for full protection from injury. On the best, TPU armour moves backwards and forwards on flex points but is limited in that movement, often by lugs sliding in pockets. Longitudinal and lateral movement is limited to prevent your foot and ankle going beyond natural limits.

 

A good sole for adventure biking needs a bit of grip for sure but unless you’re planning on rock climbing you don’t want your sole to be too soft. Most motorcycle boots have some reinforcement under your foot, in the layers above the sole, often a far harder grade of plastic or even metal sometimes. The point of it is to support your foot standing on footrests but also, more importantly, to prevent crushing and/or twisting in the event of a crash.

 

Boot armour should allow the normal movement needed to control a motorcycle as much as possible but no more than is humanly possible (usually as much in a standing as well as the seated position by the way). The amounts of TPU can vary but generally on a top-spec MX boot you’ll find a hefty shell around the foot, which links into armour around the ankle, heel and right up the lower leg around the front to the shin. It’ll be stiff to walk in but it’s the trade-off.

 

Most adventure-specced boots by comparison are easier to walk in and will feature armour on the toe, heel, shin and ankle areas though won’t stretch the levels of protection as far as MX boots.

 

A blast around the leading boot manufacturers proves some adventure boots have similar levels of protection to each other but fall somewhere between MX and road boot – though many look like a trials boot on steroids. Speaking to the manufacturers provides similar answers to questions about safety: they attempt to blend protection with comfort and know well many ADV riders spend a decent amount of time walking as well as riding.

 

The Experienced Traveller Opinion

Julia and Kevin Sanders, them of Globebusters, are expedition and tour operators, record holders but above all incredibly experienced world travellers. They’ve worn a lot of boots and they’ve guided lots of people in lots of boots. Their experience is huge so we asked them what they’ve worn over the years and what they recommend.

 

When Kevin and Julia began their own adventure riding in the late nineties (which spawned what would become Globebusters Expeditions and mapped their lives from then on, not to mention a World Record or two) they openly admit to not wearing motorcycle boots at all: “We wore strong walking boots. At the time we didn’t know what we were doing to an extent and our philosophy was we were going to be on and off the bike a lot, we didn’t have much space because we were two-up travelling. The safety aspect of it wasn’t foremost in our minds.

 

“We were just trying to think about what was practical from a walking point of view and getting on and off the bike a lot and not wanting to carry multiple types of shoes and boots with us. Shoes and boots take up loads of space when you’re travelling basically.

 

“On that trip we only had one accident where we came off. We didn’t break anything but we did get some nasty bruising and cuts in our shins. And this was the start of the learning process.

 

“When we went on to do the World Record we knew that was going to be on a lot of Tarmac roads so at that stage we looked for a decent pair of road boots. I think from memory we settled on a soft Daytona road boot that basically didn’t have any type of protection in them that you find in MX or adventure-style boots.

 

“We weren’t really thinking that we’d be doing any riding on un-paved surfaces or dirt tracks. Once we started to travel on the big overland trips we were getting an understanding that in a lot of places around the world, even if you’re on the main road, they’re gravel roads. So we started to realize we needed to take our lower leg protection a lot more seriously.

 

“In the early days BMW had a ‘Savanna’ boot but that only had basic shin protection and not really enough of the ankle protection you find on the more enduro or MX-style boots.

 

“Basically our experience was building over time and you have to remember there were less people doing that sort of trip then. There’s a lot more information around now and it was much more difficult to draw on collective experience. At the time a Hotmail account and email was a new thing!

 

“What we found, as we travelled with groups of people, was that lower leg injury was the most common form of injury. Whether that was a bad strain, a hairline fracture or even breaking a leg. We learnt from experience that people with not enough protection were getting injuries that probably wouldn’t have happened or wouldn’t have been so bad had they been wearing a more protective boot.

 

“We then started to firmly recommend to people who were on trips with lots of unpaved gravel road riding that they needed something equivalent to the GS Rally boot. It needed to have armour around the ankle that would protect firstly lateral movement so that the falling off sideways on a bike, the side-to-side movement of the ankle was much better protected. That and having full shin protection. We use the Sidi Crossfire II boot now because we found they feel more comfortable from the off, they break-in quicker, they seem better made and the sole is more robust. There’s a version with a grippy sole too.

 

“On some of our more ‘mild’ trips, where we’re not going to encounter very much dirt road and we’re not so remote, we do use the Sidi Adventure boot. Those are GoreTex, they have good shin protection but the ankle protection isn’t quite as robust. We have worn SealSkinz waterproof socks but to be honest we’ve found the Crossfire’s are pretty good unless you’re riding in a tropical storm all day. Where it’s just showers or river crossings the Sidis are pretty good.

 

“The trouble with that type of boot is that a lot of people complain they’re uncomfortable, big and heavy etc. etc. but we think it’s a compromise well worth taking. We very firmly now recommend to people that they should be considering that type of boot on pretty much all our expeditions. The bottom line is it’s about mitigating risk to yourself. We know and have seen from multiple trips with hundreds of riders now that the lower leg injury is by far the most common. So it seems absolute common sense that you should be wearing a boot that gives you as much protection as possible.

 

“What you’ve got to bear in mind is that some of the worst types of ‘roads’ are in some of the most remote types of places and a long way from medical help. The better protection you have the more chance you have of not being stuck in the middle of nowhere in a developing country with a serious injury.”

 

What to buy?

At Brake we’re inclined to ride off-road a decent amount and as such err on the side of full protection. MX boots can be cumbersome to feel the controls with if you’re not used to them. They’re also crappy when you’re sitting on motorways in bad weather unless you sort your socks out and have riding trousers over the top. But they do a mighty job of looking after your lower limbs. So we recommend them first, despite some of the price tags. We get the short boot thing some sing the praises off but we don’t buy it. Tibias and fibulas are important to us.

 

An option, which you might consider, is an enduro boot. Largely on the demand of the more extreme enduro events some boot manufacturers (Sidi and Alpinestars for example) are producing boots with the armour of an MX boot but with a grippier sole (traditional MX boots have not grip).

 

In different climates any type of boot is going to be uncomfortable to a degree and there are more climate-friendly options around which we readily use ourselves. We’ve used TCX’s Adventure boot loads and they stand up to all-weather riding and moderate off-roading – though the GoreTex version can get hot. We’re not averse to some all-weather riding across hundreds of miles in one hit and definitely the feel and comfort of a ‘softer’ boot is welcome at times when you’re walking.

Looking to upgrade your footwear? Click here to see our collection of boot reviews.

 


Crafted By

Jonathan Pearson
Former Features Editor

JP is a master of many tricks. Working as a bike journalist, he's been testing, analysing and writing about on and off-road motorcycles for various UK magazines, both as a staffer and a freelance journalist, since the nineties. Testing everything from Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP bike through sportsbikes, commuter bikes and, of course many, many miles on adventure bikes. JP has also spent much of his life competing at up to International level in trials, enduro, extreme enduro, circuit racing and hillclimbing. He also instructs at the Off Road Skills motorcycle training school, coaching and encouraging people in the ways of riding adventure bikes. Also a fan of vegetables and sea products.

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