Deb's packer boots

Best Trail Riding Boots

Your choice of footwear for trail riding in Montana is an incredibly important decision both for safety and comfort. Some people seem to be able to throw on any old shoe with no problems, but most of us have to do a lot of trial and error before we find the best boots for us.

In my case, I have narrow heels, a long big toe, and the ball of my foot is wide. In the past when I haven’t chosen my footwear carefully, I’ve ended up with inflamed blisters under my toenails, raw blisters on my heels, sore arches, horrendous callouses and aching knees and back. The proper boots for riding are the difference between having fun or being completely miserable.

 

The Essential Purpose of Western Boots

The job of every boot is protection, otherwise, we’d go barefoot. Boots protect your feet from rocks, brush, sticks–and from being crushed by a shod horse hoof you weren’t watching for. But this is important: the essential purpose of a western boot is to protect you in the event of a fall.

 If you are riding a western saddle with traditional stirrups, you MUST ride in a western boot with a heel and smooth leather sole. That’s because the western stirrup and western boot have evolved together to create a match that avoids the danger of getting caught in the stirrup and being dragged. The taller boot supports your ankle and keeps your foot from turning in the stirrup. The shank and the heel keep your foot from slipping through the stirrup (for adults, at least…boots won’t prevent a smaller child’s foot from slipping through which is why it’s traditional for children’s saddles to feature tapadero stirrups.) And the smooth leather sole allows your foot to slip out of the stirrup easily. Being dragged by a horse is a real danger if you don’t consider your footwear and your stirrups. This video is of an English rider, but the same thing can happen in a western saddle.

Riding With Tradition

Laredo Packer Boot

This is an old Laredo packer boot which I still ride in. Note the smooth sole, the tight-fitting ankle support, and the moderate heel. It’s usually easier to walk in a lower heel, but boots with higher heels tend to protect you better from getting hung up in a stirrup.

This is an average western pull-on boot. It, too, has a smooth sole and a moderate heel. This one hasn’t been walked in as much as the packer and it shows at the ball of the boot.

Packers or Pull-ons

There are two varieties of traditional western boots: a “cowboy” boot and a packer boot. The cowboy boot is a slip-on and the packer has laces.

Personally, I’ve spent many hours in each. If the boot fits well, either are extremely comfortable when riding. I’ve had a few occasions when the grommets on packer boots have snagged things, but they’re usually hidden safely under your jeans or gaiters. If you like a great deal of ankle support, packers are the way to go. If you don’t want to have to tie laces, cowboy boots will be your favorite. 

Keep in mind that when choosing socks for either, it’s important to wear socks that reach up your calf higher than the boot or you will quickly get sores on your legs. Also, I prefer smooth, unlined leather on the inside to something that has a synthetic lining. Boots with linings become too hot for my feet in the summer, though I  prefer insulated boots for cold weather.

There is definitely a break-in period for leather boots. Some say these boots become extremely comfortable for riding or walking…others will soon let you know they won’t serve you at all if you’re on foot. The problem with trail riding, as opposed to ranch work or arena riding, is that you are definitely going to want to wear something you’re also able to hike trails with unless you’re of the minority who never get off your horse no matter what. You know who you are!

Riding Boots to Hike In

Although I love riding, I also like to walk as long as I don’t have to carry a backpack. While it’s not safe to pony a pack string when you’re not mounted, there’s no rule you need to stay in the saddle all day if you’re just riding one horse. Sometimes I get bored or want to stretch my legs. If I have a preference, I ride uphill and walk down to save my knees. No matter how much walking you do, you are going to want your boots to be comfortable if you get caught on foot. The bad guys in the westerns not only stole the good guy’s horse, but they also stole his boots.

When I was a kid, I actually played tennis in my Justin boots. Being middle-aged, I need more cushion than that, now.

Old Cowboy Boots
This is what boots look like when they're ready for walking.

For years I’ve trained at home in regular athletic shoes. Because they aren’t safe with a traditional western stirrup, I’ve tried other stirrups. My favorite are the break-away stirrups on my Aussie saddle. They’re lightweight plastic and they’ll fly off the metal bar where they fasten to the saddle with no more than a strong tug. I’ve used English peacock irons, too, but I don’t like that the irons are heavy. The same is true of the western safety stirrups that have peacock/leather outsides. I’ve been beaned in the head by a flying metal stirrup more than once.  Now if I have to ride with traditional western stirrups, I simply tie on my own homemade tapaderos. Tapaderos aren’t allowed in shows, but on the trail not only do they keep you safe, but they also keep branches and brush from snagging the stirrup. 

English Peacock Stirrup
English Peacock Stirrups are designed with rubber bands to break in the event of a fall. They're very safe for that, but they hurt when they clunk you in the head.

So sure, you can ride in just about any regular shoe if you ride with safety stirrups. But out on the trail, you won’t want to. What’s wrong with an athletic shoe? For one thing, it is far more comfortable to have some sort of boot or gaiter or chaps to protect your ankles and calves. Athletic shoes also don’t give you the support you need to maintain proper foot position in the stirrup for hours.

What about a hiking boot? Two problems: they often don’t fit in a stirrup properly and they don’t give you the flexibility in your ankle to be able to keep your heels down and to be able to move your feet to keep your circulation on a long ride. Since you won’t be carrying a pack and you’re not going to be scrambling over loose rocks, you’re not going to want a deep lug sole on a hiking boot. Lug soles are notorious for snagging stirrups and for collecting mud every time you dismount.

Below are nine boots we’ve tried and liked and our pros and cons for each:

Western Peacock Stirrup
Western safety stirrups work on the same principle as English peacock stirrups. Even though the aluminum is lighter, it, too, hurts when it hits you in the head.

White's - Packer Pointed Toe

This is Peyton’s go-to boot and she loves that it’s sturdy and comfortable. She waterproofed the leather once she broke it in. It’s got a tough Vibram sole that’s smooth enough not to give problems in a stirrup. I have a similar packer boot made by Ariat which I’ve had for years that has a leather sole. I’m not a fan of walking in them, but they’re perfect when I’m in the saddle. Below are Deb’s packer boots taking a break.

Pro: Tough and very protective, able to be re-soled

Con: The laces don’t stay tied and the grommets catch on things.

White's - Plainsman

This boot has the same sole and similar heel to the White’s Packer Pointed Toe. The things I like about it: it has a Vibram sole with a little bit of ridge to provide some grip on slippery rocks without grabbing the stirrup too much, and that it comes in wide widths. Unlike a fashion boot, it’s made of really tough leather and it pretty much will last you a lifetime because it’s re-soleable.

Pro: Wide enough to slip on and off easily

Con: Because it’s a man’s boot, it doesn’t fit my heel. But hey, if you have a regular foot, no problem. 

Ariat Terrain

Ariat offers a mind-blowing choice of boots for riding. I’ve tried many. Joe’s favorite western boot is an Ariat. These are my favorites–the first one I had was called a Ariat Trail Runner, I think? The one above is the most current model. They come in wide and when I put a pair of Dr. Scholl’s insoles in them, it was pretty much the best fit I had for a budget pair of boots.

Pro: Fit, comfort and light weight

Con: Made in China with workmanship that broke down faster than a more expensive boot

Boulet Motorcycle

This men’s boot reminded me of the Justin boots I grew up in. It is a basic cowboy boot, but it has a non-slip sole and since it’s officially a motorcycle boot, it would look great when you’re on the Harley, too.

Pro: Plain, simple and versatile–polished up, a man can wear these as dress shoes.

Con: Can’t think of any. Definitely worth their price.

Boulet Roughstock

Boulet is the oldest boot maker in Canada and it makes quality working boots that won’t break the bank. This one is typical of their traditional boot. They offer a huge selection of cowboy boot styles and they’re carried by many western stores so that you can try them on before you buy. You can get them in a leather or a synthetic sole, and they offer wide widths on some of their models. 

Unlike many boot manufactors, Women’s boots have as much selection as Men’s boots.

Pro: Price, customer service and easy return

Con: Not Made in USA– but they’re better than USA-made ones we’ve tried.

Mountain Horse Winter

Mountain Horse is one of my favorite brands for many things “horse”, but I never tried these boots until I limped through a winter wearing my worn Muck boots. Don’t get me wrong–Muck boots are great for chores, but they’re not optimum for riding. The beauty of these boots is they keep my feet as warm and dry as the Muck boots, but they’re meant to fit in an English stirrup. I think they still have too much lug to be safe in a standard western stirrup, but hey…we go English around here most of the winter because I like keeping the western saddles out of the mud.

Pro: Comfort, breathability

Con: A little tight around my calves, a little too much lug for western riding

Boulet Grizzly Mountain Packer

This men’s boot doesn’t fit me, but a friend who’s a big guy swears by his.  It is definitely the pinnacle of a man’s packer boot. This is Boulet’s flagship and if you’re a 3-season size 11 or larger guy who rides in the backcountry, you should definitely check this one out. It ain’t cheap, but it shore is purdy!

Boulet Winter Insulated

This men’s insulated winter boot is hardcore enough to last a lifetime, although if you’re young and wear it to work you may need to get it resoled before then. Personally, I don’t think they’re insulated enough for wet, soggy snow, but the sole is great on ice. This one is a good all-around moderate boot that’s not too large to fit in a stirrup.

White's Hiking

I don’t like wasting my time trying to find cheap hiking boots because they always disappoint. White’s hiking boot here, isn’t cheap, but I’m impressed by it’s flexibility, traction and weight. It’s a good moderate boot for doing a lot of things–riding in western stirrups as well as walking around town. Although it is available in wide, I didn’t find one to fit me, but I know people who love theirs so it made this list.

Shoes You Don't Want for Trail Riding But Want to Bring With Camping

Other than the obvious (flip-flops, sandals, crocs, etc.) there are two types of shoe which you should use to ride in. But you will want to bring them with if you go camping more than one night.

The first type is a fairly smooth-soled walking shoe. I wanted a pair of which had a leather upper instead of the more common synthetic ones so that I could waterproof it and found what I was looking for with Ariat. The stitching has been holding up ok, the soles don’t slip on ice, and they keep my feet warm in cold weather.

Vasque Boot

The second type is a light hiking boot. You don’t want a large lug which digs up the dirt around camp, but where you’re staying may be rough enough that you want a little more sole than a walking shoe. This Vasque boot is adequate to use for day hikes without the horses, as a back-up in case my riding boots start hurting my feet, or for camp chores if I need to deal with a rocky site such as getting water from a creek. All the outdoor footwear brands make this type of boot and you should choose the one that fits best. They should be light enough to pack for multi-day rides and comfortable enough to wear if your feet get sore.