There are dozens of articles dedicated to the proper way to break in new hiking boots. You start slow: wear them around the house, take them on a walk around the neighborhood, do a short hike in them. You ramp it up gradually, take them off as soon as you blister, futz with your laces until you have the perfect fit.
I’m a bit more unorthodox. Owning nothing but crumbling old leather boots, two sizes too big for me and nearly too soft for crampons, I decided to take my new Salomon X Alp MTN GTX boots out for their first spin with a striking lack of concern for my well-being. That is, I took them straight from the box on a three-day volcano climbing epic in the central Cascades with a 45-pound pack, two pairs of socks, and a years-old blister kit with no-longer-sticky tape, too-thick moleskin, and three crumpled Band-Aids.
I didn’t think twice about it until my climbing partner (also known as my dad—he’s super cool) mentioned that it sure would be nice if I’d had a chance to break in those new boots before our trip—because of course I wouldn’t be wearing them, right? Ha. After a moment’s doubt, I figured if PCT hikers can break in new shoes with big-mileage days, I can too. And off we went, hitting the trail at 5:30 in the morning to get our first 15-mile day under our belts.
For a bit of context, these boots aren’t for everyday hiking (for which my preferred footwear tends to be a lightweight trail runner). With a sturdy sole bordering on stiff and a thick, high-rise ankle, they’re most at home in mixed conditions. Salomon bills them as the meeting point between a lightweight mountaineering boot and a heavy-duty hiking boot, which made them perfect for a Glacier Peak trip, where roughly half of our 32 miles would be on snow ranging from mashed-potato slush to rock-hard sun cups to crevasse-pocked glacier. And boy, was my bad planning met with undeserved mercy. These boots rock.
Our first five miles were familiar terrain: a rolling, wooded trail with about a thousand feet of elevation gain. The boots lace far down the foot, which gave me the freedom to keep things tight across the midfoot and around the heel and roomy at the toe-box (where bunions from years of abuse in ski boots reign supreme). This is huge—flexibility with lacing allows you to relieve hot spots throughout the day, and batten down the hatches when you’re quickly gaining or losing elevation and need to keep your feet either forward or back in the boot to maintain comfort, efficient transfer of energy and weight, and, most importantly, relieve budding blisters. I played with the laces, which, at one point on the foot, feature self-locking eyelets to keep them in place, and was able to dial the fit to my oddly-shaped feet without much fuss before our first couple miles were out of the way.
We then proceeded to gain 3,000 vertical feet over the course of about a mile, grunting up endless switchbacks into a jaw-dropping alpine meadow lush with avalanche lilies and other early-season wildflowers. The Alp MTN GTX is a hell of a boot, made of waterproof Nubuck leather, with a thick rubber sole and rubber mud and toe guards, and a waterproof bootie construction that connects the tongue to the sides of the boot to keep debris and wetness out. So I was pleasantly surprised to find the boot flexing easily on the uphill, with no rubbing to report.
By the time we made it to the snow, the warm July weather had slushed things up a bit. The boots had excellent traction even on the slick edges where snowfields meet rock, and they didn’t wet out until we were about four miles in to our snow travel (and even then, who knows if that was sweat or snowmelt soaking my socks). On firmer sections, I found myself wishing for something even stiffer—that forgiving flex was great on trail, but made kicking steps toe-first a little more difficult. For comparison, my dad wore the Salewa Mountain Trainer Mid GTX. His sole hardly bent when on-trail (though they were still comfortable and effective), and he had a slightly easier time kicking steps into the rock-hard crust we’d come across in the morning throughout our trip. On the glaciers, the boots were perfectly compatible with crampons (I use the Black Diamond Contact crampon for glacier travel).
We summited on a cold morning, but the well-insulated boots kept my feet comfortable even on exposed ridges in 50-mph winds. They aren’t particularly breathable, but I didn’t find myself uncomfortably warm hiking through temperatures in the upper 80s on our way out. (I wore them with Smartwool Women’s Striped Hike Medium Crew Socks all weekend). The sturdy construction made for a slow to dry boot; they were still wet from our summit bid as we hiked out on our third day. That said, they’re slow to wet, too.
When we finally made it back to the trailhead, I had just one blister—though I hadn’t felt it during our long walk out—and some serious bruising from the stiff upper that pressed against my Achilles with every step downhill (something like 9,600 feet worth of down climbing, according to our GPS). As my relationship with these boots develops, those few hot spots should soften up in no time—especially considering the Alp MTN GTX will be, from here on out, my hiking boot of choice for snowy, bad-weather missions and mountaineering.