Thursday, March 17, 2011

Choosing Motorcycle Boots

This is an article that I wrote and appeared in a mainstream motorcycle magazine last year, and is based on my Guide to Motorcycle Boots on my website. I am repeating it here because for many of us in the Northern Hemisphere, motorcycle riding season is just about upon us!

Since I have ridden motorcycles for more than 30 years, and have tried and have worn many pairs of motorcycle boots, people have asked me from time to time about how to choose "the best" pair. Over time, I have learned a thing or two about boots. I thought I would share what I have learned, from the experience and knowledge of some fellow riders and friends in the business of boot sales.

Today's biker is looking for classic styling, high performance and unmatched quality--from his or her boots and  bikes. So what should you look for when buying motorcycle boots? There are a lot of boots that look good, are great to ride in and are versatile enough for everyday use. So take your time selecting the right pair.

When you have the task of looking for the best motorcycle boot, it can be overwhelming at times. There is no such thing as the "best" motorcycle boot because the type of boot that is suited to a person depends on his needs and preferences. Below, I will list some basic boot features which will help you make the best choice for your needs.

When choosing motorcycle boots, you have to ask yourself, "what is the main purpose of the boot?" Will the boots be used strictly for riding or do you need ones that are multi-functional -- which can be used for riding, working, and walking? In order to get the best boot for your needs, first determine what purpose your boots will serve.

Styles of Motorcycle Boots
All motorcycle boots are not the same. There are several styles of motorcycle boots you can choose from. The most common of these styles include racing or motorcross boots, "shorty" or tactical boots, tall "biker" boots, and police motorcycle patrol boots. There are cowboy boots made for motorcycling, but they are rare.

Tac Boots

"Shorty boots" are called that simply because they are 10" (25cm) or shorter. Actually, most "shorty" boots are 6" (15cm) to 8" (20cm) tall. These boots are also called tactical boots, because some police officers or wildland firefighters wear them. These boots are perfect for motorcycling and everyday wear. In fact, in my opinion, my Chippewa Firefighter boots (pictured) are absolutely the most comfortable boot I have worn while motorcycling.

Tall biker boots

Tall biker boots are usually 14" (35cm) to 20" (51cm) tall. They come in either harness style or engineer style. Harness boots have a strap that wraps around the foot across the back of the heel and attached with a ring at each side, and usually have a square toe. Engineer boots have a single strap with a buckle across the instep, and usually have a rounded toe. Both styles of motorcycle boots are equally as common, and it is a matter of personal preference as to which style to choose. Some bikers like to wear taller boots because of the added protection the boots provide to the legs, especially if the configuration of the motorcycle being ridden puts hot exhaust pipes close to the legs. The most well-known brands of this style of boot include Chippewa and Wesco.

Motor patrol boots

Motorcycle police patrol boots are a specialty style of motorcycle boots. The boots are usually 17" (43cm) to 18" (46cm) tall, but may vary if made custom. These boots are almost always black. They may have laces at the instep (a "bal-laced" style) or no laces (dress instep). The boots usually have a Vibram® sole, with a rubber or lug tread design. The most well-known brands of this style of boot include Dehner, Chippewa, and Wesco.

Boot Shaft

Upper (boot shaft) design

Select motorcycle boots that at least cover your ankles. This has two advantages (1) your ankle is protected (2) and your foot becomes stronger and thus better able to handle anything the bike wants to do (eg. tip over, slide away from you and onto your foot, or burn your legs or feet.)

It helps if the shaft section has shell protection, such as a leather lining. Without a doubt, boots with such protection are the safest. It also adds much to the durability of the boot. A leather-lined boot will last longer, stand up on its own, and will be more comfortable for all-day wear. A leather lining "breathes" and if fitted correctly, will allow ventilation so the boots do not become uncomfortably hot.

Shaft Height

Bikers must be able to operate all of the controls of the motorcycle safely. Safe operation requires the ability to bend the knees and move them quickly. Bikers who prefer tall boots should consider a shaft height that comes below the back of the knee. If the boot shaft is higher than that, then the ability to move the knee quickly is reduced significantly. Further, boots that come above the knee may cause sores to develop from the boot grazing or cutting the back of the knee. It is for these reasons why "crotch-high" boots are not a practical choice for wear by a serious motorcyclist.

Calf circumference

This is sometimes called calf width, and is an important consideration. The circumference is the distance around the outside of the leg. Boots should be wide enough to accommodate the leg, and also wide enough for jeans or leather to fit inside the boots if desired. Stock motorcycle boots that are 12" (31cm) or lower in height usually have a circumference that accommodates most legs. When boots are taller than that, then you may find standard boot shaft circumference may not fit your legs. Wrap a tape measure around your legs around the widest part of your calf muscle (and if you want to wear leather or breeches inside the boots, put them on before measuring). The best place to measure your calf is about 6" (15cm) lower than the back of the knee. Most tall stock motorcycle boots have a 16.5" (42cm) circumference. If your calf circumference requirement is wider than that, then order custom boots.

Boot Foot

Lower (vamp) design

Three important considerations: (1) A good fit prevents heel from lifting and makes for a more comfortable ride. (2) Does the motorcycle boot have a shifter pad? The boot is going to be used a lot in this area, so such a pad helps with wear. A shifter pad protects the toe and arch from fatigue and damage due to gear shifting. Some motorcycles, particularly those in the touring class, have a heel-toe shift, so a shifter pad is not required. (3) Shape of the toe. It should function smoothly with the rider as well as the bike.

Boot Sole

The main purpose of a motorcycle boot sole is grip, on and off the bike. Motorcycle boots should include a heel under the sole so you can rest it easily on the foot peg. On the road the motorcycle boot should give you great grip in mud, water, sand and oil.

A good motorcycle boot sole will be oil resistant and will provide good traction due to its high surface contact area. Roads, particularly asphalt, collect oil which becomes slick as ice when the least bit wet from rain. Do not buy motorcycle boots without oil-resistant soles. Oil will eat away at ordinary soles.

The uppers are going to last much longer than the soles, so make sure the soles are stitched on, not glued, so they will be able to be replaced when the time comes.

The best sole for a motorcycle boot is a Vibram® lug sole. There are several varieties of Vibram soles available. The "big lug" sole is a Vibram® 100 -- and the best of this variety of big lug soles is the Vibram® 100R. The "R" designation is for a sole that resists heat, such as from motorcycle pipes. This sole also does not mark or mar floors, such as vinyl, linoleum, tile, or hardwood.

Alternative Vibram® soles for motorcycle boots include the 430, which has small lugs on the interior of the sole design and a smooth rubber perimeter. These soles are used almost exclusively on motorcycle police patrol boots. The Vibram® 700 sole is of a waffle design -- which is good for wear in snow and ice, since snow will not accumulate between the lugs nor will the sole harden in very cold weather and turn the boots into ice skates. This sole provides moderate traction.

In my opinion, a poor motorcycle boot sole choice is nitrile, which is a soft rubber. These soles have a low melting temperature, and are known to leave black melt marks on hot motorcycle pipes, and may also mar floors. The traction is minimal and the soft nature of soles made of this material causes them to become damaged and unusable much more quickly than a Vibram® sole.

Boot Construction

Most motorcycle boots are made of leather with reinforcements on all the essential places. The leather can be supplemented with newer kinds of materials like Gortex® (which increases the breathability).

Another thing to look for is Goodyear welted construction. This greatly adds to your motorcycle boot durability. Make sure the motorcycle boots are stitched, not glued, meaning that the soles are completely replaceable when you do finally wear them down, and let's face it: motorcycle riders are tough on their boots.

Make sure the motorcycle boots you buy have quality non-tarnishable hardware. You want your motorcycle boot hardware to look as polished and shiny as your bike. Look for brass or nickel hardware on buckles and harness rings.


Ventilation is another factor you should consider when buying motorcycle boots. Your boots should be waterproof yet should allow your feet to breathe. This can be achieved with special exterior surfaces as well as interior linings. Contrary to what you may think, leather-lined boots are not warmer than unlined boots. Leather is used for motorcycle boots because it breathes. Even leather-lined boots breathe well. Boots made with Gortex® or Cambrelle® linings are designed to keep feet warm and dry in cold, wet weather, but are not necessarily a good thing to have on your feet when riding in hot weather. That's why most bikers who ride in all seasons have several pairs of motorcycle boots, to fit the season and how s/he will use them (just to ride, or ride, wear to work, and walk in).

Water Resistance

It is great to have water-resistant motorcycle boots! While it's no fun getting caught in the rain, it can happen. I highly recommend finding good water resistant motorcycle gear but especially boots. Leather motorcycle boots can be quite water resistant if treated appropriately with a good conditioner and water repellent made for that purpose. You can find these products in any well-stocked shoe store or luggage repair shop.

What boots NOT to wear when operating a motorcycle

While cowboy boots are a popular style, most cowboy boots have smooth leather soles. These soles slip easily even on dry pavement, not to mention wet pavement. It's very easy for a rider to lose control of his/her bike when stopped at a light or when parking if wearing boots with leather soles.

Also, avoid boots that have long laces or other parts that dangle and can get caught in moving motorcycle parts, gear shifter, or brake pedal.

Finally, boots that are cheap are cheap for a reason:  the construction can be such that the boots cannot withstand the heavy demands of motorcycling, and wear out quickly, the sole comes off or crumbles, or the leather discolors quickly.  The old adage, "you get what you pay for" certainly applies.  Invest in quality and pay a bit more, and you will have boots that can stand the gaff and remain comfortable for years to come.

And please, don't think for a minute that high-top sneakers can substitute for providing the protection of a quality motorcycle boot.  They can't.  Repeat after me:  "sneakers are for gyms; boots are for bikes."  Period.


Wearing boots while operating a motorcycle shows a good application of intelligence by the rider:  s/he is indicating an awareness of the possibility of injury to the lower leg, ankle, and foot by exposure to the high heat of motorcycle pipes or the possibility of being involved in a crash.  Boots provide protection and comfort.  Plus, you want to be a cool biker dude, right?  Cool dudes wear boots, not sneakers.

If you have any questions, drop me a message.

Life is short: wear boots when riding a motorcycle!

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