By Eric Pavlak
Various responsibilities had kept us from any of our backpacking gear for almost four years, so before doing a tough trip this summer, we loaded our packs and laced up our rugged, high-topped boots. We decided to do the Pulpit and Pinnacle loop and carried the same weight as would on our vacation trek. We were mostly concerned how we, not our gear, would do.
Halfway up to Pulpit Rock, Barbara noticed that the soles of her boots were detaching. By the time we got to the top, both soles flopping loose, attached only at the toes. Halfway to the Pinnacle, a sole fell of her boot, and I noticed that mine were beginning to detach. By the time we began our descent, she had lost both soles, and I was effectively walking in flip-flops. Fortunately, I had brought along my low-cut hiking shoes. She finished the hike wearing my shoes and several pairs of socks.
Our boots were both the same age and make: Birkenstock’s that were about 13 years old. Could we get them fixed?
I took them to the only shop that I knew that could repair hiking boots (Pisano & Sons Shoe Repair in Malvern, PA). They were authorized subcontractors that did repairs for Birkenstock and several other major top brands of hiking boots. The answer: No! They have the tools, molds and equipment that used to allow them to resole boots in the days before the manufacturers switched to injection molded polyurethane soles.
“We used to be able to fix them right here for $50. We can’t do that anymore,” I was told. “These boots are not repairable.”
I was told that this type of sudden failure was not limited to any particular brand, and in fact was inevitable in all boots with poly-urethane soles. Depending on the exact formulation mixing and molding of the sole, some will last longer than others, but all will eventually fail, with the soles peeling from the boot and disintegrating into black crumbs.
Despite rumors, dampness and reasonable temperatures do not seem to accelerate the disintegration process, although it is probably not a good idea to store your boots in a blazing hot attic all summer. Also, frequent use does not prolong the shelf life of the material. Polyurethane is susceptible to biodegradation by naturally occurring microorganisms, specifically from enzymes from fungus and bacteria commonly found in soil. If you want the technical details, see Microbial biodegradation of polyurethane, Gary T. Howard, Department of Biological Sciences Southeastern Louisiana University. Note that trying to sterilize your boots will likely do much more harm than good.
Since that experience, I have learned of similar boot failures that have occurred on recent AMC hikes. One member had her boots disintegrate during a snowy winter hike, another on a recent chapter hike. What is a hiker to do? Since almost all manufacturers have gone to injection molded polyurethane soles, we are stuck with them. They grip well, they wear well. I guess we will just have to keep an eye on them. If your boots are more than five years old, you might want to get new ones before undertaking a major trek.