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Comfort Starts from the Ground Up

By Gibbs Milliken

If your feet hurt, everything hurts.

Texans long ago figured out that pull-on boots can be protective, comfortable and convenient. They can be taken on and off without hassling with laces. The key is getting a good fit at the store. Pull-on boots tend to slip slightly in the heel at first, but this is normal and will stop once they conform to your feet. The ideal is to slide your feet in and walk out of the store in complete comfort with a quality pair that fits correctly from the beginning.

Manufacturers have been improving the timeless cowboy boot with high-tech soles, arch construction and absorbent inserts that make them much easier to break in than their ancestors. The ergonomic shapes, gel cushions at pressure points and smooth, form-fitting interiors come very close to feeling broken in right from the start. The Ariat Cobalt Pro Boots ($169.95, style #38587, Ariat International, (800) 899-8141, www.ariat.com) feature a low-heel roper design that incorporates a forked carbon fiber shank, shock-absorbing gel inlays and removable inserts that protect the small bones and nerves during active sports and strenuous walking. Ariat's ATS Footbed Inserts ($19.99, Ariat International) alone will make any well-made boot feel even better.

Texas boot makers such as Lucchese, Justin, Tony Lama and Nocona are renowned for making stylish boots in the western tradition. The distinctive Western Diamondback Boots ($350, Style #0702, Nocona Boots, (800) 358-7846, www.nocona.com) offer natural snakeskin that is sewn over soft cowhide. This is topped by decorative floral-stitched tops. These boots are popular with everyone from working cowboys to urban weekend dancers.

No one pair of boots can do it all. Different conditions demand different constructions. Anglers scrambling on the slippery rocks of a coastal jetty require cleated or felt soles to maintain secure footing. The new Metalist Steelhead RB ($119.99, Style: #2905B, Bite Shoes, www.biteshoes.com) is an all-in-one fishing boot. Instead of felt, which wears quickly and soaks up water and mud like a sponge, the Steelhead's soles are made of sticky rubber fitted with removable spikes.

Americans are taking to the tall, waterproof "muck boot" long prized by Europeans for working and hunting in wet, muddy conditions. The Nunavut II Marsh Boot ($99.95, Chota Outdoor Gear, (865) 690-1814, www.chotaoutdoorgear.com) is a form-fitted, knee-high design with a QuickLace System that holds the foot securely and provides lateral support. This flexible boot is lined with 3mm fleece neoprene. A soft gasket at the top cinches comfortably at the top of the calf to keep the water out. A more conventional "stovepipe" pull-on for low country is the 17-inch Maverick Snake Boot ($169.95, style #7551, Mossy Oak BU Camo, Rocky Boots, (740) 753-1951, www.rockyboots.com). With an outer construction of snake-proof Cordura and fully lined in waterproof Gore-Tex, this design is extra roomy in the foot and calf with top buckle closures that reduce slippage.

Backpackers require traditional lace-up hiking boots for proper support on long hikes. One of the most time-honored names in hiking is Vasque of Italy. Gear-testers rank the Sundowner MX-2 ($210. Style #7958, Vasque, (800) 224-4453, www.vasque.com) as one of the best. Available in men's or women's sizes, the Sundowners combine lightweight, one-piece upper construction with a waterproof Gore-Tex liner and a forward rocker sole. Once past the break-in period, they provide spacious toe room, good lateral stability and edging characteristics for steep slopes.

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