This is why Northern Tier absolutely forbids waterproof boots on its canoeing treks

At first I thought it was a misprint.

In several places on the Northern Tier website, participants are told not to bring waterproof boots.

The Northern Tier National High Adventure Program involves canoeing around the beautiful lakes and rivers of Minnesota and Canada. Canoeing, of course, being that water-based activity where your feet may get wet.

What’s more, Northern Tier treks are famous for their portages. At several points in a trek, you’ll have to get out and carry your canoe through puddles and across rocky streams. Surely waterproof boots are vital to keeping your feet dry and happy, right?

Wrong.

While Northern Tier participants must wear rugged boots with full ankle coverage, the boots must be able to drain. In other words, they must not be waterproof.

I’m going to trust that Northern Tier, the BSA’s oldest national high-adventure program, knows what it’s doing here. But for an explanation, I asked Leslie Thibodeaux, Northern Tier’s director of program.

Why Northern Tier requires boots but forbids waterproof ones

Leslie tells me Northern Tier’s rule is in place for three reasons:

1. Boots minimize injuries on portage trails

Let’s be clear: Northern Tier wants you to wear boots, not water shoes or rugged sandals — and definitely not flip-flops.

Why? Portage trails are rugged, with rocks and roots common. A stable shoe with good ankle support is essential.

By requiring boots, Leslie, says “Northern Tier has minimized the number of feet, ankle and leg injuries.”

2. Northern Tier practices wet-foot portaging

To minimize wear and tear on its canoes, Northern Tier practices wet-foot portaging.

Instead of paddling the canoe until you hear that scraping sound and can paddle no more, you’re asked to get out before the portage trails so you don’t drag on the rough sand or rocks.

Boots-wearing participants climb out and prepare to portage.

“The rocks are slick and sharp, and without good foot protection, this can cause damage to the feet,” Leslie says.

3. Waterproof boots don’t drain

A wet-foot portage will completely immerse your feet — meaning water will come streaming in from the top.

“Since your feet are complete immersed, you will want to wear a boot with good drainage, so that the water will drain from them,” Leslie says. “A waterproof boot will hold the water in the boot, keeping the foot wet.”

Where to get good boots for Northern Tier or other portage-and-paddle trips

Leslie says Northern Tier likes the Merrell Moab Mid, which “has good drainage, a rugged sole and is not waterproof — it is a traditional hiking boot.”

Northern Tier likes those so much that it sells them at its trading post, pictured above.

But any rugged boot that isn’t waterproof could work. Portage boots, wading boots and jungle boots could suffice as well.

Best bet, if you aren’t sure, is to contact Northern Tier before your trip. They’ll let you know whether your existing boots will work.

Crews who arrive at Northern Tier with inadequate footwear will be asked to purchase boots in the trading post before their trek begins.

29 Comments

  1. As a BWCA veteran, this advice is spot on. Too many people try to canoe and keep their feet dry, only to harm the canoe or risk tipping it over.

  2. We had 2 crews at Bissett this past summer. All wore Merril Moab Ventilators, mainly with a liner sock under a smartwool hiking sock. The combination worked very well. Cold feet were not an issue, and neither was trench foot, because we all made sure to change to a carefully protected pair of dry camp shoes/socks every evening on arrival at camp! The boots were dry just before loading for the first time at the canoe cache, and weren’t dry again until we got back to base after a 10(?) day trek. They did their job and held up very well – the NT recommendation is good!!

    • Jungle boots were what was recommended when I did my canoe trek back in the dad. Tried the Rothco brand imitation ones, and the sole came apart on the first weekend. Went back and got the official USGI ALTAMA brand jungle boots, and have never looked back. When I was teaching canoeing a year ago, kids kinda laughed when they saw me with the jungle boots. The didn’t laugh when several scouts lost their water shoes in the muck.

      Jungle boots, not only work, but are cheap

      • We had the same experience. I bought a 6 dollar pair of used surplus boots that had brown leather from age. They probably were worn in Vietnam. Held up great. All of my peers bought brand new imported jungle boots, and the soles fell off after a couple of days. They all looked like they were on a moon mission with the silver duct tape.

  3. I am told that Native Americans wore moccasins to paddle canoes and to portage. Brain(oil)-tanned deer, elk, moose, or bison hide moccasins dried rapidly even if left on the foot. However, one can remove wet moccasins, place them on the floor of a canoe to dry, and paddle said canoe bare-foot until it is time to portage again. Modern canoeists are always trying to re-invent the wheel…

  4. I don’t remember the boot requirement 52 years ago when our crew was there. I do remember not allowing the canoe to touch the rocks… I also remember my friends old army boots falling apart during the trip… and the biting black flys… and that water in June was cold for us Texas boys… LOL. Trip of a lifetime. What memories.

  5. Canyoneering boots should work well, I think. I wear them with neoprene socks whenever I paddle and never have problems. Five Ten makes a good shoe.

  6. You might also warn against wearing chest high “waders”. Once full it is nearly impossible to do anything in them. A couple of fishermen I know found that out the hard way! … and later we gave them a “careful” try in the pool…

  7. This has been the standard since I went to Canoe base in 1967 and 1970. But I did get a kick out of the lead photo where the portager appears to be wet only to about the knee. I don’t remember ever having dry underwear on my treks, and just about the time it got comfortable, it was time to jump out in waist deep water and portage again. There are a couple of advantages; you don’t have to lift the canoe as far, and when you put it back down, you can do so more gently.

  8. i have portage shoes that are below the ankle and have lost it a couple times in the muck, so something that is more difficult to remove would be an advantage. but I see the BWCA rangers and the outfitters all wearing knee high muck boots. Why?

  9. I can vouch for this advice. Years ago we took some youth to Boundary Waters on a do-it-yourself trip. We failed to check for this requirement. It turned out that one of the youth had waterproof boots. By the end of the trip his feet were a mass of blisters, which (as is typical) he made no mention about during the course of the trip. Fortunately he recovered without any infections, but we could have avoided the situation entirely if we had carefully checked his boots ahead of time.

  10. We were encouraged to use jungle boots. The old style black ones were terrible and we didn’t even bring home. The modern canvas came home but never used again. Moabs are my usual hiking boot and I wish we had taken to NT.

  11. Having been to the Boundary Waters three time (private outfitter, not Northern Tier), I agree with the “no waterproof boots” commentary. However… I prefer something like Salomon Tech Amphibians…lace up tight unlike water shoes, have mesh uppers but aren’t ankle-height boots. Much lighter and better if you have to swim in them. Then a light pair of camp shoes for evenings while the wet stuff dries out (sometimes). For normal days and short portages, over bare feet. For the long (~1 mile and up) portages, add a pair of good wool hiking socks (dry) and take the socks off at the other end of the portage. The Tech Amphibians are also great for stream crossings out at Philmont, etc.

  12. Here is my #1 northern tier tip… Yes wear the boots when you bring the boat to shore, it is often very Rocky and you need solid footing, But and here is my big but, Buuuuut…change your shoes for the portage’s, dry socks, dry shoes… I have done this and I guarantee you I was the happiest guy on the trip , even my guide (interpreter) was doing this by day 5 when she had a few huge blisters. Dry feet are happy feet it takes a moment to change but is 100% worth it, and ps I learned this from the Navy seals

  13. Last summer I was on a trek out of Northern Tier, and wore a pair of old waterproof hikers in which we drilled drainage holes along the instep. Worked beautifully.

  14. First lesson learned with waterproof boots in the USMC Infantry……..they become buckets that hold water very well……

  15. Well this was good until I saw must have boots. Your ankle was meant to articulate. Unless you have ankle problems there is no need for a boot. Mountaineering is a diff issue.

    • When portaging you need that ankle support. I have carried a frameless pack and canoe with my buddy over a dirt trail no wider that 3 feet ( and probably a lot less) can be a challenge. Jungle boots give just enough support.

  16. I disagree. I grew up in Ely and was in the scout troop there. Many of the adult scout masters were outfitter owners, forest service Rangers, and all were avid outdoorsmen. We all wore rubber boots that had tread, good ankle support, and kept your feet dry. We packed along camp shoes to change into each night. We did multiple long canoe trips every summer and I don’t ever remember a scout who wore knee high rubber boots having blisters or any type of foot problem. Plus I like to slip my feet into nice dry boots in the morning whether the temp is 80F or 25F.

  17. I have used DOD military grade jungle boots on my trips, and they have held up well. Far too many folks come on canoe trips in the BW, and Quetico, and Bissett, having not purchased proper footwear, as jungle boots are directly contrary to their ideas of what a canoe trip is. The boots must have good ankle support, as far too many people have weak ankles, and show up at Northern Tier as absolute rookies when it comes to canoeing. Other posters here, discussing knee high rubber boots, may not practice wet- foot portaging to the degree that Northern Tier expects. Having worked at Northern Tier for the summers of 1996 through 2013, I would advise anyone reading this to get jungle boots, and not the cheap imitations, either.

  18. There are many experienced Boundary Waters and wilderness canoeist who disagree with Northern Tier on this subject.

    The primary reason N. Tier mandates a “wet foot” portage is to protect their canoes from abrasion and damage on rocky portage landings, not to protect Scout’s feet. They don’t want Scouts running their canoes up on the rocks to try and keep their feet dry. They’d rather have them jump out and unload well off shore and keep the canoes away from the rocks.

    Jungle boots offer good protection on the sole and toe, but most have terrible ankle support. The newest models and boots like the Moab’s mentioned have some ankle support.

    Jonathan Oberg’s comments above are right on. Many experienced canoe trippers and Minnesotans do indeed wear waterproof footwear, depending on the conditions, time of year, route, etc…

    If I’m doing a summer time, weeklong or shorter BWCA trip, yes, I’ll wear a non-waterproof boot like the Moab’s you mention with wool socks, and things work out just fine. But for longer trips, or cold water spring and fall trips, I’ll often wear high topped waterproof boots, such as Xtratufs, Bean Boots, or in my young and poor days, simple tall rubber construction/farm boots. I just guided a weeklong trip on the Allagash in northern Maine in October. Even though there were essentially no portages, we all wore tall waterproof boots most of the time. You did not want to be sitting around with wet feet for prolonged periods with temps in the 30’s and 40’s. I do the same in the BWCA/Quetico in the spring and fall. Carefully land the canoe, and if possible avoid going over the 16″ boot tops to keep my feet warm and dry. If you do get water in a waterproof boot, you can dump it out. The boot won’t absorb water, and your feet are no worse off than if you were wearing your wet Moab’s or jungle boots. They are in fact better off because your feet won’t be suffering from evaporative heat loss, or constant cooling from exposure to new cold water. A spare set of footwear is kept dry to wear in camp when there is no chance of getting them wet, and to let the feet air out.

    Check out what Distinguished Eagle Scout, and prolific writer on expedition and wilderness canoeing, Cliff Jacobson has to say on the subject. He dedicates considerable space to waterproof footwear-Chota boots, Bean Boots, Tingley overboots, wet suit booties, etc…

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