At first I thought it was a misprint.
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?
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.