First review of Kevin Leahy custom backpacking boots
Why did I wait this long!
You need to find a new hobby.
My podiatrist, summer 2020.
I have flat feet. Very flat feet. They collapse when I carry a backpack with 35-40 lbs on them. When I started hiking seriously about seven years ago, I started with the standard REI collection. I have gone through about 3-4 pair of boots since then and tried on many more pairs of boots.
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I have spent close to a $1,000 for custom orthotics in the past 15 odd years. Some of it covered by insurance and some not covered. As much as I like backpacking, my legs are in sheer agony after each hike.
I honestly do not know what my shoe size is. For instance, my local fleet feet did a 3D measurement of my feet and said this was my size in March 2019.
Two years later, the same instrument said this is my shoe size.
I am nowhere near a wide feet, but my Hoka One One Bondi 7 is a 10.5 4E, Brooks adrenaline is a 11 4E and my last hiking boots, Zamberlan Vioz is a 10.5 Wide. My right foot is slightly larger and wider than my left leg. One of my foot has a slight arch than the other. If I do not buy these wide feet, my feet collapse on the foot bed and spill around them. I will start feeling pain in various parts of my feet even for a mile or two normal walk.
The extra width of the boots gives the extra space my feet needs, but now I am doing all kinds of lacing jugglery to give my feet just enough space, but not too much or when I hike I end up with blisters. It is quite a dance.
I thought I had settled well with my Zamberlan Vioz. At most, I thought I have to get another pair half size smaller and pick the left boot from that pair and the right boot from my current pair. No reseller sells boots of mixed sizes and Zamberlan’s support very helpfully pointed me to a website where you can sell one boot (apparently it is a common thing).
In the last 3-4 years, I started to have a burning sensation on the outside of my left foot. My podiatrist said I have tendonitis caused by overuse and gave me a shot of cortizone in spring and that reduces the pain and I grind through rest of the year. After a couple of years, the shots stopped working. That is when the podiatrist suggested I have to find a different hobby. So much so that I have limited my hiking to backpacking and a handful of conditioning hikes before that. In 2021, I got in about about 260 miles of hiking, 80% of it in the high Sierra. It sucks to live in the Bay Area and not being able to hike a lot more.
I did try another custom made orthotics by Superfeet (they have a 3D modeling apparatus at FleetFeet) and that ended in a disaster in last year’s JMT hike and almost cut short my hike.
I have gravitated towards small, independent vendors for my backpacking. My tent is a tarptent double rainbow li, my hiking poles are pacerpoles, my backpack is an Aarn Featherlite Freedom Pro and my bear canister is a Bearikade Weekender. I like the craft and passion that small indie vendors put into their niche products and I love supporting them.
Growing up in India, you are used to bespoke products. Almost all our clothing was tailored to fit (not common anymore), I have a few bags and sandals made by the excellent mudhouse, but those were simple sandals.
It was clear to me that I have to solve this footwear problem or my hiking days were numbered. There are a few ways to go about it.
Someone like the Shoe Doctor for custom orthotics
Ready or order boots from someone like Limmer Boots or finally
Custom order handmade boots
The ready-to-order boots were an easier choice. There are at least 5-6 online stores, with Limmer boots (the new store, not the original) being the most famous. I called them and tried to measure my feet based on their suggestions. The measurements I got were very different than what FleetFeet suggested and that was different than the measurements from a Brannock device at REI. It was clear to me that this simply is another variant of my current problems, particularly with two different sized feet.
Custom boot makers
Once the decision was made to get a custom boot, the choice was down to the following:
Davis shoes, San Francsicso
Limmer Boots, New Hampshire
Esatto, Vancouver, WA and
Kevin Leahy’s custom boots, Felton CA
I had seen all these websites a few years ago when I first read about custom hiking boots so I was aware of them.
Limmer boots is popular in the JMT forums, there are well respected hikers (John Ladd uses their stock boots and Ted Nibbits uses their custom boots and both love them). However, Limmer custom boots have a 3 year wait now and they want you to visit New Hampshire for measurements.
Davis Shoes has an interesting proposition that they try to alter your current boot first and if not they will build you a custom boot, but they were the most expensive option out there.
Esatto was interesting. Vancouver is not too far enough to not drive or make a vacation out of, but they do not in person fitting, they measure you feet by tracing at home and build a boot out of that. I suspect this works for a lot of people, but given my foot conditions, I was not sure if this works for me or not, but the pricing of Esatto was among the best I have seen.
That leaves Kevin Leahy boots. I had read the customer reviews multiple times. I had seen this video a few times.
I posted a question in the JMT mailing list and got this response. I subsequently noted Chuck’s previous post. Chuck was kind enough to go back and forth on personal emails and shared his experience, his was one of the glowing reviews in the Leahy website as well.
If you can afford the boot, go for it.
Chuck, in an email.
Around the same time, I initiated an email conversation with Kevin. I told him my history and asked him if the boots would work for me. Kevin asked me to take a video of my walking and analyzed it. He said where the custom boots would help me and where they won’t. My burning sensation in the foot is typically something internal going on, something boots can’t fix outright, but the boots would provide sufficient support that would hopefully help.
As I was going through this, it occurred to me that what I am paying for is not money for a pair of boots, I am tapping into Kevin’s expertise and experience dealing with various orthopedic issues and a history of helping people with foot problems.
Kevin said it takes about 6 months to get a pair of boots done. I started my discussion with Kevin in January and signed up early February, I had a section hike of the John Muir Trail planned for end of July, I was hoping to get the boots sometime in June and break it in before the hike.
Phase 1 - casting and measurement
While you can do the measurements over mail, it defeats the purpose of being local to the Bay Area. I drove to Kevin’s home in Felton, California near the Big Sur area. I drove my Toyota Prius the first time and you should consider a AWD vehicle. Kevin lives in a spectacularly beautiful, mountainous neighborhood.
Kevin made a fiberglass plaster of both my feet and made observations and notations of how my feet are. He is pleasing to converse with and we had a pleasant conversation. I wish I had asked him to see his work area (when I see the YouTube video posted above, I see what I missed). I also got to see samples of the two different hiking boot designs he offers.
I had taken my Zamberlan Vioz as well as my Hoka One One with me and Kevin was able to observe my pattern of wear on the soles in both my feet. I also used my regular Injinji liners and Darn Tuff socks I wear for hiking for the measurement process.
This appointment took about 30 minutes total.
You will experience such foot support you are not used it. It should reduce the stress on your feet.
Kevin - during the casting phase.
Phase 2 - Trying the lasts
Once these measurements are made, Kevin sends these to Germany where a 3D last is made. One of the unique facilities Kevin offers is the ability to try the lasts before he builds the actual boot. This way, he can make additional changes if need be.
Unfortunately, the lasts that should have arrived in about 10 weeks did not arrive in time. I was traveling to India in June and I had given up hope that I would get the boots back in time for my July hike.
When I was in India, Kevin emailed me that he got the lasts and if I was ok with it, he would start building the boot so I can meet my hiking deadline. I asked him if it was ok to skip a step - and he said it would be fine and he can do additional adjustments after the boot is made as well. I agreed and Kevin went on to build my boots.
Phase 3 - picking up the boots
The day after I arrived from India, I setup a time with Kevin and drove to pick up my boots. Kevin had put in extra hours to get them ready in time.
My first impressions were:
The number of eyelets for the lace is less than what I am used to - it was clear after about ten days why that is
The boot fit me like nothing has ever done before. For my flat feet, any arch support feels unnatural. There is a bump where I don’t expect it to or there is an additional artificial pressure point where I don’t expect it to be. I had none of those feelings.
Kevin urged me to break in the boots slowly. An hour the first day, then a few more minutes and so on. He advised me to not hike the first week or I would get blisters. He asked me to walk around gently at first.
Phase 4 - breaking the boots in
Leather boots take many weeks to break in. I have 2 weeks (I am typing this a couple of days before I leave for my JMT section hike), so I have worn these boots every day since I got them (past ten days) and walking a lot. The last few days I have hiked with my fully loaded backpack as well with elevation climbing.
When I started walking around, there were a few hotspots, this one in particular was painful. I wrote to Kevin about it.
Kevin mentioned that these spots break-in and expand, but since I had a tight deadline, he said he can locally stretch them. To save time, I drove to his home again Tuesday night. Kevin said he needs two nights to locally stretch the boots and he can ship them overnight to me and I will get it by Friday. I got the boots back by Thursday. Turns out Kevin worked on them overnight on Tuesday and shipped them overnight Wednesday.
The price you pay is not just for Kevin’s expertise as a boot maker and an orthopedic expert, but for unparalleled customer service. I would not hesitate to ask him for his help for a long time as the boot needs care and replacement of its vibram sole.
Since then, I have hiked with fully loaded backpacks a few times with at least a 1,000 feet elevation and the hotspots are either gone or getting better with each use. I feel confident that these are the boots I would use for my upcoming JMT section hike.
Impressions after the first 30 miles
This fits like nothing I have used before. My flat feet and arch support don't go well. I have spent close to $1,000 for custom orthotics over the years and they are almost always off by some way. Kevin said that his orthotics will prevent the feet from collapsing inside and I think something like that is happening. It feels different but natural.
Every indentation and curve on the foot (if any) seems to be at exactly the right spot and nowhere else.
After the two hikes, my feet feel fresh. I have never felt this before. I feel like the first time I used a CPAP machine and had a good night sleep and realized what a good night's sleep is. I finally feel how the feet should feel after a hike. It feels as if I went for a casual walk.
My feet are stable, I tried to roll my ankle once today by stepping on something and the foot didn't budge at all.
It took me a week of sleeping with a CPAP machine to realize what a good night’s sleep is. It took me a week of hiking with Kevin Leahy’s boots to realize how your feet should feel after a hike.
There is a steel shank that goes around the foot which is created based on the model and last. This shank gives solidity to the heel, prevents it from slipping and stops me from rolling my ankle. I am notorious for rolling my ankle while hiking. The one time I stepped on something by accident, the boot prevented me from rolling.
The boots weigh 1 lb 14 oz per boot (I am size 11 and asked Kevin for a vibram grip with a stronger grip).
If you are doing jugglery with your shoe laces (double surgeon knot, double loop) - that is an indication your boot is ill fitting. If I did a surgeon knot, it over tightened my boot. I had to unlearn everything I know about lacing and go with a simple approach. I mentioned there are fewer eyelets to adjust the laces. That is because the boot fits your feet just right. There is no extra space to adjust, there is nothing to really nip and tuck with laces.
My liner + socks were dirty so I used a thick darn tuff wool sock today and it actually felt better. I may have to rethink my liner + socks approach after this JMT trip and see if I can get away with one sock. This again, is an indication of boot fitness. My right foot is definitely longer and wider than the left, so I have been buying bigger pair of boots - which gives the space for the feet to slosh around. I need to conform this hypothesis after a few long days and after the boot is broken in fully.
I can't wait for the boot to break in. The leather is supple and hopefully within the next 100 miles, it should hug my feet.
The steel shank hugs the feet just so and that is probably why the fit feels so intimate.
The boots came with an extra pair of lace and a conditioner. I wiped the boot clean after a muddy hike and applied the conditioner. It cleans up beautifully. You can start to see the creases form as the boot breaks in.
I will write more reviews as I use the boot more, over the years. For sure, I will have another post after I am done with my JMT section hike.
Is it worth it?
This is an expensive pair of boots. Is it worth it? I can’t answer this question for all, but I can answer it for myself. I have, in the past 5 years, spent about $800 for boots. I have spent about $1,000 for custom orthotics over the past 15 years. If cared for well, these boots should last me at least 20 years. I expect to replace the sole every 3 years or so, only by Kevin. Given that, these pairs of boots will pay for themselves over the next decade or two, but that is barely the beginning.
As someone with troublesome feet who enjoys hiking but dreads the pain that my feet feel after a long hike, this feels like a bargain. I suspect these boots will help me hike at least for another decade or more, and that alone is worth it.
My primary regret is why did I not do this five years ago!
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