Question: What’s one of the best investments you can make in keeping your crew and your business on good footing and, therefore, profitable?
Answer: Quality footwear designed specifically for the tree care pro.
It is difficult to fathom, but in this top-priority era of worker safety and efficiency, more than one boot manufacturer’s rep interviewed on the subject says that working in trees with sneakers and flip-flops “still happens.” Another stated that footwear is far more than tree care equipment. “It’s really PPE (personal protective equipment).”
To dig into what became a richer subject than appears on the surface, TCIA assembled a select group of manufacturers and resellers to highlight the salient points of work boots for tree care.
Why specialty footwear?
“Boots designed for the arborist industry tend to focus on specific features that are handy for the climbing arborist,” says Casey Selner, Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA) and lead arborist with Selner Tree & Shrub Care, LLC, an accredited, eight-year TCIA tree care member company, and founder/owner of Arbsession, an arborist-supply outfit and new TCIA corporate member company, both based in De Pere, Wisconsin. For example, he says, “In the Arbpro Evo 2 is a built-in loop attachment meant for clipping into a knee ascender like a SAKA or HAAS.
“Being an arborist, the features I look for are light and as narrow as possible,” Selner says. “The narrow profile allows you to sneak your foot into the smallest branch openings. I also look at a boot that can easily hold in place spikes or spurs. You want a sole that has a deep enough edge to prevent the spur from slipping off the back of your heel. If you spend a lot of time in spikes or spurs, you will want to make sure the boot has a strong enough shank, otherwise your boot will curl over the spurs, making it very uncomfortable.”
Alessandro Mazza, owner of Arbpro, a maker of climbing boots based in Italy, and Arbpro North America, a seven-year TCIA corporate member company with offices in Charlotte, North Carolina, states, “Arborists work and operate in an environment that is unique – a tree. A large part of the climbing gear used in tree care is specifically designed for this market because arborist needs are unique. Of course, the same applies to the footwear.”
“Arb footwear is one of the most critical pieces of equipment we need to accomplish our job,” says Abdon Leon of Bartlett Arborist Supply, a 37-year TCIA corporate member company based in Marlette, Michigan. “And let’s not forget that it is listed as one of our (industry’s) PPE requirements. [ANSI Z133: Clothing and footwear appropriate to the known worksite hazards shall be approved by the employer and worn by the employee.] Let’s be honest, it’s not like we’re going on a stroll in the park or a quick hike on a well-maintained trail. We don’t always get the luxury of working on flat, clean surfaces – our job may take us through rough and rugged terrain.”
“Tree care can require a lot of different tasks, which is where popular brands have been successful in identifying the needs of arborists,” says Brandon Nance, CTSP, marketing and eCommerce manager for tree gear supplier Sherrilltree, a 28-year TCIA corporate member company based in Greensboro, N.C. “Anything from climbing, lowering limbs, dragging brush and other tasks are something arborists deal with every day. Finding boots that are designed and built for arborists is important for safety and efficiency on the job.”
“Of all the products we sell at Pfanner, we have found footwear to be the most personal piece of PPE, in terms of how much personal preference will vary from one worker to another,” says Ally Turner, sales and operations manager for Pfanner Canada, based in Kelowna, British Columbia. “The composition of everyone’s foot is a bit different, and the type of work done also varies. There are numerous variables that are unique to each worker, and that makes finding the right work boot important.”
John Allen, a product manager with Stihl, Inc., a 27-year TCIA corporate member company based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, whose responsibilities include safety apparel, says he makes every effort to highlight protective footwear because it is so important. “Injuries to the feet do occur because workers still use tennis shoes and flip flops,” Allen says. “Our recommendation in our chain-saw manual is that users wear sturdy, heavy-leather work boots with steel toes and non-slip soles.”
“Requirements vary based on region, employer, industry and numerous other factors. Workers need to make sure they are meeting the required standards so they are covered in the event of an accident,” Pfanner’s Turner maintains. “Most insurance providers will look for any excuse to avoid paying out a policy, so you want to make sure you don’t give them any reason to deny a potential claim.”
Arbpro’s Mazza states, “In our range, we have two lines of products: non-
protective and protective. Protective boots are equipped with a steel toe. They also offer chain-saw protection, thanks to upper construction that includes multiple layers of aramid-fiber fabrics that help reduce the speed of a running saw chain.”
“Safety features include a safety toe, steel and/or composite materials, sole protection, chain-saw and other cut protection, insulation and water resistance,” says Sandy Longarzo, marketing manager for manufacturer Haix, a four-year TCIA corporate member company based in Lexington, Kentucky. “Steel toe is probably going to give you the best protection, but there are a lot of good carbon-composite-toe boots out there as well. Steel-toe boots also generally give you more room in the toe box. Consideration should be given to the type of sole on the boot, such as a sole with great slip resistance that provides a certain level of grip, and a heavier tread pattern if you have to do a lot of hiking. You want your feet to be as secure as possible when working with cutting equipment.
“Also consider boots with some visibility,” Longarzo suggests. “Haix boots have colors like lime green and signal red, so you can see exactly where your foot is in relation to a chain saw. Brown boots can tend to fade into the scenery, since they blend with the environment. We add orange laces to our Airpower XR200, so you get that added visibility.
“Ankle support also is important to look for, especially when working in rough terrain,” Longarzo observes. “Haix boots offer two-zone lacing, so you can adjust your boot to the terrain and get the optimal amount of ankle support.”
“There are a number of different chain-saw-protection boots available from Pfanner that differ slightly,” says Tanner, “but all boast Vibram soles for optimal grip and longevity and class 1 or 2 chain-saw protection. [Class 1 provides protection from chain-saw cutters moving up to 20 m/s (meters per second), class 2 protects up to 24 m/s.] Other features, such as Gore-Tex for breathable waterproofing, aluminum toe caps, puncture protection, shock absorption and a Vario support system (in the heel) also are available, depending on the model. Cordura or KlimaAirlinings also are used for inner moisture control.
“Our top seller in North America is the Zermatt GTX CS protection boots,” Tanner reports. “They provide class 1 saw protection, Gore-Tex membrane, Vibram alpine soles, puncture protection and aluminum toe caps that provide protection while keeping the boot lightweight. They also have a nice ridge on the heel that makes them great for spurs.”
“We don’t always get that perfect weather we wish for,” says Bartlett’s Leon. ‘Tasks require precise movements. That’s where the added protection of chain-saw-protective boots comes into play, in case of that unwanted slip that can happen from time to time.”
Comfort and fit
“Comfort is obviously important as you are working in your boots all day,” notes Sherrilltree’s Nance. “Proper support plays an important role in comfort. Whether climbing or dragging brush, support is necessary for safety and comfort. If you’re spending a lot of time pruning and moving around the canopy, a lighter, lower-cut boot with softer soles could work well. But if you are in spikes a large part of the day, a higher-cut boot with extra support and thicker soles would be beneficial.”
“Unfortunately, the normal way of thinking in North America, when it comes to any kind of PPE, is simply that it needs to meet regulations,” says Pfanner’s Turner. “We believe this is short sighted. For a piece of PPE to be truly safe, it also must be comfortable. Discomfort will ultimately lead to distractions and improper use of equipment, therefore making that product unsafe. Especially in the tree care industry, workers need to be able to remain focused on the task at hand and utilize their PPE 100% of the time.”
“You can have all the protection in the world, but if your boot is not comfortable, you are not going to want to wear it day in and day out,” says Haix’s Longarzo. “Certainly, you want to consider some cut protection in the boot, and you can decide what level you need to have based on your particular job requirements. There can be a fine line between level of protection and comfort in a boot.”
Mazza at Arbpro says an arborist first needs to evaluate what kind of activity will be done with footwear. “If an arborist will mainly use footwear for rope climbing and pruning, he or she will probably look for high-grip outsoles, flex-support midsoles, a lightweight design, features built into the upper to connect climbing aids directly and so on,” he says. “If the main use will be spike work, look for a product that will provide more support, such as a stiff midsole to provide arch support and reduce the stress of standing for hours on spikes.”
“The design of the Haix sole does accommodate crampons and foot ascenders if needed,” Longarzo points out. “We do minimal seaming on our boots to increase their durability, and it is less likely to have seams catch on brush, limbs and debris.”
“Some models offer softer soles for improved grip while moving around and getting into position to cut,” says Nance at Sherrilltree. “Even some of the chain-saw-protective boots have slimmer profiles to make them a great all-around boot, whether climbing with or without spikes.”
Stihl’s Allen cites features of the company’s two options, Performance Forestry boots and Advance GTX trekking chain-saw boots, which he describes as “better and best.” “Both have a protective steel toe with a rubber toe cap and non-slip sole,” Allen states. “In addition to leather construction, they feature an additional liner to help protect from chain-saw injuries, and in the soles are steel plates to protect from punctures.”
“From our point of view, every project for arborist climbing boots should start from the outsole,” Mazza at Arbpro explains. “We need to find a very good balance between grip and durability. This is quite an interesting challenge, because when you increase grip on a rubber sole, you lose durability. For an outsole rubber compound, the softer it is, the faster it wears out, so it is always complicated to find a good compromise between performance and durability.
“For upper design, arborist climbing boots should offer a precise lacing system with multiple loops,” Mazza says. “In our designs, we do not use metal hooks in the lacing system so as to avoid climbing ropes getting caught in them. The upper design of our climbing boots is tapered in the front for entering narrow crotches. In all our models, we have an integrated front loop that increases comfort while climbing, because users can connect climbing aids (such as knee ascenders) directly to the loop in the front of the boot.”
Says Bartlett’s Leon, “When searching for the perfect arb boot, we’re looking for something that gives us a rigid but flexible fit that can withstand being in spurs for those multiple-hour removal operations. Some of the standard boots won’t have the arch support needed to handle the stirrup.
“Keeping your feet dry is a key factor in the quest for tree care boots,” says Leon. “That leads me to look for a boot that is water resistant but breathable. We look at what type of liner is actually in the boot and what fabric or material the boot is actually made of. For example, the Gore-
Tex liner is a trusted and very recognized membrane that keeps your feet dry while offering superb breathability.”
Allen at Stihl also recommends Gore-Tex for water protection and points to Stihl boots with “smooth-oiled, brown Nubuck leather on forestry boots and on the Advance GTX boots,” what he calls, “hydrophobic black suede, real-leather boots.” He adds that one of the main differences between their two models is the rise and the kind of support the worker needs and wants. “The Advance GTX comes two inches higher over the ankle for added support.”
Sometimes there are specific needs in boots, says Arbsession’s Selner. “I can only speak for the Wisconsin winters. You want to look for a boot that has insulation or where you can insert a felt liner. One boot that seems to work well is the rubber, chain-saw-resistant logger boot. It’s waterproof and runs up to just under your knee, which is great when you are walking through deep snow. I have a pair that has more than six winters on them, and they cost just over $100.”
“A couple of the boots we offer have been tested, tried and true,” says Bartlett’s Leon. “They’re the classic Arbpro Evo 2, Clip’N Step, plus a couple Salewa boot models. The Arbpro lineup offers that semi-rigid, Vibram-sole combination that makes life sweeter. The upgraded models also offer better ankle support when compared to the previous version.
“Both the Arbpro Evo 2 and the Clip’N Step offer a composite toe, microporous shock-absorbing midsole, Arbtex waterproofing (Arbpro’s own membrane technology) and an SRS attachment loop,” Leon says. “The narrow-tip design lets you step into tight unions, apply weight and pull your foot out without fighting that uncomfortable feeling. The only differences we have noticed would be in the breathability, with the Clip’N Step being a touch more breathable and more of a true summer boot.
“Salewa boots, on the other hand, provide a Vibram sole that handles both groundwork and climbing terrifically well, making it an excellent all-around work boot,” says Leon. “Salewa’s also offer the Gore-Tex membrane that keeps your feet dry in some of the wettest environments but allows maximum breathability. The one thing we’ve noticed with these fantastic boots is that there is a mild break-in period.”
Arbpro’s Mazza says, “To increase lifespan, we suggest cleaning boots after each use. They should be cleaned of mud and dirt with a light water flow, and, if necessary, the removable footbed should be taken out and the boot should be placed in a cool, dry place to air out. It is advisable to always take out the footbed to remove any gravel that could damage the membrane. Do not put newspaper or other paper inside the boots, as this can slow the drying process.” He is adamant: “Never dry out boots in the sun, in very hot places or, even worse, near heat sources.”
With respect to Idro-Perwanger, full-grain roughout, Anfibio, split-grain and nubuck leathers, Mazza says, “Never treat these with oil-based products that can adversely affect the life and waterproofing characteristics of the boot. We recommend using specific water-based products available on the market. The treatment should be applied to a wet boot to improve the product’s penetration into the leather. This waterproofing is long lasting, but not permanent; reapply as necessary, or after every use in severe conditions.”
“Keep them clean,” Pfanner’s Turner agrees. “This is the number-one way to get more out of your PPE, and the difference is significant. Regular cleaning doesn’t only help with longevity but ensures safety as well. Heavy soiling can affect the performance safety features, such as saw protection. Many of the elements gear is exposed to in the tree care industry are extremely abrasive. Dirt, oil, sawdust and general debris will corrode material and (especially) seams when left to fester.
“We recommend a routine of brushing dirt and sawdust off your boots at the end of the day,” says Turner. “A medium-strength bristle brush is the easiest way to accomplish this. One also should attempt a more thorough cleaning every one to two weeks. This process would include a good scrub with a cleaner, time to dry and a waterproofing spray. I encourage arborist business owners to create a company policy that mandates their employees to complete a deep clean of all their PPE on a weekly basis.
“We do sell a boot-care kit by Gear Aid that includes water-repellent spray, cleaner, brush and stain eraser, but there are many other great brands that provide similar products. Find whichever one suits you best,” Pfanner’s Turner offers.
“If or when a customer notices signs of wear and tear (e.g., rubber around the sole starting to lift), consider whether or not it can be repaired. If it can be repaired, do so immediately,” Turner insists. “Do not wait, as this will only make the possibility of repair less viable. Shoe repair is generally much more affordable than people think.”
“The only care and feeding recommended is fresh socks every day and brushing off heavy dirt and debris,” says Allen at Stihl. “Because the boots are designed to breathe, we recommend not applying oil. Just hose or rinse off.”
Selner at Arbsession has a different take on drying. “Best advice here is a boot dryer. They are great for winter and summer. I don’t know if it adds to longevity, but having constantly sweaty, soggy boots that don’t completely dry out can’t be good for them.”
When is it time to replace those boots? Stihl’s Allen says, “One thing to look for is if boots look very worn, dried out or cracked. You can lose traction, and that’s the time to replace them. If they do accidentally come in contact with and get cut by a chain saw, they must be replaced,” he stresses. “If something gets dropped on the safety toe enough to damage it, we recommend replacement.”
“If support is diminishing in the upper or the sole has worn to a point where it does not provide proper grip, it would be a good idea to look at replacing,” says Sherrilltree’s Nance. “If the upper is worn with holes, et cetera, then replacement is suggested.”
Bartlett’s Leon puts it more graphically. “The very first and obvious sign would be when the boots look as if a dog has used them as a chew toy! When the insoles get worn down, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time for a new pair. Maybe just purchasing a new set of comfortable insoles is all they need. Now, when the outsole is worn down to the point where it looks as if you’ve been doing some Tokyo Drifting (sliding side to side), then at that point it is most likely time for a new pair.”
“One thing Haix does is offer boot refurbishment of Haix boots through our Extended Wear Program,” says Longarzo. “It’s more ‘feet friendly,’ as you can refurb boots that are already broken in. We can fix any loose stitching, replace the rubber toe caps, replace missing eyelets and replace the insoles, as well as clean and deodorize the boots. In some instances, you can even get a boot retreaded. The only thing we can’t do is retread a Vibram sole.
“We would recommend replacing boots if they are no longer waterproof, have irreparable seam issues or if there is damage to the boot leather or steel or composite toe cap,” Longarzo says.
“Protective footwear must be replaced if it comes in contact with acids or any other aggressive substance that can damage the material and consequently significantly reduce protective features,” says Arbpro’s Mazza. “If the midsole is not damaged, the replacement of the outsole is almost always possible. If the midsole is damaged, it also can be replaced, but this process is more complicated and, of course, more expensive.”
As you can see, there’s a lot to selecting the correct boot and caring for its longevity – and yours. That should instill a lot more respect for your footwear next time you “lace ’em up!”