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Zamberlan Boots: A Few Decades of Testing

In the summer of 1990 I was a promising (so my professors told me) young geology student living in Vancouver, British Columbia. So promising in fact that my professor called some friends in Ottawa and helped me get into a summer internship program at the Canadian Geological Survey.

The brochure for the program was pretty enticing, shown on the cover was a photo of a couple of good-looking university students with ruck-sacks and rock hammers happily hopping out the door of a helicopter onto a granite peak somewhere high in the Canadian Rockies.

The reality of my internship was quite different than the brochure depicted. It started with an 18 hour bus ride from Vancouver that dropped me off in Mackenzie, British Columbia. Shortly after arriving a geologist in a pickup truck took me, my tent, and my backpack as far into the Omineca mountain range as 4WD could take us. He then told me to meet him in that spot every 7 days where he would collect my rock samples and drop off food. If I failed to show up, he said that he would tie my food in a nearby tree. If I failed to show up two weeks in a row, he would assume I was dead, and call in the Mounties to look for me.

So there I was, living in a tent, spending my time either wading through swamp-filled valleys or climbing over the ridges surrounding them. Stopping to chip off and collect any exposed bedrock, to send south once per week. The mornings were easy, a couple of liters of water, some fruit, and a bag of trail mix inside my pack, with a couple of spoons tied to the outside of it, jangling along to keep the Grizzlies at bay.

By the end of each day I was a wreck. 12-15 hours of climbing and chopping my way through rugged bush, and filling my pack with 30-50 pounds of rock samples, meant I was pretty knackered by the time I made it back to camp.

Surprisingly, the one part of me that wasn’t aching, bleeding or swelling by the end of each day was my feet. This was because when I told my parents what I would be doing all summer, my dad promptly took me to the best outdoor outfitter in Vancouver and told them to set me up with the best boots they had. Both my dad and my granddad had spent their formative years working up in Canada’s far north (there’s even a park and a couple of rivers named after them). So dad knew a few things about walking through the bush.

The boots I ended up buying were Zamberlans.

Since the company was founded by Giuseppe Zamberlan, they’ve been made in the same little town in the Dolomites, by the same family since the First World War. One of his good friends and climbing buddies was Vitale Bramani (Vi-Bram) who founded Vibram. These were the boots that changed climbing as we know it, and changed my perspective on the importance of a good pair of boots forever.

Now when I bought my first pair of Zamberlans, I thought they were expensive but at the same time, if they kept my feet happy all summer, there was no doubt that the boots would be worth it. At the time, I wasn’t really looking at anything beyond that. The following year I found myself working the ramp at the Vancouver airport, and then working in an out of fishing camps in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Zamberlans were still good, so I polished them up and wore them for another season. The following year it was fighting forest fires in Northern Alberta. The year after that it was wildlife surveys in the Eastern Northwest Territories (the area now known as Nunavut). After all that abuse, my Zamberlans were still going strong.

Then in my early 20’s it was time for a change of climate. I traded in the tundra of Northern Canada for the steamy jungles of South East Asia. The Zamberlans kept on going. I started to think of them as indestructible. I wore them in the mud of the Taman Negara rainforest, on the beaches of Thailand, and in the concrete jungles of Beijing, Tokyo, and Singapore. Then, when I was walking along an isolated coral shoreline in Timor Leste, the unthinkable happened. My Zamberlans fell apart. Well, not completely, the sole had worn down enough that the stitching around the sole wore-through, and in the tropical heat the glue had finally failed, so the sole of one boot started flapping like a clown shoe.

Not a big deal, I tied the lace around the boot and kept going, but the unexpected failure suddenly made me appreciate all these boots had done for me. At the end of that trip, rather than ditching my boots and buying another pair, I sent my boots away to be resoled. When they came back, they were like new boots underneath, except the tops were already broken in and comfortable.

Unless I am working in a specific environment (colder than -10C, or deep snow, or deep mud) my old pair of Zamberlans are still my first choice. So when Christophe in our office asked me if I;d like to review a new pair of Zamberlans late last year, I was at first hesitant. Would they match up to my expectations? Would my love affair with the brand be diminished? I decided to give them a try.

When I saw the 310 Skill GT’s I was curious if they would have the same fit, feel, and of course durability as my old Zamberlans. I am happy to report they are just as good, if not better. I have worn them every single day, for the last 4 months. I’ve worn them in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, on the coastlines of Mexico’s rugged Baja Peninsula, through the snows of Utah and the deserts of Arizona. Never once did I feel I was wearing the wrong boot. They breathe well when it’s hot, and are warm when it’s cold—a good wool sock helps.

The fit is fantastic for me, with plenty of good ankle protection without an uncomfortable bulky feel, lots of instep support, and adequate foot cushioning that doesn’t sacrifice feel. They even grip better than my old pair, especially on wet rock, while at the same time weighing quite a bit less.

The only downside for me? I find the red accents in the boot a little bright. I like being able to polish a pair of black or brown boots, slip on a clean pair of khaki pants and a shirt with a collar, and go to an impromptu dinner or fancy party if I need to. The red accents give away that you are actually still wearing a pair of hiking boots. I guess as far as complaints go, I think that one is pretty minor.

Only time will tell if they will look as good as my last pair, after 22 years of abuse, but so far they are looking good.