The Ultimate Guide to Work Boots
Whether you haul frac sand or crude, perform roustabout duties, or trudge between a sample source and your mudlogging office, you need work boots to get your oilfield work completed safely and comfortably. The Fracking Jobs team created this Ultimate Guide to Work Boots to help you select the right pair of hard-working footwear for hard-working oilfield folks – like yourself.
Why publish an “Ultimate Guide to Work Boots”? Is such a guide really necessary? You bet it is. In all types of weather, but especially during the fall and winter seasons, you’ll be working outdoors in rugged oilfield environments. Whether your work takes you to Montana, North
Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or even Texas – which has its own brand of cold weather – you need high-quality footwear. Your toes are some of your most vulnerable extremities, and some of the most challenging body parts to keep warm. The work boots you buy will be very important investments. Top-notch work boots aren’t cheap, and many different brands and combinations of features are available. So take some time to figure out exactly what kinds of boots will suit your needs. Don’t leave your selection of footwear to chance, and expect to spend a little to get comfortable boots that will keep your feet warm and safe.
Below, we break down the most significant components of work boots. We explain what you should look for with each component, and help you decide which features you’ll need and which you can skip. Click on any tab on the left column to learn more about a particular component…
- Uppers / Outer Materials
- Soles / Traction
- Water Resistance
- Electrical Hazard Protection
- Safety Toe / Steel Toe
- Metatarsal Boots
- Comfort / Fit
- OSHA Standards
Just about every quality pair of work boots is constructed with “uppers” (the part of the boot above the sole) that are leather. Some portions of the uppers might also consist of man-made materials as well.
Leather is the ideal material for work boots because it “breathes”, or allows for some circulation of fresh air around your feet. The pores in leather allow for air to flow in and out of your boots.
Leather also can “wick” water moisture and perspiration away from your feet, allowing your feet to stay dry. And, of course, leather is an extremely strong material which can’t be easily torn or punctured. Most of us can remember our father’s or grandfather’s old leather work boots which lasted for years and years.
As mentioned, at times man-made materials are used in the construction of work boots. These materials, usually urethane or vinyl, aren’t as good as leather is for allowing breathability, and they don’t “break in” around your feet like leather does. However, some man-made materials are necessary for certain portions of the boot. Most manufacturers ship leather care instructions with each new pair of work boots.
The work boot sole, of course, is literally where “the rubber meets the road”. Your work boot soles should provide great traction and extreme durability, but also comfort. Soles are usually
constructed of synthetic or natural rubber, or a combination of the two. Vibram® soles are generally regarded as the standard for rugged outdoor boot soles. Many high-end work boot manufacturers like Chippewa, Timberland, and Wolverine sell their boots with Vibram soles, while others use their own “in-house” soles. Both Vibram and “non-Vibram” soles should be just fine, so instead pay attention to the sole’s traction. Look for work boots that have deep “lugs” in the soles – these are the parts of the sole which jut out from the actual base of the shoe. These lugs will give you the traction you’ll need in mud, snow, and ice. And remember: if your boot sole wears out before the rest of the boot does – a strong possibility – you can always get it replaced.
Of course, insulation is a “must have” work boot feature for those who will be spending a major portion of their work days outdoors, especially in the northern climates. While there are many different types of insulation materials for footwear these days, the two major ones are Thinsulate™ and shearling. Thinsulate™ brand insulation (from the 3M Corporation – the same folks that gave the world “sticky notes”) is one of the most common types of insulation materials used in work boots. It is a synthetic material that is very lightweight while absorbing very little water (less than 1% of a fiber’s weight, according to 3M). This low absorption helps keep feet dry. When shopping for work boots, take note of the amount of Thinsulate™ insulation used in their construction. Insulation is measured in grams. 3M has created a guide which suggests the amount of Thinsulate™ insulation you should look for when searching for cold-weather insulated work boots:
- 200 Grams – for cool (as opposed to “cold”) activities. Generally recommended for above-freezing (32 degrees F. or above) conditions, like those found during the early spring or late fall.
- 400 Grams – cold conditions where activity levels can be moderately strenuous. For example, if the temperatures will be hovering around 30 degrees F. and you’ll be moving around quite a bit – this level of insulation should be appropriate.
- 600 – 800 Grams – very cold conditions where activity levels are less strenuous. Consider these levels of insulation if you’ll be working outdoors in long stretches when the temperatures are in the 20 degree F. range, and/or you won’t be moving around very much.
- 1,000 Grams – the most extreme cold conditions. Boots with this much insulation will be among the warmest you can find.
Shearling, on the other hand, is the natural wool material that comes from sheep. Shearling is generally found in more casual or “recreational” footwear. As a rule, most professional-grade work boots tend to feature Thinsulate™ insulation. You may hear of some old-timers talking about down insulation. However, down is rarely used anymore as an insulation material for footwear, although it is still popular as a winter coat or sleeping bag insulation material. Down doesn’t offer the lightweight construction or low liquid absorption that synthetic materials can offer. If you aren’t sure how much insulation you’ll need, then err on the side of more, not less, insulation. You’ll experience less discomfort with slightly warmer feet compared to feet that are too cold. You can always take your boots off when you have a work break and let your feet “breathe” if they’re too warm. This will be much easier than trying to warm up feet that are already too cold in frigid conditions.
You may not think you’ll need a pair of boots that are completely waterproof, but stop and think: how many days will you be working outside when it’s raining? Or, when the rain stops, will you be dodging puddles for the rest of the day as you get in and out of your truck? If you’re going to spend the money on a well-insulated pair of boots, then look for a pair that is waterproof as well. No matter how good the insulation is in your new boots, wet feet can be your undoing. You don’t need to pull on a pair of tacky yellow galoshes from your school days, however. Most of the better quality work boots out there offer some degree of water resistance.
Once you’ve broken in your new work boots and decided that you want more protection from rain, snow, and mud, then try this advice from Outdoor Life:
At your local hardware store pick up a standard wax toilet ring. Approximate cost: $3. No other boot sealant products – mink oil, lexol, neatsfoot oil, or the spray-on variety – work as well.
To apply, simply wipe the boots clean and set them and the wax in a warm place, near a heating vent, in the sunshine, or near a woodburning stove. Don’t get them hot, just nice and warm to the touch. Then, using your fingers or a small cloth, rub the wax into the leather. If you don’t want to waterproof your fingers, wear gloves. Avoid getting wax on the plastic/rubber parts of the boot. When the boots are nicely coated with wax, set them back in the warm spot for an hour or more – once again don’t allow them to get hot. Then using a soft cloth, buff the excess wax away.
By the way, since some of you who work in the oilfields also like to go hunting, the above waterproofing tip will benefit your recreational pursuits, also!
Some oilfield jobs may present electrical hazards. Many work boots offer protections from electrical hazards, and these boots can be placed in one of three categories, as specified by the American
Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which publishes safety standards for business and industry:
- Non-conductive footwear: These are boots with an “EH” (Electrical Hazard) rating. These boots are specially insulated so that the flow of electricity will be reduced significantly should there be any accidental contact with live electrical sources. There will be an “EH” on the ASTM label inside the boot.
- Anti-static footwear: Boots that feature “ESD” or “SD” (Static Dissipating) tags. Anti-static footwear can reduce the accumulation of static electricity from the body. These boots still offer some protection from electrical hazards from live circuits. Not all SD rated boots will have steel or safety toe features. There will be an “SD” on the ASTM label inside the boot.
- Conductive footwear: These are boots with a “CD” (Conductive) rating. These boots conduct static electricity into the ground, and do so much faster than “SD” rated boots – which perform a similar safety task – are able to do. These boots have a “CD” visible on the ASTM label sewn inside. They are designed to be worn in environments where there are flammable or explosive materials present, and where a spark from a buildup of static electricity could cause an explosion.
Do not interchange “CD”, “SD”, or “EH” rated footwear. Each type of boot is designed for a specific purpose. For example, wearing a “CD” boot in an environment where “EH” boots are required could be extremely hazardous. Your employer will issue the requirements for the boots you’ll need in your work environment, including which protections against electrical hazards are necessary.
Perhaps you may not necessarily seek out boots that have steel toe construction, but your employer – and any companies involved with the work on your rig or around your loading/unloading areas – may require them. Many work boots offer “steel toe”, “safety toe”, or “composite toe” protection. So, what’s the difference between the three? “Steel toe” boots are as they say they are: boots with a steel protector for your toes inserted into the front of each boot. “Composite toe” (many companies use the term “safety toe” which means the same thing) use a composite material
instead of steel to protect the toes. The composite materials in safety toe (or composite toe) boots can be high-impact plastic, carbon fiber, or even Kevlar – the same material used in bulletproof vests! Safety toe boots are used by workers who have to regularly go through metal detectors, like those who work in nuclear power plants or at airports. Oil rig personnel should be able to get away with steel toe boots, which can sometimes cost a little less than safety toe boots. However, in extreme cold conditions, the composite materials in a safety toe boot will be less prone to conduct cold temperatures into and around the toe area than steel.
Located in the middle of your foot, between the ankle area and your toes, are five bones – one for each toe – that are referred to as the “metatarsals”. Metatarsal work boots are constructed to protect this vulnerable area of the feet. They are required footwear for those who work around potential “drop” hazards like falling objects or in environments where forklifts are in use. Some oilfield jobs require these types of boots, but not all.
Metatarsal work boots, more commonly known as “meta guard boots” or simply “meta boots”, can have either internal or external guards. Internal guard boots resemble any other type of work boot, and are sometimes known as “invisible guard boots”, as illustrated below:
External meta guard boots are similar to the one pictured below. While internal meta guard boots are preferred by those who prefer a less bulky design, external meta boots offer a little more protection as the guard itself will be a little thicker:
In the final analysis, your choice of meta guard boot, if you need one to begin with, will be dependent on your employer, your work situation, and/or your personal preferences.
While it pays to do some research on work boots before you order them, you won’t know how comfortable any pair of boots will be until you actually try them on. So, once your new boots show up at your door, try them on right away. They should feel comfortable, if not fully broken in, the very first time you wear them. If your new boots feel too tight or too loose or if you feel discomfort as soon as you pull them out of the box, they are likely going to remain uncomfortable – especially after a 12 hour workday – regardless of how much “breaking in” they get. To make sure that your new boots fit comfortably, check the following while wearing the socks you expect to wear every workday:
- Heel area: Your heel should sit comfortably into the back section of the boot, and shouldn’t be too constrained. A little bit of looseness, or “give”, in the heel area is better than too much tightness. You don’t want your heel to slip around, but you don’t want a vise-like tight grip on it, either.
- Toe area: Make sure your toes have plenty of room to “breathe”. A little bit of room beats too little room, just like the heel area. Nevertheless, you don’t want your toes to feel like they are “swimming” in the boots. When you first try on your boots, don’t lace them up. Inch your foot as far towards the front of the boots as you can. Then, check for about a finger’s width of room behind the heel, which is ideal.
- Shaft or lower leg: You don’t want any part of the “upper” of the boots to rub against or chafe your lower leg. Sometimes this issue can be resolved by wearing high-top socks, however. Just be aware of this. You may not need boots with high-top uppers unless you’ll be constantly working in extreme weather conditions where moisture can easily enter your boots due to deep puddles or constant rain and snow.
- Take a test walk: If your new boots feel comfortable once you put them on, then walk back and forth a few feet in them. If there’s any rubbing in specific areas of your feet, these areas could be susceptible to blisters. However, if you don’t sense too much tightness, a solid break-in period may be all that you need for optimum comfort.
Podiatrists recommend that when you purchase a new pair of boots you should purchase new socks to go with them. This allows the socks to break-in with the boots, and will prevent blisters and other types of discomforts until your feet get used to your new work boots.
There are exacting standards concerning personal protective equipment (PPE), which include footwear, issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). These standards will be designed into high-end work boots. Visit the OSHA pages concerning workplace PPE and footwear requirements to learn more.
After reading this far, you probably already know that you should avoid skimping on your footwear when it comes to price. Your work boots aren’t something that you can afford to be cheap with if you want comfort, durability, and safety. High-quality work boots will generally cost at least $100 per pair. If you spend less than this, you’ve either found a fantastic deal (not likely) or you purchased a less-than-ideal pair of working footwear.
The best brand names will cost a little more, but after a long winter working outdoors on or around oil rigs, you’ll realize that not having toes that ache in near-frostbite conditions is worth every penny. Cut back on your beer budget, your cable bill, or your fishing tackle expenses. Just don’t cut back on your footwear. It simply isn’t worth it. Besides, if you’ve chosen the right oilfield company to work for, you’ll be able to pay for your new work boots with a single day’s pay. In fact, some oilfield companies will pay for part of the cost of your work boots.
Every high quality work boot manufacturer has a gimmick or two, a patented system of one kind or other, and/or an exclusive trademarked feature. Really, though, if the manufacturer has name brand recognition and has been around for a while (as many have) you can’t go wrong especially if you’re spending a little bit more. Try to focus on quality, comfort, and durability as well as the features that are most important to you, like water resistance or electrical protection. Your feet are worth a decent investment in the best work boots that you can buy.