Phasing out of felt-soled wading boots?

By: J.D. Richey, Journal Outdoors Columnist
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In all of the sports I’ve participated in, felt has probably saved me from more extremely painful — and even potentially fatal — accidents over the years than anything. Felt you say? Seems like a pretty uninspiring material for the prevention of injuries, right? I’ll grant you that Kevlar or closed cell foam or plastic sound like more logical choices but felt truly has kept me safe and sound on countless occasions. More specifically, felt soles on wading boots. Super grippy, but… If you’ve never had a pair, felt soles are like magic and have an almost magnetic feel when you’re tromping around on slimy and mossy rocks. They literally stick to the slickest bottoms like glue, but felt soles may go the way of the dinosaur soon in the wading boot world. They’ve got issues As safe as felt soles are, they also have some inherent problems. If you’ve ever had to hike through snow in this style of boot, you’re well aware that the only thing that felt sticks to better than mossy rocks is the white stuff that skiers love. Same goes for some types of mud and dirt. Felt soles are also cumbersome and a pain to wear when you have to hike long distances to get to your fishing spot. They also wear out rather quickly and sometimes partially detach from the boot. I have about broken my neck more than once when the toe edge of a felt sole has come unglued on the river, creating a dangerous flapping “tongue” on the bottom of my foot. But the real problem with felt-soled wading boots is they can be basically like an incubator for all kinds of nasty critters. Since the felt is rather porous and can take days to dry out, invasive species like New Zealand Mud Snails and microscopic aquatic organisms like didymo, along with several verities of fish-killing diseases, can take refuge in the soles and then be transferred from one waterway to the next very easily. The spread of these organisms is really becoming a problem in many areas – in fact, New Zealand banned the use of felt soles on wading boots last fall. We haven’t come to that yet here in the states but one company, Simms, is taking a big step and will be phasing out felt soles in their extremely popular lineup of boots by next year. “We know felt is not the only material that has spread invasive species and disease,” said Simms president K.C. Walsh. “But felt is surely part of the problem. At Simms, we’ve decided to be part of the solution.” I’ve got to say I really like the attitude and conscience of those guys. It’s a bold move that could potentially come back to haunt Simms. If their new feltless soles don’t work out, they could lose a significant share of the market. On the other hand, Simms is an industry leader and if they get “the felt out” and survive, the rest of the industry is likely to follow suit. My guess is they’ll be just fine. So, what exactly are they going to replace felt with, anyway? Well, Simms has teamed up with Vibram, which produces the best rubber soles on the market, and together they have come up with an ultra-grippy and super sticky new bottom for wading boots. The new Simms boots with Vibram Streamtread are just hitting the markets now, so the jury’s still out. I saw a pair at the recent sports show and they look pretty intriguing, though I have yet to try ‘em out. One benefit I immediately thought of was how much more comfortable they must be for long hikes – and no snow issues, either! I’ll be very curious to see how all this plays out. Again, I have to give Simms high marks for taking the big gamble and doing what they feel is the right thing to do. We need more companies like that in this world! I’ll report back when I try a pair on... J.D. Richey is a 1986 Placer High graduate, and his outdoors pieces have been published nationally. He can be found on the Web at