Custom Boots To Tame Any Trail

If you're like many urban executives, cabin-feverish as winter breaks, you'll head for the great outdoors this spring. And that calls for good hiking boots, the best of which cost upward of $200. But for as little as $100 more, you can climb all over Mother Earth in handcrafted, custom-made boots.

The bespoke boot market obviously works for the folks who can't find an off-the-shelf fit. But for the majority of hard-core hikers, the appeal is just to have the best footwear money can buy. "I think people simply recognize the value of a well-made, handmade boot," says Randal Merrell, a 20-year "master bootmaker." "My boots put in a lot more miles and a lot more years than the standard boot."

Although the masters of the trade cut, stitch, and slave for hours to achieve a perfect fit, your role is painless. You send a deposit and measurements--length, width, arch--and they send you boots. Cowhide is the standard material, but if you're into fancy footwear--and willing to ante up around $600--you can get boots made from shark, elephant, or water-buffalo skin.

The only shopping you'll need to do is for a bootmaker. Considering that only a handful are in business, that shouldn't be too hard. Peter Limmer & Sons (603 356-5378) in Intervale, N. H., has been making custom boots for three generations. At about $260 a pair, they don't cost much more than a good off-the-rack hiking boot, partly because the uppers are factory-manufactured. And Limmer offers only one design.

John Calden in Estes Park, Colo. (303 586-5398), builds his clodhoppers completely from scratch. At $475 a pair, his labor doesn't come cheap, but judging from a 15-month-long waiting list, the price isn't hurting business much.

'FIT-KIT.' If you're anywhere near Vernal, Utah, go see Randal Merrell, one of the few bootmakers who doesn't work on a mail-order basis. Yeah, it's a hassle. But even at $450 a pair, Merrell says, "I have more boots to build than I can handle."

Merrell also teaches bootmaking--and evidently does it well: One of his former students, Peter Morin (303 674-2806), sees clients at his Evergreen (Colo.) shop from places as diverse as Alaska, California, and Georgia. If you're not up for the trek, he'll send out a "fit-kit" with directions, tape measure, and hide samples. For those worn weary by years of shoe-fitting grief, have no fear, says Morin. "I will not turn a pair of feet away."