Photo: Warren McLaren / Inov8
Patagonia Footwear took part in a challenge issued by Backpacker Magazine* to see if it was possible to create a 'Zero Impact' boot for the haul of backpack loads up to 14 kg (30lb). Patagonia's response was the P26, which Backpacker considered had resulted in a 25-35% reduction in environmental impact over business as usual.
For the past six months we've been thrashing about in a pre-production sample of the P26, which has since become available as part of Patagonia's Fall 2010 line. How do they hold up in the real world?
Photo: Patagonia Footwear
I wore the P26s anywhere and everywhere: gardening, treeplanting, hiking, wood splitting, morning walks, even working on a retail shop floor. In late October I also headed off with a mate for a seven day bushwalk, to give the P26s an even more thorough workout.
The P26s were comfortable, pretty much right out of the box. The very smooth liner gives them a slipper like feel, as you foot slides neatly in.
The upper is almost a single piece of top-grain leather, backed up for waterproofing with a Gore-Tex gasket. And my feet have stayed dry when working in the wet, muddy garden and puddle stomping. (I have found with other Gore-Tex lined boots that the effectiveness of the waterproofing diminishes over time, but following six months of solid use the P26s are, to date, still functionally waterproof.) One issue I've previously had with Gore-Tex lined footwear is once water does get inside, it then takes a long time for the inner to dry out. Strangely I haven't found that to be the case with the P26.
I wondered why Patagonia Footwear had chosen to use a Gore-Tex gasket, instead of simply a waterproof leather that customers reproof. Just like we did with boots, before the advent of waterproof/breathable membranes.
Their response: "Patagonia chooses Gore-Tex because the footwear is meant to be waterproof AND breathable, not just waterproof. The membrane Gore-Tex produces has always proven to be 100% more durable than the closest competition. There are many materials that are impregnated into leather from wax paraffins to oil to silicone, etc... each have their own detailed problems. In general from our experience, oiled and waxed leathers are not good for cement construction type footwear because the bond to the leather is never a good one due to the oil or wax content." They went on to say, "Impregnation of leather stops breathability in many cases (depends on the product). Impregnation does not guarantee the sealing of seams. [A} membrane guarantees these 2 factors."
Seemed like sound reasoning, though I'm still not entirely convinced that adding in the non-recyclable Teflon based Gore-Tex membrane marries with the notion of Zero Impact boot.
P26 Womens Model. Photo: Patagonia Footwear
But the sole of the P26 is Vibram's Ecostep rubber which has increased its recycled content from 30% to 50% for this boot. The sole itself has plenty of traction in wide variety of terrain. Though I did find it a little prone to clogging when underfoot conditions were very clayey. It's great for grip on dry rock, but I noticed I had to be more diligent with my footwork on wet, mossy rocks. Here's another of those trade-offs. A stickier sole would most likely not be as durable and long lasting.The good news - after a solid six months of hammering, the tread on the soles of my P26s look next to new.
The midsole doesn't contain any recycled content but its running shoe compound for superior lightweight, cushioning and support is 25% lighter than regular EVA foam. Patagonia told us that for backpacking 1 pound (450g) on your foot is equal to 9 (4kg) on your back, "so reducing overall weight and giving a higher performance product was the intention." The insole and footbed do contain EVA with recycled content.
What at first glance looks like a protective rubber rand, around the base of the upper is in fact a leather rand. Although softer and more more susceptible to wear Patagonia Footwear advise that they chose leather over rubber for "breathability and fit."
Another point of reduced impact is the lace hooks. These are made of recycled zinc for durability, and, oddly enough, energy savings. Seems zinc can be moulded at 450° Celsius, versus 1200°C for other metals. To keep your laces firmly secured to the boot these lace hooks hide a tapering slot, like the cleat on yacht. This locks off the lace very securely. But alas it also limits your ability to use the hooks to tension the laces at the top of the boot. To address this issue, Patagonia advise that in future models they plan to "go away from these auto camming hooks to a more traditional hook."
Boot testing terrain par excellence Photo: Warren McLaren / inov8
I had some minor wear issues with my P26s, but on forwarding photos to Patagonia Footwear they replied that my trade sample boots were not production models, having been made up in the sampling room, and production boots were unlikely to see the same issues. And I did often subject my boots to rather extreme conditions -- over two days climbing the summit of Hinchinbrook Island, they spent the best part of 19 hours ascending and descending a creek, where they were commonly submerged for long periods.
Coming back to that earlier point about heavy boots approximating a heavier load on your back, the P26s are about 550g (1.2lb) for one boot, whereas other Gore-Tex lined boots I've worn of late are 650g and 700g, so Patagonia are correct in espousing its lightweight credentials. And it is a very comfortable boot to wear. It did not feel cumbersome or heavy on the foot. One day I wore them for 15 punishing hours of pack carrying, and while my body and brain were exhausted, my feet were neither sore or blistered.
I had expected that Patagonia Footwear might take a more overtly radical approach to Backpacker Magazine's Zero Impact Challenge, something that might have pushed the envelope beyond the 35% greener result they achieved. But they've done that before, with the likes of the OutsideIn series, where the sole was completely removable and the footframe/footbed snapped together and the shoes could be used indoor and outdoors. Unfortunately that line of footwear is no more, suggesting it can be tricky bringing your customers along on a journey that's both radical and green.
* Of the other four footwear companies that participated in the Zero Impact Challenge, (see links below) only two others have produced a commercial product, La Sportiva, who scored a Backpacker Magazine Editors Green Award for their efforts and Hi-Tec, who collaborated with the British National Trust to launch their boot. While the five participating companies worked hard to create a greener backpacking boot, a 45% eco improvement was the maximum achieved, compared to business-as-usual design and construction.
It's important that a product's performance characteristics should come before it's 'greenness.' The last thing the ecodesign movement wants is a backlash against its many advances, because people start saying, "Oh yeh, I tried those green backpacking boots, but they weren't comfortable and they fell apart." Such experience would benefit neither users, nor the planet. But in this case Patagonia have produced a bonafide backpacking boot that doesn't compromise on performance, whilst still being a significant step forward in green design.
Patagonia P26 Gore-Tex http://www.patagonia.com/us/product/patagonia-womens-p26-mid-gore-tex-shoe?p=79446-0-686 and Womens.
More Zero Impact Challenge
• The P26. Patagonia Footwear's Answer to Backpacker's Zero Impact Challenge
• Patagonia Footwear Take The Zero Impact Challenge
• Patagonia Footwear's Zero Impact Backpacking Boot Update