Tested: Lowa Desert Elite boots for packrafting


In a line Sturdy, inexpensive, no-membrane boot with rock-hard soles that are immune to sharp, stony trails.

Cost Rrp £175/$330. Got mine new for £70 off ebay uk and another pair for £20 used.

Weight 901g (10.5 UK) + 86g Sole insoles


Available over half price new on eBay uk; round toe box avoids toe-mashing blisters; chunky, gimmick-free Vibram tread; no membrane so will dry quickly and won’t get hot; with heat-contoured Sole footbed these boots are as comfortable as you can expect for something with minimal padding taking 120-kilo loads.

Feel clompy, but then they are classified as a heavy-duty military boot; OE removable insole was truly rubbish; like an over-inflated moto tyre, the stiff sole (in an impact sense, not flex) tends to skate or roll off loose stones where softer soles would conform and grip. Can get painful on too much asphalt, but that could be my old feet.


Used for UK packrafting, motorbiking, days walks up to 15 miles, a two-week walk with packraft in SW Turkey and another two-weeker in Mauritania with camels.

After about a year’s use including the Turkish coast with my packraft, I think I’ve finally settled on some packrafting boots that are up to negotiating rough cross-country terrain but can also recover well from getting soaked.


For ages I was looking among the mainstream boot makers in outdoor shops for something with a loose-stone proof sole but without a breathable membrane. To me this whole membrane business in boots is the biggest trick since Kaiser Soze convinced us he was a figment of our imagination. Once a boot goes in the water over the top (in Scotland it can happen) all the king’s Gore-Tex and all the king’s men won’t keep Humpty’s boots dry. In fact I think Gore-tex and the like will merely prolong the drying process even when the GTX membrane fails as it surely will in something as abused as a boot.


As the name suggests, the Elites are something all the major boot manufacturers in the US and Europe have been banging out since the invasion of Iraq. I don’t want you to think I flit around in camo-gear forever ‘checking my exits (well not since my teenage years) but you have to admit the best military gear is made to serve a purpose rather than look fashionable in a logo-over your-back-right shoulder kind of way. I did try some very similar Meindl Desert Fox boots and years ago (before the wars) had UK-bootmaker Alt-Berg sponsor me a custom desert boot (right) for an ambitious ride into the desert before these types of boots acquired military connotations.


Significantly on this Turkish walk where I drank up to 3 litres a day and still got in parched, I never felt the compulsion to air off and cool down my feet at lunch time. I didn’t even think about it and when you consider the terrain, load and temps that’s quite a testament to all-day comfort.
No other boot I’ve owned could have managed that, though I’m sure the gallingly expensive Sole heat-moulded footbeds (left) contributed greatly to that all-day comfort. With them and the inside of the boot’s sole there’s virtually no cushioning; all you have is what spring there is in your socks and the flesh on your feet. Sure it was good to take them off at the end of a long day, but then so it was with the pack and everything else I wore.


The only time my feet got into the red zone and I felt blisters coming on was while walking with another guy who moved pretty fast over the sharp, weathered rocks and loose stones which required full concentration and packstaff support. I kept up just, but it was an uncomfortable pace. Luckily I knew that afternoon would end for me with a paddle to the village. Next day I set of again in the boat across the lagoon and then resumed dawdling along at my own pace and my feet felt fine.


It’s not all rosy in the Lowa Elite squadron though. One problem I had with the boots was their tendency to skate on loose rocks and there were plenty of those on the Lycian Way. All walkers I met found the terrain challenging at times (trip report coming) but I must admit I lost confidence in my walking ability on some of the rubble-strewn coastal side slopes where thorny overgrown scrub often exacerbated the difficulties to force me off balance or to stoop. These stumbles set off old injuries in my legs which I usually manage. I couldn’t have managed without my packstaff (left). The fastest walkers I encountered were all using twin poles.


The other time the boots showed their limits was on extended road walking when the balls of one foot would get sore, but again I put this down to an old broken foot which plays up at other times too, like with those Alt-Bergs back in 2003 when I was merely riding a bike. Slipping into something more comfortable like a pair of Doc Martins would have solved that and the unvarying plod of road walking is something many boot walkers dislike.
I suppose there can be no compromise: on the trail either your feet soles get mashed from the pummelling that soft boot soles transfer; or you’re walking in a pair of clogs immune to whatever’s underfoot. I slipped back once and fell forward twice in 200+ kms and had many more slips.


It would be great to have a trail shoe made on the same solid footbed as I suspect the whole boot ankle-support thing is something of a myth unless you’re carrying really heavy loads. If a few more stones get in then so be it – a shoe will be lighter and the foot cooler. But I suppose you could use the same ‘it’s an artificial aid’ argument for a packstaff.


As for wet weather UK tramping I’m happy to use either SealSkinz membrane socks (while they last) or, to be honest just wear any old thick wool or whatever socks that keep the feet warm when wet. I don’t tend to get cold feet and don’t mind warm wet feet. In the packraft, to spare the boat and air the feet in Turkey I choose not to wear boots so stick them between my knees (right) where they make handy pods for a water bottle and the camera.


Damage report
I’ve worn out a pair of regular outdoor shop shoes in one 12-day Sahara camel trek – and also ended up with my feet badly blistered. The Lowas handled the recent bashing much better. As you can see on the left the toe box got a hammering and one thing a desert boot could do with is a fat rand (right) to protect the stitching from stone damage. It’s not all sand dunes in the desert.


The fabric side panel threading on one boot is now missing a few stitches and the front of the sole was coming away from the toe too. But both those things ought to be easy to repair, with the sewing not risking damaging any futile membrane.
The paint has chipped off the lace D-rings or hooks (right). They’re also rusting a little, probably after wading in seawater. The set-back double-rivited D-ring has a pinch-locking cam in it to jam the lace in place, but the laces have shown no signs of wear.


With a combined weight of some 120-kilos pressing on them the heavily lugged Vibram outsoles have lost their edge and are a little chewed up but have plenty of life left in them. On the Lycian Way I met people taking a day out to bus to a town in search of more rugged footwear, while others bathed their feet in salty lagoons in the hope they’d recover.


To summarise: what makes these Lowas work for me is the round toe that suits my wide feet (extra wide version available, but rarely cheap on eBay); the quick-drying fully breathable uppers keep feet cool which I’m sure mitigates blistering; the solid outsole feels immune to sharp rocks while the Sole insole provides an anatomic footbed that’s customised to your actual foot shape. Plus they’re half the price or less than anything similar at Cotswold and all the rest. And I quite like the sandy colour – a scrub in the bath cleans them up nicely.


But these Middle Eastern wars may not go on forever so I just talked myself into buying a back-up pair, used but actually in better nick than mine are now, and for just £20. In 2020 there were still loads of near new Elites on Ebay for around £25.

Update 2018.
I used the Lowas alongside my Teva Omniums on a two-week camel trek in Mauritania (negligible load carried). Good to have a choice but, while a bit over the top, in the end the Lowas was the better do-it-all footwear for that trip. Flip-flops would have done around the camp to avoid the thorn menace and for an airing one can go barefoot in the dunes.


I originally looked at jungle boots: similar membrane-free military footwear that’s designed for frequent soaking and drying. They feature minimal leather on the uppers, with Cordura nylon panels elsewhere, as well as instep drainage holes (left) like I bodged on previous shoes.
Jungle boots tend to be high to keep creepy crawlies out, but at least these sections are not stiff and so end up light. Left is the British-made Altberg jungle boot. Silverman’s illustrate both types of Altberg J-boots which cost around £170 and use ‘amfibio’ leather suited to being soaked. I took a chance and bought a used pair off ebay once. Very well made with a solid, rock-proof sole, but a couple hours’ walking proved they were a little too big for me. I’ve compromised on boots before and don’t want to make that mistake again.

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