Ever get really, genuinely excited about a gear purchase, only to be utterly devastated that it turned out to be a really questionable investment? Yeah, this is the story about that sorta thing...
Half way through last year both my lovely lady and I were in the market for new hiking boots. Her latest pair of Merrells were disintegrating much faster than their predecessors, and my old pair Gortex Scarpas were well past retirement age. We were now regularly doing more off track bushwalking and with winter snow to soon deal with, we both wanted something dependably waterproof and stout - and were happy to pay for something good.
I was eyeing off Salomon Quests at my local shop, when my mate who works there asked if I'd heard of the German brand Lowa - which I hadn't. He duly rattled off the key selling points - German manufacture, full Gortex, quality leather upper with minimal stitching seams to fail, neato lacing system with roller bearings in the guides, Vibram sole that could be replaced, heat sealed rand, actual Wide fitting option for people who don't have ballerina feet etc. etc.... cynical me asks sardonically "and yeah, how much?" and was right to be cynical, because yes, $570-ish was rather more than the $350-$450 I originally had in mind.
Lowa Camino GTX WXL
Lowa Mauria GTX Wide (Womens)
But after 30 seconds of having the Camino GTX WXL to hand, it was starting to make sense. The lacing system made a tonne of sense, the leather felt good, the protective rand should make for a long serviceable life, as would being able to resole every few years. Trying them on revealed instant comfort not normally associated with leather walking boots - I'm still scarred both emotionally and physically from my original full leather Scarpas from 2004.
I left the store thinking "great, more money" but realising that, given the amount we hike these days (literally 3 weekends in 4, on average) paying a little more for a boot that should last 5-10 years rather than the 2-3 that could be expected from the usual suspects would actually be a better investment in the long term. Online reviews were promising... Lowa have a long standing following in the US hunting community, guys walking miles off track carrying hunks of deer on their backs. That bode well.
Anyway, long story not quite short, a few days later we both pulled the plug and dropped over a grand on a pair of Camino GTX WXLs for myself, and a pair of Mauria GTX Wides (basically the women's equivalent of the Camino) for my girl. Suffice to say we were keen as mustard to put them to the test that coming weekend.
The boot's first test was a wet and, higher up, rather snowy Mt Rufus (if memory serves correct). The track was wet and muddy, with plenty of snow left from the big dump we had that caught everyone out on the OLT a couple of week's prior. Without snow shoes for the soft stuff, we struggled up onto the ridgeline before questionable looking weather made us turn back. But our feet were dry - excellent! Grip wasn't anything to write home about; I didn't expect miracles on icy snow, but in the mud the boots squirmed more than I'd expected. But with a good dozen or more kays on our feet by the end of the day, our feet were surprisingly un-fatigued.
That's the good news. The bad news was that after only one ~6hr outing, the rand around the front of my boots was coming away already - in a not-unsubstantial manner! All along the top edge the rubber had lifted away 2-5mm already, trapping in dirt and generally looking decidedly ratty for barely worn-in boots.
My original pair of Camino GTX WXLs after their first weekend out. Hmmm...
"Oh well, obviously they slipped through QC." thinks me, knowing full well that even quality makers have off-days. The issue was raised with the retailer and, sure enough, replacement was ordered a few days later. As they didn't have another pair of Caminos in my size in stock, and I had a return attempt to Mt Rufus scheduled that weekend, we struck a deal to 'upgrade' me to the Tibet GTX Wides for much less than the near $100 price difference between the two.
Lowa Tibet GTX Wide
The Tibets are a "more serious" boot than the Caminos... stiffer, taller in the ankle, fewer seams, more spartan in design and, most tellingly, a full wrap-around rubber rand than the Camino's front-and-back capping. In truth I preferred the Camino's better balance of protection versus sole flex - particularly noticeable when you're climbing on scree - the Tibet's were less yielding and didn't have the same immediate comfort. But oh well, at least they'll last a long time.
Wrong. The exact same issue occurred again, first walk out. With each successive hike, more of the rand edge lifted off the leather, and more rand broke off altogether, leaving the leather underneath exposed, which quickly scarred.
My Tibet GTX Wides after 3 months and 269km, looking decidedly trashed...
It was about this time I became aware my delamination issue wasn't isolated. Unbeknownst, one of my running buddies had bought the Caminos a couple of weeks' prior and within a handful of trips his boots looked utterly trashed from the rand falling to bits. A couple of members from different bushwalking clubs were experiencing similar issues. It's also been mentioned in this thread on bushwalk.com - http://bushwalk.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=29192
A fellow walking club member's Caminos. He mentioned this was the third trip he'd taken them on.
Anyway, the retailer was soon advised that the same issue was happening and rather than try again with yet another pair of Lowas, I just wanted my money back and I'd (probably) get the darn Salomons like I'd originally planned. They duly put in another warranty claim - only for it to be rejected. Righto - give me the guy's phone/email, I'll sort this out myself.
Said bloke from the distributor (Beattie Matheson in New Zealand) seemed a tad annoyed I'd got hold of his email, and proceeded to give a lengthy 'explanation' as to how the disintegrating rand constituted "normal wear and tear". He also lectured me that using Nikawax rather than their own brand Active Creme would have made the issue worse, despite the fact that I'd been using their stuff for the first couple of months, by which time the damage was well and truly evident, and have always maintained the boots fastidiously to prevent spreading root rot/seeds around the state (and of course looking after my freaking expensive investment).
Anyway, a rebuttal email resulted in no response nor any refund. I've also contacted Lowa direct in Germany and received much the same response - very disappointing. By way of comparison, over the same period of time HydraPak replaced 3 Salomon SpeedFlasks (the original black wide cap tops crack after 6 months of use, they've since changed them to a different, light grey plastic) without any hassle whatsoever. At least some companies still understand customer service and the obligation to back up their products, especially when you charge a premium.
But here's the confusing, frustrating thing - my partner's women's specific Mauria GTX's haven't had the same issues. Yes, there's some small wear and chipping along the top edge of the rand, and the leather definitely has still marred more than ideally (due to being split leather) but after 500km-odd her boots look more or less the way you'd expect them too after that kind of use. Which begs the question: assuming all three boot styles are made with the same materials and production techniques, why are the mens boots losing their rands so quickly while the womens boots don't?
My partner's father offered some insight. Why does his opinion matter? Well, he worked for Blundstone for some 30 years, including as MD for 10, knows more about selecting leather and thermomoulding polyurethane than any rational human being should and actually is credited for the patent for shock absorbing TPU/PU soles that, curiously enough, Lowa use. So yeah, I listened carefully and took notes.
* The rand idea was poorly executed. He reckoned gluing would have been more durable than heat moulding - despite what I'd previously been told - but ultimately it was too thin and too delicate to provide any long term protection.
* The harder rubber toe cap was way too small to offer any decent protection, particularly given the rand issue.
* Both the men's Camino and Tibet soles lacked rocker/toe lift compared to the Mauria, which is why the men's boots seem to be coping much more wear on the top of toe box than my partner's. This also confirmed a suspicion I had that the rand on the women's boots came up further on the actual toe box itself, pointed further backwards rather than having its edge point more or less straight up as on the men's boots, making it more prone to catching on rocks/scrub etc. as you walk. This also explains why the Tibets are only good for about 20km of walking before they fatigue the bejesus out of the soles of my feet.
* The vertical seam on the Mauria uppers was much preferable in term of flex and durability than the horizontal seam on the Tibets, and actually required a larger, more expensive piece of quality leather, despite the Maurias being a (slightly) cheaper boot.
* Speaking of leather, he said the leather was decent enough quality, not great (he's already picked all the spots in the grain where they'll fail first) but in his opinion split leather simply isn't a great option for a long lasting set of boots. That's no great surprise, trading improved immediate comfort over long term durability.
* He was surprised they were actually German made. Now, granted, he's been out of the game for some 10 years and probably hasn't quite seen the general depreciation of manufactured goods quality since as everyone tries to compete with Far East pricing, but he spent a lot of time in Germany learning the trade and has very high respect for their manufacturing. He thought they were good, just not as good as they should have been.
Anyway, take of all this what you will. Suffice to say I've been mighty disappointed; I had admittedly high expectations of the Lowa boots, but have felt these were well on par with the price they cost, and really the boots haven't been subjected to anything beyond what a keen bushwalker would and could do in Tasmania. The lack of customer support has left a very sour note too. As always, buyer beware folks...
PS - Would be very interested to hear from other Lowa owners - male or female - with their experiences.