The 6 Kinds of Boot Soles You Should Know About

If you’re dropping real money on your boots, you want to be sure that you’ve got the best from the sole up; we’ve got this quick and handy guide so you’re ready when the rubber (or leather, or cork) hits the road.

Frye jones lace up sole

The Frye Jones Lace-Up

1. Leather Soles

Leather, usually considered the dressiest of all soles, gets that designation because it has the slimmest profile, so it looks best with your dress pants. Leather soles have lots of breathability and will mold to your foot (just like leather uppers do), but relative to the other soles on this list they aren’t great at withstanding a lot of walking — they’re easily damaged by inclement weather and they’re pretty slippery overall. They also get scratched and beaten up pretty quickly, as you can see in this image of the Wolverine 1000 Mile.

Wolverine 1000 Mile sole

TheWolverine 1000 Mile after a couple of weeks of wear.

An upside of leather soles, though, is that they’re flexible, they have a great “click clack” sound on hardwood, and they offer a really nice groundfeel. Single, double, or triple leather soles refer to the number of layers that make it up: the more layers, the thicker the sole, which means increased durability and more time to break in. Also keep an eye out for “oak soles” which are not made of wood, but rather vegetable-tanned in it, which supposedly makes the leather hardier.

Trickers Stow Boot sole

The Vibram Commando sole on Division Road’s Tricker’s Stow Boot

2. Commando Soles

Durable, hardwearing, and weather resistant, rubber soles like the famous Commando are thicker, chunkier, and much more suited to casual wear than leather soles. Basically, if you’re wearing a suit, you don’t want Commando. One downside is that rubber can be heavy, and has a tendency to stiffen and crack over time.

Vibram is one of the most popular manufacturers Commando soles. The company was founded by an Italian mountaineer Vitale Bramani after a number of his friends died in a climbing accident and he blamed it on their (leather-and-hobnail-soled) footwear. Since they were released in 1937 they’ve been incredibly popular with outdoorsy types of all flavors and they’re still everywhere today.

The lower profile Vibram mini lug on the Red Wing Blacksmith.

Commando soles are what you’d call a generic rubber sole; they’re clunky and give your boots a rugged, outdoorsy profile. The things that protrude from the bottom of the sole are called lugs or treads (like a tire); they give you extra traction on all kinds of surfaces and weather conditions, though they can also trap mud and rocks and make a mess. These are the most informal of all boot soles. For the best style-and-utility combo, we like the grippy, low-profile mini lug sole on the Red Wing Blacksmith or the newer Red Wing Iron Rangers.

Viberg service boot sole

The Viberg Service Boot

3. Dainite

Another popular rubber sole manufacturer is Dainite, from the UK, best known for their “studded” sole, which appears on boots like the Higgins Mill and the Viberg Service Boot. The Dainite brand is usually seen on higher end boots like these as they’re widely considered a great compromise on grip, aesthetics, flexibility, and durability. With recessed lugs that are their trademark, these boots have a smoother line and far better traction than a flat leather sole.

It’s worth noting that while Dainite is the inventor and popularizer of this kind of recessed-lug sole, they’re not the only ones who make them. The Thursday boot has a really cool custom studded rubber sole, as does the Jack Erwin Chester Boot without the heftier price tag of Dianite.

Thorogood moc toe sole

The Thorogood Moc Toe

4. Wedge Soles

Usually white and chunky, wedge soles (also called Christy soles) are popularized by mid-century work boots by companies like Danner and Red Wing. People who love them will say they’re as comfortable as a pair of sneakers: soft, squishy, and shock-absorbing. They’re also not quite as durable as some other entries on their list, but they’ve usually got a bit more grip in them than flat soles and they’re a nice balance of soft and tough for folks who are more used to wearing sneakers. As a nice bonus, they’ll add a few inches to your height.

Clarks desert boot sole

The iconic Clark’s Desert Boot

5. Crepe Soles

Also known as plantation crepe, they’re made from the same stuff as wedge soles, and are characterized by a yellowish color and a squiggly pattern. The difference is that they’re way less sophisticated: made from a crude, cheap form of natural rubber derived from coagulated latex, they’re light and squishy and super informal. They’re crazy soft, almost like a pair of slippers, but they’re not durable, stuff sticks to them, they get dirty really easily, and there are even reports of them melting on hot asphalt.

Alden Indy 403 sole

The famous Alden Indy

6. Cork Nitrile Soles

If you’re looking for the durability of rubber but not the weight, you might want to consider cork nitrile, which mixes rubber and cork to make a comfier, lighter sole. Nitrile is a synthetic rubber that’s also oil-resistant; the addition of cork makes them much lighter than traditional rubber-soled boots. They’re more wear-resistant and weather-resistant than leather — you can wear them more comfortably in the rain — but that doesn’t make them an all-weather sole. Cork nitrile soles often have no tread and are, as a result,pretty darn slippery in icy conditions. A fine option for an everyday boot and certainly grippier than a flat leather sole, but if you’re looking for something for inclement weather (and aren’t excited to ice skate to your destination) then skip this one.

red wing chippewa thorogood standing

Left to right: Red Wing’s nitrile cork, Chippewa’s low profie Vibram, and Thorogood’s Christy wedge. Read the full comparison here.

Wrapping Up

Different soles serve different purposes and we’re not about to say any of them are the “best.” It depends on your own needs, but for our money, Dainite soles do offer the best compromise on all fronts. What’s your favorite kind of sole for boots? Let us know in the comments below.

The following two tabs change content below.

Mel Compo

Mel Compo is a writer, editor, and general word-geek from Brooklyn, New York. When they’re not writing about the finer side of men’s footwear they can be found lurking around the streets, trains, and museums of NYC, ostensibly doing something urgent but actually just looking around for menswear style inspiration.

9 thoughts on “The 6 Kinds of Boot Soles You Should Know About”

  1. I just bought a pair of jcrew red wings with a “supersole” do you have an opinion about those. Really like your website and articles with different boots and informative reviews.

  2. Hmm. Depends on purpose really. The danite is probably the better for dress shoes and dressy boots. The Vibram mini lug is a good option for those planing on doing more extreme things like actually hiking in their boots. Having served in the Army, I used many different boots with many different sole types/lug patterns. I can tell you that while vibram outsoles are long wearing and fairly inexpensive to replace, most of their patterns DO NOT shed mud easily from the tread. That’s not to say they don’t make some that do well in that category. The lug, Sierra, and original fire and Ice tend to let the muck build up on your boot. Polish and conditioner wise I’ve tried a lot of things and I keep coming back to Chelsea leather food as a primary conditioner. Lincoln stain wax for main polish, and then a more translucent softer polish as a top coat to make it all pop. Such as saphir, or kangaroo (South Korean).

    • Great comment, Jonathan! I’m grateful you shared your expertise, here. (Maybe you should have written this article!)

  3. I almost forgot to mention vulcanized rubber! Before the Belleville style boots became dominant in the services the most common sole type was vulcanized rubber and that was EXTREMELY long wearing but didn’t provide as much grip as the vibrams on any non mud surface. That was due to the lug pattern. The noteable exception to this was the Panama sole of the jungle boot. It did wear down faster due to its configuration but had tons of grip and would shed mud almost immediately.

  4. I own two pairs of redwings with the vibram mini lug soles. I wanted to make sure everyone on here(comments from Johnathan in particular) were aware that these are absolutely 100% not for hiking or even aggressive walking. While the sole is a great slow wearing sole with awesome grip, looks etc, it has no place on anything except for a smooth flat surface such as concrete, asphalt, office, etc. the sole is unbearably thin and waking on any imperfections such as a stray piece of gravel in an asphalt parking lot is borderline painful. Walking down a gravel road is down right torture. Simply walking on the sharp angle of a set of stairs is more uncomfortable than you might think. Remember it’s called mini lug for a reason and also it is significantly stiffer and thinner than a traditional full lug vibram sole. Just an FYI. I would say I agree with the author on all points. If you aren’t worried about looks the crepe and wedge soles are the best for comfort hands down. I think the cork is one of the best all around soles for needing to balance out looks and comfort.

    • Little bits of gravel ar hard on the vibram mini lug?? I haven’t found that myself, but certainly I’d recommend the commando sole out of these 6 if you’re doing more heavy duty wear though. And I agree cork is underrated!

  5. Hi Nick, really enjoyed this article!

    If you were to rank the outsoles based on being the best/worst for slippery surfaces, how would you do it?

Leave a Comment