Review: Why Clarks’ Desert Boot Is the World’s Most Popular Chukka

Clarks is a monumentally successful shoe company that was founded in England in 1825 and slowly became one of the most influential brands in Britain and even many of its colonies — I actually used to wear little leather Clarks shoes to school every day when I was growing up in Australia.

It’s hard to think about Clarks without thinking of their uber popular chukka, the Desert boot. Definitely the most popular chukka boot on Earth and quite possibly one of the most iconic boots of all time, the shoe’s development was spearheaded by Nathan Clark, the great grandson of the founder of Clark’s. He was stationed in what was then Burma in World War 2 and noticed that a lot of the soldiers there wore crepe-soled boots with suede uppers, a design originally made for the these soldiers wore Crepe-soled boots, which were originally designed to be worn by soldiers fighting in Africa’s Western Desert Campaign.

Clark loved the boots but when he returned to England he had trouble selling the idea because crepe soles and suede uppers were kind of, well, associated with the lower class. But when he came to Chicago to try to sell them to Americans in the late 1940s they were a hit.

So why is this the most popular Chukka boot? Let’s check it out.

[Love these informal, inexpensive boots? Compare prices on Amazon, here.]

Clarks Desert Boot First Glance

There are a few kinds of Desert Boots out there right now: there’s a Goodyear welted version called the Desert Welt, there’s also leather and suede and canvas in many colors, but when I went to their store on Madison Avenue I got the most popular color: Oakwood suede.

These shoes are made in Vietnam and they really define the words Chukka boot: there are barely any laces to speak of and it’s about ankle height at 10.5 centimeters high — about as low as you can get while still calling it a boot. The design is called “open lacing” and my friends tell me I look like an archaeologist or a carpenter when I wear them, but again, they really became popular after being worn by soldiers in Africa.

It’s a basic, unpretentious boot and super informal – you’d have to be crazy to try and wear these with slacks or even nice khakis. That’s because not only are they super light and thin, the sole, which is made from a type of latex called crepe, just screams casual. Crepe has a lot of pros, of course: it’s light, it’s soft, it’s meant to be pretty environmentally friendly, but brother it does not look formal.

clarks desert boot welt

Indeed, you just cannot judge this shoe by the same standards as Aldens or any brand that costs over $300. It would be completely unfair. People who are used to spending more on their boots take a look at the Desert boot and point out that it’s shapeless, there are no curves, they’re not sexy, they don’t have much form, all of which is true.

But it is what it is. They’re inexpensive shoes and a big upside to all that informality is that they’re pretty great in warm weather and while I might make enemies saying this, I think that so long as you can’t see your socks, they can be worn with shorts. Now, that’s a controversial statement and many, many people will disagree with me on that. I’m just saying that if I’m wearing shorts and a collar and I want to look dressier than sneakers or flip flops, I don’t have an issue with the Desert boot.

[The Desert Boot is one of my 5 favorite chukkas for summer. Read the rest of the list!]

Clarks desert boot river

Clarks Desert Boot Leather

The Oakwood is a waxy, sand-colored suede.

A quick refresher on suede: when tanneries get their hides, they keep the top grain and split it off from the rest of the skin. The split is the part that falls off from the underside, and that’s usually where suede comes from and it’s finished with a small amount of wax to enhance the character.

After a few phone calls with Clark I found out that not only is the boot made in Vietnam but the suede is also made in Vietnam. Some sources claim it comes from the prestigious C.F. Stead, the same place that provided the fantastic suede for Taft’s Dragon Boot, but Clark’s is clearly a cheaper material.

It’s not the best looking or strongest wearing suede I’ve ever seen. It’s not waterproof, it’s pretty thin, and as mentioned above it doesn’t have much structure at all. But it’s soft enough and it breathes well in warm weather, plus — and I feel a need to say this alongside every criticism I have of the boot — it is darn cheap.

Clarks desert boot floppy look

Clarks Desert Boot Leather Care

Things aren’t too complicated with this suede. Clarks recommends lightly brushing it with a suede brush to get rid of most dust and dirt and since this kind of suede will probably stain easily, you might want to pick up a suede eraser as well. (You can also just get a regular pencil eraser, which Clarks also said would be fine.)

That should pretty much do it. People don’t typically condition suede with oils or anything because that can wreck the nappy finish. Some like to apply wax suede, like Otter Wax, but you’re unlikely to need it.

Want to waterproof these? I can see why, the Desert boot is pretty useless in wet weather. You can try something like Kiwi’s suede protector which should help the upper, but remember that the sole isn’t great in wet weather either so it may be a wash. So to speak.

Clarks desert boot sole

Clarks Desert Boot Sole

This is a crepe sole, also called plantation rubber, and it’s a crude, cheap form of natural rubber that’s usually obtained when coagulated latex is passed through heavy rolls called “crepers” after which the resultant material is air dried. Some people consider it a relatively environmentally friendly latex because you can tap rubber trees for rubber without killing them, so there should be less waste involved. (Of course, I can’t pretend to know exactly how sustainable the production of this inexpensive Vietnam-made boot really is.)

It’s very soft, very informal, and it’s cheap. Traditionally, crepe has been on workers’ shoes and boots and it is super comfortable. I’d say it feels almost like a slipper, in that you can kind of feel it when you step on small rocks and pavement cracks when you’re out and about.

There are a few downsides: as you can see from the pictures, it gets very dirty very easily. The big, nasty, foot-shaped smear you can see above happened within about two days of buying these shoes; crepe loves to suck up everything it touches and you can also expect to find hair and small pebbles embedded in the sole after a long day.

Clarks desert boot tip

It also slips kind of easily in wet conditions and it can even absorb water and get your feet wet. Remember, they’re desert boots, not monsoon boots. They’re sensitive to a lot of stressors: solvents can cause it to crumble, cold can make it rigid, and there are even reports of crepe melting when left on brutally hot asphalt or a sunny car dashboard.

You’d think these would be hard to resole, but these are a combination rapid stitch and cemented sole and it’s actually not uncommon for a cobbler to be able to resole Desert boots. Resole.com does it, though of course you also have to ask whether the upper will last long enough for it to be worth the cost.

Again, the sole is comfy and feel like you’re wearing nothing at all, but it’s not stable and doesn’t provide much support. If you love the boots but you want a nice Goodyear welted sole, or just something with a shank or some more stability, remember there’s the Desert Welt, which is made in England with C.F. Stead suede.

Clarks Desert Boot Fit & Sizing

I’m between an 11.5 and a 12 on a Brannock device and on the Desert boot I found I was an 11 medium, for medium width, an in British sizes I’m a 10G. In America it would normally be called a D width but Clarks labels a medium width “M” or “G.” In any case, it won’t be hard to find that width because this shoe is only available in one width, which will be a downer for people with wide or narrow feet.

I could have pretty easily gone with an 11.5 because I found the 11 a little narrow, and while I seldom suggest getting a boot that feels too snug, this suede stretches and it stretches quickly. Honestly, I felt it stretch as I was walking around the store, so the 11D was fine with my foot and I think an 11C would be quite happy as well. (I’m aware you can see my toes in some of these photos, but they feel great and no one can see my toes if they don’t have their nose pressed to the pavement.)

Width aside, these boots are super comfortable. Like I said, the crepe sole is super soft, it has a very soft step, you even sink into it when you walk and feel the ground beneath you. You don’t feel very well protected from the outside and as mentioned above, there’s little support or stability. But if you’re someone who sometimes wishes he could go out in slippers, you’ll have found your boot. 

Clarks Desert Boot Price

In store and on Clarks’ site you’ll pay $130 for a pair of Oakwood suede, but they’re a little cheaper on Amazon, typically costing between $120 and $125. The boot is available in other materials which frequently fall to far cheaper prices — at the time of writing the khaki leather is just $65. Amazon goes up and down a lot based on a variety of factors, but it’s always the cheapest place to buy these shoes. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the Oakwood suede to fall in price: as the most popular color, it’s a rare event.

[Love these shoes? Grab the cheapest pair here!]

Is the Clarks Desert Boot Worth It?

Yeah.

I have many, many boots and I’ve never had a pair of boots that get this many compliments. Now, you may argue that’s because they’re pretty “basic” so more people like them, which would be a fair point. But despite the lightness and the fact that they almost feel like slippers, I feel confident when I’m wearing these. People just like them, even if they are shapeless and blobby.

Look, the sole has a million and one issues with durability and stability, but it’s comfortable. The leather is thin, weak, and stains easily, but it’s comfortable. You can’t wear them with anything formal, but they’re comfortable. And while comfort doesn’t always trump durability I would argue when shoes are this cheap, I think “they’re comfy and they spruce up a casual outfit” is more than enough reason to grab a pair.

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Nick

By day: Manhattan-based journalist with reporting experience on four continents, published in Vice, Men's Health, Popular Science, and a bunch of other places. By night: ravenous consumer of anything and everything related to high end men's boots. Stridewise is where I nurture a maniacal obsession with footwear and share my findings. Say hey: nick@stridewise.com.

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