Finding the perfect work boots wasn’t always a challenge. The Romans had two choices of sandals, with or without hobnails for traction. Around the year 1800, workers got the choice between laces and buckles. A little later, anatomical left and right boots debuted. Then, rubber soles were popularized with the introduction of the Goodyear Welt, and late in WWII, steel toe protection was developed. The features and choices have snowballed since then. Today, there are boots designed for every job. They come in numerous widths, heights, colors, materials, types of toe protection, and resistance to water, oil, or chemicals.
Here, check out quick info on the top performers from our test, then read on for deeper reviews, as well as to see what you need to know before buying.
Basic Types of Work Boots
The steel toe cap (safety toe) has largely been the standard in toe protection since it was developed in the 1940s. More recently, composite toe caps—made of Kevlar, carbon fiber, plastic, or fiberglass—have gained popularity. They both have their advantages. Steel is better at protection from puncture and cutting, although it conducts cold well, which isn’t great in the winter. Composite is lighter and won’t conduct electricity, but it’s often more expensive. Some jobs require workers to wear boots with toe protection that meets specific standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
Traditionally, boot leather was treated with oil or wax for waterproofing, but this required re-application to maintain and didn’t always fully keep water out. Leather is still treated this was today, but truly waterproof boots are made with modern, synthetic membranes like Gore-Tex. Don’t confuse water-resistant with waterproof boots—the former won’t keep your feet dry if you’re standing in water for any length of time.
Insulated boots typically have a layer of polyester or other polymers between the liner and leather for heat retention. The amount of insulation is usually listed by weight, in grams. (This isn't the total weight of the insulation in one boot, rather the weight of how much a square meter of the insulation weighs.) The higher the number, usually the thicker and warmer the insulation.
Some work boots provide protection from electrocution by preventing electrical current from completing a circuit to ground. Boots with this feature have been tested by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).
Boots that boast slip-resistance have outsoles made of soft materials that can maintain grip on wet or oily surfaces, as well as tread patterns with siping designed to draw fluids away from under the shoe.
This feature has to do with the construction of the boot’s upper. Leather is oil-resistant, but typical synthetic threads or materials used in constructing the upper may break down in the presence of petroleum-based liquids like oil, diesel fuel, and kerosene. Oil-resistant boots use synthetics unaffected by petroleum products.
What is ASTM?
ASTM, the American Society for Testing and Materials, sets standard specifications for a vast number of products. As it relates to work boots, ASTM F2413 sets performance criteria for footwear designed to protect wearers from a variety of hazards. There are nine specific categories of hazards, represented by a one or two letter abbreviation:
- C: Compression, or crushing forces in the toe area, with four classes: class 75 (2,500 pounds) for men and women, and class 50 (1,000 pounds) for men and women.
- I: Impact to the toe area (class 50 or 75, as described above).
- CD: Conductive, or static electrical discharge hazards, to prevent ignition of volatile materials.
- EH: Electrical shock, resistance to protect heels and toes from connecting to ground.
- SD: Static dissipative properties, to reduce the accumulation of excess static electricity.
- PR: Puncture resistance, to protect soles from puncture.
- Mt: Metatarsal impact, to protect the top of foot from impact.
- CS: Chain saw, to provide cut resistance.
- DI: Dielectric insulation, to provide insulation in the event of accidental contact with circuits or conductors.
Footwear that meets ASTM F2413 uses a specific four-line format to identify the type hazards it protects against:
- Line 1 identifies the specification: ASTM F2413
- Line 2 identifies user gender (M/F), and classification (50, 75) for I, C, and Mt.
- Lines 3 and 4 identify the specific hazards the footwear protects against.
How We Tested These Boots
Every boot on this list has been thoroughly evaluated and vetted by our team of test editors. We research the market, survey user reviews, speak with product managers and designers, and use our own experience with these brands and styles to determine the best options. We called in a range of boots and distributed them to our test editors, who used them in typical “work boot” situations, including: lawn mowing, raking leaves, loading/unloading trucks, snow blowing, construction projects, cleaning gutters, landscaping, cutting firewood, and working while standing on a concrete floor. Our team evaluated the boots on performance, value, comfort, durability, and aesthetics. We compiled the feedback and here are the results: 10 awesome boots to protect your feet on the job and look great once the work is done.
Thorogood American Heritage 8-Inch Tobacco Plain-Toe
The Tobacco Plain Toe has a classic work boot profile, just with the unexpected comfort of running shoes, no break-in period required. The tobacco oil-tanned, full-grain leather is soft and pliable right out of the box—we liked it so much we were reluctant to put the boot on and scuff it all up. We did however, and found it runs true to size, fitting well with mid-weight to heavier socks. It’s a tall boot, so we appreciated the speed hooks, which allow for quick lace-ups. The soft, non-slip MAXWear wedge outsole was comfortable when we were standing on hard floors or surfaces. While the boot we tested is plain toe, if you need the protection, a steel toe option is available. One of our favorite aspects of Thorogood boots is that they’re fully serviceable—once you’ve put many miles and years on them, you can take advantage of the refurbishment program the brand offers to give them new life.
According to Keen, the Pittsburgh—with its waterproof upper and anatomically shaped, asymmetrical steel toe inserts—is a medium-duty boot. So it’s probably not the best option for heavy construction, or similarly extreme conditions, on a daily basis. The comfort and middle-of-the-pack weight make it a good candidate for landscape maintenance, surveying, and other work that keeps you moving and on your feet. Sizing was spot on for our staff, and according to one tester who typically complains about boots being awkward or clunky, “These conformed to my feet right away, and they’ve only gotten more comfortable as I’ve continued to wear them.” With the trend in work boots toward more fashionable styles, our tester stressed that they really like the way this Keen looks, and has added the pair to the rotation in their daily wardrobe. Despite the classy appearance, the Pittsburghs meet ASTM F2412-11 and F2413-11 I/75 C/75 EH footwear safety standards.
This eight-inch, full-leather boot from Chippewa is rugged and made for serious work, due in part to a ribbed steel shank and heavily lugged Vibram outsole. Its thick upper has a waterproof Chip-A-Tex boot liner and is generously padded around the top. Our tester found it reasonably comfortable from the start but, two weeks in, didn’t feel like it had broken in much. They also brought up that the folds of the gussets on either side of the tongue could create pressure points where there is more material. This is a fairly common in boots with gussets, or webbing, connecting the tongue to the upper almost up to the cuff, and we anticipate this diminishing with time as the boot (hopefully) breaks in more. The Ryodan provides ample ankle support, feels rugged, well-built, and is sized accurately, according to our tester.
Irish Setter Mesabi
Praised by our tester for its comfort, the eight-inch Irish Setter Mesabi can handle anything from yard work to felling trees. It did take a couple of days until it wore creases in all the right places, but the break-in process was without significant discomfort. Arch support felt substantial, and the boot runs true to size, fitting comfortably with light, medium, and heavy socks. Our tester was aware of the Mesabi’s weight, given its steel toe, but didn’t have issue with it, even running weekend errands in their pair. One thing to note: Operating the gas pedal in some cars was a little uncomfortable, due in part to the height of the boot collar. The Irish Setter Mesabi is waterproof, the outsole resists oil and heat up to 475°F, and it meets ASTM F2413-11, M/I/75/C/75, EH standards.
A favorite among public safety and emergency services personnel, the eight-inch Acadia has a military look with the rugged features to back it up. A fiberglass shank and 8mm Vibram sole make a stable platform with enough flex to be comfortable while still resistant to torsion. The lugged outsole maintains traction on dirt inclines, wet rocks, and oil-slicked asphalt. In several inches of water, our tester’s feet remained dry, while the boot still felt breathable when wet. It’s clear why soldiers and police started wearing textile-plus-leather styles like this—they feel more ergonomic and cooler than all-leather options. You can even run in them, though lighter boots do exist. As advertised, the Acadia runs narrow and long—unless you have narrow feet, consider an EE width and buying down at least a half size. Break in was less severe for us than what other owners say they’ve experienced. There was one complaint though: The collar can create hot spots where it overlaps the tongue. The Acadia comes with a composite safety toe.
Work boots have been trending toward fashion statements for years, and the Wolverine Moc-Toe nicely bridges the gap between the two. From Wolverine’s product description: “When you’re in and out of the warehouse, these work-to-office chukkas deliver comfort with the customer-facing look you need.” It has enough structure for yard work, home repairs, trips up and down a ladder, and residential work. It’s especially useful in cold weather, being roomy enough for thick work socks. We found the padded ankle collar helps to improve comfort and provides a good seal against debris—even after a session of cutting grass, our socks came out clean. A jug loop near the top of the ankle assists in pulling the boot on quickly, and a pair of speed hooks make for a quicker lacing.
Caterpillar Second Shift
When the Caterpillar Second Shift boot came in, we had our doubts about how it would work out. Yet despite a stiff, clunky look, it felt surprisingly comfortable within just a few minutes—after a day spent on our feet, the full-grain leather upper still felt good, fitting true to size and with both regular and heavy wool work socks. The slip-resistant, lugged sole provided confident traction on a variety of surfaces, including wet concrete. We appreciated the robust ankle support, and the boot’s steel toe was put to the test when metal rigging toppled, landing on our tester’s foot but not hurting them. Overall, the boot has a high performance-to-cost ratio. Meets ASTM F2413-11 I/75 C/75 standards.
—FASTEST TO LACE UP—
Timberland Pro Boondock
The Timberland Pro Boondock is a lightweight, heavy duty work boot that’s tough enough to keep your feet safe and comfortable all day. The composite safety toe was a revelation for our tester, who happily remarked “It’s lighter than a standard steel toe yet still strong enough to drop large rocks on your feet and kick logs with impunity.” The break-in period was negligible, and the boot felt good right from the start, with the exception of one spot above the ankle which took a day to wear in. While it’s comfortable, it does run big. With his normal size, our editor ended up layering two pairs of socks to fill them out—he suggests sizing down a full size for summer use, or half a size for colder weather with heavier socks. We liked the low profile, with two speed hooks that made getting in and lacing up quick and easy. An aggressive tread amply grips a bunch of surfaces, including concrete, mossy rocks, and muddy trails. The Pro Boondock is waterproof enough to keep your feet dry when working in wet and muddy conditions, but because it’s low, watch out for water or mud coming in over the top.
Red Wing Classic Moc
The eight-inch Classic Moc, part of Red Wing’s Heritage Collection, is what the company calls a “rugged lifestyle” boot. It’s more oriented toward comfort, versatility, and fashion, rather than purpose-built for work. It’s ironic that the boot is fashionable, considering it has been in Red Wing’s line, in one form or another, for over 60 years. The current iteration features oil-tanned leather that quickly conforms to your foot after one day. The tongue is sewn into the seam behind the eyelets, up to within two inches of the top, which means the boot needs to be unlaced at least five eyelets down to get them on. So if you’re used to boots with speed hooks, putting it on and taking it off might be a bit of a chore. Once laced up, though, the boot is true to size and very comfortable. It’s actually ideal for our work here at Popular Mechanics, where we might shift from working in the shop and testing power equipment to meetings or time writing at the desk. The rubber outsole provides remarkable comfort, and is suitable for a work day standing on hard surfaces. It’s clear to see why the boot profile and basic construction has remained unchanged all these years—if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Merrell Work Moab 2
Based on our testing, Merrell’s Moab 2 holds its own as a serious work boot. Based on the brand’s popular hiking boot (also called the Moab), it has a similar textile and leather upper, featuring a waterproof membrane and a breathable mesh liner. This construction was comfortable from day one, requiring no apparent break-in period. The Moab 2 is true to size, although our tester felt it was a little wide in the mid-foot area. While the boot does have a composite safety toe, the hiking shoe appearance belies how heavy it felt. Under a constant stream of water, it did leak a little around the edge of the footbed. Our feet stayed dry, though, under normal rain and in wet grass. The Moab 2 meets ASTM F2413-11 I/75 C/75 standards.
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