ObozShoesThe next time you get hiking boots or shoes, consider the challenge involved in making your foot love its new home.

First, there are 26 bones in each foot, or 52 between the two. That’s roughly a quarter of the bones in your entire body. With the occasional exception, those bones typically configure themselves in the same manner, yet that configuration can result in a variety of nuanced structures: feet with high arches, feet with low arches, feet that pronate, feet that supinate, feet with bone spurs, feet whose bones break and don’t grow back the same way. Men’s feet are different than women’s, North Americans’ feet tend to differ from South Americans‘ —  and Europeans’, and Asians’ and Africans’.

Feet, it turns out, are like snowflakes: no two are alike.

So how do you mass produce hiking boots and shoes to fit such complex and variable appendages?

“It’s a challenge,” acknowledges Josh Fairchilds, co-founder and “chief instigator” (that’s what the website says)  of Bozeman, Montana-based Oboz Footwear.

Fairchilds was at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education near Brevard last month to enlighten shoe sales associates from independent outfitters in the Southeast, including reps from our seven North Carolina shops. His goal: to shed light on the shoe-making, shoe-fitting process. “I’m going to try to keep the Kool-Aid for Oboz to a minimum.”

Oboz co-founder Josh Fairchilds loves to field-test the product.
Oboz co-founder Josh Fairchilds loves to field-test the product.

Fairchilds has a background made for discussing the modern lightweight, high-performance hiking shoe, noting that his career predates the advent of the first “light hiker,” the Nike Lava Dome, which debuted in the 1980s. He traces the shoe’s evolution through Salomon (which picked up the light-hiker concept and ran with it), Vasque (which introduced the “Variable Fit” system), Montrail (which refined the last, the mold around which a boot is made), Superfeet (an aftermarket biomechanical insert) to the fit system developed by Phil Oren.

In 2007, Fairchilds and John Connelly, who had worked for most of the major boot makers, set out to make a high-performance, hiker-friendly shoe that required no break-in and unmatched comfort. (They also wanted Oboz to be a good citizen: among other things, the company plants a tree for every pair of shoes sold, through Trees for the Future; donates shoes that don’t quite pass inspection, through Project Sole; and, utilizes carbon offsets for shoe shipments, employee travel and commuting.)

Their collaboration began with doodles of shoe designs on bar napkins, then graduated to more formal designs that grabbed the attention of outfitters at a trade show that year. Several, in fact, placed orders for the following season.

“Traditionally, you go through an 18-month development cycle for a new product,” says Fairchilds. “We had five months.”

Their task was further complicated by our complicated feet.

“How many women in this room wear size 9s?” he asks the 35 reps in attendance. (He chooses size 9 because it’s the most common women’s size; 10.5 is the norm for guys). Four raise their hands.
“Four,” he announces. “I can guarantee you there are eight different size 9 women’s feet in this room,” he adds, underscoring the challenge.

To illustrate that challenge, he shows a short film of the Oboz manufacturing process. (The film was shot in Oboz’s Chinese factory; the company has since switched production to Vietnam.) Film highlights include the following facts:

  • It takes about four hours to make one pair of shoes.
  • On average, 120 workers are involved in making one pair of shoes. “It’s incredibly labor intensive,” Fairchilds says.
  • Nothing in the shoemaking process is automated. While this isn’t exactly Geppetto handcrafting a boot from start to finish, a good deal of craftsmanship and personal attention is required to make a hiking boot.
  • Because a pair of boots needs to be as similar as possible, for more exacting tasks the same person performs the same task on both the left and right boot.
  • To minimize errors on the more exacting tasks, workers work in 90-minute stretches, then take a break.

On the subject of waterproofing, Fairchilds is direct.

“In general, waterproof shoes are not very breathable, although Gore is working on something that sounds promising.”

Though not breathable, he says most technologies do tend to keep the water out. For every production run of waterproof shoes, he says Oboz pulls 10 shoes to test. If one or more leaks, they’ll test 100 from that run. If 10 or more leak, they’ll pull that run.

He says that quality control works, despite the fact they do get returns on the warranty. Of the returns, he says, “I’ve never actually seen one that leaked. Typically, water simply comes in over the top of the shoe — and is interpreted as a leak.”

He’s not a big fan of waterproof shoes and says even here in the moist Southeast, you could probably do without the added expense.

“It’s not what most people need,” he says. “But it’s what most people buy.”