User Review: Van Gorkom Men's Custom Hiking Boots
Source: bought it new
Price Paid: U.S. $1,400
These boots are NOT suited to significant backpacking or really anything other than day hikes over even terrain. While comfortable on the flat, the boots did not perform well under even moderate stress (steep uphill, rocky terrain, etc.), nor last more than a year before the Vibram sole separated from the leather. Van Gorkom's response when informed about the sole separating was "I guarantee fit, not performance," and told me to seek a local boot person, and that he doesn't "guarantee the boot glue he uses." All-in-all a disappointment from one who touts his boots as some of the best in the world. They were worth neither the wait nor the $1,400 price tag. Expanded review below.
- Easily broken in
- Nice looking
- Thin leather that scars easily
- The sole is too thin; cannot support trekking rough terrain
- Spotty workmanship- sole separated in less than 200 miles of hiking
Initially, Van Gorkom told me that he had an 8-month waiting list that I could get on by sending him a hefty deposit. I sent the deposit in right away, prepared to wait the 8-month period. Imagine my surprise when, 3 weeks later, he said that he'd had a bunch of cancellations, and that my measurement kit was on it's way! Hmm. Probably should have been my first clue, but I was excited to be getting "bumped up" in the order.
Van Gorkom requires the customer to perform self-measurements and produce paper impressions of your feet to help him get a sense of the boot he needs to build, and the boots do fit better than the average off-the shelf boots that I have purchased in the past. Because I have what is called a "tailor's bunion," and size EE feet with a narrow heel, I wanted to ensure that the toe box was big and the heel was appropriately sized, so I performed meticulous measurements. I also provided the additional notes Van Gorkom requested to explain what sort of terrain I hiked, and the kind of hiking/backpacking I did. I spent a fair amount of time complying with his measurement and note request, and then sent them off and waited.
In less than a month the boots appeared on my porch. Oddly, they were not the boots that I ordered! I had ordered the 18 cm boots, and what showed up at my door was a pair of 15 cm boots. I immediately emailed him about the discrepancy, but his response was that because of the size of my foot, and the way he makes the boot, that sometimes his 18 cm boots turn out to be less than 18 CM.
But they did not LOOK like the 18 cm boots, as displayed on his website, and they measured exactly the same as a pair of ASOLO 15cm boots. I got the uneasy feeling that he was shucking and jiving a bit too hard, but decided to see how the boots he sent me performed, regardless of whether they were 18 cm or 15 cm, as my expressed concern seemed to be met with denial and resistance.
I followed his break-in instructions, and always kept them conditioned with a high-quality boot conditioner. They were immediately comfortable, though the toe box was tighter than I had hoped (it eventually stretched out) and the heel was looser than I had hoped, though certainly no looser than an off-the-shelf boot. Once they were broken in, I started to take them on the desert hikes available East of the San Diego area, and that's when the foibles of the boot started to reveal themselves.
As hiking boots go, I would say that the sole of this boot is simply too thin, and does not adequately protect the sole of the foot on longer hikes (in excess of 10 miles, like the Half Dome trail, or rocky trails like the extended Iron Mountain trail in the San Diego area) or hikes under load (i.e., backpacks) unless the ground is essentially soft dirt. That's not a feature that is usually associated with a high-end boot, and certainly not a fully custom-made boot, and I had written in my notes to the bootmaker that I frequent rough and rocky terrain.
He could have said that his boots were not suited to such terrain, or he could have built a thicker sole (after all he says he makes the boots not only to fit the user's feet, but to suit the kind of hiking the user describes. He did neither, as I asked for the 18cm, but got the 15cm, and wanted a boot for severe uphill and rocky terrain, but got street hikers instead.
Well, I thought, they ARE comfortable on flat, even terrain, even on long hikes, so I decided to use them only in those conditions. However, two weeks ago the Vibram sole, which has fewer than 200 miles on it, has now started to separate from the heel. I emailed Van Gorkom immediately, and he told me (this is a quote from his email to me in response):
”Please note that the only guarantee I make is that the boots will fit. I promise that I will use the best materials that I can get. I agree that the glue must be somehow defective, but I do not make the glue. I simply buy the best glue I can.”
Then he attached a set of instructions for how to fix a Vibram sole that begins separating from the boot, replete with photos and a materials list! I’m absolutely not kidding. Obviously he has had this complaint often enough that he had ready-made instructions to send out to the frustrated and aggrieved. Imagine being out on the Appalachian Trail and having the sole separate. Do-it-yourself repair instructions would provide scant comfort.
So this rounds out the review for Van Gorkom boots:
- I didn’t get the boots I ordered, and the bootmaker gave me a song-and dance,
- the boots were comfortable as long as the terrain was not stressful,
- the boots should not be ordered if your application is long over rough terrain, or if you are backpacking,
- the boots began to fall apart around the 150-200 mile mark, with evidence that this is a common occurrence, and
- customer service to resolve the defect was defensive and scant.
All-in-all I think a 2-star rating is more than generous, and may overstate the quality of the boots for anything other than stylish urban hikes.