Most servicemembers desire combat boots that are lightweight yet still provide extra thick soles and stiff ankle support. There are, however, those of us who want a lightweight combat boot that has a very thin sole and little to no ankle support, yet still looks like a combat boot so that the Sergeant Major doesn’t freak out when he sees his soldiers wearing hippy moccasins. Bates has created such a boot!
The Bates Zero Mass is a 13-ounce boot, made from canvas and Wolverine Warrior leather. This leather is made from pigskin and basically has the same properties as GORE-TEX®. More information about Wolverine Warrior leather can be found on Bates footwear website.
The first time I tried on my new Zero Mass boots, I was very pleased with the weight. These combat boots are lighter than some running shoes I’ve owned in the past. I was disappointed, however, with how noisy they were. Every step I took sounded like I was walking on paper bags. I was also concerned about the way the canvas part of these boots rubbed my Achilles’ tendon. By the end of the first day the noise had quieted down considerably, and by the time I got to work I had already forgotten about the rubbing issue.
I wore my Bates Zero Mass boots everyday for two weeks and they required no breaking in. After week one, I got my first opportunity to put them to a test outside of everyday wear, and took them on a hike up Thumb Butte, near Prescott, Arizona. The trail up Thumb Butte is a pretty easy trail, so I ran part of the way up, and the boots felt great during the run. Personally, I like my shoes a bit wide, and this pair of Z-Mass is normal width, however, I was very comfortable running up the trail in them. Running down the trail was also easy and I experienced no technical difficulties with the boots.
Miller Creek runs along the bottom of Thumb Butte. It just seemed natural to test my new boots in the water, so I walked a short distance in the creek. I absolutely hate wearing wet shoes, so normally I’ll take my shoes off to walk in water. However, I felt it necessary to try these boots in the water. The boots have two drain holes and the uppers are made out of canvas, so I knew these boots would not be waterproof. However, it took almost a minute of standing in the water before I stopped feeling water coming into the boot. The drain holes worked well and allowed the water to leave the boot almost as fast as it entered. The worst part was wet socks, which I think weighed more than the boots. Within 12 hours the boots were dry. If I had left them outside where there was a breeze or set them next to a hot wood stove or campfire, they would have dried much faster.
The Z-Mass soles are not nearly as minimalist as I’d like, but they do look like normal combat boot soles, while still giving the wearer the best “ground feel” I’ve ever experienced from any combat boot. I’ve gone through dozens of boots in my military career – everything from jungle boots, to steel toe cold weather boots, to lineman’s boots, to all sorts of desert boots. Before Zero Mass, my favorite boot was Bates Desert Tactical Sport. The sole, flexibility and weight of Zero Mass is superior even to the Desert Tactical Sports.
My second hike in my Z-Mass boots was up Mount Elden, near Flagstaff, Arizona. The Mt. Elden trail is considerably more difficult than Thumb Butte, with plenty of rocks, steep climbs, and prickly pear cactus hiding behind rocks waiting for the unaware hiker. I do not recommend these boots for people with weak, inflexible ankles if they are going to be navigating rough terrain. But for barefoot runners and people who prefer to have minimal ankle support, these boots are excellent.
During my Mt. Elden hike, the rocks proved to be no match for my Z-Mass. Coming back down the mountain, I did slip a couple of times on loose rocks, but there is no footwear (short of something with metal spikes) that can prevent the occasional slip coming down Mt. Elden. Also, I am very aware of my surroundings, so I never did accidentally stumble through any cactus. So, in order to put my boots to the test, I intentionally brushed against a prickly pear cactus pad. The sharp spines of the prickly pear were no match for the Wolverine Warrior leather. I did not try to test the canvas upper against the cactus. Perhaps I’ll put that part of the boot to the test on another day!
My third hike out in my Z-Mass boots was in the Superstition Wilderness east of Phoenix. This area is filled with several kinds of cacti, various rocky terrain, washes, lava-flows, and can be extremely hot. The Zero Mass boot handled this desert like it was designed to, and gave my feet just enough protection to keep long spines and sharp rocks from damaging my feet while still providing excellent ground feel.
Cholla cactus is the most abundant cacti in these desert mountains. Cholla goes into skin almost painlessly, but has tiny barbs that make pulling it out very unpleasant and difficult. Naturally, I couldn't resist testing the boots out against what many people call “jumping cactus.” I kicked a Cholla pad that was on the ground and it instantly stuck to my sole. No way those barbed spines were getting through the Bates rubber sole. The next Cholla pad that got me was by accident, but the Wolverine Warrior leather completely protected my feet from the spines – something many other shoes I’ve worn in the desert failed to do. So far, these boots have passed every cactus test I’ve put them to.
I plan to wear my Zero Mass boots in the snow, the mud and desert and mountain rocky terrain. I believe they will serve me well, and will continue to report how they hold up during long distance runs, forced ruck marches, and crawling around the various environments.
My overall assessment of Bates Zero Mass combat boots is that they are lightweight, comfortable, provide excellent ground feel, do not need excessive break in time, and are quiet once you have broken in the canvas upper. They are not waterproof, but dry quickly and, unless you are submerged for more than a few seconds, will keep your feet from getting soaked. They cause no fatigue during long or strenuous hikes, and provide a fair amount of protection from sharp rocks and cacti. These boots were designed for people who do not want ankle support or excessively thick soles, so if you are looking for a boot with stiff uppers and 3-inch thick heels with inflexible soles, this is not the boot for you. However, if you like Merrell’s barefoot series of running shoes, or are looking for a combat boot that gives you ground feel, is lightweight and still conforms to military standards of appearance, the Bates Zero Mass is the best that's out there!
Robert Freese served 10 years in the US Air Force, 5 years in the Georgia Army National Guard, and is currently a member of the Arizona Army National Guard. He is a “minimalist shoe” runner, and sometimes runs barefoot. He firmly believes that the more natural one’s footwear, the healthier their entire bodies will be and that footwear should not over-protect your feet in order to have the strongest, most flexible, healthiest feet you can have.