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Why Do Hiking Boots Have Red Laces? Red Laced Hiking Boots Explained

Why do hiking boots have red laces?

I never understood why so many people have red laces on their hiking boots. Obviously, not every pair of boots have red laces, but it’s more common than on any other type of shoes. That always seemed weird to me! Hiking boots are meant to be tough and red laces never seemed to fit the bill. Is it a style thing, or is something else going on?

Why do hiking boots have red laces? Red laces are a longstanding tradition in the hiking community. They were originally a way to separate work boots from hiking boots, but red laces became an engrained part of hiking footwear. Companies still use red laces on their classic style leather hiking boots.

In the rest of this post I’ll explain the origins of red laces on hiking boots. You might be surprised that red laces are more than a fashion statement. They have a functional purpose that’s still relevant today.

Hiking Boots With Red Laces Explained

If you’re anything like me, I never realized that red laces were common in hiking boots. I never thought about it until my wife pointed it out to me. Each of us owns a pair of boots with red laces. We didn’t set out looking for them, but it made me curious.

I started seeing red laces all over the place and I had to figure out where the tradition came from. It turns out that this was a question that doesn’t seem to have a definite answer. I scoured the internet looking for an answer, but nothing seemed to pop out at me.

There’s a history of skinheads wearing red laces, but that couldn’t have leaked into the hiking community. I’ve been hiking my entire life and I’ve never seen a skinhead on the trail. Maybe the style influenced popular culture, but there had to be something else.

That’s enough skinhead talk, let’s talk about hikers. After asking around I finally found a few reasons that make perfect sense. Maybe it was just a matter of style, but I think there was more that went behind the choice of using red laces. Here are the reasons why red hiking laces became popular and why they’re still used today.

  1. There wasn’t technical fabrics in the 60s/70s so all boots had similar leather designs. Boot manufacturers used red laces so they could separate their rugged industrial work boots from lighter hiking boots with better traction.
  2. Red’s an earth tone so dirt and mud buildup is less visible on red laces. Brown is a better choice, but every other pair of brown leather boots come with red laces. They had to find a similar color that could handle environmental grime.
  3. It’s a matter of tradition! The earliest hiking boots had red laces so manufacturers have continued the practice. Red laces are a way to show that you’re part of the hiking community.
  4. Make you stand out against the natural backdrop. It’s like wearing blaze orange during the hunting season. Red sticks out against the natural backdrop so other hikers, hunters, forest rangers, etc. will be able to see you.
  5. Washing red shoelaces is easy! Remove the exterior dirt and you’re good to go.

1. Red Laces Separated Hiking Boots From Work Boots

Red laces on hiking boots became in trend in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. At that time, there wasn’t much of a difference between hiking boots and traditional work boots. Hiking boots were a little bit shorter and lighter, but they looked basically the same.

You could look at a pair of boots and immediately tell that they were designed to be used on the trail (instead of in a factory). Hiking boots had rubber tread designs to improve traction and lightweight designs so you increase milage on the trail. The rubber was also a better insulator than leather making them an excellent choice for hiking in cold weather.

Plus rubber soles didn’t hold up as long in a factory setting. Leather boots could be resoled, but that wasn’t an option for rubber soled hiking boots (now it is). Rubber soles have come a long way in the last 60 years, but they’ll still wear away if you’re walking on metal grates and regularly walking on cement.

Boot makers would lose customers if the boots wouldn’t hold up for more than 1 year. So they started using red laces to differentiate their product lineup and the tradition was born.

2. Dirt Is Less Visible On Red Laced Hiking Boots

Boot manufacturers use earth tones so dirt/mud is less likely to show up on your boots. Brown laces would have been the obvious choice, but almost every pair of brown leather boots have brown laces.

So they had to find an alternative that would still look good when dirty, but could make hiking boots stand out. That’s where red shoelaces come in. Red’s an earth tone, so you won’t see dirt, blood, etc., but it’s bright enough to separate work boots from hiking boots. Orange laces would have also worked, but there’s less contrast between orange and brown.

It takes a lot of mud before you need to clean a pair of red shoe laces. I’ve had my boots completely packed in mud and hosing them off removes most of the dirt. The red laces don’t look perfect without scrubbing, but they look good enough to wear without people noticing the leftover mud.

3. Red Hiking Laces Are A Longstanding Tradition

Hiking boots have used red laces since the 60s.

People have been wearing red laces on their hiking boots since the 60s. The vast majority of high quality boot manufacturers have been around since the beginning. Companies that last through multiple generations want to continue their past traditions. Modern boots have normal laces, and old school leather hiking boots have red or brown laces.

They innovate when necessary, but they stick to what built the brand. Every company that I can think of that’s been around since the 60s still makes boots with red laces. Keen is one of the only hiking boot companies that I can think of that have started building boots since the 2000’s (probably a few more).

When you look at Keen’s product lineup there isn’t a single pair of boots with red laces. Do you think that’s a coincidence? They can’t build off the companies traditions, so they make boots that follow modern trends. I really like Keen boots (they’re really comfortable), but they don’t have timeless leather designs that have withstood changing fashion trends.

If you look at an older boot manufacturer like Danner you see the exact opposite. The modern style hiking boots all use regular colored laces, but the classic leather boots have red laces. There are a few exceptions like Salomon, but they were originally a skiing company.

Red laces also make you stand out as a part of the hiking community. You know where a person stands when you see a pair of boots with red laces. They’re most likely a hiker or some kind of outdoor enthusiast.

4. Red Laces Make You Stand Out Against The Natural Backdrop

Red laces are easier to see.

Red is one of those colors that instantly draws your attention in. It’s clear that you’re not looking at an animal when you see red shoe laces moving through the underbrush. There are a handful of animals with red fur and birds with red feathers, but when you see red movement it’s probably a human.

That might not seem like a big deal, but it’s extremely important during the hunting season. Your clothing needs to make it clear that you’re not an animal. Most people start with their upper body, but having a little bit of red on your shoes won’t hurt. Sometimes the top of your body won’t be visible so it’s nice to have a little bit of extra color to set you apart.

It’s kind of strange, but animals have a hard time seeing red. Animals have larger rod cells in their eyes to improve night vision, but the rods have a very small role when it comes to color vision (cones deal with color).

The rods can pick up short/medium color wavelengths like blue and green, but red has the longest wavelength so it’s completely invisible to most animals. So animals won’t be able to see red laces. They’ll smell and hear you, but you’re more likely to see wildlife if you’re wearing red.

5. Washing Red Shoelaces Is Easy!

It's easier to get dirt out of red laces.

It’s very easy to wash red shoe laces (just like brown laces). A little bit of scrubbing with soap and water is all it takes. You won’t end up with stains that need to be deep cleaned to go back to their original color. So there’s no need for specialized bleaching and color correction detergents.

Toss your laces in a small tub and work out the exterior debris. Take a toothbrush or soft bristled brush to work the exterior dirt off and you’re good to go. They might not be perfectly fresh, but you won’t notice dirt from a distance.