Jim Winjum, comfortable feet and all, is pictured where he is most happy: at high elevations chasing sheep—in this instance, stone sheep.
In the early 2000s, Jim Winjum had been developing and designing boots for Schnee’s boot company for more than 18 years. He was very good at his job, and his friends and family consistently encouraged him to start his own company. Although intrigued by the idea, Jim was happy with his job at Schnee’s.
When the company was sold in 2005, however, the new ownership didn’t make him feel secure about his position. The situation compelled him to step out on his own.
So, in 2005, Kenetrek Boots was born. That year the company launched its first line—pack boots available in six models. Unfortunately, the company didn’t register a single sale until 2006. Even then, Winjum admits, the few people who bought a pair were friends and family.
Jim, an avid hunter, had always had major issues with his feet, particularly for his style of hunting— covering ground, most of it rugged and mountainous. The problem became magnified after his first sheep hunt, which destroyed his feet despite the fact he wore boots considered to be high quality. His story on the Kenetrek website says his “blisters became freakish gashes.” As a result of his suffering, Kenetrek released its first high-performance backcountry hunting boot, the Mountain Extreme, which hit the market in 2007.
When the recession hit in 2008, it was both a blessing and a curse for the growth of the new company. It was a curse because sales on most things, boots included, suffered but a blessing in that Italian boot manufacturers, which produce the boots that Kenetrek designs, also were hurting and hungry for work—even willing to produce small runs of boots.
Jim said, “If I went to a reputable Italian bootmaker today and asked them to produce a run of three hundred boots, they would laugh at me.”
But at that time, the Italians were willing to do the work, which allowed Kenetrek to build a small inventory without going broke buying large orders of boots. The upshot is that this made it possible for Kenetrek to bring its Mountain Extreme boots to sell in the US. Yes, at the time there were already some other great boots on the market, but Kenetrek was the first company to build its line solely on hunting, pitching itself as a “hunting-boot manufacturer.”
Although Jim didn’t elaborate on sales now compared to the company’s launch, it’s safe to say the company has come a long way. Anywhere serious boots for extreme hunting are discussed, Kenetrek certainly enters the discussion. Still, Winjum remains humble, even though it's obvious the company is doing well.
He said, “You never really feel like you have made it. Every time a shipment of boots shows up, you hope that this won’t be the time the wheels fall off.”
What he means is that average consumers do not understand the risks companies endure on a regular basis. The manufacturers invest a lot in research, development, and production, and if the products don’t sell, it can mean the company’s demise.
A large portion of Kenetrek’s success has been its consumer-driven business model. Listening to its customers is at the heart of this guiding ideal. When their customers ask for a boot to fit other facets of their daily lives, Kenetrek investigates it. If after due diligence, the company thinks it can build a product to enhance customers’ activities and keep them more comfortable, it does so.
For example, when customers requested work boots that would protect their feet in industrial situations, Kenetrek introduced a line of safety-toe boots that meets governmental safety standards for impact, compression, and electrical hazard. Recently, the company released the Corrie 3.2 hiker, which is an answer to customers’ requests for a lighter-weight hiking boot for hunts that are less than extreme.
When Jim Winjum started Kenetrek in 2005 but didn't sell a single boot until 2007 when the Mountain Extreme hit the market. These days, Kenetrek is often mentioned in the same breath as other great hunting-boot manufacturers and has a comfortable office and production facility in Bozeman, Montana.
Built to Last
From the beginning up until the present, Kenetrek has continually tried to improve its products. It will even tweak an existing boot from time to time—including year to year or from the ground up—even if this doesn’t always make their Italian manufacturers happy.
For example, Kenetrek went to Italy and designed its own boot last, as opposed to using lasts the Italian makers had been using for decades. A last is the mold that is used to shape a boot when it’s being constructed. Kenetrek designed its lasts primarily to fit American feet.
Prior to building the last, Kenetrek examined their women’s boots, which they found were achieving an 80 percent fit rate. After the company incorporated its own last, the fit rate rose to 96 percent. The company’s attention to detail is one of the many reasons Kenetrek feels they have found early success in such a competitive market.
Bullish on Sheep
Jim, a self-described sheep-hunting nut, says he is the world's luckiest person when it comes to drawing low-percentage sheep tags as well as winning hunting raffles. At this point in his hunting career, he has been on 19 hunts that you and I would call “once in a lifetime.” This of course is great for Jim personally, but it also has benefited Kenetrek’s customers who can put on a boot and know there’s a good chance its forerunners were tested personally by the guy who actually designs the boots.
Even to this day and as much as Kenetrek has grown, the company sells most of its boots within the United States, Canada, and some in Mexico. Of course, Kenetrek sells boots in other countries, but the company’s focus is still on providing the best hunting boots possible for its customers here in the US.
All of Kenetrek’s boots are designed in the US but are made in the best factories throughout Italy. Kenetrek’s owners and employees are hunters who are proud of their hunting heritage. They keep a firm grasp on what their customers desire and strive to provide them with what they need to enhance their hunts and outdoor experiences. That mindset has guided the company for 16 years. It will be exciting to see what they have in store for the future.
Zach Bowhay is a Western big-game-hunting writer. He has taken big-game species in nearly every Rocky Mountain state and resides in Idaho.
From the Fall 2021 issue of Guidefitter Journal.