Hiking Boots: Finding the Perfect Fit

Introduction

Few things can make or break an outdoor adventure like boots can. A couple of years ago I bought a new pair of hiking boots and decided to break them in on the trail. “My feet are tough, they’ll be fine,” I naively thought. Within the first few hours of hiking, my tender feet had developed three large and painful blisters. Although the size was right, the boots turned out to be too narrow for my flippers. After the week-long backpacking trip ended, two of my toenails turned purple and fell off.

When it comes to choosing the right pair of boots for traipsing across the backcountry, there are several things you can do to ensure an ideal fit.

First, good boots provide ankle support. Many people have seriously sprained or broken their ankles while hiking. Hauling a heavy backpack around increases both the likelihood and severity of rolled ankles. The sides of a boot should be stiff to hold up the ankle and provide protection from rocks.

Hiking boot

Hiking boots are one of the most important pieces of outdoor gear to choose correctly. Shown here is a hiker’s boot with an instep crampon strapped to the sole.


Second, good boots usually have fairly rigid soles. You shouldn’t be able to feel rocks or sticks through the bottom of your boot. Thin soles combined with a rough trail can result in bruised and fatigued feet.

Third, waterproofing is almost always a huge advantage. In order to be water-tight, cloth boots must be made with Gore-Tex, Ultrex, or another similar material. All-leather boots can be treated with Sno-Seal, beeswax, or a variety of other after-market waterproofing solutions.

Hiking boots are definitely a specialty item, as indicated by their sometimes exorbitant prices. If high-quality hiking boots are out of your price range, a less expensive pair of athletic shoes or work boots can sometimes suffice. Remember that shoemakers typically manufacture a wide variety of athletic shoes; some will be more well suited for tennis or badminton than for hiking. Work boots might be a better option for backpacking, but they generally provide a less comfortable fit than dedicated hiking boots. Work boots aren’t designed for walking large distances and sometimes chafe the heel or the Achilles tendon.

If you plan on hiking more than two or three times a year, a dedicated pair of hiking boots is probably worth the investment. Buy a high-quality boot, and they will last for years.

Which brand is best?

If a friend tries to tell you that you should absolutely, definitely buy a particular brand of boots, then he probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The best brand of boot is the one that fits your feet best. It’s that simple. An Asolo, Nike, or Merrell boot may fit your friend’s foot perfectly, while turning you into a miserable hobbling hiker.

Almost every manufacturer uses differently shaped foot molds (called “lasts”) to build their boots. As a boot is pieced together in the factory, it is literally built around one of these molds, or lasts. The size and shape of lasts can vary by a large degree between different manufacturers. For example, European lasts are usually much more narrow-toed than American lasts. If you have wide feet, boots built with a European last will probably make your feet feel pinched.

The only person who can tell you what boot fits best is you. Fortunately, most outdoor retailers understand the dilemma. They are usually willing to let you take the boots home and wear them around your house before making a permanent commitment. However, if you decide to walk outside and get the soles dirty, they probably won’t accept the return. Be sure to ask about the store’s return policy on footwear before checking out.

Finding the perfect fit

Unfortunately, even if a pair of boots feels great at the store (or at home), there’s no guarantee they’ll feel the same way on the trail. There are, however, certain steps you can take (pun intended) to maximize your chances of finding the perfect fit. If you do, your feet will thank you for years to come.

Begin your shopping by locating a reputable outdoor retailer. “Shoe store” boots are usually just rugged-looking street shoes. High-top boots, also known as hunter boots, are often found at stores like Cabelas or Outdoor World. Like typical work boots, these types of boots can place unnecessary strain on the ankle or the Achilles tendon. They are usually rugged and durable, but not recommended for hiking long distances. The best places to find hiking boots are dedicated outdoor retailers with knowledgeable staff, such as REI or local outdoor shops.

Once you’ve arrived at the store, don’t let brand name, friends’ opinions, or the salesperson’s recommendation steer you towards a boot that doesn’t work for you. If none of the boots at a particular store meet all the criteria below, then pack up and try another store. Boots aren’t cheap, and arriving at the right decision is worth the time it may take.

1. The Sole Test

When you pull a boot off the shelf, press your fingers against the sole to see how easily it deforms. If the pressure easily indents the sole, it probably won’t provide the rigidity your foot needs for protection from ill-willed rocks and stones. If you can easily twist the sole of the boot, it’s also probably too soft for hiking rough terrain.

2. The Ankle Test

Grab the top of the boot and bend it over sideways. This will give you a rough picture of how much ankle support the boot will provide. Compare a few different models. A stiffer boot which will provide more support.

3. The Finger Test

Completely unlace both boots. Slide your feet forward as far as they’ll go, and insert your index finger between your heel and the back of the boot. One finger’s width should be enough space to prevent your toes from jamming into the front of the boots on a downhill jaunt, but not enough space to yield a sloppy fit.

4. The Whole-foot Test

Without any socks on, slide your bare foot into the boot. Concentrate on your foot, paying close attention to how it feels. Take note of any spots that feel crammed tight–particularly around the small toes, the ball of the foot, or the arch. If it’s too tight in any of these areas, look for another boot.

If the boot passes this barefoot test, pull your hiking sock(s) on, making sure there are no loose or wrinkled spots. Again slide your foot into the boot and feel for tight areas. At this point, the boot should feel too tight or too loose in any particular area. Instead, it should feel comfortably snug all around the foot.

5. The Walking Test

Take several minutes to walk around the store with the boots on and fully laced. Pay attention to how the front of the boot creases when you walk. Does it crease comfortably, or does it feel like it squeezes the top of your toes whenever you take a step? If you get the squeezing sensation, try another pair.

Next, take note of the heel. Does it slip upwards from the sole when you step forward? A slight amount of slippage in the heel is normal in new boots, since they haven’t been broken in. But if the slippage is more than minimal, the boot may be too large. Try a half-size smaller, on the condition that it still passes the finger test. If you can’t find a size that passes the finger test while retaining minimal heel slip, then look for another style or brand of boot.

6. The Incline Test

Find out if the store has a slant board, which is really just an inclined plane of wood. Walk down the incline and determine whether your toes touch the front end of the boots. If they do you may need to try a half-size larger boot.

7. The Paper Test

Once you’ve purchased a set of boots and taken them home, there’s still one more test to run. Pull on your hiking socks and trace your foot on a piece of paper. Cut out the outline and carefully slide it into the boot. Firmly press the cut-out into the bottom of the boot, working around all the edges. Pull it out. Look for any edges that are bent upwards, indicating that the cut-out was too large for the sole of the shoe. If any edges of the paper are folded upwards by more than a half-inch, the boots may cause problems for your feet.

Breaking them in

If you’ve managed to find a pair of boots that pass all these tests, congratulations! They have a pretty good chance of qualifying as your ideal fit. No boot is perfect, however, until it has experienced some good old-fashioned wear and tear. Even boots that fit like a kid glove will cause problems on the trail if they haven’t been broken in first.

Wear your new boots around the house, while working in the yard, or running errands. If you can get away with wearing them to work, then do so. Over time, the soles will conform to the shape of the foot. Leather and cloth uppers will stretch slightly to accommodate snugly fitting areas. After several miles of wear, they’ll be ready for just about any terrain you can throw at them.

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