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Your hiking boots have three big jobs :
- Protect your feet from trail hazards;
- Support your feet under heavy backpacking loads;
- Do both of the above with comfort.
For your hiking boots to do those jobs well, you must pay careful attention to their materials and construction and choose the right hiking boots (or backpacking boots) to fit the job. Once you decide on the right type of boot for your needs, your next challenge is finding a pair that fits well.
How should hiking boots fit? They should be…
- Roomy enough for your toes;
- Snug enough over the arch to keep your feet from sliding forward or back;
- Tight enough in the heel to prevent it from moving around inside the boot (but not so tight that it’s pinched);
- Flexible enough for easy walking with loaded pack;
- Stiff enough for solid support on all kinds of terrain;
- Light enough for easy lifting;
- Heavy enough for good protection;
- Comfortable enough to wear all day, every day without bone or muscle fatigue in your ankles or legs.
Here are some guidelines to help you get the best fit from your hiking boots:
The first thing to do when selecting hiking boots is to forget all about your street shoe size. You can use it as a rough guide. But chances are your hiking boots will be a different size entirely.
First of all, you won’t be wearing street socks with your hiking boots. Experienced hiking and backpacking veterans wear two pairs of socks when traveling long distances or carrying heavy loads. So that will make a difference in the size of hiking boots you need.
Secondly, hiking boots sizes differ markedly from one manufacturer to the next. Rarely do they match up with your street shoe size.
That’s why it’s important to actually measure your feet with a Brannock device, the silver and black metal gadget you’ve seen in shoe stores.
* Hiking Boots Size Measurements
- The heel-to-toe length of your foot
- The width at the ball of your foot
- Where the ball of your foot is located; i.e.,
- How far forward it is from the back of your heel and
- How far back from the tip of your toes.
Make these measurements when you’re sitting with no weight on your feet, and when you’re standing with all of your weight on the foot being measured.
Be sure to measure BOTH feet both ways. And write the measurements down so you’ll have them later.
Step Two: Choose the Right Brand of Hiking Boots
Regardless of your foot size, no two brands of hiking boots will fit the same way. A size 10 hiking boot from Manufacturer “A” may fit quite differently than a size 10 hiking boot from Manufacturer “B.”
Each hiking boots manufacturer uses a different “standard” foot shape around which to build their boots. This “standard” shape is called the “last.” It defines the basic geometry of what that manufacturer considers a “standard” foot. And it accounts for the often amazing differences in boot sizes from one manufacturer to another.
You’ll find more about this in the article “Choosing the Right Hiking Boots.” It explains why it’s more important to forget about hiking boots brands and focus instead on finding hiking boots that match your foot’s shape.
* The Myth of Hiking Boots Size
When you shop for hiking boots, use your foot’s size as a place to start, but don’t be married to it. Size alone is not a reliable measurement.
Try on several brands of hiking boots and several sizes until you find one that feels right. Pay attention to comfort and how the boots fit, not the number that designates their size.
Your goal in Step Two is to find a brand and style of hiking boots that closely matches the general shape of your foot. It probably won’t be perfect, but you want to try to get as close as possible. Then move on to step three.
Step Three: Hiking Boots Need Lots of Toe Room
Here’s how to make sure they have it. You’ll need a friend to help you size your hiking boots correctly. Start by wearing the kind of socks you’ll wear on the trail, then…
Put both hiking boots on your feet, but don’t lace them.
Stand up and slide your feet forward inside the hiking boots until your toes bump against the front of each boot. Do this one foot at a time with all your weight on that foot.
Your foot will probably expand lengthwise a bit when it takes your full weight, so you may have to “dance around” a little until you get it right. You want the tip of your forward-most toe to just barely come in contact with the inside front of the hiking boots.
With your full weight on your foot and the tip of your toe just touching the inside front of the hiking boots, there should be enough room at the heel for a friend to insert an index finger at the back of the boot between your heel and the inside of the boot.
If there is not an index-finger width of free space at the back of the boot, try it again with hiking boots one-half size larger.
If one of your feet meets this test but the other one doesn’t, then go with the hiking boots that fit the larger foot best. Later, I’ll show you how to custom fit your hiking boots to make up for these differences.
Step Four: Check Your Hiking Boots Heel Fit
Next, snug your heels back as far as they will go and lace both hiking boots completely.
Now stand up. Wiggle your toes. Still got enough toe room?
Lift each heel and rock each foot side to side. Do the hiking boots’ uppers stay in contact with the tops of your feet? If there’s too much play, try lacing them more snugly. If they feel too tight, loosen the laces a bit.
Now walk around. Almost all hiking boots will seem too stiff at this point, but ignore that for a moment. Instead, focus on your heels inside the hiking boots.
Does either heel float up and down or side-to-side? If your heel floats side-to-side, or moves more than a quarter-inch vertically, find another pair of hiking boots. Your heels should be cupped firmly inside each boot with no sideways movement and only minimal vertical movement.
Once again, if one foot fits the hiking boots reasonably well but the other doesn’t, then try the next half-size bigger. Go with the size that fits the larger foot best.
Step Five: Hiking Boots and Trail Conditions
When you hit the trail with your new hiking boots you’ll be going up and down hills. So it’s important to simulate that environment when you’re fitting your boots.
A good hiking boots store will have a ramp you can walk up and down to test your boots. Use it. If there’s no ramp in the store, stand on the angled part of one of those shoe-fitting stools and walk in place.
You want to confirm that your toes don’t slam into the front of the boots when walking downhill; and that your heels don’t lift or rub against the back of the boot when going uphill.
When you get your boots home, build your own temporary test ramp out of plywood or old shelves. Angle it about 20 to 30 degrees; put on your new hiking boots; and walk up and down the ramp to test the fit.
Step Six: Test Walk Your New Hiking boots
It’s very important that you test-walk your new hiking boots as soon as you get them home. Wear them around the house for a few days to check the fit. And always wear them with the socks you intend to use on the trail.
If you feel your feet moving inside your new hiking boots during these in-home test walks, they’re going to give you blisters on the trail. Return them! Don’t be shy about taking them back.
Many neighborhood retailers won’t let you return hiking boots once they leave the store. But almost all knowledgeable hiking boots stores (and all online stores) will allow you to return new hiking boots as long as they’ve not been beat up.
Before you leave the store, ask whether you can test walk your new hiking boots at home and return them if they don’t fit properly. If the store says “No,” then find another store. Or order hiking boots online.
Step Seven: Hiking Boots Fit Adjustments
By this time you should have a clear idea whether this pair of hiking boots is for you or not. They should fit well enough so you can tackle a short or mid-length day hike comfortably. And you should feel confident that they’ll take you easily on a weekend backpack with just minimal break in.
Almost all leather hiking boots will require some break in before they’re completely ready for a long distance walk under load. So start using your new boots on the trail.
Begin wearing your new hiking boots on short walks, then gradually increase both the length of the walk and the roughness of the terrain.
During these break in walks, your boots will begin to mold to your feet more completely. As they do so, they’ll become more comfortable. And they’ll reveal any spots that may need minor adjustments for better fit.
You can adjust the fit of your boots in several ways: with extra padding, different insoles or a more appropriate lacing pattern. You can actually take a pair of ready-made hiking boots and, using the right materials, make them fit as well as custom made hiking boots.