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Hiking Boot Choice and Fit
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
Q: We recently were asked by a reader: “Last year I bought a pair of hiking boots in Switzerland after nearly an hour trying to test it for size etc. When I started to walk and climb they began to hurt my toes. By the time we descended from about 800 hundred meters I was in agony. My big toes are still black and blue. Should one get a size bigger for hiking or climbing than normal shoes?”
Footwear for hiking, climbing, scrambling and backpacking varies widely from lightweight approach shoes all the way up to heavy mountaineering boots. What differentiates good hiking shoes and boots from other footwear is that they are made to withstand rugged terrain, hours on the trail, and additional weight from carrying a pack. The long and short of it is this: with regular hiking or approach footwear (for non-technical routes) you want to be sure that you are a) getting the right fit, b) choosing a boot appropriate for the type of activity you intend to do; c) testing the boot wearing the same sock layering system that you will be wearing in the mountains; and d) seeing how the boot performs on similar slopes, not just flat carpet or steps. The Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) flagship store in downtown Seattle is one such store that has created a sloped walking surface similar to what you’d find outside for just such testing purposes. You also will want to try on boots later in the day after you’ve been walking around all day, as feet tend to swell from morning to night and you want to be sure you have enough extra room for all times of the day – unless you plan to do all your hiking before noon!
In my experience, “sizes” of boots vary as greatly as clothing sizes do, so start with your regular shoe size and see what one size larger and one size smaller feel like. Before you lace it, see if you can get your finger down the back behind your heel. Lace the boot fairly tightly, without hurting yourself. If your heel lifts up too much, you need a boot with a narrower heel. If your feet shift forward in the boot or your toes touch the end when you go downhill, the boot is too short. If you can’t wiggle your toes comfortably, the front of the boot is too narrow. The boot should feel snug and comfortable. If they are tight, rub, chafe or feel wrong indoors out of the box, things will only get worse on trails.
Wear them in the store for at least 10 minutes, carrying similar weight that you plan to carry on most trips, and over as great a sloped surface as you can. Try the slope going up, down, and traversing to see where any hotspots might develop with repeated wear. If you get a boot that is too large, you will end up slipping and sliding, resulting in blisters (for a great suggestion on how to avoid them, see www.bodyresults.com/qaskbr.asp?id=223&cat=13). If the boot is too snug, you could end up jamming your toes in the front of the boot when you descend (trekking poles can help in a pinch, no pun intended). If the boot has inadequate ankle support, you will feel rubbing at the same place on your inner or outer heel. Choosing the right boot is an art; you want to be sure that the people helping you know what they are doing, and that you know precisely what you want your boot to do.
Experiment with different lacing strategies so that your feet will be as comfortable going up as coming down. As you ascend, there will usually be more pressure in the heel of the boot, and you need more room (looser lacing) for the flex in the boot as you have more heel drop and added stretch through the calves. Coming down, on the other hand, puts more jamming pressure through the toe. Try lacing your boots a little tighter for the descents to try to keep the foot firmly in place in the heel box and prevent it from sliding forward. Finally, if you find you have trouble keeping your boots snug, be sure you have flat laces as they tend to stay tied better than round ones. Laces are easy to replace if that is the only boot feature you do not like.
However, whatever you boot you choose, keep in mind the following additional tips:
- Be sure that the boot you are looking at is suitable for the type of terrain (and pack weight) you plan to travel most frequently;
- Choose a boot that will give you adequate ankle support and sufficient traction for the terrain (dirt, snow, glacier, gravel) you’re likely to encounter;
- Keep your toe nails trimmed short so that there is less of a chance that you might lose a nail if the boots happen to fit poorly;
- Keep an extra pair of liners and socks in your pack so if your first pair get wet you can change into dry socks once you reach camp;
- If you know you will need an insole or arch support, make sure you take them with you when trying on boots!
- Get footwear well before you travel so that you can break them in at home at least a month before you go. If you have any doubt about a boot, ask about the return policy and be sure you take them back if you are not satisfied with them after a hike or two. Admittedly this last suggestion can be tricky if you get boots overseas! Best bet? Buy locally whenever possible.
Finally, if you are thinking of getting a specific boot, think about talking to other friends about what they might recommend and why. How do they rate their boots for outings such as the ones you’re considering? Keep in mind that a boot that works for your friend’s foot might be horrible for you. If you find a boot manufacturer you like, you probably will stay with that brand. I happen to like my Solomon composites for glacier travel, but my Vasque Gore-tex leather boots are my stand-by choice for non-snow hikes and alpine climbing. You can also read footwear reviews on line at http://www.backpackgeartest.org/reviews/Footwear, the website for Backpack Gear Testing.