Boot Camp: Hiking Footwear 101

April 16, 2010
Hiking Footwear 101
iStockThe most important feature of a hiking boot is a good fit.

Your feet are your most important piece of hiking equipment. Keep them happy and you will be even more so. Displease them and you will suffer their bruised and blistered malice. Their fate rests in your hands—and it all starts with a proper fit for your hiking footwear.

Boot Basics
When shopping for hiking boots, always remember that the most important feature is a good fit. You can buy the highest-quality hiking boots ever created, but if they fit poorly you will suffer a miserable hiking experience. With a proper fit, your heel should be locked in place inside the boot to prevent friction and the blisters it engenders; your toes shouldn’t hit the front of the boot while going downhill (the number one cause of blackened toenails); and there should be minimal extra space around your foot, though you should have enough room to wiggle your toes freely.

Fit to Be Tied
Most people have one foot longer than the other — always fit the larger one. After selecting a boot to try, loosen the laces and slip your foot inside. With the boot unlaced, stand up and slide your foot forward until your toes touch the end. At this point, you should ideally have a friend or salesperson check the length; they should be able to slip about one finger between your heel and the back of the boot. If they get more or less than that, try the next size down or up. (Note that you can’t check this yourself; your foot and heel lift forward when you bend over.) Now lace up, leaving the laces over the top of your foot (instep) loose but cinching them tightly across your ankle to lock the heel down.

Passing Muster
With the boot laced up, first evaluate for any width issues. Are your toes or the sides of your feet painfully squashed? If so, the boot is too narrow — move on to the next (wider) one. If not, walk around and stand on your toes to check for heel lift. There should be none, though a very small amount of movement (quarter-inch or less) is considered acceptable. Also make sure that the boot isn’t so wide that your foot slides side-to-side; this can cause blisters on the bottom and sides of your feet. Double-check that your toes don’t smash into the end when standing on an incline. Finally, watch out for any pinching inside the boot, especially where it flexes. If everything checks out, you have a winner!

Heal the Heel
A loose heel fit is a common fit problem — and the number one cause of blisters while hiking. It is usually caused by too much boot volume in the heel and across the instep. You simply can’t cinch the laces down tight enough to lock your heel in place. To address this, you need to take up more space inside the boot. This can be done by wearing thicker socks or by using an after-market footbed that adds volume under the heel. Ideally you’ll be able to find a boot that fits better to begin with, though this can be a challenge if you have wide feet — boots that run wide almost always have higher volume in the heel.

Other Basic Boot Beta
A stiffer sole enhances stability over uneven ground. To check this, grab the front and back of the (empty) boot and twist it to check for torsional rigidity. A higher ankle collar helps with stability as well, but is secondary to a stiff sole. All-leather boots last longer and will shape to your feet over time, though are more expensive than their fabric and fabric-and-leather brethren. As a rule, women’s boots run narrower than men’s, especially in the heel.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.