Three Common Hiking Boot Fails

April 30, 2018
Photo: Matt HeidThe aftermath of a hiking boot fail.

The summer hiking season is fast approaching, which means that many folks will soon be pulling their boots out of the closet or shopping for a new pair. Here are three common (and easily avoided) mistakes people make that can lead to misery on the trail.

Failing to break in a new pair of boots before a big hike

This is a big one. You should always test out and break in a new pair of hiking boots before any major hiking adventure. Wear them around town and/or around the house for a few days. Go for a few short walks or hikes in your area. Simply put, just wear them as much as possible before you hit the trails for a major adventure.

This will both help you identify if there are any points of discomfort or pain, as well as help loosen and flex your boots. Doing so is particularly important for sturdier, stiffer boots that are less forgiving than lighter, more flexible models.

You don’t want to find out midway through a long hike or backpacking trip that your boots are causing horrible blisters or pain or discomfort—few things can wreck an outdoor adventure more quickly.

Failing to lock your heel into place inside the boot

In a properly fitting hiking boot, your heel should be locked into place and not slide up and down inside the boot as you walk. If your heel is not locked into place and instead shifts up and down, nasty and painful blisters are a common result. Buying a properly fitting boot is the most important thing you can do to avoid this mistake, though you can take additional steps to deal with it as well.

There are two primary techniques to better lock your heel. The first is to wear thicker socks and/or add an after-market insole such as Superfeet, which will take up additional space in the heel and help eliminate the extra room that is allowing your heel to move. The second is to more tightly lace your boots, though you need to be careful how you do this. You don’t want to crank down on the laces that are directly over the top of your foot (the instep), which can impede circulation and cause pain. Instead you want to tighten the laces just above your instep over the area where your foot curves upward to meet your ankle; this most directly applies force in the direction you want to lock your heel down. (This particular lacing technique is an excellent way to do this.)

Failing to retighten your boots periodically

Your laces will inevitably loosen over the course of a hike. As this happens, your foot becomes more likely to slide or shift around inside the boot. This can increase the likelihood of blisters, a rolled ankle, or painfully damaged toenails.

Indeed, I failed on this front myself several years ago (those are my blackened toenails picture above) when I clipped a rock with the toe of my boot after a long downhill journey. Because my laces had loosened—and my foot could slide all the way forward inside the boot—my big toe nail slammed into the front of the boot and was driven deep into the nailbed, which caused (extremely painful) and lasting damage that my toe will never recover from. (The nail fell off a month or so later and has since been replaced with a deformed ‘gnarly nail’ that will haunt me to the end of my days.)

The key, of course, to avoiding and minimizing these (and other) boot fails is to buy a properly fitting pair in the first place. Learn the basics in this primer: Boot Camp: Hiking Boots 101, and then get out there, happy-feet style!

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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.