Whether you’re planning to head out for a quick hike or preparing for a big backpacking trip, a pair of properly fitting hiking boots is key. While it’s easy to get excited about certain brands, particular features, and specific materials when shoe shopping, in the end, nothing will affect how you feel about your boots more than their fit. With this in mind, here’s a quick guide on how to fit a hiking boot.
Most people’s feet swell during the day—particularly if they’re active—leaving them slightly larger at the end of the day than the beginning. This mimics what happens while hiking and makes trying boots on at the end of the day a good strategy for avoiding buying boots that are too small.
Put your feet in the boots and lace them up—not too tight, not too loose, but just right. Think snug but not restrictive. Because it’s common for people to have different sized feet, make sure to try both boots on (the general rule is to size for your larger foot). Now ask yourself:
Over the course of a long hike or multi-day backpacking trip, small annoyances (like the rubbing of a seam) can turn into big problems. It’s common for people to shrug off initial tightness, believing the boots will stretch. While full-leather boots will stretch over time, the majority of today’s hiking boots are made with synthetic alternatives that remain static over time.
With the boots on and laced up, check the boot’s fit for length. You should have a finger’s width of space between the base of your heel and the back of the boot, which is easily tested by seeing if you can slide your finger between the two. Get a friend or family member to help—because your heel lifts forward when you bend, the test is more accurate when performed by someone else. Remember that a little movement in the heel is ok, it reduces the friction that causes blisters.
Don’t forget about the front of your foot. A good rule of thumb (pun intended), is to leave about a thumb’s worth of space between your longest toe and the end of the boot. You should have enough room to wiggle your toes and allow for swelling.
With the boots still laced up, it’s time to judge the width of the boot. If your toes or the sides of your feet feel crunched, the boots are too narrow. You can sometimes see your foot bulging against the uppers of too-tight boots—this is especially true when trying on boots made with lightweight materials. Conversely, if your foot slides from side to side, the boots are too wide.
Not everyone is lucky enough to experience the Cinderella moment, where a boot feels as if it were made specifically for you. Luckily, there are a handful of techniques to tweak a boot’s fit:
Boots designed to stand up to rugged trails and support heavy loads can feel quite different than everyday footwear. It’s common for them to feel stiff underfoot, and having material covering the ankle can take some getting used to. And if you bought full-leather boots, they will require a break-in period. The key is to spend time in your boot close to home and identify any issues before a big trip. After all, problems are much easier solved from your living room than from ten miles into your epic 20-mile hike or week-long backpacking trip.
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