I go into sticker stock every time I visit the shoe section of a sporting goods store. Really? They want me to pay more than $100 for footwear that I'm buying with the express intention of abusing it until it falls apart? On the other hand, your hiking shoes or boots will be the foundation of your every experience on the trail. You can't get far without them, and an ill-fitting pair can subject you to a smorgasbord of agonies from blisters to frozen, cramped, or sweaty feet.
In other words, expensive hiking boots are worth the cost -- if they live up to their promises. Quality hiking footwear is sturdy enough to protect your feet as you hike for miles, sensitive enough that you can feel your connection to the trail, and comfortable enough that -- if sized properly and worn with the right socks -- you'll rarely, if ever, have to deal with blisters, damaged toenails, and other symptoms of poorly fitted shoes.
The bad news is that there's no single cookie-cutter answer to which hiking boots are best, and there's really no way to be sure which boots will fit you well when shopping online (although you can measure your feet at home). However, once you actually have the boots in your hands, a few quick tests will show if they're right for you. Here's how to get ready:
- Go shopping near the end of the day, when your feet are at their largest.
- Wear the same socks and pants you'd wear to go hiking. If you expect to wear a wide range of socks -- say, thin socks for summer hiking and thick woolen socks for winter hiking -- bring the thickest and thinnest socks with you.
Once you're at the store:
- Ask a salesman or saleswoman to measure both of your feet. This will give you a starting point for boot sizes, and it'll tell you if one foot is larger than the other.
- Lace up both boots, stand up, and wiggle your toes. Your big toes should be close to, but not touching, the front of the toebox. Ask a helper to press his or her thumb down over the front of the boots, just front of your big toe. As a general rule, if there's a full thumb's-width of space between your big toe and the front of the toebox, the boots are too big. (Remember, this assumes you're already wearing your hiking socks -- including thick, winter socks if you're planning on using them.) Also, the lighter-weight (and thus more flexible) the footwear, the closer the fit you can get away with.
- Roll forward onto your toes, then back onto your heels. Do this a few times. If the boots really fit well, your heels won't move up and down inside the boot at all. The more your heels move, the more likely you are to get blisters when using those boots.
- Walk uphill and downhill. If the boots fit right, your feet will stay securely positioned; if they don't fit right, your heels will move around in the boot as you walk uphill, and your toes will slide forward against the edge of the toebox as you go downhill.*
- Take a stroll around the store at varying speeds. If you feel any pinches, pokes, rubs, or "hot spots" of friction anywhere in either boot, it's not the right footwear for your trail adventures.**
*Many sporting goods stores offer an angled chunk of rock or a ramp to facilitate this. If they don't, get creative -- maybe you can leave your car keys or ID as collateral while you take the boots outside to jog up or down a nearby slope. The incline doesn't have to be long -- just a few feet is plenty.
**Don't let anyone convince you that these problem areas will go away as the boot breaks in. Very heavy-duty boots may soften up and form to your foot with use, but they should still fit properly (and reasonably comfortably) from the get-go. The one exception is the ankle cuff on leather boots, which should soften up with time and use. Lighter boots and hiking shoes need little to no break-in period at all.
Having trouble finding boots and shoes that fit? Try the following:
- Try on men's shoes (if you're a woman) and women's shoes (if you're a man. Not all companies build their shoes on gender-specific lasts but, if they do, those minor differences may be all you need to get a perfect fit.
- Ask for a wider (or narrower) width. If the boots you're trying on don't come wide or narrow enough, try a pair that offers more widths to choose from.
- If you have small feet, try on children's boots and shoes. Bonus: They're often cheaper than adult footwear. Potential downside: Kids' footwear may not be built to endure as much abuse as boots designed for adults.
- Change your socks. Seamless, padded socks (available in most sporting goods stores) can reduce rubbing and discomfort around your toes and ankles.