Written by: Ryan Brown, Physical Therapist
Boots are probably a hikers most critical piece of equipment. The right pair will help you glide down the trail with a smile on your face, while poor-quality boots will have you gritting your teeth with every footfall. When it comes to selecting the shoe for you, forget about looks, numerical sizes, flashy features, or even what your friends recommend–unless their feet are identical to yours. The issues you should consider are comfort, durability, stability, weight, warmth, and water resistance. The most important thing in buying boots is to get a good fit, with a snug fit at the heel and wiggling room for your toes in front. A knowledgeable boot fitter can help with fit.
Select your boots based on the terrain you will hike on and the loads you expect to carry. However, because added ounces and pounds on your feet really take their toll in terms of energy expenditure by the end of the day, go for the lightest boots you can get away with. For instance, a pair of off-trail boots would be overkill for a backpacker who does weekend trips with a light pack and sticks primarily to trails. Here’s a primer on selecting styles. Hikers need to start with the right socks. Details like toe seams and overall thickness can cause or relieve pressure problems. Many new generation hiking socks come with areas of differing thickness that can significantly alter boot fit, as well. If possible, buy boots while wearing the same socks you’ll use in the woods. Or buy socks and boots at the same time. Ignore size numbers and choose a boot that feels right for your foot size. This may mean you buy a pair one size larger than your norm. Don’t buy any boot if a narrow toebox cramps your toes. Toeboxes are difficult to remold adequately, particularly in beefier boots.
The most important feature of any boot’s construction is the one you’ll never see. A boot’s “last” is the carved wooden foot around which the boot is shaped and constructed. If a manufacturer’s chosen last matches the shape and volume of your foot, chances are the boot will work for you. If it doesn’t match, then even the finest quality construction will result in nothing more than expensive and durable torture devices. Experienced bootfitters can correct problems that cause isolated pressure points, but even the most creative bootfitter can’t change a grossly mismatched last.
If the last and size are in the ballpark, yet your foot seems to slop around inside the boot, the problem might be the footbed. A footbed keeps your foot from contorting inside the boot by supporting the sole in a neutral position. Other symptoms indicative of poorly matched footbeds are tender points on the heel and ball of your foot during hiking, pain in the arch, and persistent heel slip. People with high arches often need footbeds with more arch support than boot manufacturers typically provide. Some outdoors shops can customize molded footbeds like Superfeet, which work extremely well, or you can buy over the counter footbeds for anywhere from $10 to $30. All options are available through our experienced Physical Therapist’s. For truly persistent problems you might need custom molded orthotics. To determine whether you might need orthotics, look at the wear patterns on the soles of your older shoes and boots. If they show extreme wear on the inner side of the soles (pronation) or the outer side (supination), then your ankles and arches probably need orthotic support. We also provide this specialty service at each one of our locations.
To keep your boots ready for many more years of trail travel, follow these tips:
- Frequent waterproofing with wax or silicone treatments will soften leather, not only making your boots more comfortable, but also stretching them a bit.
- Recondition your boots frequently and use boot trees.
- Rain and stream crossings help boots conform to your feet, but water degrades leather and can lead to shrinkage.
- On long backpacking trips, take along waterproofing treatments. You’ll definitely notice how much more supple and supportive your trail trashed boots feel after they’ve been treated.
Even after you’ve found a close to perfect fitting pair of boots, the sad fact of the hiking life is that at some point you’ll likely experience some degree of foot discomfort.