Dreaming of a blister-free hiking boot? Every foot is different, and it’s easy enough to go through half a dozen pairs and a first aid kit’s worth of moleskin before finding the right boot, or, in some cases, just flat-out giving up. According to Eastern Mountain Sports’ resident “Foot Guru” Marc DeBanico, though, all you need to do is ask the right questions. Whether you’re planning a weekend walk or climbing your first 14er, these tips will make boot shopping a stroll in the park.
For your boots, that is. “Don’t go to a big-box store and have some 16-year old hand you a box and disappear,” says DeBanico. Find an outdoor retailer whose employees can walk the talk and will ask the right questions. A good retailer will train its staff in the art of measuring and evaluating feet, and will be well versed in the type of foot each boot is made for.
Casual or Committed
Get boots that are appropriate for your activity, as well as your commitment level. Casual hikers can buy lightweight shoes with a cushioned sole that are ready to use straight out of the box, but serious backpackers who anticipate tough terrain will want a leather boot (or leather and fabric combination) that can bear weight and stand the test of time. Wear leather boots around the house and take them for a few test hikes before hitting serious wilderness. Go back to your retailer if you experience problems, and they can adjust your fit or modify for comfort.
Flex This Way
An obvious but overlooked tip: Your boot should bend in the same place your foot bends. The widest part of the boot should bend with the widest part of your foot. “Your midfoot is the most important part of the fit,” says DeBanico. “You may have a little bit of heel lift, but if you have the right sock, some Body Glide (or similar anti-friction/chafing balm) or liner, that will help mitigate problems.” Your mid-foot should be snug in the middle of the boot, keeping the toes from touching the top or end of the boot. “Have the boot break into your foot instead of vice versa,” says DeBanico.
A stiffer sole (usually made of higher carbon rubber) with deep lugs (or treads) is ideal for tough terrain and a heavy pack, especially over long distances. “Make sure the boot is flexible where your foot bends, but has good tortional rigidity,” says DeBanico. The majority of support and control comes from the bottom of the foot, so a solid sole and shank (support piece inside the boot) will go a long way to prevent you from rolling an ankle. For day hikers with a lighter load, a boot with a more flexible sole and shallow lugs will get the job done.
Sweat the Small Stuff
“The whole footwear process is a system,” says DeBanico. “The shoe by itself is no good if you’re wearing the wrong socks.” Complement your new pair with some solid wool or synthetic socks. For longer hikes or rugged terrain, consider a liner sock or body glide to reduce friction and lower your chances of blisters and hotspots. The right footbed/after market insole can provide as much ankle and arch support as a stiff leather side, and the proper waterproofing seal (such as Nikwax) applied regularly will keep your feet dry and comfortable for years to come.