Boot Fitting Basics
This article is designed specifically to educate anyone seeking new hiking footwear. Though the article often references “boots,” the concepts can generally be applied to other hiking footwear as well.
Whether you’ve never experienced any foot-related problems or you’ve got the most difficult feet in the world to fit, chances are you can improve your fit as well as your foot health and performance on trail by considering the advice contained in this article.
To offer some perspective on my credentials as a bootfitter, I have several years of experience fitting footwear in a very well trained and specialized shop. I have been an active participant ofPhil Oren’s Fit System seminars, including Phil’s advanced course. I learned how to make custom hiking boots under the guidance of Randy Merrell (yes, the namesake of the Merrell footwear brand). Randy also shared some of his knowledge and experience in the field of pedorthics, which has proven invaluable. I have spent no small amount of time over the years responding to questions about bootfitting via internet forums and email. Truly, I have developed a passion for the trade of fitting footwear. Disclaimer: Surely there are bootfitters more knowledgable and/or more experienced than I am, and I welcome feedback from anyone. I recognize that technology, technique, and ideas are always evolving. I do not claim to have all the answers (and often have found there to be more than one “right” answer)!
With that background, feel free to do with my comments as you please, but at least be aware that for a long-term investment like hiking footwear, much care should be taken in choosing the best-fitting pair for one’s feet.
I Intro — Getting Fit
II Get the Help of the Experts
III Do It Yourself
I. HIKING BOOTS: GETTING FIT
Fitting boots is a bit of a science and a bit of an art. The key ingredient to finding the proper boots for any individual’s feet is fit. If the boots fit well — blisters, sprained ankles, foot pain, etc… are much less likely to be a part of your hiking/backpacking experience. Your feet will be happy, and you will be happy. With all the different boots out there, how can you know if you have the best fitting pair? There is no substitute for trying on several different pairs and comparing them. But where do you start? No matter what you do, realize that you may have to invest a fair amount of time to get the proper fit in the type of boots that are best for you. Plan for at least an hour or two. It is not uncommon for the process to take multiple days.
II. GET THE HELP OF THE EXPERTS
Ideally, you should find a shop that specializes in fitting hiking footwear and has experience in modifying footwear to more precisely fit individual feet. Though there are a number of good shops around the country with the necessary experience to assist you, a generally reliable place to start is to seek a shop whose employees have been trained through the Phil Oren Fit System.
At a minimum, a good shop will have (and use):
1) two Brannock measuring devices for each gender
2) a ramp (30 degrees or more) to walk up and down
3) a well-worn rubbing bar for modifying footwear
4) a fair selection of different brands of footwear
While there may be more than one technical bootfitter in a good shop, asking for the best footwear specialist in the shop will generally show you’re serious about getting a good fit.
Be prepared with answers to many questions. Note that the list below is not exhaustive!
1) What will be the primary use for the footwear?
2) In what types of conditions and terrain do you expect to wear the footwear?
3) How much weight do you generally expect to carry in your pack?
4) How many days do you generally expect to be on trail?
5) What distances do you expect to travel daily?
A good footwear specialist will ask you these sorts of questions to help you determine the best type of boots/shoes for your expected activities. Understand that there is no boot that is best for all purposes. If you want one pair of boots that can “do it all” (walking, day-hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, etc…), you will be making a compromise or two somewhere. Consider your priorities and what you will be doing most often. You may be best served purchasing a couple pairs of boots/shoes if you expect a lot of variety in your trips.
MEASUREMENT: A good footwear specialist should measure your feet in both the unweighted (neutral) and weighted positions, measuring not only the heel-to-toe length, but also heel-to-ball length, width, and make an assessment of the volume of the feet. (Depending on the difference between weighted and unweighted measurements, they may recommend the use of an orthotic or footbed — see the section below for a brief word on footbeds.)
Note that some shops with a very good track record of fitting opt to assess the size experientially by trying boots on. My preference and recommendation is to first record the objective measures from a Brannock device, which provides an objective starting point. By measuring and inspecting the feet, much information useful to the fitting process can be learned.
Don’t be surprised if the bootfitter recommends a larger or smaller size than you have regularly been wearing. It is generally better to fit the heel-to-ball measurement than the heel-to-toe measurement (given that your toes do not touch the end of the boot), especially with a properly stabilized foot.
In the event you cannot find such a shop in your area, consider the following guidelines when choosing and trying on different pairs.
- All-leather boots are generally more expensive, and may not feel as soft and form fitting right out of the box, but will generally last much longer than fabric/leather combinations — especially when properly cared for. And once they are broken in, they will fit the shape of your foot with more precision. Additionally, leather boots with few seams need not have a waterproof/breathable lining to make them functionally waterproof. If you are looking for long-term returns on your purchasee, consider all leather footwear. If you prioritize light weight footwear and/or lower price points at the compromise of durability and potentially fit, then a fabric/leather combination may be a better option. Note that all-leather footwear is becoming more difficult to find, and some synthetic materials introduced to the market in recent years have proven to be quite durable.
- Grasp the boot heel in one hand, and the middle to forefoot portion of the boot in the other hand. Try to twist in opposing directions. This will tell you how torsionally rigid the boot is. (Compare lightweight sandals or water shoes to heavy-duty mountaineering boots to get an idea of the range of rigidity.) With more weight, rougher terrain, or longer distances, more rigidity is generally going to offer greater protection between the feet and the ground. The torsional rigidity is a far better indicator of the “ankle support” of the boot than how high the boot comes around your ankle — assuming that the foot is properly stabilized inside the footwear. Note that some experienced hikers will opt for lighter-weight footwear with less torsional rigidity, making a compromise in support to gain efficiencies elsewhere. This generally requires that the hiker is very well conditioned to allow this compromise. My experience suggests that beginning hikers will generally be happier in footwear that is sufficiently supportive to protect the feet from the expected terrain.
- Look at your toes without shoes on. Do they taper from big toe to small toe at a significant angle, or are they relatively straight across? Choose boots that have similarly shaped toe boxes.
- Pick out two or three pairs that seem to fit your expected activities to start trying on. Important: Don’t consider budget yet at this point. The idea is first to find the best fit and the right feel. Then if that boot truly is out of your budget, find the boots that come closest to the feel of the best ones. (But consider that investing a bit more now could offer priceless returns on the trail.)
- If your feet have not been measured on a Brannock device in both the unweighted and weighted positions, it is generally safe to start with the same size as your typical street shoes. Every brand’s sizing is unique, but this is usually a good place to start.
FOOTBEDS: Try the boots on with a footbed designed to stabilize your feet in a neutral position (with the bones, muscles, joints and tendons all optimally aligned). While there are many options on the market, the Superfeet line of products work best for the greatest number of people in my experience. There is usually a marked difference in how the boots fit and feel with versus without such a footbed. See the footbed section farther below for a more complete explanation of why footbeds are highly recommended.
You should be wearing the socks (or combination of socks — see the section below for a word on socks) that you will be wearing on trail. Lace up the boots as snugly as you can without them feeling painful and perform the tests listed below. This is not an exhaustive list, but is usually sufficient to offer a good initial perspective on relative fit between different pairs.
1. Walk up and down an incline (at least 30 degrees). Notice for any slipping or lifting in the heel area. Any amount is not good, but smaller amounts can probably be eliminated through different lacing techniques or by adjusting your sock options.
2. Walk down an incline. Bounce a bit and scuff your feet forward, contacting the surface of the incline. Your toes should not touch any part of the front of the boots. If it only touches a little bit, chances are that can be fixed through different lacing techniques. However, if it does touch even a little bit, this will need to be addressed to avoid problems on the trail, such as black toenails from the toes jamming into the front of the footwear on descents.
3. Either facing uphill or on a flat surface, go down on one knee, bending the back foot at the ball of the foot. Notice for any pinching where the boot bends. Also note any pain in the heel area. We don’t want either of these to occur, but if everything else feels good, these may be issues that can be addressed through boot modification. (To address this, you need someone that can do boot modification.)
4. Standing on a flat surface, you should be able to wiggle your toes. Your toes should not touch the front of the boot or feel uncomfortably restricted. (Don’t worry about feeling where your toes end — as long as they don’t touch the end when standing or when scuffing your foot forward on the ground as described in test number two, your toes should be fine.)
5. Standing on a flat surface, reach down and squeeze the boot around your foot with your hands. Try to gather all the excess material from one side of the boot and push it all to the other side. Ideally you should not have a large pocket of space forming. You should not feel excessive space between your foot and the boot.
6. When walking around, your foot should not be moving within the boot. It should feel secure, but not uncomfortably tight.
7. If you notice a particular hot spot where something feels pinched or uncomfortable, don’t discount the boot if everything else feels good. Generally, such hot spots can be eliminated either through different lacing techniques or through minor modifications.
Once you have tried on a few pairs of boots, you get a better idea of what feels the best. If you’re not satisfied after trying two or three, keep your favorite one out, and pick two or three more to compare. No retailer has every single brand and model of boot, so it can’t hurt to shop around. Once you’re satisfied you have the pair that best fits your feet, make the investment and start wearing them to break them in.
In order to get the most precise and comfortable fit, it is essential to have feet that are supported in a healthy position. A very small percentage of the population is fortunate enough to have feet that have developed sufficiently to not require additional support (though even for these lucky few, a well-made footbed is unlikely to hurt anything). The rest of us would very likely benefit from some corrective support, similar to how people wear glasses to correct less-than-perfect vision. By supporting the foot in a healthy position, you will likely reduce or eliminate problems that many people experience, including over-pronation, formation of calluses, blisters, and bunions, and plantar fasciitis.
Consider for a moment that human feet are “designed” for walking barefoot on uneven terrain. In aboriginal cultures, a large muscle mass typically develops near the back of the primary arch of the foot near the heel. This muscle mass serves as a pillar, holding up one end of the arch, and it allows the foot to flexibly adapt to varied terrain. Given that most of us wear footwear for most of our waking lives, we typically do not fully develop this muscle mass. As a result, the pillar holding up that end of the arch is weak and is not fully capable of doing its job. A well-made footbed or orthotic will help support this pillar and allow the arch to do its many jobs.
As referenced earlier, there are many over-the-counter footbeds on the market. None of them will work for all individuals in all situations. The key is finding one that works well for you. Be aware that some poorly made footbeds can actually exacerbate existing foot maladies and fit issues. I do not wish to be seen as plugging a specific brand, but my experience suggests that the Superfeet line of footbeds are the most effective for the greatest number of people. The benefits you receive from a quality footbed will very likely far outweigh the cost of this important accessory.
While over-the-counter footbeds will offer great benefit for most individuals, fit and support can often be enhanced even more with a custom made footbed or orthotic. This route, of course, also carries a higher price tag.
Note: For many people, introducing a supportive footbed or orthotic may not initially feel comfortable. I often hear folks express that “it feels like the arch is too far back.” Recall that many footbeds are attempting to support the missing rear “pillar” of the arch, so this sensation is not unexpected. Generally, it is best to gradually allow your feet to adapt to this new support by wearing the footbeds only and hour or two for the first few days and increasing the time each day over the course of the next couple weeks.
Socks are an often dismissed ingredient to obtaining a good fit. Their primary functions are to help move moisture away from the feet and out of the environment of the footwear and to fill the space between the foot and the footwear. Both of these functions are essential to a good, comfortable fit.
Here are a few key things to remember when buying socks for hiking footwear:
1. Avoid cotton socks. Cotton absorbs much of the moisture given off by your feet — which can be more than 1/2 cup after a few hours of activity. This moisture keeps your foot wet, and therefore soft, and makes it more prone to suffer blisters. Cotton will also compress when wet, taking up less volume than when dry. Therefore, the boots will fit differently — often allowing for more room for the foot to slide within the boot, which can potentially lead to more blisters. Instead, select socks with fiber blends that better retain their volume and better manage moisture.
2. The specific blend of fabrics is largely a matter of comfort and preference. Generally speaking, wool is a better option if your feet tend to be cold or if you expect to experience cold feet in a cold environment. Since wool is hydrophilic, it generally manages moisture more effectively when there is little heat present. Warmer feet are generally better able to take advantage of the moisture control properties of synthetic fabrics — most of which are hydrophobic and retain far less moisture than wool.
3. The thickness of your sock choice should largely be determined by the amount of space you need to fill between your feet and the footwear. Some consideration can be given to insulation, but a thicker sock in an already tight-fitting boot means restricted circulation and ultimately colder feet. As always, fit rules. Keep in mind that after many hours on trail or at high altitudes, feet may experience some swelling. While footwear can usually be adjusted via the lacing, selecting a few different thicknesses of socks can also help you adapt the fit to changing circumstances.
4. Most of the technical socks that are on the market are designed to be worn without the thin liner sock that was necessary to fit the foot and wick moisture with the rag wool socks of yesteryear. However, some people still find a multi-sock system works well. Also, some conditions and activities warrant a multi-sock system. All things considered, it is easier to obtain a more precise fit and reduce friction with one thicker sock rather than multiple pairs of socks worn at the same time. However, if the fit is not precise and some slippage occurs inside the footwear, a liner sock can help transfer that friction away from the skin.
5. Sock size — Choose a brand that has your measured foot-size in the top end of their size range to avoid having significant excess material that may be prone to bunching up and feeling uncomfortable. For example, if your feet measure a size 9.5, you will likely obtain a more precise fit in a size medium sock that is designed to fit up to a size 9.5 foot than you would in a size large in another brand that is designed to fit sizes between 9 and 12. The size ranges of each sock are generally printed on the packaging.