A Tight Fit?

By Mike Boisvert.

Anyone who tells you that "you should buy [ your favorite company name here] brand boots" doesn't know what he or she is talking about. On the flip side of the coin, anyone who asks "What boots should I buy?" is also asking the wrong question. The best boot for you, and the one you should buy, is the one that fits YOUR foot. It's really pretty simple. If it doesn't fit your foot, you shouldn't buy it. It may work GREAT for your friend's foot, and he may think XYZ Brand was forged by the right hand of God, but if they turn you into a cripple five miles down the trail, then what good are they?

Why doesn't your friend's boot work for you? Because all boots are made on different "lasts". The last is the "form" the boot is built around at the factory. The size and shape of these lasts, even between identical sizes of boots, can vary greatly. For instance, some boots are built around a "European" last. This last is typically narrow in the front, which can cause some American toes to feel pinched, but may feel great to a European. Asolo brand boots are built on American-style lasts. Does that mean you should buy Asolo because you're an American? The answer is "NO". Why?

No two feet are alike. All come in different shapes. The best boot to buy is always the boot that fits YOUR foot. (Are you starting to follow me on this?).


Two out of every three Americans have regular foot pain caused by poorly fitting footwear. Most Americans believe that foot problems are an unavoidable part of life. Unfortunately, this is something that many people in the outdoor industry don't understand, and it results in poor boot fittings for thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. And according to a recent industry survey, consumers indicated that their number one concern when buying outdoor recreational equipment was buying footwear. For many, it is a scary prospect – and rightly so. A good pair of backpacking boots runs upwards of $150, and most retailers won't accept returns on used boots. If the boot proves to be uncomfortable, or even downright diabolic, the consumer often has no choice but to eat the cost. For some who can't afford to buy a second pair of boots if the first doesn't fit, a bad fitting my result in either less participation or, even worse, serious, lifelong back and knee problems.


The two questions you should really ask are:

  1. "Which boot fits MY foot?"
  2. "What do I need to know in order to find this boot?"

Unfortunately, the answer to the first question can only be supplied by one person - YOU. The salesman can't help you with this. You have to let your feet "talk to you" on the matter.

Fortunately, many outdoor shops understand this, and are willing to let you wear the boots inside your home to try them out. If they don't fit, they can be returned for a full refund, provided they are in "new" condition. If you decide to venture outdoors and wedge dirt in the lug soles or dirty the bottoms of the soles, your outdoor merchant will probably refuse to take them back. Check with your merchant first to verify he has a "wear at home" policy before you buy. If he doesn't, buy your boots somewhere else.

Even if your boots feel good at home, there's never an absolute guarantee that they'll feel great on the trail. But there's a way to minimize this possibility - by getting an answer to the second question, which I'll supply here.

When shopping for new boots, I would recommend that you stay away from boot brands made for hunters (high-top boots) or those sold through shoe stores. "Hunting" boots generally go too high on the ankle, putting unnecessary stress on the Achilles tendon. "Shoe Store" boots are usually enhanced versions of street shoes. They "look" rugged, but they're probably not going to feel very good five miles down the trail. Shop at a reputable outdoor shop that specializes in hiking and backpacking equipment. These shops generally carry well-designed outdoor footwear for the hiker/backpacker.

A boot that fits well will not slip in the heel area, and provides your toes with plenty of room in the front when you're going downhill with a full pack load. For this reason, hiking boots are generally sized a little longer than your standard street shoe. Socks are much more important than most people think. They are the only thing that has actual contact with your foot. They need to cushion your foot while wicking away friction causing sweat. Before you head to your local outdoor shop, grab the socks that you intend to wear in the boots. For beginners, I recommend that two pair be worn - a thin or lightweight pair on the inside, and a thicker pair on the outside. Two socks rub against each other, whereas one sock generally rubs against your foot, potentially raising blisters. Ideally, the socks should be synthetic or wool. Cotton socks get damp and soggy, and will raise blisters on your feet. Synthetic and wool socks do a much better job of wicking moisture away from your feet, thereby keeping them relatively dry.

Choosing a well designed boot with the right fit is the greatest challenge in reviewing your boot choices. Don't let the rugged appearance of the boot, the salesman's recommendation, or even the brand name steer you to a boot that won't work for your foot. After you have reviewed your choices and "tested" each boot design for sole and ankle rigidity (see the points outlined above), ask the salesman to bring you a pair.

This is where you'll perform your first "test". With the boot fully unlaced, move your foot as far forward in the boot as possible. If the boot is the proper size for your feet, you should be able to slip your index finger down inside the boot at the back of the ankle. Your finger is just about the right size for determining if that all important extra space is available in the front. The extra space is needed when backpacking downhill, when your foot has a tendency to slide forward in the boot under load.

Next, take off your socks and slip your bare foot into the boot. Using all your sensory powers, try to determine if any part of the boot feels tight. This is especially important in the area where the small toes are located. Some boots may be designed in such a way that your small toes will feel "pinched" or "jammed". This can be very difficult to feel through two pairs of socks. The bare foot test will bring all this to light. Does the boot feel too narrow on the sides in the area just behind your toes (the "ball" of the foot)? Is it too tight in the middle part of your foot on either side of the arch? If so, look for another boot. The "bare foot" test will quickly eliminate any boots that are clearly not designed for your foot.

Walk around in the boots. Do they feel good? Does the boot "break" (or crease) across the top of the toes comfortably when you stride forward? If the top of the boot feels like it's jamming the back of your toes when you stride forward, then look for another pair. What about the heel? If you feel your heel sliding noticeably in the heel area, you probably have a boot that's a little too large, or one that's not going to work for you. New, rigid boots will always cause your heel to slide a little (and I emphasize, a little) when they're new, due to the newness and stiffness of the sole. If you think the sliding is due to a boot that's too large, go 1/2-size smaller, ensuring that the smaller size passes the "finger test".

If everything still feels okay, ask the salesman if they have an "slant board" where you can test how they feel on an incline. Walk down the incline. If your foot jams into the front of the boot and your toes feels pinched, look for another pair. If your toes touch the end of the boot, ask the salesman for the next half-size larger.

If you've managed to locate a pair that meets all the criteria above, there's a good chance that you've found a reasonably good fit for your foot. If you haven't, keep trying on different brands until you find a pair that "makes the grade" so to speak. If none of the boots available meet the criteria, visit another outdoor shop. Boots can be expensive. Take the time to choose wisely. Your bank account and feet depend on it.

For me, backpacking is a passion, and a long time ago I accepted that I will not always find a boot that fits me perfectly. But you don’t have to share my fate. A perfectly fitting pair of hiking boots would allow me to enjoy the backcountry that much more. If you haven't had much exposure to the wilderness and backpacking, a well fitted boot might mean the difference between a new lifelong passion for the backcountry and one miserably uncomfortable experience.

Manufacturers can do their part by designing boots with more widths, volumes and a more diverse range of lasts. Retailers can do their part by training their staff in proper fitting and sizing techniques. With everyone working together more outdoor enthusiasts will be able to enjoy the outdoors without the distraction of painful footwear. And more people in general will get their bottoms up from their chair and have a positive first time experience in the backcountry.

Gandalf is also known as Mike Boisvert, the GayOutdoors.com webmaster. Mike has over 25 years of experience in the outdoors: from hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, to hiking up the 100 hundred highest peaks in New England, to climbing Denali, Aconcagua and Island Peak in Nepal. Besides hiking/climbing, you’ll find Mike skiing, paddling, mountain biking and willing to try anything at least twice. 

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