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How to Buy the Proper Hiking Boots for a Comfortable Fit

Hiking Boots

So, you have a great frame pack that carries loads like a dream, your tent could withstand a month at the top of Everest, and your sleeping bag can be stuffed down to the size of a baseball and is right at home inside that technical marvel of a tent. Your boots…uh-oh, your boots are shot and you need to buy a new pair for that Rocky Mountain trek you planned this summer? Well you have some serious decisions to make, because absolutely no piece of equipment, barring anything that will keep you alive or more safe, excedes the importance of the right pair of hiking boots. Hiking one mile in a pair of poorly fitting, underperforming boots can be a miserable experience, never mind having to spend a week on the trail in them. Here is what to look for in fit, materials and functionality when shopping for those new hiking boots.

The most important factor in purchasing a new pair of hiking boots is proper fit. They could be a pair of $250 gore-tex and leather wonders, but if the fit is wrong, they might as well be a pair of rubber flip flops. A poorly fitted boot can lead to blisters, lost toe nails and strained muscles due to compensations in stride and form in hope of alleviating pain. Sitting at your pc reading this, it may be hard to visualize the severity of this, but these painful circumstances can end what would have been a great trip. It is crucial that your new hiking boots have plenty of room in the toe-box. This is the front portion of the boot, from the ball of your foot forward. There are two reasons for this. The first is stability on the trail. Your toes must be able to move freely of one another in order to do their job properly. By allowing your toes to spread out, your hiking boots will afford you better balance and agility on the trail. Remember, when hiking, you aren’t simply ascending or descending smooth hills. You are traversing too, often on rocky, muddy or otherwise unstable ground.

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The second reason you want plenty of room in the toe box of your hiking boots, is because you do not want your toes rubbing the front of the toe box. You can often feel this when you are descending a mountain. Your steps may be heavy and long, especially if you have significant weight on your back or if the trail is particularly steep. With everystep your toes are cramming against the front of your boot. On a serious hike, this can lead to blisters and lost toe nails. On a day hike, you may be able to suck-up the pain, get back to the trailhead and soak your sore toes for a couple days. On a multi-day hike, however, this obviously isn’t an option. You are going to have to wake up early and keep the pace to make the next camp site by dark. A rule of thumb is that you want a half an inch of room between your longest toe and the front of the boot. When trying the boots on in the store, stomp down in a forward motion to insure your toes won’t touch. Many better hiking stores have a ramp for you to trod down in order to test the fit. Make sure you take advantage of it.

So, what about the rest of the hiking boots fit? The rear section of the boot, from the ball of your foot back, should fit snuggly. You want to be able to take advantage of the stiff sole and, in some boots, the shank. This means your heal and ankle should be snuggly wrapped by the boot’s upper and thus, kept firmly in place. Check to see that the top of your boot, where the laces end and are tied, doesn’t dig into the front or back of your ankle when stepping up or down. Here again, the ramp will come in handy. Check for proper width and arch support. When the boot is tied snuggly, the lace eyelets shouldn’t be too close. This indicates a poorly fitting upper and you may run into tightening problems if the boot stretches. Also, use your common sense, as even the best hiking boot salesperson will have a hard time interpreting your descriptions of what you are feeling. Remeber too, try on lots of different brands and sizes, all feet are different and shoe companies tend toward different fits. Wear your new hiking boots around the house for a number of days and if you aren’t sure of the fit, return them.

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Great, so if the shoe fits wear it, right? Well, that depends on where you are wearing it and what kind of weight your are bearing. Boots come in many different materials and are purpose built for different activities. They range from light weight day-hikers to glacier conquering trekkers. Will you need to attach a crampon? Will you be carrying a week’s supply of gear? Will you be in a warm, dry climate; or wet and cold? The size, weight and materials used in making the hiking boot will all be indicators of what the boot is meant to do. Some boots have flexible soles, others are literally stiff as a board. In general, if you are going to be day hiking, with little weight on you back, on relatively smooth trails, a flexible sole will be fine. If you are going to be hiking with a heavily laden pack on unforgiving terrain, you will want a stiffer lug sole. This will provide you with better stabilty and put less strain on your feet as they come down on uneven surfaces.

The materials with which the upper is made are an important consideration. Believe it or not, leather boots will breathe better than nylon. If hiking in wet areas or in questionable weather, which is very often the case, you may opt for a boot with Gore-Tex for waterproofness. Though Gore-Tex is quite breathable and still very much the king of waterproof-breathable fabrics, it will cut down on the breathability of your boot. If you are going to be hiking in the desert or a hot environment, don’t assume the hiking boot’s breathability should be your first consideration. Instead, wear a synthetic or wool, moisure wicking sock. Don’t grab the thinnest pair either. A thicker sock is often the better choice for desert travel. This brings us to another important factor when choosing your new boots; wear the socks you will be wearing whith your hiking boots. Never go hiking boot shopping in thin, cotton socks. Again, many better outdoor stores will have a basket of proper socks for trying on boots. However, if you have to, buy a pair of socks at the store. They are an often over looked, but integral part of your hiking boot’s fit.

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Few peices of gear wil serve you as well as a good pair of hiking boots. I have friends who have had their trusty pairs resoled two or three times. On the same token, few pieces of gear will smite you like a poorly fitting pair of boots. Remember, when you are on a long hiking trip, your boots are everything. If you take your time in the store, follow my advise and that of a knowledgeable sales person, and try your boots out in your house so as you can return them if need be, you should end up with a great new pair of hiking boots that will serve you for years to come.