Sunday, April 18, 2010

Picking Hiking Boots That Fit

“Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a piece of the Forest that was left out by mistake.” -- Winnie the Pooh

So spring is finally here, for many of us that mean hiking and backpacking. For some of us it also means we need new hiking boots. So often people buy new boots, trying them on in the store even walking around in the store for a few minutes, then when they are out in the woods for a few hours they may find out the boots don’t really fix correctly. This can lead to being just slightly uncomfortable for a few hours or it could mean painful blisters and an unpleasant backpacking experience.

The first thing to do when picking out new hiking boots or walking shoes is to think about what type of hiking you normally will be doing. What type of terrain will it be – dry desert, muddy trails, wet bogs, flooded plains, rocky, etc. Besides the terrain, are you going to be day hiking on nice trails or bushwhacking through the woods? Is it a weekend backpacking trip or will you be out there for weeks? This type of background information will lead you to some common sense decisions about the type and quality of the boots, particularly – do they need to be waterproof? How much support does the boot need to provide – the more weight you are carrying in your backpack, the more support the boots need to give your ankles.

It may be tempting to just get the “best” boots you can afford, the trouble is more (i.e. waterproof, more support, leather) is not necessarily better. You want to pick boots as light weight as you can that will still fit your needs. Remember, you are picking up your feet each time you take a step. An extra pound over thousands of steps will make the hike much more difficult than it needs to be. Boots that provide a great deal of support also weigh much more. If you are just day hiking or carrying only a light backpack – you are better off with lighter boots or trail running shoes. There is a similar conundrum with waterproof boots, particularly in the summer waterproof hiking boots might not “breath” as much as the manufacturers would like you to think. If your feet get hot, they sweat; this can lead to blisters or other problems. Also to be considered is what materials the boots are made of; all leather boots can survive abuse much better – but are heavier, especially when they get wet. Boots made of a fabric-leather combination tend to be lighter weight and will dry faster if they get wet.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to the general type of boot you are looking for, the most important thing is to be sure you get a proper fit. It is best to try on the boots after you have just gone for a hike or long walk. Your feet tend to swell up in size a bit after walking for a while. When you go to try on the boots, be sure to wear the type of socks you intend to hike with. Generally a medium thick sock made of a blend of mostly merino wool with nylon and Lycra (example: 80%/18%/2%) is best for hiking (yes, wool even in summer). There are a bewildering number of different types of socks, some can be quite expense. Just remember one important thing – Don’t hike in cotton socks. Never go for overnight backpacking trips in cotton socks. When cotton gets wet (even from sweating) it takes a very long time to dry and can be very uncomfortable causing blisters, heat loss and can even lead to hypothermia or frostbite. If you tend to often have trouble with blisters, you might try hiking with thin sock liners under your socks. This disperses much of the friction that causes blisters between the sock and the liner, sparing you skin.

Don’t worry too much about the shoe size, different brands have variations in sizes, plus you will be wearing heavier socks than normal, so expect the size to be larger than your normal shoes. Women sometimes have more trouble than men getting boots that fit, women shouldn’t hesitate to try on men’s hiking boots. The important thing is getting the right fit. To know if the boots fit, put on the boots without tying the laces, you should be able to fit your finger into the back of the boot pushing your foot forward without your toes touching or just barely touching the front of the boot. Now tie the laces and walk around. The boots should feel comfortable and hold your foot snuggly but not tight. You should be able to wiggle you toes freely. The heel of the boot should move with the heel of you foot with no slipping or friction. Once you purchase the boots, remember to break them in for a week or so be for you hike. Wear them around the house and around town on short walks before you go for extended hikes.

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