Trials and Tribulations: Hiking Boots

This summer, I am hiking around a mountain in the Alps. My trip excitement has been tempered over the past few months by my dread of an adjoining task: I had to buy hiking boots, and the process of buying hiking boots turns me into a timid, petulant child.  

Now that I’m in my early 30s, my feet have become strange and difficult. Problems include bunions, widening toes, falling arches, and, most recently, a bunionette (a smaller bunion on the outside rather than inside of your foot!). When I got my feet measured recently, one woman told me that my arches were the same length as my toes, and that this anatomy was unusual. Then I got my feet measured again, and the man confirmed that yes, my arches are the same length as my toes, but no, this is not unusual. Unusual would be arches that are shorter than one’s toes. 

Between the problems and the conflicting expert advice, I feel less and less certain about anything regarding my feet. Am I really a size 9.5? Do I really have a wide toe and a narrow heel? How high are my arches, really? Do any shoes actually fit me? 

I know that for most people in the Pacific Northwest, hiking boots are basically an extension of the body—the process seems so easy for you! But I suspect there are others who have been hiding their struggle. So in the spirit of getting even us timid hikers outdoors, here are some tips: 

1. Do as little online research as possible. I spent hours clicking through search results for “best hiking boot for wide feet,” but most of what I found was on forums written by and for people who knew a lot more than me about hiking. And forget spending time on boot manufacturers’ websites—those descriptions seem to be written in a foreign language (Gortex? A shank? Lugs? What??). These resources might be useful for more experienced hikers who know how to decide for themselves what to believe, but I needed something basic, neutral, and authoritative. 

For that, don’t waste time digging deep into your search results. The best resources I found were the top three results for “how to choose hiking boots”: boot selection guides provided by REI, www.backpacker.com, and www.theadventurejunkies.com. I suggest reading these articles to get a basic sense of how boots are categorized and what types of questions you’ll need to ask at the store, and then getting offline and out into the world as quickly as possible.

2. Don’t trust your friends. I asked all of my friends who hike what boots they used, but it turns out none of them have my feet. When I tried on the brands they recommended, none of them worked for me. The hard truth of shoe shopping is that you can’t rely on anyone else’s shoe recommendations—you have to try the shoes on for yourself. 

3. If the first (or second, or third) store you visit leaves you feeling confused, annoyed, or vaguely ashamed, beat it to the next one. The shoe section of a store induces in me a mild terror. Here I am, staring at this wall of shoes that all basically look the same, awkwardly waiting for someone to notice me. For this search, I visited four stores (two local, two not) and had widely different experiences at each. But without a baseline for what a good experience should look like, I didn’t know what to ask for. Here’s my take on what you should be looking for. 

To start shoe shopping, you need to have an idea of what kind of hike you are doing. How long will it be? Will you be carrying weight? What’s the terrain? Tell this to the salesperson. You should also make sure you have good, wool hiking socks and any insoles you use to try on with your boots. (I learned that many people take the insoles out of their hiking boots and put in an after-market insole to make the boot better fit their feet. Who knew?!)

Once you’ve told your salesperson about your hike, get measured. No shoe salesperson should fit you without first using a Brannock Device to measure your feet. This device measures not just your foot length, but also its width at heel and toe and your arch length. Measuring all these components is critical for getting a hiking boot that fits, because you need the bend of your toes to match the bend in the boot, or you’ll have terrible pain. This is my first shoe store rule: If they don’t measure you, leave. 

Based on your foot size and your planned hike, the salesperson should select three to four pairs of boots that are good candidates for you. They should have you walk around quite a bit in the boots and then talk about what feels good or doesn’t feel good. Which brings me to my second rule: If you ask a question and the salesperson seems too busy, annoyed, or just doesn’t give a good answer, leave. You should never be made to feel silly for having questions.

4. “Comfort” might feel more like “not uncomfortable.” My salespeople kept telling me that the most important thing was that the boot be comfortable. But honestly, none of the boots I tried on were comfortable. They are huge, heavy boots! I don’t see how that can be comfortable. So I think the better way to frame it is that it should not be in any way uncomfortable. The shoe should feel unremarkable.

The online guides I recommended have some more tactical tips about how to check for fit—you need to be able to wiggle your toes, your heel shouldn’t slip, etc.—but the most useful piece of advice I got was from the REI salesperson in Eugene. I was trying to choose between two boots. One boot was so comfortable on my foot bed but sometimes pinched a bit at my right ankle. The other boot was utterly unremarkable—not comfortable, but not uncomfortable. The salesperson told me, “The stairs are your friend. They tend to accelerate any problems you might have.” After repeated trips down and up the stairs, where the pinch at the ankle wore over and over, I decided that not uncomfortable was the way to go.

Got hiking boot tips of your own to share? Let us know! Write to us at editor@corvallisadvocate.com or comment on the article online.

By Maggie Anderson 

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