How should hiking boots fit

How Should Hiking Boots Fit? A Guide

There are few things that beat a good hike.

Whether up steep mountain flanks, along country lanes, or through thick forests, a hike in nature is healing and energizing. 

Even the exhaustion and achy muscles are worth it.

But one thing that is never worth it is sore feet. Wearing the wrong hiking boots can lead to blisters, discomfort, and even more serious injuries such as a twisted ankle or knee.

That’s why it’s important to wear hiking boots that fit you perfectly. But with so many different styles, brands, and materials, finding that perfect pair of boots is not as easy as it seems.

We put together a handy guide to help you find hiking boots that fit. 

When the boot doesn’t fit

Hiking and trekking are serious endeavors, and should not be taken lightly. Even the easiest hikes require a certain amount of preparation, both physical and mental, and some decent gear.  Good hiking boots are the most fundamental pieces of equipment you should own before embarking on any kind of hike.

Walking across difficult terrain with the wrong boots can be painful and uncomfortable. One of the most common ailments is blisters, small pockets of fluid that form between the upper layers of your skin when something — in this case, your hiking boot — rubs repeatedly. If you’ve had them — and most of us have — you know how painful they are. Shoes that are too tight, too wide, or generally ill-fitting can cause blisters.

On the other hand, shoes that lack support can lead to foot issues such as plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the connective tissue in the foot, and can even lead to back pain.

One thing to consider when you buy boots is where you are going to use them most, and whether you need a model that is supportive and stable, or lightweight. If you choose the latter but are walking in difficult terrain, you may find that the boots lack support. Then, you risk twisting your ankle or feeling the rocky terrain through your soles.

On the other hand, if you’re going for an easy stroll and wearing heavyweight boots, you’ll find yourself getting tired sooner than usual, and your feet will feel heavy and sore

Types of hiking boots

There is no shortage of choices when it comes to hiking boots, with everything from super light models to heavy mountain boots. What you need depends on where you’re most likely to hike, what you feel comfortable in, and how long you plan to hike. Although there are infinite variations, here are the basic models:

Hiking shoes: These shoes are great for shorter hikes across terrain that is not too rocky or icy. They are generally very lightweight, low-cut, and made from synthetic material. Flexible insoles allow your foot to stay comfy throughout your hike. Hiking shoes generally feel comfortable right away and require little break-in time, but offer little ankle support.

Hiking boots: These can be either mid- or high-cut, and are great for slightly more challenging hikes. They are not too heavy, but offer great traction, decent ankle support, and are generally made with waterproof materials such as Gore-Tex.

Backpacking boots: These sturdy boots are the heavyweights of the hiking boot world. Designed specifically to provide solid ankle support, they are ideal if you plan on carrying a heavy backpack over several days. They are durable and well-insulated, but also tend to be heavy and stiff. Backpacking boots are a great investment if you know you’ll be hitting the trails hard. 

How to make sure your hiking boots fit

Hiking boots should fit snugly but not too tightly, and there should be enough room for you to wiggle your toes and wear thick mountain socks, if needed. But sometimes simply trying on a pair of boots isn’t enough. Here are a few tips to help you find the right boots for you:

Know your foot size: We don’t mean that you should know whether you’re a 6 or an 11. We mean really know your foot size, down to the length, width, volume, and arch. You can get measured at a shoe shop or specialized store, then keep all the measurements in mind when you are buying shoes online.

Try them on: Buying your new hiking boots in a store means you can try them on, but you just can’t beat the deals you can find online. One trick is to try on the boots in your local hiking store, then buy them online. Otherwise, if you order them online first, make sure the company has a good return policy.

Since your feet swell during the day, it’s a good idea to try your boots on at the end of the day, when your feet are more swollen. That way, you won’t end up with boots that are too tight.

Walk in them: Another positive of buying new boots online is that you can wear them for a while without a salesperson pressuring you. Wear them around the house (make sure they stay spotless in case you have to return them), walk up and down stairs, and try a few exercises.

Use the right socks: The type of socks you wear depends on the weather and conditions of the hike. When you try on your new boots, use the same socks you intend to wear on your hike. Remember that seamless, padded socks can reduce rubbing, and synthetic socks dry quicker and reduce the risk of blisters better than cotton.

Try on shoes meant for the opposite sex: Not all companies make shoes that are gender-specific, but some do. All feet are different though, so don’t let the intended gender of the shoes limit your choice. If your shoes or too narrow or too wide, but you like the model overall, ask to try the opposite gender.

Try them with insoles (or footbeds): Insoles can increase comfort, support, and fit, so they can be a great addition to your new boots. If you already have insoles you like, make sure you try your boots on with them. Similarly, if you have a pair of boots that don’t feel 100% perfect, try adding an insole — it might be all you need.

Break them in: You may think you’re set to go as soon as you buy your new boots, but try hiking a mountain in them and you’ll see just how wrong you are! Breaking in your boots is fundamentally important if you don’t want to end up with very achy feet.

While it’s not as necessary with lightweight shoes, heavyweight hiking boots require considerable break-in time. Wear them around the house, or out for short walks.

If you follow these tips, we’re sure you’ll find the perfect boots for you. But before you head to your favorite online store, here are a few more things to know about hiking boots.  

What to look out for

Hiking boots may just be shoes, but you’ll soon realize that there is a lot more to them, and discussing hiking boots can soon become very technical. To make sure you end up with shoes that fit, it’s important to know some basic details about the various components.

You can buy insoles along with your boots, or separately. Their main function is to increase comfort, improve fit, or even make your boots warmer. Usually made of cellulose or synthetic materials, insoles can also help control moisture (and odor!) and absorb shock. You can buy specialized, orthotic insoles if you have specific needs.

The midsole provides shock support, cushioning, and comfort, and determines whether the boot feels stiff or flexible. A stiff midsole protects your foot from the bumps of rocky, uneven terrain, and is the best choice if you’re going on a challenging hike.

A flexible midsole is easier on your foot, and best if you’re walking on grass or softer, even terrain. Midsoles are most commonly made of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), which is cushy and cheap, or polyurethane, which is generally firmer and more durable.

The outsole is the part of the boot that comes into contact with the ground. Outsoles are always made of rubber, but they come in varying degrees of firmness and flexibility. Hard outsoles are good for difficult terrain and usually last longer, but can be difficult to walk in on other types of terrain.

Lug patterns are the shapes carved into the outsole that give you traction and stop you from slipping around. The more challenging the terrain, the deeper the lugs should be. Lightweight shoes generally have shallow lugs, while heavyweight boots have deep, thick ones. 

Shanks are inserts that go between the boot’s midsole and outsole to add some stiffness and support. They are usually between 3 and 5 millimeters thick, and are usually made of steel or composite material.

Plates are also inserts between the midsole and outsole, and underneath the shanks. They reinforce the shoe and protect your feet from uneven and rocky terrain. 

Randy Brangman

Randy Brangman is a Licensed Physical Therapist and Exercise Therapist and a former long distance runner. He is the founder and Lead Exercise Instructor at Trinity of Wellness. Spending more time in running shoes than flip flops, he travels the world while going through pair after pair. He is currently writing a book about joint therapy.