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Gear: Choosing the Right Pair of Hiking Boots

Pick the boot that's right for you with this guide.

Even after you’ve found a close to perfect fitting pair of boots, the sad fact of the hiking life is that at some point you’ll likely experience some degree of foot discomfort. To find solutions to common boot problems, we consulted expert bootfitter Phil Oren of Tucson, Arizona.

The problem: Numbness.Boots that fit fine in overall length but have too much interior volume for narrow feet cause you to compensate by cinching laces as tight as a saddle on a bronco. This can lead to painful pressure that turns to numbness on the instep.
The remedy: Buy adhesive backed felt pads, which you can find in most quality shoe stores, and attach them to the inside of the boot tongue. This positions your foot more comfortably in the boot and cushions your instep. If this doesn’t work, you might need to go to a podiatrist for cortisone injections, which will relieve the inflammation.

The problem: Toe chop. When breaking in heavy duty, all leather boots, as soon as the sole finally starts flexing, the stiff leather uppers crease, cutting into toes like a knife.
The remedy: New boots, especially mid and heavy duty ones, often cause "toe chop" during the break in period, when the leather is crimping but not flexing. The best way to prevent it is to wear the boots on as many short hikes and strolls around the neighborhood as you can before embarking on a big trip. If, after all this, your toes are still beneath the guillotine, visit a shoe cobbler who can mechanically flex the boot into a supple, foot friendly shape.

The problem: Tender soles. After lots of miles under a weighty pack, your soles can feel sore and squashed, especially at the balls of your feet. This is due to the pressure of thousands of steps a day on hard surfaces, plus insufficient boot insole padding. The situation becomes severe when the nerve that runs up the middle of the sole enlarges (a condition called Morton’s neuroma) and causes a tingling or burning sensation in the toes, often the three middle ones.
The remedy: Off the shelf, most boots lack sufficient sole padding. The good news is that you can find a variety of replacement insoles offering different thicknesses, materials, and sport specific uses. It’s best to have your new insoles on hand when trying on boots, so you can be sure there’s enough room inside the boot. If toe pinching becomes a problem, take the insoles to a professional bootfitter, who can thin them with a belt sander. You can also use scissors to trim the insoles in conservative 1/8 inch increments to guard against overshortening until the fit is right. Orthotics also help, and, as a last ditch effort, surgery can remove the pinched nerve.

The problem: Toenail troubles. On a weeklong hike, your toenails turn a cloudy black and blue.
The remedy: The pounding and stress of a longer trek can cause feet to swell and elongate, so your toes end up ramming the front of the boots. This problem can also arise from ill fitting heel cups or from toenails left too long, especially on long downhill hikes when your feet slide forward in the boots. Several solutions come to mind, the simplest being to clip your toenails short. Also, cinch those boots snugly, so your feet lock in to the rear of the heel cup. To give your toes extra room, string the toebox eyelets loosely or don’t lace them at all, then triple twist the laces and pull them tight over your instep. A tongue pad, like the one described in the numbness section above, can also help snug your foot into the heel cup of a too roomy boot.
If these solutions don’t work, a boot specialty shop may be able to stretch the boot’s length and width. Or you may have to start over and buy a boot that’s half a size to a full size larger.

The problem: Blisters. Blisters can hobble the strongest, most experienced hiker, especially in wet conditions when your feet soften. Blisters are your body’s natural reaction to friction. Heel blisters usually mean the heel cup is too wide. Blisters on top of your toes mean that your boots are too long; the boot is flexing in front of your foot’s natural flex point at the ball. You can measure your foot two different ways on a boot store’s Brannock sizing device: overall and heel to ball. The latter measures your crucial flex point and identifies the boot size that will flex in the same place as your foot.
The remedy: If blisters persist past a reasonable break in period for new boots and you’ve been sock smart that is, you’ve selected sock styles that don’t have bulky toe seams, coarse weaves, or a too tight/too loose overall fit, and you’ve worn thin polypropylene liners under your wool or synthetic socks to help reduce friction and wick sweat away then it’s probably time to buy a footbed to replace the boot’s original insole. A footbed will support your foot in a neutral position so it doesn’t collapse and contort inside your boot.
One highly recommended and widely available brand of off the shelf footbed is Superfeet (high arched and regular versions). These come in a generic form that can help stabilize most feet, plus a customized version that a good bootfitter can help you with. Another good brand is Zip Fit, which you can wear off the shelf, or have your bootfitter inject them with silicone for a customized fit.

If you have chronic blisters, you might need custom made rigid orthotics, which are available by prescription from podiatrists.

Click here for downloadable gear checklists.

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