Buying Footwear That Fits

Fit is the single most crucial factor determining comfort. But it’s not the only factor; you must also select boots that offer the right amount of support. That’s because support, ultimately, also translates into comfort.

The amount of support you need depends on the weight on your back and the terrain where you’ll be traveling. Footwear that’s too soft and floppy for your load will let sharp stones bruise your arches and encourage ankle sprains. Sloppy boots also let your foot slide around inside when the terrain gets rough. That leads to hot spots and blisters. Too stiff a boot, on the other hand, makes you walk like a one-year-old with fused ankles. The excess weight will slow you down and make hiking a chore.

The beefed-up running shoes known as approach shoes will work just fine if you’re scampering up a trail for an hour or two with a rain jacket tied around your waist. Throw 20 pounds of food, water and extra clothing into a daypack and head out for a full day in the hills and your feet will be more comfortable if they have the additional support provided by a good pair of day-hikers. Increase that load to 40 or 50 pounds and embark on a week-long backpacking and peak-bagging trip and you’ll welcome still more support, the kind provided by solidly built backpacking boots. Be extra-careful about the fit of backpacking boots: the stiffer and more supportive they are, the more critical the fit, since it’s your skin that will get mauled, not the boot, if there are any fitting problems. Ever seen a backpacking boot with blisters

A good fit and sufficient support for your load are the two keys to finding the right footgear. Let’s take those two criteria apart, starting with fitand learn how to select the perfect pair of boots.

The fit of a boot is determined by the last, the plastic form on which the boot is built. Lasts vary significantly from one boot company to the next, so you should always try on boots from several manufacturers. Women’s feet are shaped differently than men’s. Women will generally get the best fit in a boot built on a true women’s last, not a downsized men’s last.

A properly fitted boot should provide ample room for your toes, yet be snug around the heel and instep so your heel doesn’t slide up and down inside the boot as you walk. It should be long enough that your toes don’t bang into the toe box when you’re hiking downhill. To check for proper length, loosen the laces completely, slip your foot into the boot and slide it all the way forward. You should be able to fit a couple of fingers behind your heel.

With the boots laced up, walk around the store. Stand on a sharp edge to see how well the boot protects your arch. Let your foot rock from side to side to check stability and ankle support and to make sure the heel cup doesn’t jab you under the ankle bone in rough terrain. Hook the boot heel on a step and point your toes downward to confirm that the boot will hold your foot securely in place during long descents. If possible, try on boots with the load you’ll be carrying in the field. Throw 50 pounds on your back and the backpacking boot that felt stiff and awkward a moment earlier will suddenly feel like the right tool for the job. Regard any purchase as tentative until you’ve had the chance to wear your new boots around your house for a few days. Most shops will accept returns of boots that have never been worn outside.

That takes care of fit; now let’s analyze the second half of the comfort equation: support. Support is determined both by the materials and the type of construction. Materials and construction also determine how long that support will last. Let’s start with the boot’s upper, which includes everything above the sole and work our way downward.

Despite recent advances in the fabrics used in boot-making, old-fashioned leather is still the premium material for boot uppers. The highest-quality, most water-resistant and most expensive leather, called top-grain or full-grain, includes the tough, outer surface of the hide. Less expensive split leather is cut from inner layers of the hide. Inexpensive uppers are a patchwork quilt of fabric (usually an abrasion-resistant nylon like Cordura) and split leather. Such fabric/leather boots can be a good value for people who stick to trails with moderate loads, but they usually have lots of seams. Any place you’ve got a seam, you’ve got a place where the boot can come apart. Seams are also potential leak points. Better boots have fewer seams; the best have so-called one-piece uppers, with no seams except along the backstay behind your heel.

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