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The Right Boots: The Unexpected Art of Boot Fitting

One of the most crucial parts of any backpacking trip (aside from food and water) is your footwear. The shoes or boots you decide to take can be the difference between a magical experience and the last time you want to go backpacking. As a footwear specialist for REI, I have seen everything from blisters from hell to black and blue toes that no longer have toenails (insert gag noise here). After spending the day in and day out helping folks from beginner day hikers to experienced mountaineers, finding the right footwear and fit for their particular purposes. I thought I would give a few tips from my personal experience to get you on the right path to the right shoe.


First things first, make sure you get the right size shoe. The number one issue I come across when helping people find shoes is they get a shoe that is too small for their foot. If you have ever experienced black and blue toes, missing toenails, or blisters towards the front of your foot, your shoes were too small. It seems counter-intuitive to measure your foot and then buy a boot a half size or even a full size bigger, but that is exactly what you want to do. The reason for this up-sizing is a couple of things.

  1. Your foot will swell as you continuously hike all day and even more so if you gain a lot in elevation. The extra space allows room for this swelling both in length and width.
  2. The downhill sections. Let’s face it, most of the hiking we do is up a hill or mountain, and as my dad likes to say, “Every mountain has its ups and downs.” This, although amusing, is very true. What goes up must come down, and when your boots are too small, the downhill can suck much more than the uphill. Even if tightened properly, a shoe that is too small doesn’t allow any room for your foot, and you will usually end up jamming your toes right into the end. This is the toe killer and usual suspect for missing toenails. With an extra half or whole-size spacing at the end of your shoe, your foot has room to move, you get to keep your toenails, and you can enjoy the ease of returning to the mountain again.

The Fit:

Now that you have your boot sizing, the next thing you want to look out for is the fit. The main fitting points you are looking for are space at the end of the toe (about a fingers width), the ball of your foot (or widest part of your forefoot) should be aligned with the widest part of the boot (both should be acquired through up-sizing a half to whole shoe size), and the laces should be tightened so the top of the foot and heel (and ankle if in a mid-top boot) should be snugly secured. This will vary a bit depending on the brand, boot style, and the shape of your foot. But if you can pinpoint these three fitting keys, you know you have a good fit.

The Process:

The easiest way I find for fitting boots is to get your foot sized with a Brannock device, whether you know your shoe size or not. Measure each foot (many people have different sized feet), both sitting and then standing; this will show you how much your arches collapse and your foot expands when weight is applied. Measure your biggest foot while standing and jump up a half size or whole size to start. (Example: if your foot goes up to the size 10 line, start trying on size 10.5 or 11 boots). Also, take note of whether or not you have a wide or narrow foot and ask for suggestions on boots that have the right width for you. Try on the boots and check for your key fit points as well as comfort. Spend a little time walking around the store in the boots to ensure there aren’t any pressure points or any other uncomfortable “hot spots” that may become an issue on the trail. Try on and compare as many boots as necessary to ensure you have the best fit and most comfortable boot for your foot. Hit the trail and enjoy the outdoors!

Other Notes:

Finding boots can definitely be a process, and expect to need some patience while finding the right boots. Also, please note that everybody is different, and therefore have various methods and ideas on how to fit a boot. The process I note here is a specific process for someone who is either new to hiking and backpacking or isn’t as familiar with the fit process in general. This process has been taught to me by many different footwear vendors over the years and is typically what a footwear specialist will suggest. If any of the information I provide is confusing or unclear, I recommend heading to your nearest REI or other outdoor retailer and speaking with a footwear specialist who can walk you through this very process. Additionally, I do know that REI provides excellent customer service with this fit process and also allows for you to try out and hike in your boots on the trail and if there are any issues you can return them and try something else. This is a very helpful policy since it can be very hard to know if a boot fits right without hiking in them.

Other than that, feel free to message me on Instagram with any questions or just to say hi!

I hope this is helpful and allows for many more adventures in the great outdoors.

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