Cover image: A lightweight low-cut boot is a good choice for day hiking established trails like the Colorado River Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, CO. Images: Jesse Cunningham
In my previous post, How to Buy the Right Boots, I gave some tips for boot shopping based on my experience working in outdoor retail shops. During years of working with customers, I heard a lot of myths and misconceptions about boot fitting. For this installment of “Tough Love,” I address three statements that I often heard from customers and give my perspective on them.
1. Myth: "I need a boot with good arch support.”
Fact: Arch support is important but it is only one piece of the fit puzzle. Insoles matter more (and Oboz O Fit insoles are the best stock options on the market).
Arch support is a function of the shape of the last (the 3-dimensional mold around which a shoe is constructed) and the midsole, combined with the insoles, or footbeds, and the wearer’s arch height.The primary concern with arch support is to control over-pronation (pronation being the natural tendency of the foot to roll inward during walking, hiking, running, etc.). Over-pronation can lead to problems with the fit of boots as well as injuries to the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot, knee, and even hips. For the customers who needed aggressive arch support to limit over-pronation, a custom orthotic or an aftermarket insole was often needed in a boot that otherwise fit well. The hard truth was that nearly every boot on the wall had little to offer the over-pronator. Oboz understands that supportive insoles are an integral part of good boot fit. Their O Fit insoles are the first stock insoles that I, personally, have been able to leave in my shoes without feeling the need to replace. You can learn more about O fit insoles here. By contrast, other stock insoles in other brands are generally little more than a thin molded piece of foam that would collapse with gentle pressure. For years, I pulled the cheap insoles out of every pair of shoes I bought and replaced them with a more supportive insole. It always frustrated me that there was no incentive for manufacturers to provide a better insole, when it would mean an increase in the cost of the boot for an improvement that the average consumer wasn't likely to notice or appreciate.
2. Myth: "I need a boot with a lot of ankle support."
Fact: When customers say that they need a lot of ankle support what they really want is a boot that stabilizes the foot when hiking.
This was perhaps the most common request I had from customers. It was inevitably followed by them picking up one of the biggest, heaviest boots on the wall. Higher cut boots give more protection and help to support your ankles on rough off-trail terrain but are heavy, more tiring to hike in, and don't give you the same flexibility of movement as lighter, more flexible footwear. The physical support of high cut boots is overrated and is only one piece that contributes to the stability of footwear. How a boot fits and the arch support it provides (see #1) will help to stabilize the foot, but the biggest overlooked factor in boot stability by consumers is the torsional rigidity of the shoe. Simply put, this is a measure of how easily the boot flexes when a twisting force is put upon it. You can test this yourself by picking up a boot in two hands, by the heel and toe, and giving it a good twist. A boot with a high torsional rigidity will twist less when going over uneven terrain and therefore will provide greater stability. While some stability will be provided by other components of the boot construction, much of this stability will come from the shank (a stiff plate of material, usually nylon in modern hiking boots, that is integrated into the midsole).
A boot with good torsional rigidity is helpful when hiking the rugged river bottom in Hvannagil Canyon, Iceland.
3. Myth: "I need a wide boot."
Fact: Most people confuse the need to accommodate a wide foot with the need for a wide toebox, the area of the boot in front of the ball of the foot that accommodates the toes.
While there are people who truly need wide boots, my experience has been that there is a greater number of people who think they need wide boots but don't. Foot width is measured at the ball, or widest, part of the foot and can be easily quantified with a foot measuring tool like the Brannock device. In addition to standard-width boots, manufacturers like Oboz offer boots that are built on a wider last for people who have wide feet. Many people who think they need a wide boot actually need a wide toebox. A wide toebox can provide increased comfort and stability, regardless of foot width, as it doesn't constrict your toes and lets them naturally spread out. A wide toebox can help prevent a number of injuries, including toes banging into the front of boots or rubbing against one another. A wide toebox is one of my primary criteria when selecting boots and Oboz does a nice job incorporating wide toeboxes into their footwear designs.
Boot fitting is a complex topic that is impossible to fully cover in a single blog post, or even a series of blog posts. While I isolate some of the components of fit in order to discuss them individually, they are inextricably linked and must be considered holistically when searching for your dream hiking boots. Consider this extra information in your quest to understand fit and, when you are ready to buy a new pair of boots, find a knowledgeable local boot fitter that can provide their opinions and help you with your particular fit issues.
Jesse Cunningham is a photographer and father to two young adventurers. He enjoys motivating his children and others to get outside and chase their own adventures almost as much as he does plotting and pursuing his next big trip. He likes low-cut hiking shoes, wide toeboxes and supportive insoles.. You can follow him on Instagram.