I remember getting my first blister.
It was on day three of a month-long mountaineering trip in Wyoming with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and I was 17. I had lovingly picked out my brand-new boots, trying to fit them just like my running shoes. After all, I’d survived four years of cross-country running without any problems, so I thought I knew how to take care of my feet.
As soon as those blisters appeared, I realized that running on streets was nothing like hiking in the mountains carrying a heavy backpack. I learned you can actually take good care of blisters and keep hiking, and also that I never wanted to need to do that again.
During trips I took later, I found better ways to fit my boots. After all, when you’re hiking you aren’t on a sidewalk—you’re exploring and trudging, skipping on rocks and slipping through mud. Your footwear has to match the activity you’re doing.
To make sure that nothing slows you down when you’re hiking, it’s important to buy a boot that fits well. Not only will a good fit help prevent blisters and other injuries, it’ll also help your boot last longer and make sure you finish each hike with a smile, rather than sore feet.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you’re choosing a boot.
Choose the Right Type of Boot
When you choose a boot, think about what you’ll be doing and where you’ll be doing it.
For hiking on rugged, steep trails or uneven terrain, or for long backpacking trips, look for a heavy-duty boot that has good ankle support (a sturdy gaiter to keep out mud and protect your shins isn’t a bad idea, either!). Look for outsoles that are heavily textured for traction and stiff to provide ankle support in uneven terrain.
For hiking on trails in moderate terrain and for day hiking, look for low to mid-height hiking shoe or a sturdy trail running shoe. Choose shoes that have good traction, and look for a sole that’s a little more flexible to be more comfortable on the trail.
Remember that bigger doesn’t always mean better for boots. If you’re wearing a heavier boot than you need, you’re actually adding stress to your body.
You can tell whether a pair of boots will hold up over time by looking at the material and how it’s held together. Leather tends to be sturdier, though it’s heavier, and stitching tends to last longer than glue. My opinion? Good fit is one of the best indicators of how long a boot will last.
Dial in Your Fit
When you’re fitting a boot, keep these things in mind.
- Wear your hiking socks: Bring the socks that you’ll plan to wear in your boots to get a more accurate fit.
- Move around: Your feet fill spaces differently when you’re sitting than when you’re standing or walking. So, try to do all the things in the store you’d do on the trail. Stand up, walk up and down stairs, and take a few laps around the store to get a preview of the boots in action.
- Toes: You want boots that are roomy, but not too loose. Give your toes a good wiggle to make sure they have space to move. Your toes shouldn’t touch the end of the boots when you stand. Also, gently kick a wall or bench a few times. Your toe should hit the end of the boot on the second or third kick.
- Heels: Walk around to check the heel fit. Your heel will lift a little as you take a step, especially in a stiffer-soled boot, but that’s ok. Just make sure the heel movement isn’t more than about a centimeter (movement=friction=blisters).
- Ankles: While you’re walking around, check on the ankle fit. You want a boot that feels supportive, but isn’t coming right under your ankle bone and bumping it.
- Insole: Notice if the cushion on the boot feels supportive and whether the insole fits well with your arch.
- Outsole: Look for soles that have good traction, and note that stiffer soles provide more ankle support, though they tend to make boots heavier.
When you find the perfect fit, your job isn’t done! New boots can be stiff and need time to break in, which you can do by wearing them around at home, work, or school.
It’s great to get a recommendation from a friend or do your research on the web, but every foot is different—nothing beats going to the store and trying on the boot for yourself.
Molly Herber is a NOLS instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. Find her work on the NOLS Blog and follower her on Instagram and Facebook.