How To Buy (The Right) Boots, Part 1

Jesse Cunningham Hiking 1

Image: Hiking a remote section of rocky coastline on the island of Crete. This is not the place to discover that your boots don't fit properly. Photos by Jesse Cunningham

When I worked as a climbing guide, we would informally debrief our days by talking about the clients and experiences we had that day. One experienced senior guide often joked that he deserved an honorary PhD in Psychology for his work with clients. There is something about taking people you don't know and hanging them by a rope over a cliff that can prompt any number of emotions and responses, some expected and some not expected. Many times your job as a guide is not so much about teaching them to climb but about working through their mental barriers to climbing.

The Doctor of Podiatry is In...

I also worked for many years in outdoor retail stores, where I helped thousands of customers select hiking boots. Using a similar line of logic, it seems reasonable that perhaps I should be awarded an honorary degree as a Doctor of Podiatry. I may even qualify for at least a minor in Psychology for this as well.

The challenge in truly fitting someone with the right boot is to listen to what they are telling you, to hear their concerns and fit issues and also to read between the lines and figure out why they have had problems with fit in the past, getting them to try on the right boots and getting them to understand what correct fit actually is, and finally getting them to commit to buying.jesse cunningham hiking 2

Fall hiking in the Swiss National Park. I'd rather be enjoying the crisp fall air, the brilliant foliage of the larch trees and the beautiful mountain views with my family than thinking about how much my feet hurt because my boots don't fit well.  

I always tried to guide people in a gentle way, to educate them and to let them make their own decisions, but there were times that I wished I could just be blunt and say “Listen! This is what you need to do...” Some people just need a little bit of tough love.

Boot Fitting Tough Love

So in the spirit of tough love I'm just going to lay it out there and tell you some of the things I wished I could tell people, straight up and to the point.

  1. Understand how hiking boots should fit. Hiking boots should fit snugly in the heel with minimal heel lift, wrap snugly around around your mid-foot and give adequate space in the toe box for your toes to wiggle without being constricted. There are many nuances to fit that these generalizations do not cover but if you disregard any of these you are likely to have fit issues. When customers say things like “My heels are really sensitive; I always get blisters,” “I get bruised toenails,” or “My ankles are weak; I need a stiff boot,” these are issues that they present as problems with their bodies that must be accommodated but in most cases they are indicative of improper fit or boot selection. Heel blisters tell me that they are not getting a good fit in the heel pocket and bruised toenails can be indicative of boots that are not long enough (incorrect size) or not wide enough in the toe box. Weak ankles can be an actual problem but many times this is a symptom of too much movement within the boots due to too much volume through the mid-foot or improper lacing. In fact, all of the three scenarios listed above may be corrected by proper lacing in a boot that fits well otherwise.
  2. Get to know your feet and be honest about what your fit issues are. Feet are three dimensional, yet many people focus just on the size, or length, of a shoe. Have an experienced boot fitter measure your foot with a Brannock device to measure the length and width of your foot and assess your foot volume and arch height. All of these things will affect fit and will help determine what boots might be a good fit for you. Once you know this information, don't disregard it, despite how you would like to see yourself. Seriously. While many people are honest about their feet, some are deluded by how they want to see themselves. As a broad generalization, it is often women who want to believe their feet are smaller than they actually are and men who say they need larger or wider boots than they actually do. Don't get hung up on what the size of the shoe is, focus on proper fit (see #1 above).
  3. Find a local retailer with knowledgeable staff. If you are still reading this you are probably serious about getting good fit. Do yourself a favor and find a local shop, or roadtrip to your favorite hiking destination with a specialty retail shop if you don't have one nearby, and take the time to work with a knowledgeable sales person to help you find the right boot for you. Ordering online is a recipe for foot happiness disaster; you are much more likely to buy a boot based on its looks rather than its function and you are also more likely to keep a boot that doesn't fit quite right because of the cost and/or hassle of returning or exchanging. When it's day two of that hiking vacation you've been planning for months and your feet hurt and you're an unhappy hiker, you may not care so much about the few dollars that you saved by buying online.
  4. Take the time to get a good fit. When shopping for boots, do it when you are not rushed and can allow some time for proper fit. This may seem obvious but some people need to hear this. I've had customers that will slide their foot into a boot and, while still sitting and without even lacing the boot, say “Feels good. I'll take it.” While I would always try to convince them to at least lace the boots and walk around, sometimes they were determined to buy and leave as quickly as possible.
  5. Don't think you'll break them in. You really like the color, style, brand, look, or whatever of that shoe on the wall and you try it on and it doesn't feel quite right. You really want it to work. You know this is the shoe you want. You reason that it will break in over time. There are certain things that may break in over time – like a stiff tongue, the padding around the ankle, or a gentle pressure point at the ball of your foot – however, the general size and shape of the boot will not. If the length, volume or shape of the boot does not fit your feet well, no matter how much you want the boots, don't buy them.
  6. Just buy them. When you find the boots that fit your foot and are a good match for your hiking needs and preferences, don't look at the price tag, just buy them! Your feet will thank you.

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 is still waiting for someone to recognize his boot fitting genius and award him those honorary degrees. You can follow him at:

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