How should hiking boots fit?

How Should Hiking Boots Fit?

by Mark Paigen 8 minute read

Hiking boots can make or break your day on the trails. When hiking boots fit properly, you can go for miles and still feel good at the end of the day. When they don't fit well and cause foot pain, it can ruin your journey. 

The Basics ---

  • There are multiple types of hiking boots available - light hiking shoes, backpacking boots and mountaineering boots. Match your hiking goals with your footwear.
  • Finding the right fit for your hiking boots can help prevent hot spots, blisters, and plantar fasciitis. Proper arch support is an important part of the right fit.
  • The best hiking boots will fit your feet perfectly, holding your foot securely without constriction or hot spots. Also consider the flex of the boots, breathability, outsole tread, and weight.
  • For great support in your hiking boots or shoes, we recommend Pace insoles. Their firm arch support will hold up over the miles and a structured heel cup will give you the extra cushioning you need. 

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What You Need To Know ---

When Are Hiking Boots Necessary?

Wearing the right footwear can make your hike much more enjoyable. The key to getting the best hiking boots is to match your footwear with the type of hiking you are doing. There are three types of hiking footwear, each designed for a different level of intensity. 

  • Light Hiking Shoes - A low-cut model with a flexible mid-sole. Best for day hiking, trail running, and ultra-lightweight backpacking trips. A great choice if your hike includes a variety of terrain and trail conditions that require flexibility and stability without the added weight of a heavier boot.

  • Backpacking Boots - High-cut boots for additional ankle support. These boots will have stiffer mid-soles to protect the bottoms of your feet from rough terrain. Designed for hikers carrying heavier loads over longer distances.
  • Mountaineering Boots - Heavier and more durable than typical hiking boots. Sometimes leather and sometimes plastic with a removable inner boot. Constructed for alpine climbing, glacier crossings, and high altitude. Most mountaineering boots have stiff soles and are designed for use with crampons (spikes for walking/climbing on ice).

The durability and ruggedness of mountaineering boots is great when you need it, but on a short day hike, it's overkill. They'll slow you down and feel clunky. Conversely, trail shoes won't get you very far climbing snow-covered peaks.

That's why you should match the flex of your hiking boots to the terrain that you anticipate hiking. For easy, smooth trails, a more flexible shoe will be fine. As the terrain gets more rugged, so should your footwear.

How Should Hiking Boots Fit?

Fit is the single most important factor when you're shopping for new hiking boots. Since your feet will be supporting your weight and your pack mile after mile, you want to make sure they're comfortable. Start by picking a few high-quality trail shoes or hiking boots to try on. 

When your foot is firmly inside the shoe, shift your weight to the front of your foot. You should be able to easily fit your index finger between your heel and the back of the shoe. If you can't you'll end up with bruised toes from your descents.

Now test the width. The shoe or boot should feel snug, but not tight, at the widest part of your forefoot. You shouldn't feel any pinching at the heel or discomfort on your ankle bones.

For the best hiking boot fit, follow these tips:

  1. Fit over features - A boot that fits great but has fewer features is always better than a poor-fitting boot with bells and whistles. The proper fit holds your foot securely without constriction or ‘hot spots’ (a place where your shoe rubs your foot, causing irritation).
  2. Time of day - Feet swell as the day goes on, much like they will on the trail. If possible, shop for hiking footwear later in the day when your feet are at their largest.
  3. Shop in-person - Finding the best fit is best done in a store rather than online. A good retailer will have a rocky incline ramp to give you a better idea of what each boot will feel like on the trail.
  4. Take your time - Good boots aren’t cheap and once you’ve worn them outside, they’re yours. Take your time shopping for hiking boots. 
  5. Do your research - Researching your options online before you start trying on in a store can save you time.
  6. Home try-on - Spend time in your new hiking boots inside before you hit the trails. It’s a great way to confirm the right choice before it’s too late.
  7. Add arch support - The generic factory insoles in your new boots won’t provide the kind of support that even light hikers need. Adding arch support inserts will help keep your feet happy and healthy while you're putting on the miles. 

What Are Hiking Boots Made Of?

Hiking shoes and boots can be made with multiple materials. What's most important is breathability. While waterproof material sounds like a good idea, in reality, your feet get wetter from the sweat that cannot escape through the material than from external moisture.

If you tend to hike in warmer weather, consider mesh or other upper materials that will easily let your sweat evaporate. If your feet get wet, they'll dry much faster than waterproof boots. Save the Gore-Tex for really harsh environments.

Once you've settled on the upper material, turn the hiking boot or shoe upside down to take a look at the outsole. It should be deep enough tread to provide traction on the type of terrain you'll be tackling. The more difficult the terrain, the more traction required.

Another thing to consider when inspecting the materials a boot is made of is the  weight of those components. Lighter footwear means less effort. Few long-distance hikers wear heavy boots anymore. Though you'll want to keep in mind that lighter footwear requires more foot and lower leg strength. 

Now that you're familiar with the outside of the boot or shoe, poke around the inside. There's probably a removable factory insert in there, but it doesn't provide much in the way of support. Adding arch support insoles will help with shock absorption and correction of pronation issues. 


Do I Need Insoles For Hiking Boots?

No matter how many miles you rack up on the trails, the arch support and heel stabilization that insoles provide will make a big difference in your comfort while hiking. Foot fatigue, sore feet and hot spots are all signs that your footwear isn't providing you with enough support. Insoles can help with those issues, as well as these others:

  1. Overpronation - When your ankle rotates inward, flattening your arch, your stride loses efficiency. That means more effort to go the same number of miles. Overpronation can also cause blisters when your forefoot moves too much inside your shoe.

  2. Plantar Fasciitis - Overpronation can also lead to Plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tendon that connects your heel to the ball of your foot. It is extremely painful and can take weeks to heal. 

  3. Heel slippage - Typically the result of a boot that is too loose in the heel, heel slippage can lead to increased friction, ‘hot spots,’ and blisters. It's easily fixed by adding an insole with a deep heel cup and strong arch support.

What Are Good Hiking Insoles?

All over-the-counter insoles are not created equal. As you're shopping for a pair, you'll want to make sure the ones you choose provide firm support. The cushy foam inserts you find at the drugstore won't give you the support you're looking for. Here are few features you'll want to keep in mind as you shop:

  • Firm arch support will distribute your weight evenly and prevent your arch from flattening. A light hiking shoe with a firm insole is actually more supportive than a heavy hiking boot with flat footbeds.
  • Insoles with an arch height that matches the arch height of your foot will give you the right level of support. An insole with an arch that's too high will be really uncomfortable. One that's too low won't give you the right amount of support.
  • Insoles with deep heel cups will reduce wear and tear on your feet. The extra cushioning helps to absorb impact.
  • A low-friction surface is really important for helping reduce blisters caused by the movement of your foot in your shoes. 
  • Your feet get hot and sweaty when you hike. Insoles with an anti-microbial treatment will keep your feet fresher. 
  • Eventually the top layer on all insoles will wear down and need to be replaced. With most insoles, that means buying a whole new set. Tread Labs insoles use a two-part system featuring replaceable top covers. They're better for the planet and better for your wallet. 

    Common Hiking Foot Problems

    Even the healthiest feet will take a beating on thru-hiking adventures. Common foot complaints on the trail include:

    • Blisters
    • Sore Ankles
    • Heel Pain
    • Metatarsal Pain
    • Swollen Feet or Toes
    • Pinched Toes
    • Flattened Arches
    • Soreness in your legs, Achilles tendons, calves, knees, hips, and lower back

    While choosing the right footwear and arch support will help, thee are some other foot care tips you'll want to incorporate into your hike so you can focus on the scenery instead of your feet.

    Pack at least two pairs of good-quality polyester or wool socks for your adventure. When the pair you're wearing gets moist, swap them out. This helps prevent blisters, which are often caused by moisture and friction. 

    Take time to rest your feet, particularly when they feel hot, tired or sore. When you're taking a load off, remove your shoes and socks to give you feet some space to breathe. Elevating your feet can help reduce swelling. Before lacing up your boots again, clean your feet with a damp washcloth, making sure to remove any dirt, pebbles, or debris. 

    Hiking With Plantar Fasciitis

    Plantar Fasciitis is the most common foot condition in the USA. 1 in 10 people will experience this painful ailment at some point in their lifetime. The most common symptom is a stabbing pain on the bottom of your heel. The pain is often worse in the morning or after standing for an extended period.

    The plantar fascia is a thick, connective band of soft tissue that stretches from the heel to the base of your toes. As a ligament, it connects the bones in these two areas and it’s designed to absorb the high amount of stress we place on our feet.

    The plantar fascia is strong and can withstand a great deal of force, but too much pressure can damage or tear it. The body responds to this damage by becoming inflamed, and inflammation of the plantar fascia is called plantar fasciitis. 

    If you have plantar fasciitis and are looking for hiking shoes, all of the tips we list above apply. But it's especially important that your footwear has firm support that mimics the contours of your arches. If your hiking boots or shoes don't have the right level of arch support, add a pair of insoles.

    Hit The Trails

    When you're standing at the summit on your next hike, take a moment to thank your feet. They’ve trekked on dirt trails, jumped over rocks and waded through streams for you. Without their help, you’d still be at the trailhead checking your map, no summit to brag about.

    Make sure you treat them right by outfitting them with the best hiking boots and support insoles so they take you as far as you want to go.

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