Imagine this: you’ve driven an hour out of the city and you’re ready for that beautiful 10-mile hike you’ve heard so much about. The birds are chirping, the wind is blowing in the trees—this hike will be restorative for your soul.
You begin your walk, but a mile in, your feet hurt. At two miles, your blisters are so bad you have to turn around and hobble your way back to the car.
It’s a sad scenario, but it happens.
So how do you avoid it? Getting the right fit for your hiking boot before hitting the trails, that’s how.
Some hiking boots offer a ton of bells and whistles, but the single most important thing you can do for your safety and the health of your feet is to get the perfect fit.
In this article, we’ll break down everything you need to know to find the best fit for your hiking boots so that when you’re out in nature, you can focus on the beauty and not your feet.
How Hiking Boots Should Fit
We wrote an article on how all your boots should fit, so we don’t want to beat you over the head with the same information.
But here are a few key points that pertain to all boots:
- It’s ok to have a quarter-inch to half-inch slippage in the heel. As you break your boots in, this slippage will disappear. If it never does, a heel grip can make up the space.
- You should have at least an inch for your toes. This is especially important for hiking boots. Your toes should also have room to wiggle around a tad.
- If you’re ever feeling the “pins-and-needles” sensation, your boots are too tight. You either need to wear thinner socks (if possible), or return the boots for a larger size. We recommend you wear your boots inside for several hours so the boots stay clean and returns are possible.
- If you need arch support (for flat-footed folk) it may be necessary to move a half-size up so you can add an orthopedic insole.
Hiking offers a unique set of challenges that put your feet under different strains than working or padding around the city. So there are a few extra considerations you need to make when getting an excellent fit for your hiking boots.
The Heel and Width
Hiking trails are littered with surprises: rocks, roots, slippery stones—you never know what you’ll face.
Because of the uneven terrain your ankle will need a lot of support, and the best way to ensure that is by getting a snug fit in the heel. As we mentioned earlier, a quarter-inch of slippage isn’t necessarily bad—most of the time that will go away as you break your boots in.
But hiking boots have a lot of padding around the heel because they’re built for intense use. Ideally, that padding fills up any excess space and keeps your heel secure in the boot.
It’s also important to get the width right. If you picked up a D-width shoe and you really need a wider E size, you’ll risk blisters along the sides of your feet. And nothing puts a damper on a hiking trip like a nasty blister.
Match the Flex of the Boot to the Terrain
If you’re planning on hiking in a relatively flat and smooth area, having a lightweight, flexible boot is a smart choice. It’ll be comfortable and easy to put in a lot of miles and you won’t have to worry about a difficult break-in period.
But if you expect rocky paths, steep inclines, and a variety of conditions, having a stiffer sole will keep your feet from hurting. The more rugged the terrain, the more rugged your boot should be.
The only downside to a rugged boot is that you may find yourself with aching feet during the first few weeks. Until they break-in, stiff, rugged boots can be rough. That’s why we recommend trekking around the city for a few weeks, or going on a couple short, easy hikes before committing to anything over three miles with your new boots.
Consider the Socks
If you’re hiking in the cooler months, having a nice thick pair of wool socks can help make the experience comfortable.
Unless, of course, you didn’t account for the extra size a thick sock adds to your foot.
A thick pair of socks can add up to a half-size to your foot, so if you haven’t factored that in, you may be in for some wicked foot cramps.
We recommend wearing your thickest socks—the ones you want to wear hiking in winter months—when trying your boots on for the first time. Also, it’s helpful to try on boots and shoes near the end of the day after your feet have swelled.
Your feet will swell when you’re out on the trails, and you don’t want to reach the midpoint of a ten-mile hike to find your boots are too tight.
Cotton socks are comfortable, but they’re not the best option for hiking. As you push yourself on the trails, your feet will release a lot of moisture. Cotton absorbs that sweat and can cause a lot of friction between your foot and the boot. Friction means blisters.
Wool wicks sweat efficiently, so they’re an excellent choice. The only downside is that wool can overheat your foot.
Our favorite hiking socks are a blend of natural and synthetic fibers. Nylon and wool blended socks are lightweight, padded, and they wick sweat away from your foot rather than absorbing and adding unnecessary friction.
Leave Room for Your Toes on an Incline
When you walk up a hill, your toes will move closer to the front of the boot. They shouldn’t touch the end of the boot, though.
A good trick is to push your foot as far forward into the boot as you can get it on a flat surface. You should be able to fit your index finger between your heel and the heel of the boot. And you shouldn’t feel your toes cramming up against the front.
Cramped toes can cause a lot of issues, including some serious health implications that can keep you off the trails for weeks or months.
Break in Your Boots Before Your First Hike
When you first get your hiking boots, wear them inside the house for the day. That’ll give you a chance to return the boots if they’re too tight or too loose.
Next, take them for a pleasant stroll around the neighborhood. Wear them for progressively longer periods of time and for further distances. New boots can take one to four weeks depending on how often you wear them (or 80-100 hours).
We also have a full, in-depth guide on how to break in your boots filled with helpful tips that can speed the process up if you’re having trouble.
Add an Insole to Minimize Heel Slip
Most hikers won’t need extra arch support—but many folks with flat feet find their boots rarely fit perfectly.
An orthopedic insole can close the gap between your heel and the back of the boot.
If that doesn’t work, try adding a heel grip. Grips offer added padding, which can be a major help on the trail, especially if you’re still breaking your boots in.
Ready to Hit the Trail?
Hopefully you’ve found everything you need to get the perfect fit for your hiking boots.
Sure, there are a lot of similarities between hiking boots and regular boots, but rough terrain can quickly take a toll on you. A snug fit in the heel and sides with an inch of room at the toe is the best way to ensure a comfortable hiking experience.
All that’s left is to pick the right trail, load up the car, and enjoy the beauty of nature around you—without hurting your feet in the process.
Should hiking boots be a size bigger?
No, your hiking boots should be your normal shoe size. They may feel tight if you wear thick socks, and if that’s the case, you can go a half-size bigger. But then you’re committed to wearing thick socks which can be uncomfortable in the summer.
How do I know if my hiking boots are too big?
You shouldn’t have too much slipping in the heel and you should have at least an inch of room at the toe. Your ankle should feel supported at all times.
How should hiking boots feel?
Hiking boots should support your ankle, leave room for your toes (an inch at least as your foot will shift on inclines vs declines), and should have less than a quarter-inch of heel slip.