Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Footwear Fitting - or how to avoid blackened toenails and other problems while hiking
Problems | Choosing shoes | Know your feet | Testing fit | Brands | Hard to fit feet | Fit help | Socks
If you're getting blisters, blackened toenails, losing toenails, cracking toenails, etc., your shoes or boots just don't fit properly for hiking. For many, it takes a long time and a lot of shoes before we can find the right fit. For me, it's still nearly impossible to find shoes that really fit, but I can now come close enough and rarely have problems with my feet while on the trail.
The shoes that cause toe issues are typically too short, too wide, have too small a toe box, or are too narrow. :-) Yes, shoes that are either too wide or too narrow can cause similar problems. Blisters are generally caused by rubbing which results from shoes that are too loose or are shaped inappropriately for your foot.
Other typical problems include foot pain, usually on the soles of the feet, often diagnosed as plantar fasciitis. Often near the ball, the heal, or with other connective tissue, such pain can be debilitating. The shape of the shoe and footbed can contribute both to the cause and solution to this problem.
Try visiting a really good outfitter with people who are trained to know how to fit shoes. They will size your feet on mulitple dimensions both when your foot is unweighted and when your foot is weighted. Then, they should know which brands and models are designed for your shaped feet.
Know your feet
The more you know about your feet, the better able you will be to select shoes that fit your feet properly: do you have high arches or flat feet; narrow or wide feet both at the ball and heel; high or low volume; do your feet supinate or pronate; is your connective tissue loose or tight; etc. When talking with knowledgable salespeople, sharing this information will help them steer your to the brands and models of shoes designed for your type of feet.
A simple test for appropriate length shoes is to loosen the laces completely and stand with your foot weighted in the shoe. Push you foot forward so that your longest toe "just" touches the front of the shoe. Don't cram it forward. You should now be able to get your index finger down behind your heel to the bottom of the shoe. Make sure this is true for both feet. It's better for the shoe to be a little too long than too short.
When trying on shoes, be sure to wear the same type of socks you expect to wear while hiking. The same is true for insoles. If you have custom insoles, orthotics, or preferences for more supportive insoles than come with the shoes, be sure to try on shoes with them as well.
Make sure the shoe doesn't narrow too quickly for your foot. This could cause the shoe to squeeze your little or big toes and also cause problems.
Some people's toes curl up - or down when walking. You may need a larger volume toe box to accomodate them. Try wiggling your toes up and down in the shoes and see if there's room to move.
Get on the ramp that most stores have. Jump up and down while facing downhill. If your toes touch with a few jumps in the store, just think what's going to happen with the hundreds and thousands of downhill steps you'll be taking every time you go down a hill or mountain.
If the shoe almost seems to fit but you do get some jamming, try other types of lacing. You want the laces to hold your heel back into the heel cup without crushing your instep or cutting off circulation.
You may also want to visit a podiatrist. Depending on your foot type and structure, they may recommend shoes with specific kinds of lasts. There are slip lasts, board lasts, and others.
If there's a great difference in length between your weighted and unweighted shoe length, you may want to try a more supportive insole than the stock insole that comes with most shoes. This could help support your feet and help them maintain their shape within the shoe.
For what it's worth, this is an ongoing issue. Our feet change over time so just because a certain shoe fit you at one point doesn't mean it's going to fit you two years later - or 300 miles later. :-) You may also want to read my write-up about "Foot size changes."
Just because you hear of one person raving about a specific pair of shoes, doesn't mean that style will work for you. One of the reasons I think that New Balance has become popular with hikers is that they have a greater array of lengths, widths, and lasts than most other manufacturers. Even for men's shoes, they have a few styles in AA width. Just this year, they've started carrying women's 14s. But, other brands may fit you better. Don't discount them just because you don't know of people wearing them.
Try on many different pairs of shoes. Just because one pair feels "OK" doesn't mean the next pair won't feel like slippers. Unless you try on many pairs, you won't necessarily know how good a fit you can get.
Those of us with hard-to-fit feet, often have to learn to make do. We must find shoes that can accomodate our needs and make do with the other ramifications. Women with exceptionally long feet may resort to wearing men's shoes but may find they are too wide and the ball may not be in the right place. Those with very short feet may find children's shoes that fit but may find they are not as durable as those manufactured for adults. Those with narrow feet may have to add aids such as five irons and tongue depressors to help their shoes fit. Those with wide feet will have more choices of footwear but may still have wear thinner socks and look for low volume insoles to help their shoes fit better.
As a 6'1" woman, I have an extremely long, narrow, low-volume foot. I currently wear men's 13AA shoes because I haven't found any women's shoes long enough for me. These shoes accomodate the length of my foot but even the AAs I find are too wide for my feet. I make use of five irons and tongue depressors when possible but also find that sometimes I just have to slow down and give my toes a break on long downhill streches of trail.
Brands know for fitting those of us with "exceptional" feet include New Balance, Dunham (owned by New Balance), Merrell, Propet, Raichle, Montrail, Asolo, and Redwing. I've only worn a couple of these brands as some were recommended to me for those with wide feet.
Backpacker.com has good information about lacing techniques which could make the difference for some people. 5-irons and tongue depressors which are both designed to help take up volume in footwear can also help a shoe or boot fit better.
Don't forget your socks. Your choice of socks can significantly affect your choice of footwear. Socks now come in many configurations and materials. To read more, check out my Socks page.
Last updated, December 6, 2011.
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