I’ve mentioned in a previous post how work is like an adventure school, and honestly I’ve been learning a lot since I started. Things that a) I didn’t know; or b) I did, but I didn’t realise a lot of other people didn’t. So I’ve decided to write up some of the basics here as a sort of a foundation course, in a series I’m calling Adventure Essentials. First up: Footwear.
Before we begin, let me set the scene:
A customer walks into the footwear department, looks at the wall of trekking shoes, trail runners, and hiking boots for a minute and then…
Them: *holds up a shoe* Can I have this in a size eight?
Me: Are you sure you’re a size eight?
Them: *looking at me like I’m a simpleton* Well I’m an eight in every other shoe I own.
Me: Do you mind if I measure you just to make sure? *picks up Brannock Device*
Them: God, I haven’t seen one of those since I was a child!
Me: Yea… you’re probably not a size eight so.
This is much more common than you might think. The vast majority of people I’ve fitted for shoes have been wearing the wrong size shoe for years. I myself was in the wrong size when I first started this job.
My own personal theory is this: by the time you’re old enough to buy your own shoes and you don’t have Mammy pressing her thumb down on your toe looking for “growing room”, you know your shoe size. Since you know your shoe size, that’s the size shoe you buy. Again and again. If one day you try on a shoe and it’s drastically, uncomfortably too small, you go up a size (or a half size if the high street store you’re in carries them – and it probably doesn’t), and now this is your shoe size.
What most people don’t realise is that your foot changes over time. Your arches might start to fall. Weight changes affect the pressure put on the foot. Even time of day can make a difference: if you’ve been on your feet all day because of work, or you’ve been hiking, or out for a long Sunday run, your feet may swell. The point is, just because “you’ve always been a size eight” doesn’t mean you are now.
I find women especially to be in the wrong size more often than not. I don’t blame them, I blame the ridiculously high and/or pointy shoes they wear. The following is a conversation I had with a customer one day, almost word for word:
Them: *taking off their shoes* Oh I’m a six.
Me: Ah well, we like to check anyway, just to be sure. *Measures foot. Looks back up at customer* Do you always wear size six?
Them: Well, yea…
Me: Do your feet tend to be sore a lot?
Them: *laughing* Yea, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for wearing high heels.
Me: Yea… it’s also the price you pay for wearing high heels that are two sizes too small for you.
Them: Haha. Wait… what?
I’m happy to say that the customer in question couldn’t believe how comfortable she was when I gave her advice on how her footwear should fit and she left delighted with herself with a new pair of trail shoes. Now, this is definitely an extreme case, but my point is, when you’re buying new shoes, especially technical footwear like hiking boots or trail shoes, always get your feet measured. If the sales assistant doesn’t offer to measure your foot for you, and can’t lay their hands on a Brannock Device when you ask them to, then you’re probably in the wrong store.
So Senan, how do I find the right hiking boots/trail shoes?
Honestly, it’s not really that difficult if you know what you’re doing.
Step 1: Go to the store, and go with socks. You might think that this is obvious and anyone going to buy a pair of shoes would be wearing socks, but unfortunately you’d be wrong.
Now when I say wear socks, ideally I mean wear (or bring with you) the kind of socks you intend to wear during your hike. First time hiking and you’re not sure what kind of socks to wear? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered, I’ll talk about socks again.
The point is, if you have hiking socks, bring them; if you don’t have them, barefoot is not the next best option. You’re going to be taking off your shoes! Come on!
Step 2: Find a sales assistant who knows what they’re doing, and let them know what you’re looking for.
What you’re looking for is not simply “shoes” or “boots”. Let them know where you’re going and what you’re doing. The boots you wear on Everest will be very different to the shoes you wear on the Camino. Will they get you through your casual Saturday morning stroll around Glendalough? Yes. Will you be comfortable? No. Will you look like an idiot (who spent a lot of money for no reason)? Yes.
Step 3: The sales assistant will ask you to remove both shoes and they will measure both of your feet.
If they only measure one foot they’re literally half-assing it. A lot of people have slightly different sized feet. There’s no point in measuring one foot and buying a pair of shoes that feel amazing on one foot but cripple your toes on the other.
The Brannock Device will tell the sales assistant quite a lot about your foot. Heel to toe length, arch length, foot width… more information than you need to know. Then they’ll probably make a few suggestions about what footwear might be right for you. Trust them, if they suggest a shoe in some absolutely heinous colour, it’s probably because it’s the best fit for you and for what you plan on using them for. No, it probably doesn’t come in any better colours. Yes, we did check. We do have some taste too.
Step 4: Insoles. Most shoes and boots will have a removable insole. The sales assistant (or if you got a pair of boots as a present and you want to make sure they fit properly, you) should take this out and have you place your foot on it.
What we’re checking for here is length and width. If you have too much space width-wise the shoe is too big, your foot won’t be held securely inside it and this can lead to blisters and injury. On the other hand if you’re (and I hate this phrase) “muffin-topping” over the edges of the insole the shoe will be too tight and won’t be comfortable.
Length-wise, you’re going to want to have some room. Ideally, you’ll want about a finger’s width between the front of your longest toe (not necessarily the big toe) and the front of the boot.
This is because your foot spreads as you walk, and when you’re going downhill you’re likely to move forward a little in your boot. Remember, hiking isn’t all about climbing up that mountain, we usually want to get back down too!
If you don’t have enough room for your toes, you’re going to be constantly hitting the front of your boot. At best this is annoying and uncomfortable, but it can also damage both your foot and your boot.
If your toe is constantly hitting or rubbing up against the front of your boot, a blood blister can form under the nail. This is known as a subungual hematoma, and while generally more unsightly than serious, it can be extremely painful for an injury of this size.
As for the boot, a waterproof membrane such as Gore-Tex is extremely thin and light. If you’re rubbing against it again and again you’ll tear a hole in it, which means you’ve just paid a lot of money for a pair of waterproof boots that aren’t.
Before we move on, one last thing: everyone’s fingers are different, the same way everyone’s feet are different. This means that obviously “a finger’s width” for one person will be different from the next. This is very much a guideline.*
Step 5: Put the insole back into the shoe and put it on. If you have to use a shoehorn, use a shoehorn.
When you think about it, the part of the shoe you’re raking your heel down takes quite a beating. When you’re putting them on and when you’re taking them off. Remember, we don’t want to tear that waterproof membrane, but we also don’t want to tear the padding around the ankle. If that’s torn it can rub against the back of your foot when you’re walking and cause painful blisters on the Achilles Tendon.
Now your boots are on, tie them. Generally I’ll tie the laces for a customer I’m fitting, to show them what to do. Yes, most people know how to knot a pair of shoe laces. No, most people don’t do it right.
You want to make sure that you’re tightening the laces from as far forward as you can each time you put them on. This gathers up any excess lace and allows the shoe to close around the foot and fit correctly and snugly. If you just tie a quick knot at the top and forget about it the shoe isn’t actually fitted properly, it might not be holding your foot securely; and while walking around the office that probably doesn’t matter, things are different out in the mountains. Improperly fitted or incorrectly tied footwear over uneven terrain can lead to slips and trips and shattered ankles!
Step 6: Now that they’re on and tied correctly, walk around a bit. Any good store selling hiking footwear will probably have a ramp that you can walk up and down to simulate mountainous terrain. Don’t be afraid to really go for it either. I’ve noticed that people tend to take nice, polite little steps when they’re in the shop, but this isn’t the case when they’re out in the hills. This is your chance to test your boots. If it were me, I’d want to find out if there was anything wrong with them before I paid for them. So really go for it.
What we’re looking for here is heel lifting, especially going uphill; and whether or not your toes are hitting the front of the boot, especially going downhill. If your heels are lifting significantly, the boots are probably too big. If they’re lifting by just a few milimetres, I always suggest the customer reties the boot or shoe to their own level of comfort.
When I tie shoes on other people I try to make sure I don’t tie them too tight. If I do the customer might decide they’re too small and it’s much easier for me to try to convince someone to tie their laces again than it is to convince someone their shoes aren’t too small when they’ve decided otherwise.
The other thing we’re looking for here is tightness. Remember what I said earlier about width when we were doing the insole test? Well the insole can only tell us so much, we were only looking at two dimensions there whereas your foot has three. So, if the boot feels too loose, it’s probably too big. It it feels too tight, it might be too small. But it might not be. Depending on where it’s tight.
If it’s generally too tight or feels painful at all, take them off. If it’s too tight across the forefoot (imagine a line running from the ball of your foot to the joint where your foot meets your baby toe) you might be in the right size, but might need a wider boot. The Meindl Meran and Trento for example, are “comfort fit” boots; which means that they are a little more wide fitting than the Meindl Vitalis or Vakuum.
There’s also the chance that you’re in the right size but one shoe feels too tight, but the wider fit one feels too loose. What to do? Sometimes some creative lacing techniques can help loosen footwear without making them feel loose.
And finally, not every shoe or boot will fit everyone, so try on some more styles. Try not to fall in love with the way a boot looks before you’re sure about the way it fits. Sure, that all leather boot might look great in your Instagram pictures, but if it looks great on Insta but feels awful on your foot I know which one I’d choose.
You can find a quick info sheet on Granger’s aftercare products I did for work here.
So that’s it, and I have to admit, it was a longer post than I’d originally planned. I hope it’s clear and I haven’t baffled anyone though, and I hope you leave a little more enlightened. If anyone has any questions please feel free to leave a comment and ask it. If I don’t know the answer I promise to do my best to find out and get back to you. And remember: