These Boots are Made for Walkin'

Finding Boots that Fit
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Feet come in all shapes and sizes
Feet come in all shapes and sizes (Photo courtesy Chris Townsend)

Do you suffer from blisters? Do sore toes or aching knees limit how far you like to walk? Do you end a day out just longing to sit down and get your boots off? Too many walkers do. Moans about feet and legs come second only to complaints about the weather when walkers get together. You can't change the weather, but you can do something about your feet. The answer is properly-fitting boots.

Now you may think your boots already fit. But if you get blisters, hot spots or bruised toes the chances are very high that they could fit better. Until recently, boot fitting was a fairly crude business and few people ended up with a really good fit. Then along came Phil Oren from Arizona with foot problems of his own -- foot problems so severe that they threatened to curtail his hiking and backpacking. Phil decided the fault wasn't with his feet but with his footwear. He developed -- and is still developing -- a fitting system that minimizes the problems. I recently attended a seminar given by Phil along with Bob Rose, a boot expert from Colorado, and Jeff Gray from Superfeet in Seattle that has totally changed the way I look at how boots should fit. It was in the true sense of the word a revelation.

Feet First

Oren's Fitsystem starts with the feet, not the footwear. Only by examining and measuring your feet can a bootfitter decide which boots will fit best. While the fitter carries out the examination, you enter all your information on a Foot Measurement Chart. This can be an unnerving experience, as I found when Phil Oren examined my feet. By the time I'd written down"slightly hammered toes, Morton's toe, chubby toe and toe drift" and circled various places on the foot diagrams to show where I had calluses, the start of bunions and other potential problems, I was wondering how I'd ever managed to walk anywhere. All this was done while sitting with my feet on a fitting stool at a 45 degree angle.

Next I stood up to put weight on my feet and the news got even worse as Phil did the toe test. He tried to lift a big toe off the ground with a finger. It wouldn't budge. Then he twisted my knee slightly outwards and did the same again. This time the toe moved easily. "Overpronation" he intoned. It sounded serious.

Biomechanics

To understand over pronation it's necessary to understand a little about how the foot works. When you walk, the foot goes through three positions.

  1. Just before you put weight on it to take the next step, your foot is in the neutral position. This gives you power and stability and keeps the foot in line with the knees and hips, minimizing stresses on these joints.
  2. Supination is the slight rolling to the outside of the foot that occurs as your foot pushes you forward. Supination is not a problem for most people.
  3. Pronation occurs when your body weight bears down on the foot causing a slight rolling to the inside. It helps the foot adapt to uneven surfaces.
Pronation is fine when walking barefoot or in very soft footwear over rough ground, as our ancestors did. However, we usually walk on flat surfaces that give no support to the foot. This is a major cause of over-pronation -- the foot flattens out when it's weighted, leading to instability and elongation of the foot.

An over-pronated foot puts the knee out of alignment and stresses the whole skeleton. The result? Knee, hip and lower back problems. Over-pronation makes boot fitting difficult because your feet will be longer when you're standing and bearing down with your full weight than when you're sitting in a showroom chair. To figure out whether your feet elongate, place a piece of blank paper beneath you bare foot.Using a pencil, trace the outline of your foot while sitting and then standing. If you elongate--and about 80% of people do--you'll need to factor this into your selection of the right size boot. Even the lucky few who don't over-pronate, and thus elongate, should be aware that feet can expand up to one full shoe size during the course of a day on the trail under a heavy pack.

Take my feet, as an example. They're size 8 " (left foot) and 8 =" (right foot) when I'm plopped in a chair, but they jump to 9" (left) and 9 =" (right) when I stand. Worse, my heel-to-ball-of-foot measurement jumps two sizes when I stand.

Measuring the Feet

Chris Townsend
Chris Townsend is the author of The Backpacker's Handbook and holder of numerous"firsts" in long-distance hiking, including being the first person to hike the length of the Canadian Rockies in 1988.

To go back to the foot examination, the toe test is another good indicator of over-pronation. It doesn't give the fitter enough information however -- the feet must be measured. This is done with a Brannock Device, which measures the overall length (heel-to-toe) and width of the foot plus the heel-to-ball length -- that is, to the point where the foot flexes. The latter is important, as the boots you buy should flex at the same point as your feet. Make sure your feet are measured while sitting and standing.

Volume

Feet and boots are both three-dimensional, which means that the volume of both feet should be taken into account. There's no standard way of measuring foot volume but a good boot fitter should be able to come up with a fairly accurate estimate and should also know the relative volumes of the boots in stock. Phil Oren classified my feet as "medium double minus," which is on the low side volume-wise. Most people's feet are low volume, he told me, but most boots are medium to high volume with what he described as "balloonous" heels. According to Phil, my ankles are narrow and my Achilles tendons extremely narrow. In short, I'm a bootfitter's nightmare.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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