How Do I Know If My Hiking Boots Are Too Small?


If your hiking boots don’t fit, you’re in for a hike to remember, but not in a good way. It’s worth all the effort you can make to make sure your hiking boots fit right.

Your hiking boots are too small if:

  • Your toes feel pressure from the end of the boot while walking on a sharp downward incline or standing in a neutral position
  • Your toes are overlapping each other
  • You can feel squeeze pressure on the sides and top of your foot even while the laces are loosened.

Ensuring the fit is right for you is a bit time consuming and it requires more preparation then just walking into the shoe store. But it’s better to take some simple steps to make sure you get the right fit then walking 10 miles and realizing your boots don’t fit. And trust me, if your feet aren’t happy, then that’s all your brain will be thinking about even if you’re on a beautiful hike.

Effective Ways To Tell When Your Hiking Boots Are Too Small

Every boot manufacturer is different, but it’s not likely that you’re going to be wearing a boot that matches the length of your foot. You’ll most likely be wearing a boot from a full size up to a size and a half. So if the foot measuring device in the store says your feet are an 8, then you’ll probably need a 9 or a 9.5.

How To Check Your Boot Length

Here are some tips to make sure you get the right boot length:

Make Sure Your Heel Can Fit A Finger

Make sure you can fit a finger in between your heel and the back of the boot. You might have to mash your toes into the front of your boot while doing this. If you can’t do this then that’s a telltale sign that the boot is too small.

Walk On a Sharp Decline

Try walking on as sharp a decline as you can manage. Apply excessive pressure on your feet. Can you feel the front of your boot? Try lacing up a bit tighter. If you can still feel the front of your boot after laced up securely, the boots are too small. (often, a serious outdoor outfitter will have a ramp just for this purpose. Use it!)

standing-on-shoe-fitting-ramp-with-merrell-moab-shoes
I’m standing on tiptoe on this shoe fitting ramp for these Merrell Moab’s — a very popular hiking boot

Take Out The Insole and Make Sure You Have a Gap

This tip can also make sure the boots are wide enough as well.

If you take out the insole of the boot you want to buy and put your foot on it, you can clearly see what the margins of the insole look like. If your toes are extending over the edge of the insole, you can know immediately that the boot is far too small. You should have at least a half-inch of clearance between your toes and the end of the insole.

removed-insole-with-my-foot-standing-on-it-with-3-quarter-inch-clearance-between-edge-and-toes

How To Check Your Your Boot Width

Boot width is just as important as boot length. It gets almost no attention in so many fitting guides.

Two key things to look for:

Make Sure You Can’t Feel Pressure From the Side Of The Boot On Your Toes

If you can, then there’s a good chance that will really hurt later.

Make Sure You Have No Toe Overlap

If your shoe isn’t wide enough and is pressing against your toes, then your toes are going to press together to compensate. If your toes are pressing together, you might experience this phenomenon. Warning… pictures of feet ahead:

closeup-of-toes-overlapping
Toes may Press Together And Overlap, causing Friction and Blisters

While this minor toe overlap seems harmless, after 10 miles of walking, that pressure will cause blisters. Make sure your toes can splay out.

It’s okay to feel the sides of the shoe, as long as there is no pressure at all.

Are Hiking Boots Supposed To Be Tight?

Hiking boots should not feel tight. Ice skates and climbing shoes should feel tight, but not hiking boots. If hiking boots feel tight then your boots are too small.

Hiking boots should feel secure. You shouldn’t feel excessive movement while walking up or down slopes. Some sliding is okay, but it should be minimal. Any sliding or friction while walking will lead to blisters.

How To Avoid Choosing A Small Hiking Boot

There are some additional tips to make sure that you pick the right size of boot. If sized correctly and using the right socks, you won’t have to deal with damaged toenails, blisters, or sore spots on your feet.

Use these tricks to help you find the right size of boots for your feet.

Before Shopping, Keep This In Mind:

Try-On Hiking Boots At The End Of A Walk or a Small Hike

It’s common knowledge that our feet sizes slightly grow as our bones compress and decompress throughout the day.

The common suggestion is to try on boots at the end of the day. However, if you aren’t on your feet all day, then your feet might not be as swollen.

You want to go boot shopping when your feet are their largest, so make sure and fit in a walk or a short hike dbeforehand so your feet can be ready.

Don’t Forget Your Orthotics

If you wear orthotics, bring them along. Make sure that you bring any inserts you may need. These will all impact the size of the shoe, so make sure you bring everything that will impact that.

Wear Your Hiking Socks

Hiking socks are usually thicker than your average socks, and you’d be amazed how much difference wearing thicker socks vs. thinner socks can make as to how your shoes may feel.

Wear the socks you’d wear on your hike. This will give you as accurate a measurement as possible.

In fact, some people use two layers of socks–a thinner slippier sock (called a sock liner) that acts as blister protection underneath their regular hiking sock. If you don’t have sock liners, then wearing thin socks underneath your regular socks will do well enough.

Example of some sock liners

Once At The Store

When you shop for hiking boots, here are some things to check–some of this is review, but this is the step by step system.

Hiking Boot Fit: Point By Point

Toes

The space around your toes in a hiking boot is what you want to maximize. When you hike down steep slopes, your foot will shift forward. Be sure to leave at least a half inch or more between your toes and the boot.

When your toes jam against the front of your boot it’s common for people to lose toenails. Whether your toes just barely reach and then start to rub on your nails–it’ll probably worse when you have a heavy pack on your back while you’re walking down a mountain.

Toes must be able to move up and down as well as wiggle to the sides within the hiking boot’s space.

Underneath Your Arch

When the boots are new, you should have a small gap beneath the arch or only light contact.

It is common for hiking boots to develop depressions for the heel and ball of the foot after breaking them in. This means your arches will feel like they have more support at first than you will long term.

MidFoot

On each side, around the middle of your foot, you should feel a gentle snugness. You don’t want the hiking boot to squeeze in enough to compress your foot.

Also, you don’t want your foot wiggling around too freely. Too much side-to-side freedom can make your ankle unstable, and cause friction and blisters as well.

The tightness around the sides of your foot is managed by the shape of the boot. Partly by how tight you pull the laces and by how you tie the strings manage the tightness around the sides of your foot.

If everything else seems to fit well but the boot doesn’t feel snug around the midfoot, then try tightening the laces, starting from the toe of the boot all the way back to your ankle.

Heel

The back of your heel should have firm but not uncomfortable contact with the back of the boots.

After tying your boots up with adequate tightness, your heel should not move very much at all. Your socks’ slipperiness should determine the friction of your feet. If, instead, you try to manage friction by having space on your heel, then you won’t have your boots tight enough.

Ankle

Regardless of how high the hiking boot is, the sides of your boots should be in contact with your ankle and lower leg. It should be snug but not super-tight. The idea is that if your boots go up over your ankle. If your foot twists sideways, the boot should absorb most of the pressure instead of the ligaments and tendons in your ankle.

close-up-of-ankle-on-hiking-boot
Ankle view of a hiking boot

You won’t get that support if the hiking boot is too loose and will have greater exposure to ankle sprains or breaks.

A hiking boot with ankle support is especially important if you are carrying a heavy backpack. If twisted, the extra weight can turn what would have been a minor sprain into a serious one or even a break.

A lot of this ankle support comes about from the way you tighten the laces. The laces for hiking boots are meant to be tied tightly enough so that the sides of the ankle part of the boot will support you.

Top Of Foot

When your boots break-in, your heels, toes, and ball of the foot create minor depressions in the sole. This gives your foot a bit of vertical space, so the top will feel slightly tighter than you might like. Use your judgment when deciding how much is too much.

If there is a spot that sticks up a bit on top of your foot, consider the tongue of the hiking boot. You can adjust the laces on your hiking boot to form a window (rather than criss-crossing as laces normally do) on hot spots of your boot. Therefore, you can tighten the boots to where you need without squeezing the top of your foot excessively.

After Getting Your Hiking Boots

Break-in Your Hiking Boots

If you find a properly fitting pair of hiking boots, why do they need to be broken in? Studies show that hikers who didn’t break in their boots were more likely to get blisters. This is because new hiking boots haven’t had a chance to form the unique structure of your feet yet.

If you use them on the trail without adapting them to your feet, you could get blisters, hot spots, and even cuts. This is more common when it comes to leather boots. However, even hiking boots made of synthetic materials still need breaking-in to adapt.

Best Feature For Hiking Boots: Toe Box Width

Small hiking boots can be uncomfortable. Yet, toe box width plays a huge part in considering a hiking boot “small.” Toe Box width is very important. If your toes are crowding one another, this can lead to blisters, especially if your toes are in such a way that toenail edges can touch other toes.

Four specific benefits come from using wide toe box boots for hiking:

Improved Comfort

Wide toe box footwear will give your feet more support and comfort during a long day of hiking. They’ll also help reduce the wear and tear on your feet.

Proper Toe alignment

Your toes will splay in wide toe box shoes. Wearing wide toe box boots while hiking realigns your toes to the position that is in line with their bones. It is also a good way to rehabilitate your toes and feet. Furthermore, the toes are returned to their anatomical alignment and shape.

Reduced Risk Of Injuries

Most hikers have experienced at least one lower body muscular pain, bone problem, foot pain, or an ankle sprain during a hike.

Many hikers think that the problem comes from their conditioning. Or that the pain is the result of a past, unresolved problem. This may be true in some cases. But it’s also true that not all hiking boots are the source of significant pain and discomfort.

Whatever the case may be, allowing the natural alignment of your toes with a wide toe box for your hiking boots will help you avoid weakening your lower leg. It will also avoid problems such as knee pain, ingrown toenails, shin splints, and neuromas.

Enhanced Balance

You’ll likely feel an improved sense of balance when wearing wide toe box hiking boots. This is because their wider support platform is associated with the splayed toe configuration.

Traditional hiking boots with a narrow footbox force your toes together into a wedge configuration. They reduce the surface of the forefoot, contacting the ground with each footfall. This has a direct effect on the frequency of ankle injuries, especially ankle sprains.

What If I’m On The Trail With Too Small Boots?

So… it’s hard to get things perfectly the first try–what if you get on the trail and your boots are too small? Unfortunately there is not much you can do, but here are a few things you can try:

  • If you have thinner socks, try those
  • Loosen the laces as much as you can without making the boots slide around. This may take some fanangaling.
  • If you have moleskin, put it in any hot spots or blister points so as to remove as much friction on the pain spots as possible

Conclusion

You can make a big difference in your hiking experience if your boots fit properly. Regardless of the brand or quality of the boot, take the time to get it right.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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