Ill-fitting boots can ruin an otherwise great hike. Boots that fit properly protect your feet, stabilize your ankles, and minimize the chance of blisters—not to mention prevent injury and unsightly bruised toenails. If you’re shopping for your first pair of boots (or if it’s been a while since you last took a spin through an outdoor retailer’s footwear section), these tips can help you get the perfect fit.
Tip 1: Try hiking boots on before you buy
Shopping in an actual store allows you to easily try on multiple sizes, styles, and brands. Though plenty of stores sell hiking boots, an outdoor retailer like REI might offer the best experience since its employees know exactly how to assist in your search and address your specific needs. If buying online is your only option, order several sizes to try on at home (just be sure to confirm that the retailer provides free shipping on returns.)
Tip 2: Try boots on at the end of the day
Feet swell throughout the day and can even change sizes, which makes shoe shopping at the end of the day ideal. It’s important to buy a pair of boots that will fit when your feet are at their largest so that they never pinch or squeeze, no matter the time of day, says podiatrist and former Wirecutter writer Jim McDannald.
Tip 3: Size up, not down
For the same reason, always try boots that are true to size or a half-size up but never a half-size down. Beth Henkes, a former REI sales lead for footwear in Alderwood, Washington, told us she normally encourages everyone to go up a half-size. “If I measure someone and they are dead on an 8, in most boots I am going to grab them an 8½ and at least start there,” she says. (The same is true for running shoes.)
Tip 4: Wear the socks you plan to hike in
Make sure the boots you choose fit well with the socks you typically wear while hiking—a thinner or thicker pair might affect the fit and could lead to an uncomfortable hiking experience. If you’re a hiker who prefers to double up on socks (which we don’t think is completely necessary), bring both pairs of socks with you to the store.
Tip 5: Lace your boots correctly
The right lacing technique can relieve hot spots, prevent blisters, and tailor your boots to your feet. An outdoor-gear sales associate should be able to help you try a few different techniques so you can feel what works best. If you’re trying your boots on at home, this Wirecutter video lays out the basics. REI also provides advice on how to lace hiking boots.
Tip 6: Check for a thumb’s width of space between your toe and the end of the boot
Boots that fit well should allow you to spread out your toes and wiggle them. If the boots feel tight while you’re standing still, they’ll only feel more constricting once you’re on the trail. You’ll need that extra room because your feet will swell while you hike, and that wiggle room will also prevent your toes from jamming into the front of your boot while you’re going downhill. A cramped fit is how you lose toenails, and Henkes says those take about a year to grow back. Yikes.
Tip 7: Make sure your foot doesn’t move around too much
Your boot might be too wide for you if your foot slides from side to side when you walk, so try a narrower fit or another brand if you feel that happening. A tiny bit of movement at the back of the boot is important for protecting your Achilles tendon and preventing blisters, says Henkes, but your heel shouldn’t rise more than a quarter of an inch.
Tip 8: Check the volume (a sneaky component of boot fit)
Make sure the depth of your foot fits the depth of the boot. This dimension is called volume, Henkes says, and it’s one of the most important pieces of fit advice. If a boot isn’t deep enough for your foot, your foot can fall asleep. If a boot is too deep, your foot will slide around beneath the laces, letting your toes hit the end no matter what size the boot is. Pay attention to where the boot hits your ankle bone. If it’s uncomfortable, you might want to try another boot that’s more or less shallow.
Tip 9: Walk up and down a ramp
Make sure your toes don’t squish against the toe box while you walk downhill. Likewise, confirm that your heel doesn’t rub uncomfortably against the back of the boot while you’re hiking uphill.