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RECREATION Made for walking

Hikers -- give your tired feet the boot they deserve

By Chandra Orr

Copley News Service

Great-fitting footwear is the first step on the road to healthy, happy feet when hiking.

When shopping for a perfect fit, start by having a talk with a knowledgeable sales associate who can help you determine which boot is right for the kind of hiking you do.

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"What I like to do with customers, when possible, is have a conversation with them about their feet and footwear needs,'' said Rich Littlefield, sales specialist for REI in suburban St. Paul. "How much support do they need? What kind of load will they be carrying? How rugged is the terrain? What is the duration of the trip? These questions help determine the type of shoe,'' he said.

His best advice for finding a good fit? Shop for shoes when feet are at their worst, like at the end of a long day when feet are swollen, and always wear the appropriate socks.

"It's easier to get the right fit when you have the right sock on,'' he said. "Socks aren't given the credit they deserve for proper foot health.''

Not only do the right socks help ensure a proper fit in footwear, they also help keep feet warm, dry and friction-free, he said.

Hikers shouldn't expect to find a great-fitting hiking boot right out of the box, though. Often, boots fit the foot based on the basic heel-to-toe measurement, but the arch support is all wrong. Littlefield recommends using inserts to correct size discrepancies.

"Just because customers are buying the size they measure heel-to-toe, they think they are getting the proper fit and that isn't necessarily so,'' he said. "Sticking in foot beds like SUPERfeet helps get the proper support. It puts the support for the foot in the right place -- right in front of the heel,'' he said.

Boots that are slightly too big can be corrected with flat insoles. Littlefield recommends Spenco Insoles to take up volume and keep the foot from moving around in the boot -- a key to comfort as movement creates friction, which is the cause of all blisters.

Optimal comfort does not come from proper fit alone, though.

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"With hiking boots, sometimes success happens in the details,'' he said. "There are two areas of laces on boots -- the instep laces on the top of the foot and the ankle laces,'' he explained.

"Those instep laces need to be as snug as you can get them so that it holds your foot into the back of the boot. The ankle laces need to be tight enough to give support, but not so tight as to cut off circulation,'' he said.

"Boots should have three hooks on the top of the ankle. This tends to give you greater variety in terms of alternative lacing. You can lace the boots one way to hold the heel of the boot, or lace them to relieve some pressure on the ankle.''

Other details, like specialty textiles and outsoles, can also increase the comfort factor -- but at a price.

"In the Gore-Tex versus non-Gore-Tex debate there are two schools of thought,'' Littlefield said. "It certainly is prevalent in the marketplace, but Gore-Tex tends to ratchet up the price.''

Gore-Tex has the benefit of being lightweight and waterproof, but it also tends to increase foot moisture, he said. On an expedition through a swampy forest, this can be quite beneficial, but Gore-Tex boots may not be suitable for a desert hike.

"Often, one-piece leather uppers that are well-maintained work just as well,'' he said. "A boot tends to be more breathable in leather, or even nylon.''

Name-brand outsoles, like Vibram Italian lug rubber outsoles, also drive up the price, but they also come with benefits. The individual lugs, which act as little cushions, make the shoes much more comfortable for long-distance walking, he explained.

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With the right hiking boots, a trek into the wilderness won't leave feet swollen, blistered and crying for mercy. But just in case, Littlefield has plenty of tips for the trail.

"Make sure that you always start your day with fresh socks,'' he said. "The feet swell over the course of the day and if you're carrying a heavy load, that will happen sooner than if you are out on the town.

"On extended backpacking trips, start off your day with a thicker sock. At midday lunch, change into thinner socks,'' he said.

Not only will boots fit better, but also the change of socks ensures dry feet -- always a plus when the body is perspiring from the day's activities.

Even with a proper fit and dry feet, blisters are bound to pop up now and then.

"One of the products I always bring with me is Spyroflex Skin Savers,'' Littlefield said. The thin, lightweight sticky-backed Band-Aid-style strips take up virtually no weight or space in a backpack, but can mean the world to feet should sore spots develop, he said.

On any extended trip, also be sure to pack an extra pair of shoes.

"Whenever I backpack, in addition to my hiking boots, I always bring along an extra set of footwear for stream crossings and to get out of those big heavy boots at the end of the day,'' Littlefield said.

"If you have to use your hiking boots for stream crossings, the wet boots are going to be cold, promote fungus growth and the leather won't be as breathable,'' he said. "And, you want the ability to get into a lighter shoe at the end of the day after the rigors of your boot.''

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