A good friend of mine has a minor bunion on her left foot, which is often pinched, abraded, compressed, or otherwise painfully affected by her hiking footwear. People with wide feet—especially across the front of their feet—often experience the same problem: blisters, painfully squished toes, and general unhappiness. In my friend's case, the rest of her foot is relatively flat and low-volume, with a narrow heel and minimal arches and instep. All of this makes it a challenge to find properly fitting footwear. What should she do?
1) Find hiking boots that are sufficiently wide in the toebox—you need to make sure your feet have enough room in the front. When trying on shoes, loosen the laces all the way to the bottom and slide on the shoe. Without tightening the laces, stand up. If they feel uncomfortably tight or painfully constrictive across the front of your feet, forget it. Move on to the next pair. If there's adequate room to accommodate your bunion or wide feet, skip to step 4. If they feel snug to very snug, but not uncomfortable or painful, move on to the next step.
2) Footwear will loosen up over time as the material stretches out—and will often have enough give to accommodate an initially snug fit. However, the amount of stretch varies greatly depending on the type of material. Nylon and polyester mesh, rubber, faux-leather, and other synthetic materials will marginally stretch over time. Leather, on the hand, is supple and will stretch significantly with time and use. This process can be accelerated by using a rubbing bar and/or applying leather conditioner to areas you want stretched. (Keep in mind, however, that places where multiple pieces of material overlap and are stitched together will not stretch easily—there's too much material and thread there.)
3) A rubbing bar is essentially a long curved piece of metal with a rounded narrow tip roughly half an inch in diameter. It's often bolted down to a solid fixture or heavy item to keep it in position while you use it. Slide the boot over the end of the rubbing bar and apply pressure to a specific point or area on the boot by rubbing it outward with the end of the bar. It takes a lot of effort and pressure to do this, but after 5-10 minutes of steady rubbing, the target area will show some stretching. This method can be used to stretch out the entire toe box, but is much more effective at stretching out specific areas to eliminate pressure points by creating a small "pocket" of stretched leather on the edge of the boot. Applying leather conditioner softens up the leather, which helps accelerate the stretching process, whether you're using a rubbing bar or simply wearing them around.
4) OK, you've got enough room in the toe box. Now start lacing up your footwear. Your lower laces should only be tight enough to keep the front of your feet from sliding around from side-to-side. If the shoes fit snugly in the front, you can leave them very loose—the crucial lacing comes above the instep. Once you reach above your instep, where the top of your foot curves upward to your ankle and shin, you're at the important point. The laces that run across your foot here are crucial for locking your heel into position, which prevents it from sliding up and down and causing friction which causes blisters. Pull the laces here as tight as possible without it becoming painful. If your footwear has a high ankle collar, the laces will continue. Tighten these as much as is comfortable.
5) Now we come to the crux of the matter for my friend. Footwear that is wide across the front is almost always wide and high-volume in the back as well. This means that people with narrow heels and low-volume feet will have a lot of extra room in the back of the boot. The heel will slide up and down, the back of the foot can shift from side-to-side—both of which increase the likelihood of blisters and a sprained ankle. How to address this? First of all, lace your boots properly as described in step 4. Still no good? Move on to step 6.
6) If the back of your foot is still swimming in your shoes, consider using an after-market insole to take up some of the extra room. If you need to take up room in the back of your shoe, any insole with thick padding in the heel will help do so. I'm a big fan of Superfeet for this application. Superfeet come in a variety of styles, each of which is indicated by a particular color. For a piece of high-density foam and plastic, they're not cheap ($40-$50), but they do last for as long as two years of regular use. Their green and orange insoles are the highest volume options—I routinely use them for this application.
7) Still can't get a good fit in front or back? Move on to another boot. Outdoor brands that typically run wide across the toes include Keen, Merrell, and Lowa, among others. Women with longer feet should keep in mind that men's shoes are wider than women's and that there's a size-and-a-half difference between the two. (For example, a women's 9.5 would be a men's 8.) If after trying everything on in the store, including all of the varieties of insoles, you still have no luck, consult a podiatrist—you may need some custom orthotics.
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.