Shoe size: the crux

Why do blisters and bruises happen? Well, let's see how you get fitted for boots. You walk into the shop, have your feet measured on one of those foot scales, and find you are a size X - with ordinary socks on of course. So you try on some size X boots, a

Why do blisters and bruises happen? Well, let's see how you get fitted for boots. You walk into the shop, have your feet measured on one of those foot scales, and find you are a size X - with ordinary socks on of course. So you try on some size X boots, and after rejecting a few which really are the wrong shape, you find a pair that seems to be (maybe) OK. So you buy them, and what is wrong with that? Well, plenty! The first thing you have not allowed for is the fact that after a few hours walking your feet will no longer be size X: they will be at least half a size larger (on the 6-12 scale, or a whole size larger on the European scale). How so?

Think about a body builder going in a competition. Does he just front up and pose? No, he spends a couple of hours working his muscles ('pumping') first to make them swell up. Your feet swell up after work too. You don't normally see this happening when you are in an office all day - no exercise there! Few people seem to realise this is going to happen. By lunchtime you are walking around with a pair of heavy boots which are quite stiff and are now too small. Your feet complain. Why should you ignore that cry for relief? (""Because I paid a lot of money for these boots"" is not a smart answer!)

It gets worse than that. After a few days of walking, your feet grow even more, such that they can be almost a full size larger. And just sometimes, if you do lots of walking, they stay larger. The muscles and tendons inside your feet can actually grow with all that exercise - just like with a body-builder. If you don't keep checking your foot size, you can drift into a lot of suffering. (Yes, my feet have grown, and are still growing. Ditto for my wife.)

Less well known, or so it seems, is that your feet are one of the few parts of your body which keep growing all your life. Going bushwalking can enhance this effect, it seems. This means that the shoe size which was just fine for you 5 years ago may not be the right size for you any more. Yes, you really can outgrow your footwear, even at a retirement age! This means that your shoes will effectively slowly get too small for you, and over the years will start to give you foot problems. You can't keep wearing those shoes from 20 years ago!

But shape matters too: some people have short wide (duck) feet, while others have long thin feet. For some reason footwear made in some parts of Europe is just the wrong shape for Australian feet. Italian footwear in particular is notorious for being made on a very narrow last (the mold the bootmaker uses to shape the leather). If you find that some of the expensive imported boots seem just too narrow for you, don't buy them hoping they will adapt to your feet. They won't, no matter what encouragement you may be given. (Be suspicious: the shop is mainly interested in making a sale.) Have a look at other brands, including the Australian brands. Or look at lighter Australian-designed footwear which will adapt more readily to your feet.

Some people hope that sports sandals might be more accommodating. However, Emma Eyeball of BGT did not find this to be so in the ones shown to the right. Eventually she had to cut off the whole strap next to her little toes. The ends are pointed to by the arrows. Only by removing the pressure they were causing was she able to finish her 5-day trip. Even so, looking at the gap between her toes and the toe box, one can clearly see that there was very little room there. Clearly, these particular shoes were just not her size.

The next thing you may not have allowed for is the change in sock thickness. You have just added all that padding: where is it going to fit? It must be said that good bushwalking shops usually suggest you put on suitable socks before measuring your feet, but this may not apply in Sports shops.

How can you tell if your shoes are large enough in the shoe shop? Well, the foot measuring scale they (should) have will tell you a fair bit about your foot size (with socks on!). But a good trick used by many experienced shoe fitters is to put the shoe on, do up the laces, and then check two places for fit. The first is at the toe region: when you wiggle your toes they should be back a little from the very front, by maybe 15-20 mm or so. Less is not good. The second is at the heel: there should be enough room behind your heel for you to get a finger down between your Achilles tendon and the back of the shoe. If there isn't, the heel shape may be all wrong for you. On the other hand, when you flex your foot you should not feel your heel pulling easily out of the shoe. Fortunately, after a few uncomfortable mistakes you should get to know what sort of fitting you need.

Even after you have bought a pair of boots which seem reasonable, you may still find that there are pressure points which rub. The traditional solution to this was to stand in a creek for an hour: this let the leather absorb enough water that the leather could mold itself to your foot. The idea lacks appeal somehow, and anyhow modern boot leathers are often treated with a waterproof polyurethane layer (which lasts for a day or two anyhow). There are various other methods used to reshape a boot: special saddle oils and so on. Some of these don't work very well, while others soften the leather too much, permanently. Reconsider before you buy: if the shoe doesn't fit very well, it isn't for you.

Women's shoe sizes

Before passing on we have to make a sexist comment. Talk to an experienced assistant in an ordinary shoe shop and you will learn something well known in the shoe trade. Women usually buy shoes which are about half a size too small for them. They want their feet to look small and dainty. So we find that many women have even worse problems with their feet because of this undersize bias. It's a bit like Chinese foot-binding. Many staff in bushwalking shops seem to be unaware of this problem.

If this makes you wonder about those low-cut leg-warmer socks and foot-bath salts which are extensively advertised for women to buy, you are on the ball. Perhaps a little exercise, some warm slacks and some correctly-fitted shoes might help?

Correct fit: the solution

What to do about this? First, make sure you are wearing fresh thick bushwalking socks when you have your feet measured. Go on, buy a new pair of Thorlos just for the occasion. Try the KX, TKX or KLT styles. These are highly recommended socks, but they may be too thick for some. In that case, try some Ultimax socks, or even some Kosciusko socks from Wilderness Wear. All are good. If you fancy even thicker socks, try some Darn Tough Vermont socks. Then, when you have found footwear which seems really suitable with those new socks, buy that style but at least half a size larger. Yes, they may feel a little loose at the start, but several hours later you will still be feeling comfortable, and they won't feel all that loose any more. Just how much larger you will need them can vary a bit, but half a (European) size is probably a minimum. If you start with cheap light footwear, mistakes won't be too financially serious anyhow. If you make a mistake, throw the shoes out and start again. Do not be tempted to think you have to wear them.

Now, having got your shoes, what can you do if you get a sneaking feeling a few trips later that they might be a shade too tight for you, despite your best efforts? I'm talking here about their being only a shade too tight, not so tight that they are really the wrong size. Or maybe the available sizes were not exactly right, and you went for the smaller size at the time, but now you have reservations. This is sometimes found with some brands which don't come in half sizes (and the KT-26s are one such model). Well, if you have several different brands of socks you can fine-tune the fit by changing which brand of sock you wear with which shoes. This also can work for different seasons: I might wear some thinner Ultimax socks in summer and some thick Darn Toughs in winter, just to get the right 'fit'.

But forget anything you may have read about 'snug, well-fitting boots': that way lies pain. The comment was originally intended for climbing boots anyhow. It is in fact quite possible to walk around in very loose sloppy footwear without any real problem, just as long as they don't rub. I am quite serious here: I once had a pair of light leather bushwalking shoes which I jokingly referred to as my 'bedroom slippers'. They were that loose - I think the leather had stretched. But they worked just fine in some fairly rough tricky country until they fell to pieces. Just don't try to compensate by doing up the laces very tight: you are just going back to pain.

For what it is worth, the author has to point out that freedom from blisters is possible. By wearing good socks and the right size of light-weight shoes, both he and his wife were able to spend eight weeks walking in the Pyrenees in 2004 without any foot trouble at all. We repeated the results in 2006, and 2009 for multi-month walks. Note: we washed our socks (mainly in creeks) every second day. Correct fit did it. That is not say we did not have tired feet (and knees, and legs, and everything else) by the time we got home. We did, but what do you expect from eight weeks of high-speed hooning? We just allowed a couple of weeks of rest after we got back.