If the shoe fits …

Psst! Brannock Device …

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A hiker hung around after Sunday’s hike. “Got a minute to answer a question?”

“You bet,” I said. I love answering questions about hiking. 

“Can you recommend a pair of hiking shoes?”

 Any question but that question.

Hiking shoe recommendations are among the most useless recommendations that can be made. It’s fairly easy to comment on brands in general: this one is m more durable, that one comes in pretty colors. But if you have high arches and I have flat feet, or your foot is narrow and mine wide, the shoe that works for me won’t necessarily work for you.

But instead of acknowledging this, I started rambling on about every shoe I’ve ever owned (starting with a pair of PF Flyers, the same shoe worn by my favorite basketball player of the day, Bob Cousy!). How I wish this conversation had occurred just three days later, because on Tuesday, the way to answer the question became clear: answer it with a series of questions.

* * *

Tuesday, I spent the better part of the day at a clinic conducted by Obōz Footwear. The purpose was to educate staff from Great Outdoor Provision Co.’s seven North Carolina stores on how to properly sell hiking shoes. Preferably Obōz, but basically to get hikers in the shoe right for them. Here are some key takeaways from the presentation, lead by Peter Carioscia, who is part of Obōz educational team (his official title: Touring Tutor).

  • American v. European feet If your feet are American, get a shoe designed for American feet. Americans have more of a V-shaped foot, meaning our forefeet are wider than a European’s foot. (It was unclear how many generations it takes for a foot to become American.) Thus, American-designed shoes, such as Obōzs, tend to have a more snug heel fit and a more open toe box.
  • Waterproof shoes They work — in the right environment. And the Southeast, Peter says, isn’t that environment. Waterproof shoes don’t breath as well, and that can lead to sweaty feet here in the land of heat.
  • Keep your shoes clean Especially waterproof shoes; dirt can clog the shoe’s pours, keeping them from letting your feet breath and creating a variety of woes.
  • Leather Working Group If your boots contain leather, make sure they are Leather Working Group certified. Group members undergo an annual audit to make sure humane and sustainable practices are observed throughout their leather-supply chain.
  • Shoe fabrics. There are pros and cons to the various types of shoe material:
    • Full grain leather is the whole hide, is the most durable and also takes the longest to break in
    • Nubuck is the top layer, is pretty durable, takes less time to break in
    • Suede is the layer closest to the critter, it’s soft and comfortable but not as durable
    • Nylon offers good support
    • Polyester is softer than nylon and more flexible.
  • The right time for a fit. Try on hiking shoes at the end of the day, after you’ve been on them and they’ve spread our, as opposed to the beginning of the day. Also: get your feet measured both while you’re standing and when you’re sitting. 

* * *

And that brings us to, Psst! Brannock. The Brannock Device is that clunky measuring tool that 

was an integral part of the shoe-buying process when you went for your back-to-school Buster Browns, but is only occasionally brought out today. It measures your foot for its key dimensions and, in Peter’s opinion, should always be your first step when buying shoes because the key to a comfy fit is making sure you have a good fit. And that starts with making sure you have the right size. Two problems here:

  • Most people don’t know their shoe size. They may know how long their foot is and how that number translates to size, but the number that’s truly important is the arch length, which the Brannock Device can measure. Arch length and perceived shoe size are often different, possibly by two sizes or more. Your arch length should reflect the true size shoe you get because it better reflects the mechanics of how your foot works and how a shoe is built to respond accordingly. For instance, if you measure for a size 9 shoe but your arch length is 11, you’re probably better suited to a size 10 or 1.5.
  • Most people don’t know their foot width. Men tend to over identify as wide, women tent to under identify as such. And, adds Peter, often people who think they have a wide foot actually have an arch-width issue. Get measured; it makes a difference.

Finally, Peter says, when you go in to try on shoes and you think you’ve found a pair, walk around the store in them for 20 minutes or so: any fit issues should start to reveal themselves. 

To Peter’s recommendations I add this: buy local. Even if you’ve been wearing the same shoe for years and love it, there’s no guarantee it hasn’t been tweaked and will fit the same. The convenience of Amazon is outweighed by the odds of getting a shoe that fits like it should. Even a cosmetic change can affect the fit. Go into your local outfitter, try several pair, get the pair that works. 

In short, invest the time in your hiking shoe purchase. “Your shoes,” says Peter, “are your connection to the outdoors.”

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