A new hiker named Matt has just started regularly hiking some longer distance trails, but he wrote in to me because he’s got a toe-related problem he wants fixed, pronto. He writes:

My second toe on my left foot (but oddly enough, not my right foot…) is longer than all the others. This can cause intense pain when going downhill for long stretches as my toe hits the front of the boot…

I’m wondering if any of your readers might have a similar problem and how they might have dealt with it. Should I get a bigger pair of boots just for one toe, or is there another way to solve the problem?

I will say — when I first started hiking, I had no idea what I was doing. I figured an athletic shoe should be tight fitting to give me the best support to prevent twisted ankles. I also figured cotton would be the best sock material for hot, Southern California days.

Needless to say, my feet for the first few months of hiking got pretty beat up. After spending week after week nursing blisters and sore toes, I decided to actually ask someone about proper boot fit. Things I learned:

– Cotton is awful for hiking socks.
– Buying hiking boots is much different than replacing your everyday sneakers.

I was lucky enough to get a very helpful clerk at the Santa Monica REI, who explained the basics of boot-buying to me. One of the most shocking bits of info I remembered was that boots should be supportive, but not necessarily tight. The best fit actually has to allow your foot a little bit of wiggle-room … which sounds like the problem Matt might be having.

Basically, when you’re hiking, you want your foot to have enough room to spread out to maintain balance, leave space for ventilation, deal with the slight swelling that happens when you’re walking 10 miles, and — most importantly — be able to deal with downhills. When you try on a new boot, you should find a diagonal surface and hit your foot against it — like you would if you were trying to make a quick stop on a steep downhill.

This mimics the way your foot will act in the boot when you’re coming back down from that summit. You want to make sure your toes don’t connect with the front of the boot — because if they do it once in the store, they’re going to do it thousands of times when you’re out on the trail.

null… so I hate to say it, but you might need to invest in a new pair o’ boots for this one. An arch-insole might change the way your foot sits in the boot enough to pull your middle toes back a bit, but changing the way your foot is positioned when you walk might cause discomfort in other ways.

Has anyone else had a similar problem? Or know of any other solutions? Don’t be shy.

image by pietroizzo

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