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Who’s that walkin’ round here?

Mercy, sounds like baby patter

Baby elephant patter, that’s what I calls it

Say, up in Harlem at a table for two

There were four of us: me, your big feet, and you

From your ankle up, I’ll say you sure are sweet

From there down there’s just too much feet.

—”Your Feets Too Big,” written by Fred Fisher, lyrics by Ada Benson, famously performed by Fats Waller, 1936

Many athletic activities require special gear, but there’s just one major requirement for walking and hiking, and that’s a good pair of shoes. Alas, it’s not that easy. Shopping for shoes is a pain, and so, all too often, is wearing them. For those of us with wide or narrow feet, in-between sizes, or conditions like bunions or old foot injuries, it can feel impossible. 

A big part of the problem for women is that the vast majority of shoes are only available in a B width. That’s hardly helpful if one is D, or God help you, E, or EEE, or even A.

Men have it a little easier. The standard men’s size width is D, but it can be almost equally hard to find an E or A.

Another part of the problem might be that shoe sizes are still measured in barleycorns. Yes, barleycorns, an olde Anglo Saxon unit of measurement that has stubbornly endured, inured to progress and metric measurements or even Imperial inches—one barleycorn is a third of an inch, or 8.5 mm, or the equivalent of three grains of barley). 

A bigger part of the problem is the reluctance of shoe manufacturers to make a wide range of widths, something women are all too familiar with from the bra manufacturing industry. That industry has begun to bend under pressure and even some mainstream companies are expanding beyond A-D. Maybe it’s time for the shoe manufacturers to follow the example. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, found that only about a third of people wear the right shoe size. That couldn’t be because it’s really, really hard to find shoes that actually fit right, could it?

Ask for a women’s shoe in wide in a big box stores and be prepared to be given the pained look that an undesirable insect might warrant. If one is lucky there might be one or two: one is a particular athletic brand starting at around $140, the other a geriatric model with velcro straps. 

Even those blessed mortals with “normal” feet can struggle to find the right pair of shoes. People with narrow feet undoubtedly face challenges as well, but an informal survey of local hikers found that the vast majority of women and more than half of the men have wide feet. 

When it comes to hiking shoes, one would think there would be more options than there are in the realm of fashion shoes. Hobbits hike, Cinderella doesn’t. While there are a bewildering number of options, and opinions, wide hiking shoes are surprisingly elusive. However, there may be hope: there are a number of companies that offer shoes that are actually foot-shaped, but they tend to be pricey. Is it worth the price? For anyone with so-called problem feet, the answer may be yes.

What we look for around here is a sturdy pair of shoes with a wide toe box and covered toes. Hiking sandals are great for the beach, but there are too many loose stones, prickly plants and venomous creatures to make them practical on the trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. Slip-on shoes aren’t as adjustable as shoes with laces, but we know people who hike in them. 

Lugged or at least non-slip soles are essential. Some of the better hiking shoe brands are made with Vibrum soles, a durable synthetic rubber (not to be confused with Vibranium, the fictional element in Marvel Comics that has made Wakanda a superpower and given Captain America his indestructible shield), but there are plenty of options.

Opinion differs on whether high-top boots offer more ankle protection. A physical therapist of our acquaintance claims the benefit is entirely psychological, but high tops do keep out rocks and twigs, and are thick enough to prevent an ankle-height rattlesnake strike, so they aren’t without merit. 

For those who prefer trainers to hiking boots, it is helpful to remember that trail runners are designed for running on dirt; while road runners are for asphalt and concrete. Trail runners generally have less padding but more grip than road shoes. Road shoes have more padding, especially in the heel, but are more likely to slide on loose rock. Wearing trail shoes on pavement may wear out one’s feet and that non-slip sole faster, but the shoe police won’t issue a citation. 

In contrast, hiking shoes tend to be heavier and more solidly built. They are rarely comfortable as everyday shoes and require good socks for the right fit, but a good pair will carry the wearer on a hike through steep terrain without pain or blisters.

Barefoot shoes are a more recent evolution in footwear. Many of these minimalist shoes are built on a wider, more foot-shaped last, but they aren’t always ideal for the rough terrain of the Santa Monica Mountains, where sharp stones, thistles, thorns, sharp seeds, and jagged rocks are frequent hazards, These shoes are designed to protect the feet from basic trail hazards but offer minimal padding. 

Many shoes in this category are “zero drop,” meaning the heel is at the same level as the front of the foot for a “barefoot” feel. Others are a hybrid between minimalism and conventional hiking shoes. Hikers who need more support, or who have to adjust for old injuries have had success swapping the insoles with custom inserts or just cushier insoles. This might outrage purists, but the goal is to find comfortable footwear not to be a martyr to a particular brand, style or footwear philosophy. 

No matter what style or price point one choses, a good hiking shoe or boot should fit comfortably from the start, with no chaffing or pinching. It should provide room in the toe box for the toes to wiggle and enough space in front of the toes to adjust to going up and down hill without crowding. It’s a good idea to try the shoes on with the type of socks one will be wearing to hike in. 

Those of us with wide feet sometimes opt to go up half a size, but it is important to compensate by wearing thicker socks or adjust the fit with inserts—a shoe that is too big can cause discomfort just as fast as one that is too small. There are no real standards in shoe sizes. One maker’s wide shoe may be narrower than another’s regular shoe. Trying on a range of sizes and styles is the best way to find a good fit.

John Muir famously hiked through some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the Sierras in plain leather-soled boots. It’s not the shoes, it’s the person who wears them—but it sure helps if the shoe fits.

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