Choosing the right hiking boots is not always easy. The market is completely saturated with different styles, shapes, materials, colours, membranes, soles, and everything else. And let’s face it, it’s a decision you only really want to have to make once – hiking boots are expensive, and you don’t want to be doing too much trial and error. I was invited to Cotswold Outdoor in Cirencester to try out their boot fitting service to see how to get just the right thing for my feet.
Cotswold Outdoor offer an expert boot fitting service at most of their stores across the country. The idea is that in the same way that you shouldn’t buy a pair of ski boots off the shelf without speaking to an expert to make sure you have the right kind of boots for your needs, you should also turn to the experts when choosing your hiking boots. Those of us who choose to hike in boots ask a lot of them, ask a lot of our boots, they are absolutely vital to keeping us on the trail.
I headed to the store at the Cotswold Water Park, just outside Cirencester, after work on a Thursday evening (they’re open til 8pm on a Thursday) to see what kind of boots the team there would recommend. It was my first visit here, because it’s a bit of a drive from where I live, but I can totally see why people head here for their outdoor gear – the store is massive, with all kinds clothing and equipment to keep any outdoorsy gal happy. I was greeted at the door and soon introduced to the team member who’d be doing my boot fitting; Paul may not have liked the look of the old Dr Martens I was wearing that evening, but he seemed nice enough and didn’t waste any time getting started on the task at hand.
We all know that choosing hiking boots doesn’t start with design or colour. It starts with size. Actually, I lie, it doesn’t. Before there is any talk of boots, shoes or runners, first we chatted about what I wanted to do with my new footwear. As you know, I spend a lot of time wearing my hiking boots, primarily for short day hikes in the local countryside. But this particular pair will also have to offer a good base for my next long-distance hike, the Coast to Coast, which I hope to walk with Jenni in summer 2020. I’d gone in with an idea of the kind of thing I wanted – I was expecting for them to say I needed something like the Lowa Renegade in the narrow fit (and I think that’s what I’d have bought if I was left to my own devices). But I was very happy to take the advice I was being given and see what happened.
Next up was the all-important measuring stage. We used one of those old-fashioned looking foot sizers, you know, the metal trays you stand on with all the markings on? I’m an adult and have been wearing the same size shoes for a good few years now, so I wasn’t surprised by the actual number the tool read, nor was I surprised with the confirmation that I have one foot slightly bigger than the other, or that I had a mostly narrow foot with wider toes. But what was very good about this thorough measure was that Paul could equate that size and shape to the characteristics of my feet when I wear boots – heel slippage, tight on the toes, never quite right. With all that information to hand, he headed off into the stockroom to get a couple of suitable pairs for me to try on.
He brought back two pairs. Both were all leather boots (nubuck on both, apparently women prefer the softer look… no comment), which he explained would be much superior on long treks than their textile counterparts, and would be a better shape for my feet as they would mould quicker and more successfully. Both pairs offered good tall ankle support, plenty of padding, thick Vibram soles with decent lugs, Gore-tex lining, and good solid construction that should for miles and miles.
His first suggestion was the Meindl Bhutans, a classic leather boot with a Gore-tex lining. He chose these specifically because they have a super supportive ankle collar with memory foam that that would mould to my foot and keep me from slipping around in the boots, and therefore keep me much more stable on the trail. They also have a good wide toe box which would mean I could wiggle my toes – when I put the boot next to my foot I could see it was the right shape before I even put it on. Designed for demanding hikes in the low-level mountains and easy treks in the major mountain ranges, they certainly sounded like the right kind of thing.
The other option was the Hanwag Tatra, a purposefully narrow fit, lightweight for a leather boot (an advantage over the Meindls), and a good stable design suitable for my narrow ankle. There was also the soft leather cuff and the protected heel and toe caps (I can’t tell you how often I stub my toes!). The pink touches were perhaps not appreciated by this outdoorsy gal, but the boots were nice looking.
The process was the same for both pairs. We put them on, laced them up, and I walked around the shop in them for a food few minutes. I’m sure this wasn’t just a way to get me to add other things to my shopping basket, but rather to give me a chance to stand and walk in them, consciously think about how they felt on my feet, and decide if either pair would make a good boot for my Coast to Coast walk. Both pairs did feel good, Paul had chosen two pairs that did exactly what I needed them to, but the Meindl boots won for me – that bit of extra room for my little toe on my slightly longer foot made all the difference to the comfort out of the box.
But we weren’t done there. Next up Paul grabbed a few pairs of insoles for me to try in my new boots. We talked at length about why these were important – the main reason being to help with my posture when walking – it’s not just about your feet, but about your whole body. We spent a long time comparing different insoles to get me as stable as possible, eventually choosing the Superfeet Blue, and he then cut the chosen pair fit so I had my full set-up ready to go.
I was also given a lesson in lacing my new boots to get the best effect and support my whole foot and ankle. I even took a photo of the finished lacing so I could practice at home!
The whole boot fitting experience took about an hour, was very friendly, and involved a lot of chatter about having fun outdoors – my favourite topic. Paul’s manner was great, he clearly knows what he is talking about, wasn’t patronising at all, and I’m very happy to take his advice. Some people try on just two pairs of boots, like I did, others try on lots more. It is perhaps worth nothing that at no point during the consultation did we talk about money other than the initial budget question. When you sign up to a boot fitting it’s assumed that you are serious about buying boots, have thought about your total spend, and are ready to part with your cash (all of it). You can walk away without buying, of course, a friend did that recently after not being quite sure enough about the choice to take them home. But I suggest if you book a boot fitting appointment you do it when serious about purchasing rather than just out of curiosity. My boots and insoles together would have come to £255 – boots aren’t cheap.
The other thing worth mentioning is how there was absolutely no fancy modern technology involved in the boot fitting at all. It was all based on Paul and his knowledge of what would work well for me based on where I wanted to hike and the shape of my feet. There was no gait analysis, no custom moulded footbeds, not even an electronic size gauge. I mention that Paul was friendly, clearly loves hiking, and seemed to know what he was talking about – he instilled a confidence in me that he was speaking the truth based on training and experience. My good and happy experience at Cotswold Outdoor was because of him – I hope all the fitters are the same, and I hope I wasn’t taken in!
After my appointment I did as instructed and wore them around the house in the evenings for a bit each day to double check they were right before heading out in them to get them dirty. I absolutely love breaking in new hiking boots, it’s one of life’s simple pleasures, and I don’t mind the process at all. I’ve only done a few short walks in the local area in them so far, but I’m already very happy with them and always look forward to putting them on. Naturally I can’t review the boots themselves yet as they’ve not been tested properly by any means (I mean, I don’t even have any muddy boots photos to share with you yet!), but first impressions are decent enough – they are a bit heavier than my old boots, and reviews I’ve read so far suggest they are a heavy boot, but they feel good on and I have high hopes. Ask me in the summer and I’ll let you know how they have performed for sure.
Thanks very much to Cotswold Outdoor for the boot fitting appointment (which is free to all) – and my new boots (which were gifted as a thank you) – I genuinely enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone who only wants to buy boots once.
Thanks to Cotswold Outdoor for inviting me to book a boot fitting appointment at their store in Cirencester, and for treating me to some new boots and insoles. Hopefully these boots will last me for thousands of miles, but I will definitely be back for another fitting at whatever point they need replacing.