How Tight Should Hiking Boots Be Laced?

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If you’re about to hit the trail, you may find yourself wondering just how tight your hiking boots should be laced? And do they still provide the same benefits if they’re laced too loose?

Hiking boots should be laced tight enough to prevent your foot from slipping or shifting during movement while also not preventing natural foot and ankle movement or disrupting circulation.

With that in mind, let’s dive in deeper to get a better understanding of how hiking boots help your foot and why that matters for lace tightness.

How Tight Should Hiking Boots Be Laced?

Before jumping into lace tightness, it’s important to fully understand the purpose and function of hiking boots. Simply put – the main reason that we wear hiking boots on the trail is to protect our feet.

While our feet have some degree of natural padding, we want to ensure that time spent on the trail is safely spent. This includes not just protecting the bottoms of out feet from scrapes and cuts, but also ensuring that we’ve got traction!

It’s not likely that slipping on a trail or down the side of a mountain is going to end in good results. While our toes have the ability to dig into soft surfaces, the rest of the human foot provides little natural traction.

Try walking barefoot up a soft wet hill and you’ll see exactly what I mean!

This lack of traction applies across all types of surfaces be they soft or hard, wet or dry, and flat or inclined.

people hiking through a forest uphill in the rain

Hiking boots and indeed most athletic shoes are designed to essentially amplify and strengthen the foot by replicating its form and function with synthetic material. Boots also protect the rest of the foot by encasing it in a thick but generally somewhat flexible material.

Boots also provide added ankle support. Ankle injuries are among the most common across a vast range of sports and physical activities largely for this reason.

Effective hiking boots actually restrict ankle movement; this is both a counterintuitive and very important concept.

Too much restriction and the ability to walk comfortably on hiking trails is inhibited; too little restriction and the risk of rolling or twisting the ankle is increased. 

It’s important to recognize that boots are essentially designed to be “upgrades” for the human foot. The intricate mechanics of walking are shadowed and reinforced when footwear is working properly, and they are impeded or altered when footwear is not.

It is this perspective which serves as the ideal vantage point from which to tighten your hiking boots. 

If your foot is moving around noticeably inside the boot, it may feel comfortable when you’re sitting down, but consider what this does to the symbiosis between your foot and your boot. The boot is no longer faithfully shadowing the intricate mechanics of each step; therefore you are losing much of the benefit that comes from having this outer layer.

For this reason, you generally do not want your feet or ankles to be shifting in your boots

Having your boots laced too loosely can not only lead to blisters and broken toenails, but it can also impair your nimbleness on the trail.

However, one can easily overdo things and counteract the symbiosis from the opposite end. If you tighten your boots to the point where your toes cannot bend sufficiently backwards in stride or you cannot comfortably squat down because of ankle restriction, you are once again disrupting the ideal function of your boots.

Much of this ultimately comes from feel and experience.

Walk a few paces and pay attention to your feet and ankles, with this concept of shadowing and reinforcement in mind. In some sense, the ideal tightness for your boots is determined by the degree to which it feels like they aren’t even there. 

Keep in mind that most people’s feet swell slightly during activity, so it’s important to not have them too tight from the start. Feet swelling is actually one of the main reasons that people think their boots have shrunk!

While there is no exact way to measure the “perfect” tightness, the short answer is that the shoe needs to be tight enough to prevent your foot from slipping or shifting, while also not preventing proper movement or disrupting circulation.

Finding this perfect zone of tightness is something that you’ll learn to do with time and practice!

How To Keep Hiking Boot Laces Tied

close-up view of hiking boot laces

Now that you’ve found the ideal tightness for your hiking boots, how do you ensure they stay that tight throughout your hike?

If you’re finding your laces are constantly coming undone, it could be as simple as swapping out the material. Laces can of course be bought separately from the footwear itself, and usually for a low price without sacrificing quality. 

Heavy-duty rope laces designed specifically for work boots and hiking boots are usually advertised as such. Even though most hiking boots should come with such laces, wear and tear over time means that swapping for some new laces might still be a good idea if you’re running into problems.

Beyond the raw materials, there is also a tried and true technique for tying your boot laces to stay securely put. Most of us learned as kids the standard formula for tying our shoes: pull the laces tight, cross the laces, wrap one lace underneath the other, make a bow in one hand, wrap the other lace around the bow and pull through. 

Yet often when it comes to arduous outdoor trekking, this is ultimately not enough. Luckily, the solution is extremely simple: double every action of the standard formula. 

  • Pull the laces tight and cross the laces.
  • Then, wrap one lace underneath the other twice.
  • Make a bow in one hand and wrap the other lace around the bow twice.
  • Pull through until snug, and there you have it

This is distinct from double-knotting and produces a much stronger effect while still being easy to untie by hand when the hike is over!

How Do You Know If Your Hiking Boots Are Too Small? 

What if you find perfect brand new laces and you tie them to the exact right tightness only to find you’re still uncomfortable out on the trail?

Understanding how to properly tighten your hiking boots is important before you actually buy them; otherwise you won’t be able to properly evaluate the actual size and fit of the boots on your feet. 

Many approach new hiking boots with the intrepid yet vague idea that they should be “snug.” Unfortunately, this often results in buying boots that are actually too small.

Remember, your boots should fully encase your foot and shadow the intricate mechanics of walking without impeding necessary motion; and they should do so after they have been fully laced up. 

Another factor to keep in mind is that hiking boots generally have to be “broken in” before they’re truly ready for proper trail hitting. This is generally accomplished by some easy walking on flat surfaces and gradually upgrading to trails.

How your boots feel right out of the box is not how they will ultimately feel day in and day out in the long run. For this reason, it is important not to confuse stiffness for snugness

If it feels like your boots are restricting the natural movement of your feet and ankles when you walk in them for the first time, pay attention to whether this is due to too firm a grasp, or to inflexibility of the boot itself. In all honesty, this can be a tough distinction to make.

However, simply paying attention to it can make a significant positive impact on your overall ability to choose the right boot. Just because a boot feels slightly stiff at first does not guarantee that stiffness will last indefinitely.

Lastly, the metric of shoe size itself can be a complicating factor. What size shoe do you wear? If you’re like most people, it tends to vary a little bit depending on the brand. Many people actually have feet that are slightly different sizes. This doesn’t make things any easier, especially in the territory of hiking, where even mere millimeters really matter. 

Ultimately, shoe size is something like a “ballpark estimate,” giving you a range of sizes to try on; but you have to try them on and actually see how they fit. There is no substitute for the actual experience and no shortcut around the in-person test. 

Likewise, there is ultimately no substitute for experience. The more time you spend hiking and the more pairs of hiking boots you wear, the better sense you’ll get for what really works for you. This article should serve as an ideal launchpad for your search, but it cannot replace the wisdom you’ll gain over time. 

Beyond the concepts touched on here, there is the equally important and subjective domain of personal preference. Some hikers simply prefer boots over others, for reasons they may or may not even be able to really explain.

The longer you’re immersed in this passion, the deeper your sense of personal preference will become, and the richer satisfaction you’ll be able to derive from finding that next amazing pair of hiking boots.   

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