Walking the Overland Track with four or five family members and as many friends for my 50th birthday last April seemed a capital idea: my favourite walk in my favourite state at a time of year I'd never walked it. And doing it the swanky way, paying to go with Cradle Mountain Huts and having a lighter rucksack, a bed with a pillow, a shower at the end of the day, and wine with dinner… if you can think of a better way to spend a week, please let me know.
A couple of months out, however, a small piece of pre-trip housekeeping arose: I needed a new pair of walking boots, as did five of the people who'd accepted my invitation - and they were all starting to ask boot-buying questions. Perhaps the solution was to just take the bootless horde en masse to a specialist walking outfitter and kill the problem in one go. After a few phone calls I'd made an appointment with Trek & Travel of Kent Street, Sydney, and the following Thursday evening we landed on T&T's welcome mat: four females and two males, ages ranging from 16 to 49. Store manager Ian Arnold and web-marketing man Iain Finlay - both experienced walkers - ushered us in and quickly went to work.
"People who walk all the time know the importance of properly fitting boots," said Ian, as he nestled my friend Louisa into a pair of Scarpas. "When they shop for a pair of boots, there might be something new - a new design, or a footbed, sock fabric or the like - that we bring to their attention, but mostly they know what they want. Generally they'll try on boots until they get one that fits right."
However, Ian said, customers who are occasional walkers present a challenge. "There's been a big increase in recent years in the number of novice walkers taking adventure holidays," he said, adding that some of his less experienced customers had good budgets but were less willing to put in the time. "If the first pair they try on feels okay they'll say, 'Yep, good' and that's it," he said. "Then a week later they're out on the trail in boots they've hardly worn and wondering why their feet are less than happy."
At first I tried the same Scarpa model as Louisa's, but I found them too soft. Iain said he wanted to give me a feel of a more rigid boot, but I found them too stiff - I've been wearing lighter synthetic boots for about six years. Third time lucky: another Scarpa model was just right for me. Lou, on the other hand, was sold from moment one. She dutifully tried a couple of other models, but the deal was done. "They're so light and soft I can barely tell I have them on," she said.
Over the next hour or so Ian, Iain and their colleague Spencer McDonald fitted more than two dozen models to our six pairs of feet. One of the best tricks they employed was a side-by-side comparison - putting one model on each foot and sending us up and down the little walkway. It was a little like having your eyes tested - "clearer on the right, or left?" - and a really smart way to instantly "feel" which was your preferred model.
A surprising part of our fitting-on ritual centred on socks. I've always believed in buying good, purpose-built walking socks, but the T&Ts managed to talk me into buying "double" socks - something I knew about but hadn't tried before.
Spencer saw a number of good reasons to go double. "Because you've got a sock combo that allows the boot's Gore-tex liner to breathe and to expel moisture, you're not going to get a damp sock," he said, explaining that liner socks wick moisture away from the skin and are also a blister deterrent: "The two-sock combo means that any rubbing is sock on sock, not sock on skin." In the end I bought double socks for all the family, and all were happy to walk in them.
A couple of hours after arriving we departed, arms heavy with boot boxes and wallets somewhat lighter. Our tallest (Adam) and shortest (Amelia) walkers bought Vasque boots. Louisa, Tess and I had Scarpas. Gail chose a pair of Salomons.
Only six weeks or so later we set out on the Overland - well, those still standing did. Louisa's busy work life had torpedoed her involvement a month or so before, and Adam had dislocated his shoulder just 14 hours before our flight to Launceston left Sydney. The walkers had all put in the minimum time breaking-in their boots and all sailed through the 65km with feet that were happy, mostly dry and most definitely blister-free.
FIVE UNBEATABLE BOOT-BUYING TIPS
1) Don't be deadset on following friends' recommendations. Boots are modelled on different 'lasts' - the form around which they're built. These vary substantially in width and volume. You might hear that this brand or the other is best - but the best boots for you are the ones that fit you best!
2) Give yourself time to thoroughly break in the boots. This includes having enough time to wear them around the house for a couple days to make sure they fit. Most retailers are happy to exchange or refund within 14 days provided the boots have not been worn outside.
3) Ensure your heel is not lifting up from the footbed when you walk. Use the little walkways in the store to simulate going up and down hills - that's where you'll notice it.
4) Take out the cheap foam insole that comes with the shoe and replace it with a specialist insole (such as those from Superfeet or Sole). Specialist insoles provide a substantially better fit and support for the arch and heels - far more than just adding gel or cushion insoles.
5) Wear good-quality socks when you're trying boots on - preferably ones that you would hike in, made from merino or merino/synthetic blends.