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Hiking Boot Lacing Techniques

If you wear hiking boots and get blisters when you go hiking or if your boots don’t fit as well as you’d like, there are a handful of powerful hiking boot lacing techniques that you can use to dial in a good fit. Unfortunately, these lacing techniques have become somewhat of a lost art since well-trained boot fitters are so scarce.

However by learning these techniques, you can completely eliminate the painful banging of your toes against the front of your boots, heel lift which causes those painful heel blisters, and sore spots on the top of your foot where the laces are tied too tightly. If you experience any of these issues, you need to watch these videos!

The Heel Lock

For example, if you get heel blisters when you go hiking, it’s probably because your heel is lifting up when you take a step forward and rubbing against the inside of your boot. This source of friction causes a blister, essentially a friction burn, on the back of your foot.

However, can eliminate heel lift using a lacing technique that people call the Heel Lock. Rather than using the normal back and forth diagonal lacing most of us know, this lacing technique (shown in the video above) uses the open hooks (speed lacing system) on the side of your boots to create a pulley like system for mechanical advantage, letting you crank down the most resistant leather or plastic boots and firmly lock your heel in place.

I use this Heel Lock lacing technique in winter to tie my mountaineering boots and it works extremely well for eliminating heel lift. It takes a little practice to tie, but is definitely worth learning, and can be used with any boot, trail runner, or shoe where heel lift is an issue.

The Surgeon’s Knot

Another essential lacing technique is called the Surgeon’s Knot, which my father, a doctor, taught me when I was a young boy. It’s like the simple overhand loop that you normally use when tying shoes but instead of just going around once and pulling it taught, you go around twice or even three times, creating a friction-based lace lock which won’t slip loose when you let go.

Using a Surgeon’s Knot, it’s possible to isolate different parts of your laces from one another, creating areas that are tighter or looser. For instance, if you have a sore spot on the top of your foot above your arch, you could make the laces below it tight, lock them off with a Surgeon’s Knot, and then tie the area above the sore spot more loosely. The Surgeon’s Knot is shown in the second video above, along with the Heel Lock again.

Lacing Windows

Lacing windows are another useful, but counter-intuitive lacing technique that breaks traditions with the standard back and forth diagonal lacing we’re all familiar with. Instead of threading a lace diagonally, you thread it vertically to the next higher eyelet on the boot, creating a gap in the lacing that relieves some of the pressure on the top of the foot. This is good for people with high arches or who get sore spots on the top of their feet when their laces are tied too tightly (see the video above for a demonstration.)

The Myth of Well Fitting Boots

Unless you are willing to spend the money for a custom pair of hiking boots that are tailor-made for your feet, you will probably have to adapt the fit of your boots using the lacing techniques described here, augmented with one or more sock layers and insoles. This is the norm when it comes to fitting hiking boots and becomes more important the heavier and stiffer the boot is. Individual variations between individuals and even between feet (see Is One of Your Feet Bigger than the Other?) make it unlikely that you’ll find a pair of boots that fit both of your feet perfectly, hence the need to have multiple tools including these advanced lacing techniques in your quiver of boot fitter tricks.

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  1. I would love to learn some of these techniques after losing my toenail hiking Mt. Washington this past summer.

  2. My wife are planning a 30 mile, two day hike in the spring. Would it be ok to go in athletic shoes instead of hiking boots? The terrain is only 200 feet in drop over the whole trail.

    • Many people don’t wear hiking boots anymore. It’s a personal
      Decision really. If the conditions warrant it, I don’t see why not.

    • I’ve been organizing and leading mountaineering expeditions to Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp and Mt. Ararat for some years now. This is what I have to say regarding your question whether it’s ok to use athletic shoes for your 30 mile hike. First, I have to ask what type of terrain is the trail you’re going on? Is it a well maintained hiking trail, an access backroad, a less-traveled path into the bush or a combination of either? What kind of environment are you going to be hiking in? A desert, forest, arid & rocky, alpine, along the coast, or a combination of either? What type of weather are you going to anticipate? Sunny, dry, humid, rainy, snowy or… you guessed it, a combination of either? Are you going to be carrying a light backpack (20lbs) on your back throughout your hike? What type of experience do you have hiking long distances and fitness level are you in? And finally, what type of athletic shoes are you planning to use? They come in so many shapes and colors, you need to be more specific. What are they designed for?

      All these factors play into what type of footwear to strap on your feet for your journey. Without getting into too many details, the rougher the terrain the better it is (but not necessary) to wear mid-cut hiking boots. I say not necessary given the fact you have no steep terrain to tackle and assuming you’re not carrying a heavy backpack. Trails full of small rocks and scree tend to reek havoc on the feet, especially the ankles. You’ll need the extra support of a dedicated shoe. Wet or snowy terrain will turn your feet into prunes in no time unless your footwear is designed to be water resistant.

      The hike you described can be easily doable in an Off-Trail running shoes. They tend to have thicker outsoles, stiffer and more cushioned outsoles and more rugged threads for better grip and stability. If you’re sporting your garden variety running shoes, the bottom tend to be too soft and thin intended for the shoes to roll with your feet on flat surfaces, but they don’t offer good enough support for long hauls, especially while carrying heavy weights. The principle here is that you’ll most likely need shoes that have stiffer footbeds and outsoles to shield your feet from stepping on pebbles, rocks and roots, and offer better stability. Mind you, they don’t need to be titanium stiff like high-altitude mountaineering boots. Pay attention if your shoes have a thicker outsoles, you’ll need the cushioning when going off-road. Again, if you’re carrying a backpack, the heavier, the more the need for a mid to high cut boots. As far as your athletic fitness is concerned, if your feet are used to working hard for you on regular basis, you’ll be able to better bear the brunt of this venture. If not, seriously consider upgrading to dedicated shoes for more comfort and assurance you’ll make it to the finish line.

      Hope that helps.

  3. Thanks for this post. Very useful. You’ve opened up a whole new world for me! I was previously very ignorant in my lacing. I never knew about any other techniques. I don’t really ever get blisters at all but I do sometimes end up with some sore spots (feels like bruising). I think I’ll be able to alleviate that after some experimentation with these techniques.

    • If the bruising is on your shins, try loosening the top laces up so that you can insert two fingers in back of the tongue; best to use a heel lock or surgeons knot in this case to keep the bottom of the boot tight. If the bruising is on top of your foot, then the lacing window is the way to go.

  4. I’ve used athletic shoes on some trips, and more normal hiking shoes on others. It is more the rockyness of the trail than the climb that makes a difference. It would be good to make sure that the soles of the athletic shoes are on the firmer side of things – some running shoes have very soft soles and you can feel variations in the floor (like the edge of a carpet) through them. The shoes, worn with polypro liner socks dried within 20 minutes of walking through a stream (i timed it). When it’s really rocky I prefer ankle high shoes with a decent toe box to avoid dinging my ankles or really stubbing my toes.

    There are a number of citations on this website about inov-8 terrocs – and the inov-8 trail shoes are what I now use.

    It’s also important to work out what kinds of socks work best for you. One of my sons and I just wear polypro liners, while my other son finds smart wool works – so it is fairly individual. (though stay away from cotton).

  5. Runners often use these different styles of lacing. Its even more important to have well-fitting shoes during a race so you don’t need to stop.

    I use the “lacing window” technique to relieve pressure on the top of my foot in trainers, and I think a variation on the “heel lock” is the standard method for lacing Sportiva Mythos climbing shoes. It really works!

  6. That is a great web site, but the problem with it is that most of the lacing is for decorative purposes and he has virtually nothing there for hikers.

    I’d also say that 99.9% of the you tube videos about lacing are decorative only and have very little if any functional use.

    • There are a handful of functional styles there. I actually like the so-called “hiker” lacing a lot on my Inov8s. It cinches the sides close without putting much pressure on the instep. The side-oriented bow has no advantages, though. Maybe more importantly, I finally un-learned the granny knot. No more wet, cold double knots to undo at the end of the day.

  7. Do you have a recommended lacing technique to prevent toe bang in the front of the shoe?

  8. These kinds of posts are awesome! Sometimes it’s the little things that seem so insignificant that can turn a good trip into a bad one.

  9. What about toenail bruising with low boots? They don’t feel too small… and one of my feet is a half size bigger, but both of my toes ended up bruised after a particularly hill-y day on the AT – nothing too painful, but I’d like to avoid it in the future!

  10. Toe slam was always a problem for me in the past with several pair of leather boots but it went away with my Innov-8 288 GTX trail runners. When I tried conventional boots that were long enough to prevent my toes from hitting, the rest of the boot was too loose. The trail runners have solved that since the fit seems better for me. If I’d known of these lacing techniques, I might have saved some problems in the past with my old boots or been able to size them with enough toe clearance and still lock the ankles to prevent blisters. The trail runners came pre-laced with the heel lock technique and I’ve continued to use them the way they came, which may also explain the difference.

    I’ve never had blisters with the trail runners but got a couple nasty ones two months ago when I used my retired leather boots on a motorcycling/hiking expedition with my brother in law. The trail runners can’t take the abuse of motorcycling but after the blister incident, I packed them on the back of the bike for hiking once we got somewhere.

  11. Thanks for this. as a somewhat novice backpacker I have never seen these before.

  12. I just watched the boot tying videos. They’re all misleading because they fail to mention the most important aspect of tying books. This is one I learned from years of playing ice hockey and speed skating. When lacing your boots/skates ALWAYS put your heel on the ground and raise the toe of the boot about 45 degees. This helps to set the heel of your foot in the back of the boot. Then using a good lacing technique it will stay there.

  13. Thank you!!!
    So many blisters behind me… and you’ve just solved my problem in a few seconds:)!

  14. Think I need your expert help!!! I’ve bought two pairs of hiking boots and have found the same problem with both of them …. my outer ankle bones get SO bruised that I then can’t wear them the following day as it’s agony. My first pair seemed to finish in line with the bone so thought this was probably the problem so bought a second pair that finish above the bones and tried them out in the Scottish Highlands a couple of days ago but still agony. They are both so comfortable everywhere else and cost a lot of money :-( Both are really padded around the inside ankle area too. I’ve tried doing them tight then loosening them off but to no avail. Is there anything I can do or do I just have stupid ankles?!! Lol ;-) Any help would be much appreciated …

    • Are they leather? If so, you need to suffer for at least 50 miles to break them in. Otherwise, I am afraid you probably want to switch to trail runners, which will avoid the problem.

    • Hi Joanne. Do you still have this problem? I just got new hiking boots and now have this problem. Even after wearing them 10 miles to break them in. Both of my ankles are so bruised, it’s agony to even put them on the next day. What did you do? The boots were very expensive and feel GREAT everywhere else.

      • Same ankle bruising issue. Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid. They seem very well padded at the point where it bruises (just above the ankle), not sure why it is happening. Had them out twice so far, after 10 miles it is unbearable. Not sure any of these lacing techniques will help with ankles, but will definitely give it a try.

  15. I’ve found what works best for me to eliminate toe bruising is to put a lot of tension on the first two rows of eyelets and use a surgeon’s knot to lock it. Lace normally up the foot and then use the h
    eel lock.

  16. Hi! Thanks for article! For my boots i used this (Army) method.
    Very reliable.

  17. Thank you so much for posting this video. I have high arches and have struggled with a hot spot on the top of my foot that usually leads to pain and foot numbness by the end of each day. I have attended 4 hiking “specialty” stores in the past month. Staff have suggested all sorts of boot styles, inserts, heal cups etc but nothing rectified the problem. Considering how easy the fix is, I’m surprised that no one at the shops suggested modifying the lacing. I just re-laced my boots using your “window” technique and can already tell that it is going to make a huge difference. My feet are eternally grateful.

  18. Videos 1 and 2 above are the same with different titles, and neither shows the Surgeon’s Knot.

  19. Very informative. I’m 59 and fairly new at hiking. This site is very appreciated as I understand the value of not having to learn everything the hard way. I almost didn’t read this article as it sounded a bit trivial until I thought for a second about how important foot comfort can be…I know…duh;)..Thank you so much for all the helpful tips, tricks and advice.

  20. Why have speed lace hooks vanished from the shops in the last couple of years?

    • I think the reason is because the metal lugs or hooks that the laces “speed lace” through can catch on each other as you are walking and cause falls. Two days ago my daughter had three hard falls through this, only on the third fall was I able to see what had happened. She hadn’t laced the boots tightly at the upper area and so they gaped a little and allowed them to snag together. No possibility of regained no balance when your feet are effectively tied together. Tighter lacing, re-lacing through lugs to fill up the gaps, socks folded over the top and or gaiters over the boots to cover up the lugs would probably solve this. A hard lesson to learn but thankfully no broken bones.

  21. One way to help prevent laces from coming untied is to tie as usual with one exception. Wrap twice around the first bight before passing the second bight through. It requires a bit more finesse as you cinch it down, but so worth the extra couple of seconds. I’ve learned to lace the shoes with one side slightly longer than the other to accommodate the double wrap. I hope this makes sense.

    • I learned this trick from a knot book and use it without exception because it really keeps your laces secure and unties easily when you pull the ends.

  22. HI Judy and Joanne were talking about their boots bruising the outside odd their ankles earlier but no one answered them. I have the same problem with Salomon Quest 4 D 2 GTX. My ankles are bruised on the outside while the rest of the boot fits awesome, no rubbing or blisters. The boot isn’t bending and nothing rubs on the inside. Any advice on how to lace these? I’m climbing MT. Killi in December. Thanks

  23. I’m having the same ankle problem with Hoka high boots. The feet and cushioning are just what I need, but one of them will bruise my ankle if I walk 15 miles a day for two weeks as planned. Any experiences?

  24. Training for Kili too and Salomon Quest 4 D 2 GTX fit beautifully except around my ankles which are both bruised… I am going to try to tie the ankle more loosely and see if that solves the problem. They are a very rigid boot which I believe will be great for Kili but if the bruising continues I will need to return them to REI

    • Rox and KJ, I’m having exactly same ankle/shin bruising with the Salomon Quest 4 D 2 GTX boots. Really comfortable otherwise, no blisters but bad bruising above ankle bones after several day hikes, mean I’ve had to switch to trainers on my holidays- did you have any success changing lacing? JKB

    • Same ankle bruising issue. Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid. They seem very well padded at the point where it bruises (just above the ankle), not sure why it is happening. Had them out twice so far, after 10 miles it is unbearable. I tried to not lace at the very top which helped for a couple miles, but then pain again.

  25. Hi there,

    Thanks for the great article. I have a question concerning Salomon (and similar) quicklace shoes. They have a Kevlar pull and done lacing system. I like the idea, but don’t know if/how to get a custom fit with them. They might be the best overall hiking shoes I’ve found as of late, but I can’t lock in the heel like I could with traditional laces.

    Do you have any advice in using these lacing systems?

    Thank you.

  26. Sounds like your ankle bones may protrude more than most folks. Have you tried making a cushion around the bone to take some of the boot pressure? A thick donut made of Moleskin should work.

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