We hear this question time after time with new boot customers: Why is my heel slipping?
To many folks that are either new to boots or have not worn boots for many years find heel slippage to be a red flag issue and are concerned that they cannot find a boot that fits properly. But if you understand the structure of cowboy boots and specifically how the foot works inside the boot, it’s easy to understand this issue and put to rest any concerns. While this article will not magically vaporize any heel slippage occurring the boot you currently have on, it will help you understand why it’s happening, what’s causing it and how it will likely minimize or go away entirely over time.
The most important thing to realize when trying on boots for the first time is this: boots are not shoes. They are not constructed in the same way as shoes, nor do they fit like shoes or break in like shoes. Before we review the conditions that cause heel slippage, let’s talk about how the boot fits your foot – this is important to understand when considering the issue of heel slippage.
In comparison to a shoe, the fit of which is secured by literally wrapping around the foot from toe to heel, a boot can be seen as a shell that surrounds the foot and is secured by pressure at the instep, which is the top of the foot that ramps into the front of the ankle. It is this pressure, from the instep at the top of the foot, that secures the boot onto the foot. This is important in order to manage your expectations when trying on boots for the first time.
A proper fitting of a boot can be identified at two areas of the foot:
1. The foot of the boot at the instep should feel like the boot leather is giving you a firm handshake across the top of your foot at the instep. When feeling the top of the foot as it rests inside a boot, one should not feel a lot of space or “loosness” between the top of the foot and the top leather of the boot’s foot – a little “slop” is ok, but only a little. Likewise, it should not feel severely stretched over or constricting to the top of the foot. A properly fitting boot will present a comfortably firm pressure at the instep.
2. The ball joint behind the big toe should land at the widest part of the boot’s sole, which is where the outsole will bend in the stride of the wearer.
3. It doesn’t matter where the end of your toes are, unless they are getting crunched or pinched.
If these measurable points are satisfactory, the boot is a good fit – and if the instep grip feels right, you can be sure that the ball joint is very likely resting in the correct place in the boot.
Now that you understand how the boot fits onto the foot of the wearer, let’s address the primary subject of this article – heel slippage – and this phenomenon lies in both the construction of the boot and how the boot fits onto the foot.
To begin with, in comparison to a shoe, boots, by design, are over-built. They are designed with the assumption that the wearer will be putting their footwear to the test. Cowboy boots, in fact, were created to men who spent their days and nights on horseback, wrestling a calf to the ground for branding or medical treatment, tilling and harvesting farmland, mining at creeks or in the channels or caves of mountains and so on. Cowboy boots were created to give these workers footwear that enhanced what they spent their time doing, and they were meant to last, since these working men didn’t have the option to trot over to the nearest boot store to pick up another pair. Even though we all know most boot-wearers today no longer spend their time in these intensive activities, the cowboy boot today still reflects this over-built construction. That’s one of the reasons we love wearing them.
The most critical part of the boot that gives them their longevity is the outsole. No other part of the boot takes the abuse that the sole of the boot does. The thin layer of leather in a modern-day dress shoe would fail within weeks, if not days, taking the traditional abuse that a boot does. The boot’s sole, massively overbuilt to take abuse, is the distinct cause of the heel slippage.
A thick, over-built outsole will not have the flexibility that a thinner sole, say that of a sneaker, address shoe, or a driving moccasin will. Until it is broken in, the sole of a boot will resist bending, such as when your foot is reaching the backside of your stride and getting ready to lift off the ground to move to the front of your stride. When your foot is bending at this point in the stride, but the boot sole is not flexing as much, your heel will lift off the insole of the boot and this is precisely why you experience your heel lifting off the insole.
There are a small percentage of customers purchasing their first pair of boots that are so used to how their feet feel in flexible shoes, that they simply cannot navigate through the feeling that their heel is lifting in their stride – they just cannot get used to how boots feel on their feet, and they quickly determine that the boot does not fit, or they discard their desire to wear boots entirely. Most folks, fortunately, get used to this feeling of heel slippage after just a few minutes of wearing a new pair of boots.
It’s important that new boot wearers are educated in the proper fitting of the boot and why their heels may be slipping mid-stride. If you understand the why’s and how’s of heel slippage, then it’s easy to understand how the process of breaking-in a new pair of boots and how the boot will shift in terms of security and comfort. Heel slippage is usually an issue that is temporary. As the boot breaks in, the sole becomes more flexible, and the aggressive resistance against the bend of the foot during the stride will become more pliable and the heel slippage will diminish or cease completely.
So, if you’re new to wearing boots, don’t let a little heel slippage throw you off. If the boot is fitting properly – firm across the instep and the ball joint at the widest part of the sole – heel slippage will very likely diminish or go away entirely as the boot breaks in. So don’t over-think the proper fit of a boot. It’s all in the instep.