Boot Camp.

So as I mentioned in a previous post, I've been looking for some new hiking boots. I don't think my foot size has really changed since I was in high school. I took a 9.5 then and I take a 9.5 now.

I have very stringent boot requirements. They have to give me great ankle support (old snowboarding yard sale injury), they can't be made in China (I modified that requirement - at first I tried "they have to be made in the U.S." but I discovered that we don't make anything here anymore), they have to be comfortable, have almost no heel lift and be made with Norwegian welt construction. A tall order, I know.

The one boot that fits all those requirements is the Merrell Wilderness. Made in Italy, tough enough for some light climbing, comfortable enough for long hikes -- I've had a few pairs of those and they've been great. They can be re-soled, and they aren't too difficult to break in. Lastly, they always fit. The one thing they are not, however, is waterproof.

Oh, they'll say they're waterproof, and they may even be waterproof right out of the box, but they are not waterproof for very long. Even when properly treated, a rainy, messy hike will mean your feet will get soaked.

I wanted another pair to wear when when the weather looked suspect. Something that included that magical material called Gore-Tex. I knew I'd have to give up the Norwegian welt, but I figured it would be a fair trade-off.

As you may already know, I hate shopping. I hate going to stores, I hate being waited on, I hate standing in line to check out, I hate just about everything involved in the entire miserable experience. That being said, you'd be correct in thinking that I am a big fan of ordering stuff online.

Boots, however can be an iffy proposition, because unless you're buying something you've purchased before, you have nothing to go on except for the reviews of others. So began my boot buying odyssey, which has not yet, in fact, ended. Right now there are boots in a box on my kitchen table, waiting to go back from whence they came.

Let me tell you why.

I know you probably don't give a shit, but I'm going to get this off my chest anyway, so what else do you have to do? I suppose you could go watch reruns of old American Idol episodes, but even if I just typed nothing but the word "moist" over and over and over for an hour and then made you read it out loud, it would probably be less annoying than doing that.

Anyway, after reading hundreds of reviews, I decided that these boots might be the ones for me. They had the Gore-tex, they had good reviews, and they were made in Germany. Sure, there were a few discrepancies in the reviews -- some people said they ran big, other people said they ran true to size -- you never know who to believe. I figured worst case, I'd take a shot, order my normal size and hope it worked out.

Here's how I pictured this happening:

1. Order boots.
2. Receive boots.
3. Wear boots.

Simple, right?

To make sure things happened as I wanted them to, I decided I needed to figure out exactly what my shoe size is. I always knew I was a size 9.5, but I never really knew my width. A? B? C? D? E? EE? EEEE? F? G? I had no idea.

"How hard can it be?"
I thought to myself. "There are probably hundreds of sites out there with the info I need." The first site I went to told me to trace my feet, then click the "shoe size conversion chart" link. Since I always do what the internet tells me to, I traced my feet onto two pieces of paper, measured toe to heel and side to side, and then clicked on the link. It was dead.

So I had learned three things. One, I have duck feet:

Narrow in the back -- wide in the front, flat on the bottom. They are like triangular paddles on the end of my legs. Two, my right foot is a full half-inch shorter than my left. Three, static web pages suck.

Armed with that knowledge, I headed off to Wikipedia, the knower of all things, and looked up "shoe size."

That's when I started to get confused. It seems that along with religion and politics, nobody in the world can agree upon the best way to size a shoe. It seems that the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and the military all use different systems. Oh, and women's and children's sizes -- also different.


I continue to read. It wasn't all bad. The first thing I saw was that there were three common sizing systems. The first one is used by NATO and other military groups. It's called "Mondopoint." There are length units, and width units. At least that makes sense, right? In a perfect world, you'd walk into a shoe store and if your foot is 10.5" long and 4" wide, you'd say "give me that shoe in a ten-five by four" and you're on your way. But no.

Because Mondopoint is in millimeters and I live in the U.S., I can't convert that into actual inches without a calculator and a lot of time. So it wasn't ideal. Also, I am not in the military, and since nobody else uses it, it was dead to me.

I looked at the U.S. information next.

The calculation for a male shoe size in the USA or Canada is:

male shoe size = 3 x last length in inches -24

Then I had to look up "last length." Apparently, the "last" is the foot-shaped template over which the shoe is manufactured.

Wikipedia told me that the traditional US system is similar to English sizes but "starts counting at one rather than zero, so equivalent sizes are one greater." So one number higher than English shoes. OK. I'm good enough at math to figure that one out.

I started reading about the sizing methods used in the UK. "Shoe size in the UK (English size) is based on the length of the last..."

So far, so good. I mean, I now knew what a "last" was.

"... measured in barleycorn starting from the smallest practical size, which is size zero. It is not formally standardised."

Jesus Christ. Barleycorn? Where was I going to get my hands on a barleycorn at 11:30 pm on a Thursday? I don't know about you, but I don't have a barleycorn farmer on speed dial. Plus, it's not even standardized. What would happen if I inadvertently got my hands on some bigass barleycorns?

So it turns out that the barleycorn is a "basic Anglo-Saxon unit, literally the length of a corn of barley."

Wikipedia says that it "goes back to 1066, as the base unit from which the inch was nominally defined. Three barleycorns comprising 1 inch was the legal definition of the inch in many mediƦval laws, both of England and Wales, from the 10th century Laws of Hywel Dda to the 1324 definition of the inch enacted by Edward II. Used in current UK shoe measurement."

Used in current UK shoe measurement. Did I just read that?

So apparently the English are currently using a unit of measure from 1066 to size shoes. Currently, as in Today. Right now. Exactly at this second, there's some UK bastard out there lining up his fucking barleycorns.

Then I remembered these boots are made in Germany. I immediately canceled my barleycorn order, and started looking at the Continental European system -- which is used in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

In this system, the shoe size is the length of the last, "expressed in Paris points."

Seriously? Paris points? Son of a bitch.

So it turns out that a Paris point is ⅔ of a centimetre and it has been agreed upon in Germany that the last is the length of the foot plus two centimetres, so to figure out my shoe size, the simple formula is:

At this point, I was done. I just opened the Cabela's website in my browser, ordered my boots in a size 9.5, EE and called it a night. A few days later, they showed up.

I put them on, and they were too big. I'd say by at least three, maybe four barleycorns. I had to crank the laces down, and I still got heel lift.

So I did what I should have done to begin with. I got on the phone with the sales guy at Cabela's, and told him they were a little too big and I was getting some major heel lift.

"Yeah, they do run a little big," he said. "You ordered the wide boot -- the EE width -- is that what you wanted? Most people with normal feet go with D width. If I were you, I'd get the 9 D's. They'll probably fit you perfectly."

So now I need to send the other ones back, and in another week, I'll have a pair that will supposedly fit me like they should.

But I've been saving my poppy seeds, just in case. It turns out that according to modern-day UK math, they go four to a barleycorn, and they're much easier to get.

They're a real pain in the ass to line up, though.


  1. I sympathize with you completely. I order most things online for the same reasons you do, and finally about 6 months ago decided to do the unthinkable and try and get shoes that way. Doing all the research to come up with a size that made sense, I found the same things you did, and was similarly confused.

    I finally just took a shot in the dark, and the shoes showed up close enough for rock and roll. Not perfect, but one of the things I tend to tolerate with online shopping is that I'm not always going to be ecstatic with the results. I do that because I'm not willing to burn up what life expectancy I have left and enrich the shipping companies by sending things back and forth forever until they're right.

    Besides, one of the things I learned from all that research is that "lasts" are unique not only to manufacturers, but to particular lines, so no matter what you think you know you're still going to be wrong if you haven't used that company's products before.

    In my case, Rockport's "lasts" fit my foot well, so I can buy their shoes without worry. Anybody else, I don't know, so I think my days of buying shoes online are over.

  2. YES! I was going to mention that, but the post was far too long as it was.

  3. Anonymous2:18 AM

    This post made me laugh out loud, thanks for posting it!

    Shoes are one thing I CANNOT order online unless I'm purchasing a shoe I've already tried on in the store.

    However, living in a relatively rural area, I've got an added issue with the whole shoe-fit saga: the time suck. I'm faced with either driving to the closest mall (an hour away), or even to the closest store that actually sells hiking boots (almost two hours away)... just to try on an effing shoe that I can probably get for cheaper online (even w/ shipping) only by the time I'm done driving to/from the store I might as well buy the damn shoes while I have them in-hand.

    Oh yeah. And that store? Doesn't carry great in-store stock, but they can ORDER A PAIR FOR ME which will be in-store in a few days. No thank you.

  4. I guess algebra and trigonometry--or whatever the hell kind of formula that was--does come in handy, after all...who knew you'd have to use it to buy shoes? Good grief.

  5. Jesus Christ.

    I would have given up long, long ago.

  6. Ha! Classic. My son has duck feet, too. We get him the wide widths and he just puts up with the heel thing. I see a lot of podiatrist appointments in his future.

  7. It is 9 in the morning, and I have a hangover. There is too much math in this blog. Yet somehow, you still make me laugh. Also, with those feet, I bet you're a hell of a swimmer. I sold shoes at one point in my illustrious career, and I had a boss that would tell ppl, "A 9.5 EE is the same as a 10 D." We had so many returns...

  8. Anonymous11:58 AM

    And in all that time you could have gone to the store how many times?

  9. Sadly, the nearest Cabela's is in NH, probably a good 6-8 hours from me.

  10. I just bought two pairs of boots. Wish me luck. There is no refund policy.

  11. Anonymous2:41 PM

    Ha! Funny stuff. Thanks for the laugh!


  12. Try being a woman and ordering...anything to wear online. But particularly a wetsuit. Unless you're really skinny. Tits and ass are not wetsuit friendly.

  13. Someday, as a social experiment, I really do want you to type "moist" for a solid hour. I'm not proud to admit this, but I'd probably follow along. Also, barleycorn is a funny word. (I'm hoping those were the points of this post...if so, I totally got it.)

  14. Three magic words:

    Red Wing Shoes.

    You have to go to their store, but only once. You'll never need another pair.

  15. I ordered 3 pairs of stilettos, different heel heights and from different companies in different sizes AND they all fit! How lucky am I?

  16. It really would have been easier to go to the store. You could plan a vacation around it.

  17. Scott A6:22 PM

    Well at least there are only a few hundred more size combinations to get through before you know for sure which is best for you.

    But I personally would run away from Goretex boots. a) They make your feet sweat like treated leather doesn't, 2) The Goretex rots in about a year, and iii) it only does that keeping water out while being breathable thing at certain temperature gradients (like in the snow)

    God, I am a dull man

  18. Cabelas should just be grateful they didn't make the "can suck it" list.

  19. I was under the impression that a "Norwegian Welt" was a kind of ethnically-themed childhood torture maneuver, similar to the "Indian burn" and the dreaded "Dutch rub." I believe I may have been a victim of the Norwegian welt at one time or another, or maybe it was the Swedish contusion, I don't really remember.

    I hate boot shopping too. Math and all the interwebs in the world really won't do any good here; you just have to try a bunch on. I got these for a trip to Alaska:


    They worked great, fit well, are under 200 bucks and are relatively water resistant (lasted one hour submerged in a lake to my ankle before seeping). They dried out quickly and a second application of repellent did the trick.

  20. I liked the Vasques when they were made in Europe, but now that they are made in china, the fit and quality are off.

  21. There's alot of weird measurements like that. Try this one on for size which I dredged up from memory, then located the text through Google...
    The standard United States railway gage is 4 feet 8 1/2 inches; no more no less. Q: Why is the United States railway gage 4 feet 8 1/2 inches? A: That's because U.S. railways were designed by British railway engineers, and their standard gage is 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. Q: Why did the British have as their standard 4 feet 8 1/2 inches? A: The people who built British railway cars used the jigs they used to build trams and the jigs were set up for a wheel base of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. Q. Why were British tram jigs set for a wheel base of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches? A. The jigs were originally used to build road carts, and their wheel base is 4 feet 8 1/2 inches Q: Why did British road carts have a wheelbase of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches? A: The ruts in the long distance roads in Britain are spaced at 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. Q: Why are the ruts on the long distance roads in Britain 4 feet 8 1/2 inches apart? A: These roads were built by the Romans and their war chariots had a wheelbase of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. Q: Why did Roman war chariots have a wheel base of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches? A: The yoke connecting the horses to the chariot had to be wide enough to accommodate two horses.

    Footnote: The booster rockets for the space shuttle are built in Utah and shipped to Florida by rail. The rockets have to pass through a rail tunnel. The width of the tunnel determines how wide the rockets can be. So man's most advanced mode of transportation has been designed, in part, by a couple of horses' asses: 2,000-year-old Roman war horses, to be specific.

  22. BTW, what's "heel lift"?

  23. It's when you are climbing an incline, and the heel of your foot lifts from the sole inside the boot. It'll give you blisters.

  24. LOL, you'd have the same problems over here in the UK I'm afraid, ordering anything online is dependent on the brand, make & crossing fingers! I refuse to buy shoes online, cos they never fit properly. Not sure they have the same thing in the States, but here we have to pay for delivery, usually pay for returns, and then pay for more delivery. I reckon companies bank on people not being bothered to return stuff.

    Love the blog, arrived via a link from Lorielle to your post about JD. I hope you're getting through that ok, I know that space, I'm in it too. Have added you on my blog list, hope that's ok :)


  25. Hiliarious. Just found your blog off another (like we all do :-)) and I was laughing out loud with this write up. Too funny.
    I will have a whole new appreciation for the barley now. :-)

  26. Anonymous8:07 AM

    While Codemonkey's story is interesting, it is also, apparently, false. Head to snopes for the skinny.


  27. p jane9:46 AM

    Not that this would have assured a perfect fit (per their disclaimor) but at least it doesn't involve barleycorn:

    Boot shopping->husband=
    Bra shopping->me
    Me: You have ALWAYS bought your boots there, reorder that size!
    Him: NO, each one fits a little different, I have to try them on...btw, I recorded that Tyra show where she tells you how to measure your boobs--just order the Number and Letter!
    Me: NO, every bra cup is different, some are closer set on the band, some wider and all of them are made for perfect boobs--I don't HAVE perfect boobs!

    (FWIW, http://www.onlineconversion.com/ as a whole is both a useful resource and a fun time waster, esp. under Misc...convert inches to Horse Hands, amaze your friend and family!)

  28. Ha! I grew up in England and have never heard of a friggin barleycorn. When I read your post I thought it was some kind of bizarre ear of corn. And what the hell is a Norwegian Welt? I am picturing some kind of shaggy mountain goat....

  29. Holy crap my head just exploded after reading this.

  30. Anonymous12:37 PM

    So now I'm left to ponder about the "(old snowboarding yard sale injury)." Did I miss that blog? Please elaborate. Oh, BTW, I'm very impressed with your math skills.

  31. I've had feet like yours ever since they had me put them on my birth cert - little triangles with toes on the wide end. And then I got bunions at about 14 or so, so now I have to size for a wide shoe and ... buy bandages for the scraping at the back of my heel. If I have to buy a shoe of any height, I love me some ankle straps ... but unless you're into crossdressing, I guess that's not really an option for you.

  32. Have you tried http://www.zappos.com/

    Free shipping both ways.

    Quick turn-around. pretty good prices.

  33. What Dan said - Red Wing Shoes


    Most comfortable pair of work boots I have ever owned, and made about 20 miles down the road from me in Red Wing, MN

    Looks like a fairly decent selection of hikers, too.

  34. Anonymous5:25 PM

    2 things I love about this post:

    1) you won't buy "made in China" and
    B) it's hilarious


  35. I am a translator (Chinese to English) so in a way, my livelihood is "made in China." That said, there is a good argument for buying certain goods locally, particularly if those locally produced goods are better quality and transportation costs (including pollution "costs") are lower. The one upside to a bad economy and high fuel prices may be that manufacturing in the US will become more economically feasible. Also, as China's economy focuses more on the high tech and service sectors and the standard of living improves, China will become less competitive in the manufacturing sector.

    Wait...weren't we talking about boots? My bad.

  36. "I put them on, and they were too big. I'd say by at least three, maybe four barleycorns."

    Oh dear, thought I might pee myself laughing at that line.

  37. I wear a 12 narrow in USA sizes. I used to wear Merrel Moab Ventalators, but they must have changed the last, or my feet have managed to morph again (they do that). The last 12, my toes almost hit the end of the toe box. I stubbed the left one out orienteering and wound up loosing the toe nail. I'm now in a 13 Soloman! I might switch back to a 13 Ventalator, except I have narrow feet and Soloman's seem more narrow. The ONLY way I'd mail order, is to replace a show with the exact same size, model, color etc....

  38. Well..barleycorns are at least an obtainable contest. At least the world no longer goes by the measurement of the king's foot to determine units of measure.

    Danner still makes boots in the good ol USA, btw.

  39. There's a new Cabela's in East Hartford CT which might be a bit closer depending on where in South Canadia you are... and as long as you don't want any of the cool nice boots, and prefer slippers, camo scentblock boots, or waders, they have 'em in stock. (bastards)

  40. Anonymous2:41 PM

    ok - two reasons why this post made my day - 1) i snorted diet pepsi onto my keyboard. 2) b/c it prompted me to wiki Dr. Martens - the best shoe/boot EVER made until they stopped making them in england and moved production to china/thailand... come to find out that they are BACK to making them in England!! my heart is happy.
    (btw - i hike in my DM boots)

  41. Oh, my, god ~ hilarious. Thanks for the history lesson on the barleycorn. I'm English and I never knew that.
    You know too much about Boots. Have you thought of making your own?

    Love your blog ~ I'll be back again.
    I'm at www.everydaywitch.com, but you won't find much about boots there.

    Bright Blessings.

  42. Anonymous5:02 PM

    I'm in a metro area and can find lotsa things here, so don't order online much unless there is free shipping or it's a specialty item.

    After reading this, I was unsure of my shoe size and looked at the bottom of my sandals. Holy cow, the soles had split all the way across the rubber part and up to the leather(?) I got them at Target 3 years ago for $13, so I can't gripe. I will keep wearing them; am curious how long before the rubber falls off. At my age, should spring for a name brand I can wear for a long time.

    My shoes were a half size too big for years until a shoe store re-measured my feet. In high school they were measured or written down wrong, and that turned out to be a bitch in the Army. I had to get a profile (like a permission slip) to cut a vertical slit in the boots where the back of my heels got raw from the back and forth motion. So much fun on a 12 mile forced march! You would think maybe some DI or officer or myself might have realized they were the wrong size, but nooo...


  43. Anonymous11:33 AM

    This is the reason I no longer buy shoes from a catalogue or the 'net. Besides, I've yet to find anyone who can make a decent 11EEE. I know the Navy never could! Saves me a lot of time just by hitting up the local Payless. At least there I can try 'em on, ere I buy them. I worry about the break-in time later.

    Too, I hadn't realised just how complex all this sizing had gotten. What-ever happened to the person in the shoe store, with that foot measure thingy?

  44. I have been thinking about looking for new hiking boots for about the past two years. Thinking instead of looking because I expect a similar experience to yours, and barleycorns mildew really quickly down here.

    I was walking through the sporting goods store the other day when I saw some Timberlands just like my old ones -- except they have Goretex now. Tried on a 10.5 D, they fit like I had been wearing them for years, put them in the box and wore them. Used them yesterday and they were awesome.

    I suspect I used up some crazy Karma points for a pair of shoes.

  45. 9D's fit perfectly! Whoo hoo.

  46. I was going to say that this story reminded of the one about the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters and the roman war chariot, but CodeMonkey beat me to it.

    Then I read anonymous' buzzkill comment on that story. I decided to check the snopes link and, after reading it, conclude for myself that the story related by CodeMonkey is not actually "false" as anonymous and Snopes claim, but perhaps a little bit embellished for entertainment value.

    None the less, I see you got your 9D's and they fit perfectly. Hurrah!

    You should also be glad that they no longer make just a common boot that could be either left or right anymore. Now that would suck.