It’s probably safe to say that all of our readers know that there are different shoe sizes out there. The same goes for the fact that the shoe’s size usually refers to the length of the shoe, which in turn corresponds to the length of the foot with some added room at the toe. This should be 1 to 2 cm for mountain boots, since your swollen feet would otherwise eventually start rubbing up against the front of the boots on longer descents.
For a lot of people out there, that’s often all the knowledge they need to buy a well-fitting pair of shoes. For others, though, it can be more of a challenge. Why? Well, if your foot doesn’t correspond with the foot shape that any given manufacturer has set as their standard, you’ll end up having quite a hard go of it. After all, your foot type is not just determined by length AND it can deviate slightly from the norm (which is a statistical size that only exists on paper). That said, it’s important for you to know a few more things about shoes than just your shoe size if you want the perfect fit.
Foot shape = last shape = shoe shape
Since the last is often listed among a shoe’s specs, one could think of it is one of its components. But, a last is not part of the shoe. Rather, a last is something you’d find lying around in a manufacturer’s workshops or among a shoemaker’s tools, where it serves as a blueprint, giving a shoe and its sole their form. The fact that it is only a rough copy of the foot, without the toes and other fine details, is completely sufficient because the soft inside of the shoe doesn’t need to be an exact copy of the human foot.
This foot-shaped block is often carved by hand and is made mostly of wood. The ones used for mass production are usually plastic. Most manufacturers use a standard last as a guide for their shoe series and try to accommodate different foot shapes with additional insoles. Sometimes, the standard lasts are produced in a wider and a narrower version, but this can make production considerably more complex and expensive. Only very few put forth the effort to provide several lasts for different foot shapes. Since a shoe last is nothing more than just the shape of the foot and is often named after particular foot shapes, it’s a good idea to get a little better acquainted with the human foot before reading about lasts! Let’s get started.
Foot types and anatomy
There are two criteria according to which foot types are usually classified: the toe shape and the overall foot shape. There are three common toe types and four foot shapes.
The most common types of toes are Egyptian, Roman and Greek.
- The Egyptian foot is distinguished by the big toe being the longest, whilst toes 2 to 5, when viewed from above, descend gradually at forty-five degree angle.
- The Roman foot is distinguished by the second and (sometimes) the third/middle toe having the same length as the big one, whilst the rest are smaller.
- The Greek foot is distinguished by the second toe being longer than the big toe and the middle toe being the same length or shorter than the big one.
This classification is admittedly more precise than just the length, but it doesn’t really say much about the rest of the foot (i.e. the shape of the foot). That’s why we classify foot types as well. The four main foot types are Romanic, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Baltic:
- The Anglo-Saxon foot is relatively straight, narrow and elongated, with a long dominant big toe.
- The Germanic foot is sickle-shaped and narrower at the heel than at the forefoot.
- The Romanic type is significantly straighter than the Germanic and overall quite wide and voluminous.
- The Baltic foot is the wide variant of the Anglo-Saxon foot, where the big toe is even more dominant and the heel is equal in width to the forefoot.
Whether or not this applies to the whole world, I can’t say, but it should cover pretty much all of the European foot shapes.
Who determines whether a foot is wide or narrow?
Width may be the simplest of the foot’s basic characteristics, but the question remains: how do you determine what is wide and what is narrow based on the length of any given foot? This info is rarely provided, so oftentimes you just have to eyeball it. You can only derive an approximate conversion factor from length and width size charts, as for example from the Bont size chart Here is an example for shoe size EU 45:
Length: 28.5 cm. The width of a “”normal foot”” in size 45 would then be between 10.6 and 11 cm. A “narrow foot” would then be smaller than 10.6 cm and a “wide foot” larger than 11 cm. One could derive a conversion factor from this, but it doesn’t really make sense because it’ll change from shoe size to shoe size. It is easier to look at the chart.
Things only get worse though. If you were to combine width along with its characteristics narrow, normal and wide with the four toe types listed above, you would come to a grand total of twelve possible foot types. If these were then combined with the four foot shapes, the result would be 48. That means 48 different kinds of feet would be in need of a proper last and shoe! Since there are also many other differently shaped “foot sections” such as the toes, ball, heel, bridge, arch, etc., all of which can be in different proportions to each other, the combinations are virtually endless.
I know what you’re thinking: the human foot and its representation in shoes is complex stuff! Indeed, and when it comes to the anatomy of the human foot, it gets even more confusing due to the foot’s complex construction. The simplest way to divide up the foot anatomically is to take three sections: the forefoot, midfoot and hindfoot. Granted, it’s not very precise, but it is practical because you always know exactly where you are!
For more volume: the bridge
We’ve talked about length and width, but we’ve failed to mention anything about height. Height is an extremely important factor when it comes to choosing the proper shoes and is determined primarily by the bridge of the foot. The bridge starts at the toes and extends to the ankle and lower tibia. It can be flat or steep and can influence the shape of the foot in a huge way.
A “steeper” bridge would require a shoe that has quite the roomy upper. Thanks to a shoe’s tongue and lacing, the height and width of the upper can normally be adjusted for an adequate fit over most bridges. Insoles can also be used to alter the volume of a shoe, but this should be your last resort. Try to find a proper shoe first.
Hallux valgus: What sounds like something in the stomach is actually a lateral deviation of the big toe characterised by a painful bulge of the metatarsophalangeal joint resulting from constant contact with the shoe. Hallux valgus is usually caused by frequently wearing inappropriate footwear in conjunction with an unnatural use of your foot when walking. Some manufacturers offer special lasts for this deformity, but more on that later.
Flat feet: Flat feet are so common that some manufacturers use special lasts for this as well. Here, the weakened muscles in the longitudinal arch allow the bones to sink towards the ground as opposed to holding them in place. This results in the entire sole of the foot being near or coming into complete contact with the ground. The collapse of the longitudinal arch can then eventually cause pes valgus, a condition where the foot tilts inward. If this happens, you will have a much harder time finding the perfect shoe.
Last but not least – splayfoot. This one of the most common foot misalignments. Splayfoot is a misalignment characterised by weakened muscles in the transverse arch and a wider forefoot resulting from the metatarsal bones splaying.
The above-mentioned foot problems also occur simultaneously and tend to build off of each other. But, let’s not get into that. Describing diagnoses and symptom progressions would go far beyond the scope of this post. Our aim is merely to provide and overview rather than focussing on minor details and unique cases.
So many different types of feet: different manufacturers and their lasts
In order to accommodate the variety of foot shapes to at least some extent, manufacturers must have a selection of standard lasts. Most manufacturers use between two and six different lasts, which they divide up among different models and series. Only rarely are there different versions, such as extra wide or extra narrow, for one and the same model. Nevertheless, most manufacturers offer a wide range of sizes and shapes, which means that a correspondingly large number of different lasts are required as guides. Let’s look at some examples.
Lowa allows you to filter your search for specific models not only by standard criteria like shoe size, gender or shoe types, but also by wide and narrow lasts.
They even describe the various lasts in the menu option “fit and quality“. Lowa has modelled special lasts for each shoe type according to specific requirements and experience. Lowa also uses special lasts for the women’s models. The distinction between the last shapes is more or less self-explanatory, as they correspond to the shape of the foot:
- Standard lasts: normal last shape
- S-last (narrow): less volume around forefoot/ball area
- W-last (wide): more volume around forefoot/ball area
- WXL last: expanded toe box combined with more volume around arch/instep
Hanwag not only has slightly different shapes and terminology, but also has more variety in their lasts than virtually any other manufacturer. In addition to the gender-specific lasts, there are lasts for specific applications (e.g. slightly wider for the Trek and Trek Light series, narrower for the Rock series). Plus, there are six special lasts for people who do not have a “standard foot”:
- Wide lasts: the heel area has been constructed normally, but the shoe offers more room around the forefoot and ball of the foot. Wide models are for people for whom a “normal” shoe would be too narrow around the forefoot.
- Narrow lasts: this last is intended for people who feel a normal shoe is too wide. The Hanwag Tatra, for example, is one of their narrow fit models.
- Bunion lasts: bunions is a well-known problem, especially among women, but it is also something many boulderers and sport climbers deal with. Hanwag offers a one-of-a-kind bunion last with significantly more room around the big toe.
- StraightFit lasts: This last offers an extremely generous toe box and is intended for people with a wide forefoot.
- Alpine Wide lasts: The normal Alpine lasts are narrower for a better performance. If you prefer a bit more space, grab a shoe with an Alpine Wide fit. You can always wear thicker socks.
- Naturalfit lasts: NaturalFit technology promotes the natural posture of the foot and kind of imitates walking barefoot. It’s great for both travel and everyday life.
The Italian brand AKU uses six different lasts for their outdoor shoes, covering a very similar range of shapes as Hanwag. You can find out more about the lasts on their website under “The Last”.
Other brands, like Meindl don’t provide descriptions of their lasts, but they do allow you to search for specific models by foot shape or other filters.
Dachstein has also incorporated shoe width into their search filter. Unfortunately, this only covers one of the many possible shapes and characteristics of a foot/last/shoe.
A truly precise filter that allows you to combine several characteristics may be a tall task for any manufacturer to implement, considering how precise the specs of each shoe would have to be, but it’s still doable. But, it’s a different story for online retailers that carry X number of brands. To do it would be nothing less than a Herculean feat, if you ask me, especially since you’d need somebody with a trained eye to do it! Not to mention the fact that the series and models constantly change.
That said, there’s really no way around finding our your own foot size/shape/type. Ask yourself the following questions: Do I have a Baltic foot? Is my foot narrow or wide? All the shoe size charts online can act as a point of reference. Unfortunately, there are very few available that have more than just foot length, as the Bont chart does.
There are several solid approaches out there, but none of them has managed to incorporate foot types, lasts and shoes into one perfect blend. If you are looking for the perfect last, you’ll just have to consult the individual manufacturers. I hope this article has made things a bit easier to understand and will help you in the future.