In order to give my feet, knees, hips and back some help in taking 6 million steps I recently had custom insoles made at a local outfitters.
Why and What?
People use custom insoles/footbeds because they offer better support than the flimsy foamy things that come with your shoes or boots originally. The limited benefit those provide will also wear down very quckly meaning you are practically walking on the plastic boot sole within a few weeks.
Roughly speaking, aftermarket insoles fall into three categories: off-the-shelf pre-formed insoles that you cut down to size yourself and slip into your shoes. Well-known brands that sell these include Scholl and Superfeet. You can expect to pay £20-£30 ($30-$50) for these. Obviously the main drawback is that the insole shape is suitable for an ‘average’ foot so you may find it doesn’t help you at all, or works better with one foot than the other since all feet are different – and in some cases it could even do more harm than good. It’s best to practice with these in a non-critical situation first, like at home and work, rather than the day before a thru-hike. If and when you find one that works for you you can just re-purchase the same one in the future. The life expectancy of these products is maybe one 6-month thru-hike, maybe not.
The second category is custom orthotics from a podiatrist or chiropodist. The entire product will be made from a mould taken of your two (different) feet and manufactured off-site to be delivered to you at a later date, or you may go back in for a final fitting. As well having the confidence that comes from a professional fitting a fully customised product, these are robust products which could last you a decade or more. Expect to pay £200-£300 ($300-$500).
And falling in between these two extremes is semi-custom insoles. This is what I had made last weekend. A pre-made base product comes in a packet from the manufacturer (in my cases, Sidas, a French company with a ski background) and is sold by an outfitters (in my case Eillis Brigham in Covent Garden, London). But you can’t do anything with it until it has been customised to your feet by a trained fitter using a special moulding machine. Right there in store the outfitter takes a mould of both of your feet, then heat up the insole and cut and sculpt it to fit the mould and therefore your feet. Finally they cover the insole in a finishing material and use a machine grinder (seriously!) to smooth the base down. You are then left with an insole that is customised to your feet alone but it takes less than an hour to complete and only costs £70 ($110). The life expectancy is at least one 6 month thru-hike or 2-3 years of normal use.
On With The Show
So I pitched up to Ellis Brigham in Covent Garden just after they opened on Sunday. I didn’t want to hit a busy time as the the fitter needs to spend some time moulding and machining the product and I didn’t want him to be rushed or distracted. As Ellis is probably London’s premier outdoor shop it made sense to avoid Saturday’s like the plague. [BTW, Snow and Rock also have the machine and trained staff to do this job. While both stores make the vast majority of these insoles for ski boots I just felt Ellis were slightly less ski-centric.]
Having explained to James what I wanted (who actually remembered me from when I had been in to inquire 3-4 weeks earlier, phenomenal!) we agreed on the Sidas Multi TX insoles. While Sidas offer a wide range of products these are fine for hiking and trekking. I had previously found out from Sidas directly (eventually, after much poking) – that they don’t supply their dedicated Outdoors product in the UK so the Multi TX is the best one for hiking available here.
James warmed up the special gel-filled moulding machine and had me stand in it for about 5 minutes. The gel is inside a flexible plastic casing so you don’t actually get anything on your feet. Since you’re on display in the store with your socks off you might want to remember to cut your toenails and wash your feet beforehand (so one out of two for me).
At the same time the actual insoles were warmed up so they could then be moulded into the, er, moulds left by my feet.
Here are the bottom of the insoles before anything happens to them. They are only a few millimetres thin/deep, have a flexible cork base with an anti-bacterial foam top and various different materials in the rear of the foot for promoting stability and absorbing shock.
Here are the moulds after I had left my impressions.
Next the warmed-up insoles were pressed into those moulds and I got to stand on them as they cooled off so they formed into exactly the correct shape.
And here they after I stood on them for 5 minutes.
James then drew around my feet so he could see where to cut them down to size
James then took them away to cut and grind them down to
Here is a picture of the finished product where you can see the transformation that has taken place from the flat initial product to the 3D finished article.
In case you forget what to do with them afterwards, they go in your boots (take the original footbeds out first though)
After trying them on in my boots for just a few seconds I knew they were already perfectly comfortable. If there had been any issues then James could have tweaked the fit further. The final cost with fitting and finishing was £70.
James – and by extension, Ellis Brigham, did a good job fitting the insoles. I didn’t feel he was rushed or distracted, not did he take any shortcuts. So many thanks to him. I’ve been wearing them for a few days and so far there has been no problems at all. I can feel confident that my posture and foot alignment are optimal and at least some of the shock of taking 6 million mountainous steps is being absorbed before reaching my body. So far, so good!
Update: the original insoles in my starting boots, Ecco Biom Hike Mids, were 55g the pair. The weight of this pair of custom Sidas insoles is 138g.