A women wearing a red Columbia Sportswear jacket stoops down to tie the laces of his hiking boots. 

How to Lace and Tie Hiking Boots

From surgeon’s knots to runner’s loops, here are the best lacing techniques for your hiking shoes
Whether your heel is slipping, your foot is sliding forward, or you simply like that extra snug feel when you’re exploring the great outdoors, you’d be amazed how much a proper lacing method for your hiking boots can improve your experience on the trail. A secure lacing pattern that can be easily tightened will prevent your boots from moving around, reduce foot pain, and improve comfort for your wilderness adventures.

We sat down with expert footwear fitter Beth Henkes—who’s fitted more than 30,000 pairs of feet into hiking boots during her time working as a technical footwear fitter at a major outdoor retailer. We got her opinion on the best lacing and knot techniques for hiking boots. She broke down all the different methods, along with when and where to use each one.
A woman wearing a blue Columbia Sportswear shirt sits on a log in the forest tying the laces of her hiking shoes.
Before selecting a lacing technique for your hiking boots, first determine why you need it. Heel slippage, sliding feet, and top-of-foot pain are a few common reasons.

First things first: Why use a lacing technique?

Before deciding on a specific lacing method, it’s important to ask yourself why you need it in the first place. Oftentimes, hikers in search of special tying techniques are experiencing foot pain, tightness, or other problems on the trail. Finding the lacing technique best suited to address those issues will maximize its effectiveness.

Of the thousands of hikers Henkes has assisted, she says that most are dealing with one of three issues:

  1. Heel slippage: This is when your heel pops up in the back of your boot as you hike. It can often be relieved with a surgeon's knot or a runner’s loop to help lock the heel into place.
  2. Sliding feet: Hikers commonly have problems with their feet sliding forward, especially on downhill treks. This is normally a fit issue, but a surgeon's knot can help mitigate this problem too.
  3. Dorsal foot pain: A technical way of referring to pain on the top of your foot, this is usually another sign that your hiking boots don’t fit right. (Or potentially that you have extensor tendonitis). Window lacing can help alleviate the pain until you can find better footwear.

Toe pain (which can include toe bruising or toenail lifting) is another less common, but equally uncomfortable, issue that hikers experience. When this occurs, it’s typically the result of poorly fitting boots rather than a lacing issue. However, there’s a temporary fix: Simply remove your shoelaces and start the lacing one eyelet set closer to you. This leaves the eyelets closest to your toes empty, allowing for a roomier fit up front. This method is sometimes called “toe relief” lacing.
“A lot of people struggle with their hiking boots and think, ‘I need a better lacing technique.’ But what they actually need is a better boot that fits them properly.”
Beth Henkes, Technical Footwear Fitter

Choose the right hiking boot

Although lacing techniques can help with many foot issues, the real culprit is often the footwear itself, Henkes explains.

“A lot of people struggle with their hiking boots and think, ‘I need a better lacing technique.’ But what they actually need is a better boot that fits them properly,” Henkes explains.

Hiking footwear isn’t something you should skimp on, especially if you’re planning to be hiking on more technical trails. If you want to be comfortable out there, it’s worth it to invest in quality hiking boots that offer proper ankle support, good traction, and ample cushioning.

When making a selection, consider the type of hiking you’ll be doing and keep your location, environment, and experience level in mind. Hiking footwear comes in a variety of styles, so you need to understand the different uses, particularly when it comes to choosing between hiking boots and hiking shoes.

And whatever you select, make sure it fits right. Most people know their sizing when it comes to the length and width of their feet, but nuances like the height (known as “volume”) or the arch length can make a big difference too.

Henkes’ top piece of advice for all hiking boot-related issues?

“If you're able to get into a store to check your fit and make sure that your fit is correct, that is the number one thing you can do for yourself.”

Lacing techniques

Despite the fact that your footwear may need some adjusting, lacing techniques can nevertheless help a lot. Henkes has three favorite hiking boot lacing methods that she thinks work best:

  1. The Surgeon's Knot
  2. Window lacing
  3. The Runner’s Loop
A close-up shot of a blueish-gray Columbia Sportswear hiking boot displaying a surgeon’s knot in the laces.
The surgeon’s knot, pictured above, is helpful if your heel tends to pop up a lot, or your foot slides around.

The Surgeon’s Knot

The surgeon’s knot is Henkes’ all-time favorite lacing technique—and one she recommends every hiker learn regardless of what may be ailing them. This knot allows you to secure your laces in place at whatever point on your foot that you choose, offering excellent versatility for a wide range of foot problems.

“The surgeon’s knot is the golden knot,” Henkes says. “You can use it for so many things in so many ways, and it's incredibly easy to learn.”

To execute this knot, start at the bottom and lace your shoes up exactly how you normally would. When you get to the point where you want the surgeon’s knot, loop the laces around each other as if you were going to tie your shoes—but don’t make the two bows. Instead, loop the laces around each other a second time.

That’s it. You’ve created a surgeon’s knot.

If you want an extra-secure lock, you can loop it a third time.

Then continue lacing up the rest of your shoe. When you get to the top, tie the laces in a regular bow.

Most of the time, you’ll want to do two surgeon’s knots in a row on consecutive eyelets to lock everything down. For heel slippage or foot sliding, Henkes recommends placing them on the eyelets on top of your ankle, or just below it.
 A close-up shot of a blueish-gray Columbia Sportswear hiking boot displaying window lacing.
Window lacing, pictured above, alleviates pressure from spots that get sore when you hike. 

Window Lacing

Window lacing is Henkes’ second most-used lacing technique, and another one she recommends every hiker learn how to do. It’s meant to help alleviate pressure in spots where you’re feeling pain, creating a lace-free “window” over the sensitive area.

To do it, begin lacing the boot how you normally would. When you get to the spot where you want the window, go straight up with the laces instead of crisscrossing them. Continue straight up for as many eyelets as you need the relief, and once you’ve passed the point of difficulty, continue with the crisscrossing.

Henkes likes to throw in a surgeon’s knot at the beginning and the end of the window, although she says this isn’t mandatory—just a bit of extra security if you want it.
A close-up shot of a white Columbia Sportswear hiking shoe displaying a runner’s loop.
The runner’s loop, pictured above, is another way to lock your heel into place. It works better on knit or synthetic hiking shoes rather than traditional hiking boots. 

Runner’s Loop

Also called “heel lock lacing,” the runner's loop is another lockdown method meant to secure the shoe in place, particularly if your heel is slipping.

It works best with knit or synthetic hiking shoes that have an extra set of eyelets at the top (such as the Trailstorm Ascend or Plateau Venture).

To make a runner’s loop, lace your hiking shoes up to the last eyelets, leaving only the top eyelets unlaced, along with the “extra” ones that are right behind them.

Using these two remaining eyelets, make a loop in between them.

Do this on each side of the shoe.

Once you have a loop on each side of the shoe, crisscross the laces over the front and thread them through each loop.

Pull them snugly, and tie the shoe like you normally would.

“The runner's loop helps snug your foot into the shoe and makes it more secure toward the back of your heel, eliminating that foot pop,” Henkes explains.
A man wearing a light blue Columbia Sportswear jacket stoops down on a mossy log in the woods to lace his hiking boots. 
You should lace up your hiking boots tight enough that your feet aren’t sliding around, but not so tight that they go numb.

Q: How tight should hiking boots be laced? 

Hiking boots should be laced up tight enough that your feet aren’t sliding around, but not so tight that they go numb. You’re looking for that perfect Goldilocks balance. “You don't wanna feel any pain, but you also don't want your foot to be shifting around in the boot,” Henkes says. Be sure to leave some room for your foot to breathe. And keep in mind that your feet will swell slightly throughout the day as you hike so you may need to make adjustments on the trail.

Q: How do I tie my hiking boots to prevent blisters?

Blisters often occur because your foot is sliding around too much in the boot. A surgeon’s knot can often alleviate this problem, although Henkes stresses that the fit may be part of the issue too. This is especially true if the boot isn’t wide enough for your foot. “You could try a surgeon’s knot to help you get to the bottom of the trail, but it’s not really a long-term solution. The long-term solution for chronic blisters is to get a different shoe.” You also want to make sure you have broken in your hiking boots. Failing to do this properly can also result in blisters.
“People assume that if it covers your ankle, it's a sturdy boot. But that’s not necessarily the case. The sturdiness is in the sole.”
Beth Henkes, Technical Footwear Fitter

Q: Can you use multiple lacing techniques together?

“Absolutely,” Henkes says. “I’ve combined surgeon’s knots and runner's loops before. I almost always do a surgeon’s knot before my window lacing.” The various techniques can be used together to cater to your specific foot needs, she says, adding that you can switch things up throughout the day too. For example, you might start a big climb with a traditional lacing technique but add a surgeon’s knot at the top before you begin your descent, where heel popping is common.

Q: Should I lace my hiking boots all the way up?

Yes, you should always lace your boots all the way up, Henkes says, particularly if you have a stiffer backpacking-style boot. It makes it more secure and allows the footwear to work as intended. “If you're not lacing it all the way up, why did you buy a boot?” she asks. Hikers who don’t like the higher tops or the snug feeling of a hiking boot around their ankles can opt for lower-fitting hiking shoes that offer similar features without the mid portion of the shoe.
Facet 75 Alpha shoe through a beautiful mountainous landscape. 
Although lacing techniques can help with a variety of foot issues on the trail, they typically won’t provide extra ankle support, Henkes says. For that, you need a hiking boot with a sturdy, rugged sole.

Q: How do I tie hiking boots for ankle support?

When it comes to ankle support, lacing techniques unfortunately won’t help much, Henkes says. What you need is a stiffer hiking boot with sturdy, stable soles—that’s where ankle support comes from.

“Lacing doesn’t really contribute to ankle support,” Henkes explains. “You could possibly create a little extra support with the runner's loop, but it really doesn’t take the place of a sturdy boot. People who need extra ankle support should look for stiff hiking boots.”

And that doesn’t just mean something that comes up past your ankle, she says. This is a common misconception.

“People assume that if it covers your ankle, it's a sturdy boot. But that’s not necessarily the case. The sturdiness is in the sole. Some mid hiking boots are actually less sturdy than shorter hiking shoes. The purpose of coming past your ankle is to protect you from the terrain, not to support your ankles.”

You can tell how stiff a boot is by simply twisting the sole, she says. The harder it is to twist, the better ankle support you’re likely to get.

The Sierra OutDry is a great example of a hiking boot with good ankle support.

Q: How do I tie hiking boots with long laces?

Hiking boots often come with long laces so people can execute special lacing techniques. However, if you don’t need them, they can become a hassle. Henkes says there’s no special method—you just need to find a system that works best for you.

“Some people wrap them around the top, come behind their ankle, and then come back up to tie them. Some people double knot them. Others tie them regularly and tuck the ends of the bows into the top of their boot —this works as long as you don’t have a high-volume foot where the laces will create pressure over time.

“There's really no wrong way to do it. It's about finding what makes you most comfortable and keeps your boot from coming untied. That last part is important though. You don’t want to be tripping on your laces.”

Q: How do I lace my boots without tying them?

Although this look is sometimes seen in urban footwear, it is strictly aesthetic and should never be used on hiking trails, Henkes says. The laces can slip down and your boots will become loose, setting you up for potential problems. “It's a recipe for injury,” she says. “On the trail, if you’re not tying your laces, it's a safety issue.”

Q: How do I lace boots military style?

For the typical hiker, military lacing is overly complicated and not something Henkes recommends. Most of the time people do it wrong, she says, so it isn’t effective anyway.

“I would never ever teach military lacing to a regular hiker,” she says. “It only exists because the military issues the same boot to everyone, regardless of their foot type, so they often don't fit properly and people need complicated lacing techniques so they don’t destroy their feet. But I think the only people who can execute it well are people who are actually in the military and have been doing it their whole lives.”

She says that the surgeon’s knot, window lacing, or runner’s loop can solve most of the same problems with much less frustration.

Q: What is ladder lacing? 

Ladder lacing is a method that allows you to lift pressure on a specific point on your foot where you’re experiencing pain or soreness. While it can be effective, Henkes recommends using window lacing instead because it’s simpler and achieves the same purpose. “Ladder lacing is way more complicated—it’s a lot of in and out and weaving and back and forth. Window lacing is similar, but super basic and easy.”
Ready to lace up and hit the trail? Check out Columbia Sportswear’s hiking footwear.