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Being a hiker with a foot injury is like being a guitarist with a hand injury; it’s absolute torture to be sidelined from your favorite pastime. Taking extra preventative measures in the realm of foot care for hikers may seem prissy, but the consequences for neglecting foot health can ruin your hiking plans.
I live nomadically with the main purpose of trying to hike as much as possible in diverse terrain, from dry Southwestern deserts in Arizona and Utah to the boggy moorlands of Scotland, the many river crossings of Yellowstone, and the jagged mountains of the Alps. I also work remotely for a guided trekking company. As you can imagine, I have experienced pretty much all of the common foot problems that can arise from hiking, though thankfully I’ve never had full-on trench foot or gone septic.
I am not a podiatrist, dermatologist, or physical therapist; I am simply lowly hikertrash. My tips about foot care for hikers were learned through trial and error. I’m sure there are other obscure, weird foot problems hikers could contend with in extreme circumstances, but I’m not going to venture too far down the Mystery Diagnosis rabbit hole.
Take precautions against plantar fasciitis
Plantar fasciitis is an overuse injury that can really derail your hiking season. It’s a gnawing pain caused by inflammation in the ligament that runs across the bottom of the foot from the heel to the toes. Online resources say the pain is mostly felt in the heel, but I’ve felt it in the arch of my foot and balls of my feet too. It can be debilitating enough that you have to limp or avoid hiking altogether until it heals.
There are a lot of steps you can take (pun not intended) to prevent plantar fasciitis. Wear supportive shoes that fit properly, gradually ramp up your activity level or get regular exercise year-around instead of jumping straight into an intense hiking regimen after hibernating all winter, stretch regularly, get enough rest in between periods of activity, replace worn out hiking shoes every 500-1000 miles, find ways to decrease your pack weight (without sacrificing safety; don’t leave important gear behind), and consider orthotics. If you like to run, avoid running on hard surfaces like concrete.
When it comes to stretching, I have heard that it’s actually a bad idea for runners to do static stretches before a run. Dynamic stretches are preferred as a warm up, and static stretches can be done after. I would be curious if this also extends to hikers. It may be best to Google “dynamic stretches for plantar fasciitis” if you’re looking for something that can be done directly prior to a hike.
These tips can also help prevent Achilles tendonitis or extensor tendonitis. Once you already have symptoms of tendonitis or plantar fasciitis, the best thing to do is accept the RICE method of recovery: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.
Keep toenails cut short
Before departing for your hiking trip, cut your toenails as short as possible. This will help prevent fungal infection, injury, and blisters. My toenails tend to cut into the skin of neighboring toes. Toenails that are too long can also splinter and crack from the trauma of hitting the front of your hiking shoe, causing extreme discoloration or even loss of the whole toenail.
Prep for blisters before you even begin the hike
I thought I was clever to take this preventative foot care measure, but over the years I’ve heard from a lot of other hikers who do the same. When you’re getting ready for the day, before you even set foot on trail, wrap band-aids around your “problem toes.” I know exactly which two toes are always going to carve into the neighboring ones and draw blood, regardless of how short I trim my nails. Create a protective barrier between them with band-aids in advance, instead of waiting for the cuts to appear and applying band-aids after. This is the thought process behind Leukotape too, although band-aids can be applied both before and after a wound appears, whereas Leukotape should only be applied before.
Wear liner socks or double layer socks
To prevent blisters while hiking, you can wear a thin liner sock underneath a thicker outer sock layer. The outer sock will rub against the inner sock instead of against your skin, reducing blister-causing friction.
These days some brands make a lightweight double-layer sock where the liner is already incorporated so you don’t have to pile on multiple pairs. I really love Wrightsock CoolMesh II quarter socks.
Choose the right sock material
Socks with Merino wool, Coolmax, nylon, or polyester fabrics help with breathability and blister prevention. You want a lightweight sock that’s not heavy enough to cause excessive sweating or vasculitis, but not so thin that the friction can create hot spots or holes in the sock.
If you’ll be hiking in wet or cold conditions, consider neoprene socks to keep your feet relatively dry and warm in cold water or snow. These are popular for kayaking and rafting but also for canyoneering in places like Utah. If you’ve heard of the famous Zion Narrows, hikers rent 3-5mm neoprene socks from the local gear outfitter shops before submerging their feet in the Virgin River for the entire day.
Some people like to wear a liner sock underneath their neoprene socks, or use the neoprene sock as the liner. You may want to play around with sock layers for added warmth, to reduce slipperiness, or to reduce the general “vacuum sealed” feeling of wearing neoprene directly against your skin.
Wear quarter length socks
Hiker’s rash, or vasculitis, is sometimes called golfer’s rash or Disney rash. It’s a heat rash characterized by red, blotchy skin on the lower legs, though it’s not painful or itchy. I have only experienced this one time, and it was caused by wearing tall thick socks under tight leggings while hiking on a hot day. I think my clothes were too constrictive and not allowing air flow.
Crew length hiking socks are tall and come halfway up the calf. I much prefer shorter quarter length socks these days, or at least mid-crew. I wouldn’t go any shorter than quarter length because then the tops of my shoes would rub against my skin.
The fact that they even sell crew socks shows that many hikers opt for them, so this is not a rule of thumb; my choice to hike in quarter length socks is personal preference.
Buy roomy hiking shoes – and break them in
Once you start hiking, your feet will swell. Buy hiking shoes a size or a size-and-a-half larger than the shoe size you would normally purchase for everyday wear. Make sure to break new hiking shoes in with some practice mileage before bringing them along on a bigger trek; you don’t want inflexible shoes biting into your skin. Some shoe brands such as Merrell Moabs don’t require much break-in time, but take them for a few practice hikes anyway; better safe than sorry.
As an aside, when it comes to buying hiking shoes remember that no shoes are ever 100% waterproof, no matter what their marketing says. Shoes that are “quick-drying” are often more valuable than “waterproof.” Waterproof shoes can keep water out for a certain amount of time, but once your foot is fully submerged, water is going to get in. Then, the same mechanism that initially kept water out is going to start keeping water in. I shy away from Gore-Tex for this reason.
Consider a wide toe box
Shoes with a wide toe box are mainly designed to help prevent the formation of bunions, but there are plenty of other comfort-related reasons you might like them. Say you clip your toenails and wrap band-aids around your toes to prevent them digging into each other, and you buy hiking shoes a size or a size-and-a-half larger than your normal shoes, but your toes still seem to get crunched together. Even if your feet are relatively narrow and a wide toe box doesn’t seem prescriptive for you, there’s no rule that says you can’t buy shoes with a wide toe box if you simply find them more comfortable.
Change into sandals immediately at camp
When you’re done hiking for the day and setting up your tent, change into your camp shoes or sandals as quickly as possible. Do not keep your sweaty feet bound up and restricted in the vice grip of your hiking shoes. If it’s only a day hike, then change your shoes when you get back to your car instead of driving home in your hiking shoes and sweaty socks.
Keeping your feet enclosed in a swampy environment is a great way to encourage toenail fungus or athlete’s foot, especially if you’re simultaneously exposing them to the types of trauma that hiking can create (i.e., slamming your toes into rocks, or into the front of your shoe on steep descents). They need to air out whenever possible. I wrote about a fungus issue I personally dealt with here.
If you’re doing a hike that involves staying at mountain huts or campsites with shared shower facilities, you’ll want to wear some kind of sandal in the shower as well. Public showers are a fun place to pick up infections.
Change into dry socks as often as possible, within reason
Frequently changing into fresh socks during a multi-day trip is another way hikers can prevent fungal infections of the feet, although there are limitations with how often you can do this on overnight backpacking trips. To keep your backpack weight down, you obviously aren’t going to overpack too many pairs of socks. That said, everyone has their “luxuries” that they’re willing to overpack for comfort reasons, and I tend to bring more socks than other hikers would.
If you are lucky enough to get some warm, sunny days, you can wring out wet or used socks in a creek and set them out in the sun to dry (or hang them on the outside of your backpack while hiking) so they’ll be suitable for re-use. If you’re not lucky and are hiking in ceaseless rain or wading through bogs every day, like I did on the West Highland Way and for half of my Yellowstone trip, at a certain point there’s no use changing your socks as often as you’d like. The fresh pair will just get wet immediately anyway; it’s better to save at least one dry pair for nighttime so your feet can be warm in your tent.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to wipe sand and debris off your feet before changing into another pair of socks or hiking any distance in strappy sandals. Friction against sand particles can cause pretty gnarly skin abrasions. This happened to me when sand dried beneath my Chaco straps in Wadi Rum in Jordan.
Change into sandals for creek crossings, within reason
If most of your trip is taking place in dry, sunny weather and the ground is not sodden, then it’s a good idea to change out of your hiking shoes and into water shoes or sandals for river crossings. This will save your hiking shoes from becoming waterlogged and taking hours to dry out.
If you have to do about 100 water crossings, swapping into and out of your hiking shoes every two seconds is going to get annoying. If the ground is wet and you’re sloshing around in puddles all day in addition to the water crossings, or if it’s actively raining hard, then there may be no saving your hiking shoes. At a certain point it doesn’t make sense to switch into water shoes and you might as well accept your fate.
Barring those situations, do your best to take precautions to keep your regular hiking shoes dry. I know it feels more adventurous to take a “devil may care” attitude and jump right into puddles, but over time you may be stacking cards against yourself in the hypothermia and trench foot departments.
Clean your feet before going to sleep
Even if you can’t keep your feet dry throughout the day, at night before retiring to your tent you can do some damage control. After changing into camp shoes that allow your feet to air out, if you need to do a lot of walking around in wet grass at camp while cooking a meal or socializing, there may be no use trying to dry your feet further quite yet. However, before you climb into your tent to go to sleep, you should make an effort to wipe your feet dry with a microfiber towel, a bandana, a t-shirt, or whatever dry clothing item you have on hand that can be spared for this purpose.
If your feet are dry when you go to sleep, they’ll remain dry overnight. Don’t underestimate the impact this makes for keeping your feet healthy during a hiking trip. If you’ve managed to keep at least one pair of socks dry in your pack, you could also wear these at night in your sleeping bag to keep cozy and warm, but you don’t want to fill those nice dry socks with damp feet.
If you brought odorless anti-bacterial wipes and have enough to spare, you could think about cleaning your feet with these before bed too.
Leave No Trace: Pack out trash such as anti-bacterial wipes even if they’re marketed as biodegradable, and in bear country any smellables (such as ointments or sunscreen) should be added to the bear hang or bear canister alongside food.
Soak feet in cold water
On dry, warm days on the trail, if you have a chance to take your shoes and socks off, rest by a creek, and soak your feet in cold water, take it!
I haven’t conducted a scientific study, but anecdotally I find that anytime I have the opportunity to do this, my feet are so much happier and I don’t get any blisters. I suppose it’s common sense that a natural water source will clean sweat off your feet while simultaneously mirroring ice bath therapy for your tendons and ligaments.
Just be sure to let your feet fully dry before putting your socks and shoes back on!
Leave No Trace: Remember never to put soaps or other chemicals into natural water sources, even if they’re marketed as being environmentally friendly.
There are a lot of things to keep in mind when it comes to foot care for hikers, but being diligent about these tips is worth it to avoid injury. Feet and legs are a hiker’s greatest tools! You’ll be kicking yourself if you have to cut future hikes short because of foot pain.
Have you ever struggled with a hiking-related foot problem that I didn’t list here? How did you solve it?
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