You could tell there were hikers in the audience during the opening scene of the movie Wild when the main character loses her boot over the edge of a cliff in the remote wilderness. Sympathy groans were audible, each knowing the misery that was to follow. Foot care is, arguably, the most important aspect of planning a long distance trek.
While it might be impossible to keep your feet entirely fresh and blister free over days or weeks on the trail, there are a number of ways to minimize the misery and keep the joy in the jaunt. As foot care expert John Vonhof says, “You’ll enjoy hiking more and have more success when you make smart choices in footwear and educate yourself in foot care techniques.”
Making Sure the Boot Fits
Above all else, you’ll want to get a comfortable boot that fits well. You’ll be wearing these bad boys for miles, days, and maybe even weeks or months, so it’s important to try on several pairs before choosing. There are low-cut hiking shoes, mid- to high-cut boots, and backpacking boots that go above the ankle. Boots have come a long way in the last couple decades, and there are more lightweight options now than there used to be. You want to find a boot that has decent grip on the bottom for traction, ankle protection that still allows you to move, and (most importantly) is waterproof. The La Sportiva Trango TRK, Core High, and Nucleo High check all of those boxes (and come in both men’s and women’s models). Another bonus with the La Sportiva boots? The Synthesis, Core, Primer, and Nucleo models feature Gore-Tex Surround Technology, which has all the benefits of waterproof protection but is still super breathable (unlike most waterproof options out there). Your foot isn’t going to get clammy and wet, which is a major source of blisters in the first place, so you don’t have to sacrifice breathability to get a waterproof boot.
Whenever you buy a pair of new boots, break them in on shorter hikes before heading out for something longer. You’ll want to make sure the fit is right and that you aren’t stuck for days (or weeks) with a pair of boots that are too narrow, too tight, or too big. If you have to, hike around your block, your backyard, or even your house to get used to your new shoes.
Also, make sure to wear your hiking socks to the store when you try on boots. It’s recommended to get your hiking boots a half to a full size larger than your regular shoe size, and you want to make sure there is some space between your toes and the front of the boot. Space not only accounts for the inevitable swelling that will occur but also gives your toes some extra room when you are going downhill, so they don’t smash into the front of your shoe.
The Importance of Insoles
Most hikers know the importance of boot and shoe fit, but replaceable insoles often get overlooked. Often the ones that come standard in shoes can’t stand up to hundreds of hard miles of daily use and can compress quickly. “These alternative insoles can relieve pressure points, reduce blister and foot irritations, and make your feet comfortable again,” says Vonhof.
While this is a great tip for all hikers, if you have specific foot issues there are several companies that make ones to help relieve the pressure of specific ailments. Insoles can help with other issues such as plantar fasciitis, metatarsalgia, and more.
How Do You Lace Your Boots?
There are a variety of ways to lace your shoes that can help minimize rub and help support feet and ankles to help you feel better, longer. And let’s face it, anything that gets you through those last two miles in a long day is worth experimenting with. See what options are out there, give them a test run to see what works best and then be more deliberate about your lacing on those longer treks.
Choose Your Socks Carefully
Sock choice can be almost as important as boots. When shopping for socks, it’s all about personal choice: some like thin, some prefer thick, and others use liners and a sock. The key is to always choose high-quality wool (such as merino) or a moisture-wicking synthetic that provides enough cushion, but without overheating your feet. Smartwool and Darn Tough are two great options.
Another bonus of wool socks is that they won’t smell even after days of hard hiking. Quality isn’t cheap but they are worth every penny and won’t wear out before your trip is over. Always (always!) pack extra so you’ve got a dry pair at the ready. You may even want to consider changing them in the middle of the day to keep your feet as fresh as possible. Take them off at camp to air out your feet for awhile and then have another dry pair for bed.
The key is to fix hot spots before a real problem develops. Consider using a quality lubricant to reduce friction, or if that doesn’t seem to help, try an absorbent powder to keep your feet drier.
Many hikers swear by taping up the trouble areas before beginning the day’s trek. Use a good athletic tape, moleskin, or the multi-tool of the world, duct tape—which is actually preferred by many. Forgo the blister patch unless it’s going to be taped into place anyway, and always clean the area well before taping up.
Round out your foot care plan by carrying a small blister kit with extras for emergencies and contingencies. Vonhof suggests that it “contain your choice of lubricant or powder, a few alcohol wipes to clean lubricant off the skin, a few tincture of benzoin wipes to help the patch stick to your skin, several blister patches of your choice, a least a yard of duct tape wrapped around a small pencil, and a safety pin to drain blisters.”
Keep Your Feet Clean
Keeping your feet clean can go a long way for preventing blisters. Consider wearing a pair of gaiters to prevent debris from getting into your shoes, particularly if you prefer an ultra-breathable style of hiking boot—you’re still going get dirty, but maybe a little less so. Another pro tip from Vonhof—take your shoes off whenever you stop to rest. Air your feet out, cool them down (in cold water if available), and clean them off. You’ll be glad you did.
Keep Your Feet in Tip-Top Shape
Months, possibly even years, are spent planning for an epic thru-hike. As part of the preparations, tending your toes and feet will go a long way toward blister and issue prevention. Avoid ingrown toenails with proper trimming: don’t cut them too short and trim straight across. If you are already dealing with ingrown toenails, put in some effort prior to your trip to fix them by cutting the skin away gently and using a tiny bit of cotton to separate the nail from the skin, which allows them to grow out.
Thick calluses may seem like they would help, but can often wreak havoc instead. Make sure to file them down and if you have cracked heels or toes, exfoliate and rub in a good quality foot cream nightly until your skin has no breaks. This will make them more resistant to blistering.
The hot, wet conditions in your boots are also the perfect environment for fungus to bloom. Bring along some anti-fungal powder or cream to help combat the spread.
Pay Attention to Your Circulation
Swelling of the feet and legs is a well-known and oft-discussed topic for thru-hikers. There are a growing number of folks who advocate for the use of compression socks or sleeves, either during some parts of the days’ hike or at camp for recovery. If swelling has been an issue for you, experiment with some compression for relief.
In addition, there are a number of benefits to massaging your feet and legs at the end of the day. It can help reduce swelling and increase circulation, and it also feels terrific. There is even some evidence that a good foot rub before turning in can help you catch those much needed Zzz’s.
If You Do Get a Blister
There are several techniques for draining blisters, that range from safety pinpricks to piercing them with a needle and drawing thread through them to help them drain. Sometimes pinpricks aren’t large enough for the fluid can escape and will heal over too quickly, so use the pin to make a bigger hole, or use a pair of nail clippers. You also don’t want to create a hole so big that the top layer of skin comes off. The flap is essential for protecting the blister and helping it heal.
One Last Piece of Advice
“The trick is to play with all the variables in your training to find what works best for your feet,” says Vonhof. With a little advance preparation, on-trail vigilance and an extra couple of ounces of supplies can make all the difference between having the time of your life or a walking nightmare.