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This two part post covers foot care tips for hiking, backpacking and off the trail. Check out Part 1 for pre-hike foot care tips. Topics covered in part two: my journey to finding the right footwear, daily foot prep, foot first aid kit and a list of my favorite foot gear.
Our feet can take us wonderful places, but without proper care, they can be a real pain. Before we dig in, let me say that I am not a doctor, or any type of authority in foot care – everyone’s feet are beautifully unique and in some instances, you may need to consult with a medical professional. That being said, I have fussy feet, have learned from some mistakes and injuries…and have found things that work for me though these experiences. So let’s get started!
6 years, 9 Pair of Hiking Shoes
Cinderella is proof that a new pair of shoes can change your life.-Author unknown
My first pair of hiking boots: Used for training and backpacking on a Scout trip in Glacier National Park in 2013. They were heavy black leather with a waterproof lining, I don’t even remember the brand….they might have actually been work boots. My scouting community recommended heavy leather boots with stiff ankle support and very thick soles, and oversized so you could wear two pair or wool socks – so that’s what I got. The poor fit and lack of ventilation gave me blisters up both heels, on a couple of toes, a black toenail and my first case of the dreaded hikers rash.
My 2nd pair of hiking boots were too small. They were so unremarkable that I only remember that they were tan and that I gave them away very quickly.
My 3rd pair of hiking boots: Keen Targhees-2013. These boots are still in my closet but are used for yardwork instead of for hiking. Even though they were waterproof, the heavy leather took 3 days to dry out on Isle Royale. No more leather hiking boots for me.
My 4th pair: Keen Targhee hiking shoes, worn on a trip to Yellowstone and for a whole summer. They worked for shorter hikes, but not for longer ones due to blisters.
My 5th pair of hiking shoes: Hoka Tor Ultra Boots, poor traction and gave me heel blisters on hot summer hikes in Glacier National Park, probably because of the waterproof liner. I converted them to screw shoes this winter and they are fabulous!
My 6th pair of hiking shoes were my first pair of trail runners made by Hoka. These worked pretty well but I needed better traction for the Superior Hiking Trail. Great for walking the dog on hard pavement. This is also around the time that I started reducing my pack weight.
Lighter pack, lighter shoe. Heavier pack, heavier shoe.
My 7th pair of hiking Shoes – Altra Superior. Despite a rock plate and foot strengthening, the minimalist sole was not so superior for my plantar fasciitis, glad I got these at an REI Garage sale.
My 8th pair of Hiking Shoes- Altra Lone Peaks. Everyone raves about these shoes for long distance hiking. I found a pair at an REI garage sale and bought a whole size larger because I thought they would keep my toenails from getting destroyed. Nope. Permanently damaged.
My 9th pair of Hiking shoes were the charm- Altra Timp 1.5s. I got them a half size large, and love the trademarked ‘Foot Shape’ that fits me better than any other shoes I’ve tried. Even with previous ankle and arch issues, my feet appreciate the free and supportive movement and are much happier now. These are comfy shoes, but do not last as long as a heavy duty boot. I still think they are worth it, with the amount of hiking that I do. I have worn these for the last two years, over hundreds of miles and just ordered the newest Timp 3 to replace mine since I have repaired the worn heel liners a few times. I’ll report back on the new version and hope they are as great as the 1.5s.
Other Foot Considerations
My last post covered how to prep your feet with the luxurious (and smelly) hiker pedicure. It is also important to strengthen and stretch your feet so they can carry you through the miles. If you have any biomechanics issues, get these addressed and make sure to stretch and care for your ankles and calves as well.
Plantar Fascitis: I hobbled with Plantar fascitis for a year or two, trying all kinds of shoes, inserts, overnight braces, physical therapy and foot exercises only to discover that it was due to an overly tight calf muscle. Keeping my calf muscles healthy, stretched and using compression sleeves has kept my feet happy since! Its all connected. So, part of my foot training includes a myofacial massage of the arch and calf at home and on the trail.
Shear, Fit and Friction: Check out part 1 for more info on getting properly fitted foot wear and to learn about shear. For my Superior Hiking Trail thru hike, I switched to high cushion mohair ankle socks, injinji toe socks and the standard insoles that came with my Altra Lone Peaks. I bought Altra Lone Peaks in a whole size larger than my normal size because everyone told me that my feet would swell on the trail and that it would keep my toenails from bumping the front when hiking down hill. I trained in these shoes, experimented with lacing techniques, had a little over 100 miles on them before we hit the trail and still ended up with all sorts of foot injuries.
Toenail Trouble: I remember how clever I felt in the summer of 2017 when I was training for the Cure Search Ultimate Hike, the first of a sequence of 20+ mile hikes, and leading the Hiking Merit Badge with our scout troop. People told me that black toenails were common on long hikes (almost a badge of honor), so I just painted all of my toenails red since I only had 2 little piggies that were not already some shade of purple. Black toenails do not have to be common…work on your fit and condition of your feet and keep those lil piggies happy!
Blisters: In less than 20 miles of our 310 mile Superior Hiking Trail journey, I had earned two blisters on the balls of my feet (so deep that they filled with blood), blisters on my ring toes, outer heels and under my big toenails. The next 4 days would be spent duct taping, lancing and trying to ignore the pain with every step. Also, learn what kinds of foot tape/bandage works for your feet and how to use it. I do not recommend taping your feet as haphazardly shown in this picture, I was tired, sore and this didn’t really work the best. I like KT tape and tincture of Benzoin to make sure it really sticks.
Rule #1: STOP
Rule number one of foot care in hiking: If your foot hurts, feels funny, looks funny, burns or you have any debris in your shoe…STOP. If you are in a group, STOP. If you are just starting, STOP. If you just put your shoes on….STOP. If you are almost finished, STOP. If everyone else wants to keep hiking, tell them you need to STOP. Stopping to fix the problem can be the difference between a few minutes of delay and a trip-ending injury.
Happy Feet on The Trail
Here’s a peek at my daily foot care routine on a multi day backpacking trip or long hiking day. Most experienced hikers that I know have a system or routine for themselves that keep their feet feeling fine…see what works for you!
Start of Day:
- Wake up
- Wash/clean feet
- Inspect Feet
- Treat problem areas (applying KT-Tape, bandaids, etc)
- Shake out socks right side out and inside out, removing lint, sand, dead skin…starting as clean as you can.
- Apply a generous amount of foot balm/lubrication all over feet
- Roll short socks carefully onto feet, trying not to disturb foot balm too much
- Line up seams, smooth out wrinkles over balls of feet, heels, toes, etc. No bumps or bunches allowed!
- Put on compression sleeves and gaiters (I almost always forget this step and then have to take my shoes off – don’t be like me). Wearing gaiters reduces abrasive elements and also allows you to single knot your laces, allowing easier access if you need to do a quick foot check.
- Put on shoes – experiment with lacing techniques to find what works for you. Foot should feel supported, but not too tight or too loose.
- Soak, air out feet, put on more hiker goo if needed, change socks (if needed)
End of day:
- Put on camp shoes and/or air out feet
- Air out your shoes: expand laces and pull out insoles to dry overnight.
- Wash feet before bed
- Put on Foot balm if needed
- Sleep in soft, loose socks that are ONLY worn in your shelter.
My Pocket First Aid Kit – or Blister Kit
I tend to carry a bit extra on the First Aid side, since I am:
- A Mom
- A Scout Leader
- A group hike leader of adults
- Wilderness First Aid Certified
- All of the above
I don’t like to scrimp on safety items, but I’ve dialed in my overall First Aid Kit size since my first backpacking trek. I also like to keep the larger kit in my pack and this smaller kit in my hip pocket for quick access. I haven’t had more than a hot spot since 2018, but these items are great to have for prevention and in case anyone you are hiking with runs into trouble. I keep a few non-foot related items in there too just because its handy.
Pocket First Aid Kit: All of this fits in a small snack sized ziploc bag (left to right)
- Lip balm
- Hand sanitizer
- Knuckle bandages
- Ibuprofin, allergy meds, electrolyte capsules
- Gel toe sleeves (for my stubborn ring toe)
- Hiker Goo and Sunscreen in smaller containers
- Single packet of Trail Toes (leftover)
- Several sizes of KT tape (I use this more than bandaids)
- Small nail file
- Sawyer Blist-o-Ban
- Waterproof Bandaids
- Alcohol swabs
- Benzoin Tincture (makes adhesives stick better)
- Small pocket knife with scissors
- Engo patch – for heel/shoe liner repair
- Needle and thread
Other Things That Did Not Work for Me
Some people love the following items, and they are probably good products but they didn’t work for me. I think it’s important to show the process of trying lots of things and finding what works for you. To save money, I try to buy things used if they are in good condition and invest more if I know it works. Check out my post on how to save money at REI Garage Sales – they also sell/trade in used gear online now, yay!
- Moleskin – did not stay stuck on my feet, blew through this pretty quick and switched to KT tape.
- Injinji toe socks – did not prevent blisters, people love them…did not work for me. I did keep a pink pair to wear with flip flops because I like that they make my feet look like muppet toes.
- Balega alpaca wool socks – too much fluffy pile in the metatarsal area, caused friction blisters. I like thin, smooth socks and leave the cushioning up to my insole.
- Thick, puffy mid length hiking socks: too hot, constricting circulation in a bad spot for me. I only use these in the winter now.
- Smartwool socks – heels wore out quickly on longer hikes causing blisters. I prefer Darn Tough
- Waterproof Hiking Boots – held in too much moisture from my sweat and took forever to dry if water did get inside- this caused blisters and maceration. I only use these in the winter and prefer a quick drying mesh shoe for hiking.
- Buying shoes a whole size larger to allow for swelling. I now buy my shoe size or go ½ size bigger if they run small.
- Barefoot or minimalist shoes – these aggravated my existing foot problems, even with strength training – not for me.
Foot Gear Faves:
Here’s a few more bonus tips and a list of my favorite foot gear for hiking and backpacking longer distances in varying conditions. Let me know if you have any questions and be sure to sure to share your faves too!
- Altra Timps –wide toe box and trademarked “Foot Shape” fits without being too tight or too loose
- Altra Gaiters – minimizes sand and debris-hook and velcro attachment
- Super Feet Trailblazer Insoles – fits the shape of Altras and has good metatarsal cushion
- Engo Blister Prevention Patches– allows smooth movement in high friction areas
- Wrightsocks- Tab socks: synthetic, quick drying, double layer
- Zensah Compression Sleeves – This combo allows easy access to my feet if they need attention and I think it helps prevent my ‘Hikers Rash’ or exercise induced vasculitis. Compression socks or sleeves can also help provide support for leg fatigue
- Darn Tough short or long socks- I prefer these for dry or shorter distances
- Sealskinz waterproof socks: used on consecutively wet or cold days with a Wrightsock
- Fleece or chenille sleeping socks: loose, soft, fuzzy, foot recovery overnight- “sacred socks” that are ONLY worn in my shelter
- Fixing Your Feet -Book: John Vonhof
- Hiker Pedicure- focusing on removing calluses and meticulous toenail filing
- KT Tape- this stretches and adheres the best on my feet in wet/damp conditions
- Gel Toe sleeves- for my fussy ring toe, also helpful f you are recovering from damaged toenails.
- Hike Goo– good overall foot salve for anti-friction, moisture resistance and healing. I have also used Trail Toes
- Rawlogy Cork Massage Ball– Lightweight, eco friendly and great for on or off the trail
Bonus Tips for After Your Hike:
Soak your feet in a cold stream on breaks or at the end of the day. Epsom salts are great for soaking sore feet and muscle recovery back at home.
Take off your socks and shoes on breaks, change socks and bring sandals or comfy shoes to recover/air out your feet.
Vinegar soak – After a muddy, stinky hike, sometimes I soak my shoes, socks and insoles in bucket of water with diluted white vinegar, rinse and leave them in the sun to dry. I think it kills the swamp stuff/bacteria and it has never harmed my gear. The SHT mud is kid of famous for ruining shoes with its smell and this has saved mine.
Thanks for reading! Do you have any favorite ways to keep your hiking feet happy? Stuff you’ve learned the hard way or things you wish someone had told you before you hit the trail? Feel free to share them here or continue the conversation on the Wandering Pine Facebook page. Its always good to hear from you and inspires me to keep writing.
Happy Feet & Happy Trails!