Hiking is a challenging and rewarding activity, and you need strong feet that have to bear all your weight. Taking proper care of your feet is a necessity for hikers, especially thru-hikers who have to hike for months at end. We usually don’t give much thought to taking care of our feet, but out exciting hiking trips are not possible if they are not in good shape. That’s what makes foot rehab essential for outdoor enthusiasts, including thru-hikers and backpackers.
Let’s start with some common foot issues and why they are caused before moving on to rehab and how to take good care of them.
Common Foot Issues and How to Deal with Them
Blisters is perhaps the most common foot issue hikers experience, which can sometimes cause hikers to call it quits easly. Blisters are mostly caused by shoes that don’t fit properly and refer to pocket filled with fluid under the skin. Substantial friction between the feet and shoes can create blisters over time, resulting in pain, redness and itching. Wet feet (for extended periods of time) can also cause blisters, so make sure to keep them dry by always keeping an extra pair of socks.
Try different styles of hiking shoes before embarking on your journey and find the perfect pair that fits well. Many hikers consider quality liner socks to be a great option for long-distance hikes and they provide ample cushioning, especially around the toes. If preventive measures don’t seem to work, carry blister treatment supplies in the first aid kit, including Leukotape.
Popping off a blister intentionally in its early stages can save your socks from sudden bursts, which can also cause infection. Make sure to sterilize (by rubbing alcohol) the tip of a knife or needle before popping off a developing blister and use an antiseptic to clean the affected site. You also have to try your best to keep your feet dry during the rest of the journey buy taking breaks on regular intervals and taking off your shoes and socks.
Hot spots usually develop before blisters start to pop up, so you should take them as a warning sign and stop to address the issue. It is recommended to take a break when you start feeling pain due to hot spots otherwise, mild pain can turn into even more painful blisters. Redness, pain and tenderness are the most common symptoms of hot spots.
It can become a more serious issue than hot spots and blisters when hiking. Hikers experiencing its symptoms should seek professional help before the hike. Common symptoms include sharp pain in the feet or heel, limping, swelling and tenderness.
The feet might seem alright from the outside, but the connecting tissues in the arches are inflamed and it may feel like the heels are about to explode. Massaging and stretching the arches at least once a day and investing in custom insoles can help a lot in preventing this condition.
Bony growths on heels’ underside can cause inflammation and pain, which usually happens after repeated strain. Heel spurs are mostly associated with plantar fasciitis. Frequently massaging and stretching your feet and wearing quality shoes and insoles can help prevent the condition.
Also related to blisters, abrasions are usually caused after silt and fine sand finds its way into the socks e.g. can happen if you have been walking through dirty water. The materials inside the socks can turn into sandpaper-like material that keeps rubbing against the skin.
Make sure to keep an extra pair of socks and change dirty socks with a dry and clean pair as soon as you start noticing some friction. Sterilize your feet with an antiseptic or alcohol if they are already abrasive and cover them up with Leukotape or gauze when hiking.
You are at the risk of developing trench feet if they have been dirty, wet and cold for a long period of time. When that happens, the feet start feeling like they are walking on a broken glass or on fire. In severe cases thick skin chunks can completely slough off, which can become a huge problem on long routes.
You need to seek professional help as soon as you think you might have trench feet. It does not take long before the condition becomes very serious, sometimes even resulting in amputation. Keep your feet clean and as dry as possible and don’t forget to take regular breaks throughout the day.
All hikers dread loosing toenails, but it’s not that difficult to prevent this from happening. Toenails can be an issue when they keep bumping against the shoe, which is also an indication that you are not wearing shoes that fit you properly. You can only wait after the toenails have dried/fallen off and hope that they will grow back fast on their own.
Referred to as a lump of tissue or bone on the side of big toe’s joint, a bunion can push the tow out of its natural alignment. Too narrow shoes are often the reason behind bunions. Bunion pads, custom orthotics, toe socks and toe separators can all help in keeping the toes aligned. You can also consider investing in a hiking shoe that comes with a wider toe box than regular shoes, while women can try wearing men shoes for the same reason.
Seek medical advice if these things don’t seem to work and you feel excessive pressure on the big toe joint. In severe cases, bunion surgery is the only option, while in moderate cases cortisone shots can prove to be effective.
Preparing Your Feet for Hiking
You need to take good care of your feet even if you are not an outdoor enthusiast. Taking good care is even more important for hikers who have to walk challenging terrains for days if not weeks at end. There are many things you can do to prepare your feet for your next adventure including:
Choose the Right Shoes that Fit Properly
Shoes that are not a good fit for your feet are the most common reason behind foot problems. A large number of hikers have moved to lightweight shoes such as trail runners and even barefoot shoes. These shoes are lightweight, breathable and easy to dry, making them ideal for most hiking and backpacking trips.
Lacing up properly is also essential for a good fit. Give your feet some breathing space while making sure that the heels are not wiggling, which can create friction between the skin and shoes. Hiking shoes and boots, whether new or broken in, should fit the feet contours.
However, many still belong to the boots camp and if you happen to be among them, make sure that the boots fit you well and have been broken in before hiking. You might also want to consider buying an insole for better arch support to minimize fatigue.
Choose Your Socks Carefully
Although the exact type of socks you should wear mainly depends on the climate and terrain, it’s recommended to wear breathable socks that provide adequate cushioning. Cotton socks are not considered a great option for hiking trips as they are not so good at absorbing moisture.
Socks that are too thin cannot provide enough protection from the impact of shoes, while too thick socks can cause excessive sweating, which can eventually lead to blisters. Socks made of synthetic materials such as polyester socks and liner socks are a good middle ground, while merino wool socks are also a great option for most backpacking and hiking trips.
Train and Be Prepared for the Hike
Although weekend or one-day hiking trips are not so challenging and require little in terms of physical fitness, long-distance hikes require some training and a certain level of physical fitness. Practice and regular training conditions your body for the challenge ahead. Different ways to train your body include:
- Resistance training helps build muscle strength and boost endurance
- Aerobic exercises improve cardiovascular health and help you condition your body for continuous movement for long periods of time
- Hiking in a terrain similar to what you plan to hike on provides you with a chance to get the feel of it without going all in
- It’s also a good idea to practice hiking in short sections while carrying the same gear (e.g. tent, backpack) you plan on taking with you in the long-distance trip
Consider Lightweight Gear
Carry lightweight gear to minimize jolts through the feet. Although more expensive than regular gear, ultralight backpacking gear provides similar functionality while cutting weight. Avoid carrying unnecessary gear and opt for lightweight, multi-purpose items, which alone can greatly help prevent most foot related issues.
Although Ibuprofn (aka Vitamin I in the hikers community) is effective in dealing with pain and inflammation, such drugs should be used as a last resort in long hikes. It only provides temporary relief without dealing with the underlying causes and provides you with some time to fix the real issues.
How to Take Care of Your Feet When on the Trail?
- Listen to your body when hiking long-distance trails and address any issues before they turn into something big
- Pain and hot spots are early signs of an injury, so stop and take a few minutes to apply some tape, petroleum jelly or moleskin. Foot powder can also help reduce friction and prevent excessive moisture from building up
It’s highly recommended to take a foot-care kit on long trips and be prepared for the unknown. Such kits may include basic things such as an extra pair of socks for short trips or more than one pair for long trips as well as:
- Moleskin that helps protect feet from blisters
- Duct or athletic tape for taping injured or affected parts of the skin
- Powder or a lubricant
- Benozoin wipes that are effective in patching skin, alcohol wipes can be used for disinfecting blisters
- Blister patches provide quick relief and accelerate the healing process
- Safety pins can be used to drain fluid from blisters
Take Breaks Frequently
Feet absorb moisture and tend to swell over long-distance hikes, especially hikes through rough, uneven or hot terrains. Taking some rest, removing shoes and socks, and elevating your feet after every 2.5 miles helps counteract the effect of walking for extended periods of time. Frequently cleaning the feet and dunking them in cold creeks is another way of keeping them fresh. If creek is not available, you can also use a wet bandana to get rid of the grime.
How to Deal with Foot Pain During the Hike?
Sometimes it’s not possible to stop for long periods of time and address foot issues. Hikers have to figure out ways to deal with such issues in such situations. Some tips for alleviating foot pain on the move include adjusting the backpack and distributing its weight evenly, using hydrotherapy and a quick massage.
You might want to consult a podiatrist or another medical professional if you are experiencing any of the following after a hiking trip:
- Pain that is showing no signs of improvement even after a few weeks
- Persistent swelling after 2-3 days of home treatment
- Swelling or pain that is becoming more severe
- A slow healing wound
- Numbness, tingling, particularly in the bottom of the feet
- You are finding it difficult to put your full weight on your feet or unable to walk comfortably
- Signs of infection, including redness in the affected part, tenderness and warmth
Starting off with the right feet is important whether you are hiking or want to enjoy any other outdoor activity. Taking good care of your feet is not a chore, but things can become nasty during the hike if you don’t show some love to them.
Feet comprise of one quarter of body’s total bones/muscles and with over 33 joints, they deserve some attention. Try walking barefoot for plenty of time to keep your feet strong and ready for the next adventure, stay hydrated and don’t forget to clip the toenails.