Wear Shoes That Fit (and Break Them In)
It seems obvious, I know. But here is something to consider: At home I wear a size 6.5 shoes. My first pair of Altras on the PCT were size 7.0. My second pair were 7.5. Why? Because when you hike 10 to 15 to 20+ miles a day, every day…your feet expand. Significantly. They get much wider and much flatter. After the first 450 miles on trail, I went home for a wedding. I knew my feet would be bigger than before, so I waited until I was home that week to buy shoes for the wedding. I got off trail on a Friday. I bought the shoes on the following Tuesday and they fit perfectly. By that Saturday, they were at least half a size too large. The change in your feet when thru-hiking is dramatic. There is lots of lip service to training before going backpacking, and I wholeheartedly agree with all of it. However, one easy thing that you can do for yourself is to break in your shoes before trying to crush miles in them. Before my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I wore my trail runners as my daily shoes for a month. I wore them to work, I wore them around town, I wore them on practice hikes. As a result, I had no blisters my first few weeks on trail while all around me were hikers struggling through horrible blisters while trying to hike 15+ miles a day. I had to get new shoes later in my hike, so I had to deal with a few blisters then, but overall blisters were not high on my list of concerns on trail.
Wear Them Properly
Despite what your grade-school teachers may have told you, you should not be lacing your shoes tightly. However, when they are tightly tied, any spot that has friction will rub repeatedly over that very small area causing irritation (read: blisters or heat rash). Your laces should not be loose enough that your feet will come out of them, nor should they be so tight that your foot feels restricted in any way. The best way to determine proper tightness is to play around with it yourself and see what feels the most comfortable.
Gaiters keep the dirt and debris that you kick up while walking from falling into your shoes. These irritants can cause friction that will lead to blisters, or can just be a pain in the ass (foot) while hiking. It’s nice to have shoes with built in gaiter attachments, but Dirty Girl gaiters come with a velcro adhesive so they can be attached to any shoe.
They might be less necessary if you’re wearing boots instead of trail runners, but they’re so cheap that I would recommend picking up a pair anyways and giving them a try. They are less necessary if you’re wearing boots instead of trail runners, but they’re so cheap that I would recommend picking up a pair anyways and giving them a try.
Warm Up Every Day
This holds true for your entire body, but it is extremely beneficial to warm up your body before exerting it. When on the PCT, my group and I paid a lot of attention to the hips and ankles, performing mobility work in the morning to loosen everything up before putting our packs on and getting going. Here are some really fantastic dynamic stretches to start your day.
Be Aware of Hot Spots
You will begin to feel hot spots form on your feet as you hike longer distances. These are areas that are heating up due to friction/rubbing, and will turn into problem spots on your feet. It is essential to be aware of these hot spots and treat them when necessary. This may mean applying bandages, changing shoes/socks, applying bandages, or even changing your stride. Treat the issue before it becomes serious, and the consequences will be reduced.
Take Your Shoes Off
Take your shoes off often throughout the day to air them out and cool them down. Elevate them on a rock or your pack to help the blood drain out of your legs. This helps immensely to alleviate hot spots and eliminate moisture in your shoes.
Change Socks Midday
While you’re sitting with your shoes off and feet up, take the chance to change into clean socks. Even with gaiters, you will accumulate dust and grit in your socks throughout the day which can irritate your feet.
I brought Birkenstocks on the PCT. Yep, that’s right. You would not believe the number of people who gave me a hard time for carrying that pack weight, although they don’t weigh that much more than other camp shoes people brought (popular choices included Crocs, Luna sandals, and the cheapest possible flipflops you can find at WalMart or the dollar store).
Lighten Your Pack
One of the main reasons ultralight hiking is so lauded for long-distance hiking is that it is easier on your body. Not only are you more comfortable with a lighter pack, you are also less prone to injury. For more information about ultralight hiking, check out my gear post from last summer – I covered the principles of ultralight hiking in detail. If you have a lot of foot pain or problems, lightening your pack can do a lot to ease them.
Coddle Your Feet
Soaking them in the cold water of a river will soothe a lot of your aches. If you get the chance in town, soak your feet in warm water mixed with epsom salt (put some in your resupply box!). You can do this in a bucket or bath tub, and some hiker stops (e.g. Warner Springs Community Centre) will even have massaging foot baths that you can use. Speaking of massages – massage your feet. If you can spend 5 minutes a night giving your feet a deep, strong massage, it’ll eliminate a lot of the potential for injury that comes with tense muscles. It’ll also alleviate foot ache, which comes with the territory of long distance hiking.
I would also recommend carrying moisturizer with you. My feet started falling apart from being dry and cracked. I found tiny tubes of gold bond moisturizer in a hiker box and applied it twice a day, and I was so glad to have picked it up. It fixed the dry cracked spots you can see in the image above, and I made sure to always carry moisturizer after that.
- Wear shoes that fit.
- Wear them properly.
- Wear gaiters.
- Warm up every day (seriously).
- Address hot spots right away.
- Take your shoes off (often).
- Change socks midday.
- Bring camp shoes.
- Lighten your pack.
- Coddle your feet.
Disclaimer: I received no compensation for any gear mentioned in this post. I am not a doctor or a medical professional. This is advice from my experience backpacking; your health is in your own hands. If you are in extreme pain, seek immediate medical advice. Be kind to your body.