While there is much to love about hiking, one of the downsides is that it can really take a toll on your feet.
When you consider that two little feet hold up an entire body (plus a backpack), it’s no wonder that foot health and foot fitness is essential on the trail.
Your feet use 19 muscles, 26 bones, 37 joints, 107 ligaments and numerous tendons to keep you upright and stable so it’s essential that, as a regular hiker, you take care of them.
The main issues that cause hiking foot pain include blisters, plantar fasciitis, hotspots and turf toe.
But before we get to addressing how to manage these issues, let’s look at some preventative measures first.
Preventative Measures to Reduce Foot Pain & Injuries on the Trail
Everyone’s feet are different (flat feet, high arches, wide/narrow, bunions etc) which is why, when buying hiking shoes, you should be in store to try them on with the help of an expert.
Visit a specialty store like Compleat Angler & Camping World Rockingham for help with being fitted correctly for your hiking footwear (tell them OTBT sent you and get a discount too!). We recently asked Team OTBT for reviews on their own trail runners and hiking boots, if you need a place to start.
Poorly fitting shoes, no matter how much you pay for them, can actually cause more issues than the support and comfort you were looking for.
Once you’ve been expertly fitted, wear them in around the house or around your neighbourhood, long enough to take notice of any hotspots or places where they rub. Unfortunately no shoes are perfect but being aware of trouble spots will help you prepare for blisters before they even start.
The socks you choose are equally important for happy feet. Stay away from using bulky wool socks because they build up heat inside your shoes and create hotspots, which are precursor to blisters.
Instead, pick a thin pair of sock liners, that are made specifically for hiking, to go under thicker socks (we recommend merino NOT bamboo!). These socks fit comfortably, don’t have seams and don’t cut off air circulation.
Also, know how to customise the lacing of your shoes for the best fit. Different lacing styles can help with low arches and wide toes or to stop your socks from slipping down under your heels.
Your feet are probably the part of your body that cops the most work when hiking. Consider the relief they feel when you’re finally home and your shoes are off!
While everyday shoes may support and protect your feet, their support actually prevents the activation of the many muscles in your feet, leading to muscle weakness.
Ladies please take note that wearing heels shortens the tendons up the back of the ankles and the calf muscles, as well as putting excess pressure on ball and toe joints. Putting extra pressure on the ball of your foot that houses the joint of your big toe can lead to ligament inflammation called Turf Toe which may be exacerbated when you hike.
Having a workout program for your feet (yep we said that!) will help build up strength in all those muscles that keep you upright and balanced on the trail as well as helping to prevent injuries and speed up recovery time.
When we tackled getting hike fit, we included exercises and stretches for your feet, as well as recommending going barefoot as much as possible between hikes.
One thing to be aware of, is that hiking and barefooting will eventually lead to your foot plate spreading; ie your feet will widen to their natural size (and be even better supporters of your body) but you may need to consider updating your shoes down the track!
Sore feet while walking could also be due to your posture and not your shoes. Good posture will engage the muscles in your body and also help take the pressure off of your feet. Our busy lives seem to make us relax anything we can even while we’re standing. Most of us normally “turn off” our stomach and back muscles while we’re standing or walking. Standing tall and straight will reengage these muscles, reducing the extra pressure on your feet.
Taking regular care of your feet will definitely make your hiking experiences more enjoyable! Male or female, there’s no shame in having a solid self-care routine on and off the trail!
- Trim toenails short and straight to avoid ingrown, blackened and lost toenails. Keep your toenails clean as well to prevent infections if the skin does break.
- Clean feet thoroughly with soap to remove bacteria that causes odour and to help keep fungal infections like athlete’s foot (aka tinea) at bay.
- Moisturise the skin to prevent painful heel cracks.
- Soak sore feet in warm water and epsom salts to relax and heal muscles and tendons.
- Massage feet for a few minutes a day to keep them strong and flexible. This will also improve circulation, restful sleep, healing and help prevent ankle injuries.
- Smooth thick calluses with a pumice stone or foot rasp to prevent blisters from forming underneath them. It’s good for hiker feet to be slightly tough instead of smooth as a baby’s bum but the skin should be alive, pliable, and healthy.
Never before has there been a better excuse for a pedicure! 😉
How To Deal With The Painful Stuff
Hotspots & Blisters
As we mentioned earlier, hotspots are precursors to blisters.
Most blisters are caused by the constant rubbing of your shoes and socks against your skin which is why the right shoes and socks should be your first priority.
Other reasons you can get blisters….
Heat – Warm weather and long hikes increase the heat in your feet making them swell. If you don’t adjust your lacing and loosen off your boots, then the tighter fit will also increase the chance of blisters.
Moisture – Moisture can get into your boots from sweat, dew, rain or water crossings. Moisture softens the skin leaving it more prone to chafing and blistering.
Debris – Out on the trail, all sorts of things are going to find their way into your shoes; dirt, sand, stones, prickles and sticks, etc. These are naturally going to rub. So if you feel something in your boot, remove it asap!
Prepping For Blisters
- Make sure your shoes fit well, laced for the shape of your foot and wear good socks or aftermarket insoles to help get the right fit.
- Know your hotspots and tape them before your hike. Tape creates a protective and durable layer of “skin” in between the foot and your shoe.
- Most tape sticks directly to your feet like Adhesive Knit and Leukotape but some are blister pads that can be stuck to the inside of your shoe. What you use will depend on what works best for your own feet.
- Pack a blister medic kit, either shop bought or homemade (see below).
- Pack extra socks – between sweat, rain and dew, having a dry pair of socks to change into will also help prevent blisters.
On The Trail
We’ve all felt that twinge of heat, irritation or pain out on the trail and it’s easy to just push on, especially if you’re out with a group.
However, ignoring a hotspot is the fastest way to get a painful blister, so it’s better to stop and address it right away.
Don’t be shy about letting your OTBT Guide know you need to stop and treat hotspots!
The last thing you want to be doing is treating a blister that has swollen so badly you can’t get your shoe back on!
However if you do need to treat a blister, particularly if it’s too big and will probably pop when you start walking again, make sure you do it right:
- Use a sterilized safety pin with an alcohol wipe from your kit and use that to pop the blister without risk of infection.
- Wipe the area with another alcohol wipe and apply antibiotic ointment.
- Cover the area with a large bandaid or tape
- And if you have moleskin and scissors, cut a doughnut shape out of the moleskin to place around the blister to create a space between the foot and shoe.
In general, popping blisters is not recommended due to how easily the raw skin underneath can get infected. Only pop them if you can’t get your shoe back on or it’s going to pop by itself under the pressure of walking.
Plantar fasciitis pain occurs when your plantar fascia ligaments, the band of tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot, tears or becomes inflamed.
Unfortunately ligament tears take a long time to heal (even small ones) and especially if you keep using them. A ligament tear will take months to heal in, for example, an arm. Considering we spend all our time on our feet, plantar fascia tears take a lot longer.
It’s important to note that the cause of some plantar fasciitis pain are outside our control and all we can do is manage it:
Anatomy – Plantar fasciitis is a pretty common complaint in people with high arches or flat feet. Tight Achilles tendons can also cause plantar fascia pain.
Age – Plantar fasciitis is most common in people between 40 and 60 years old.
Obviously prevention is best, especially to avoid an injury that takes a long time to heal.
So what can you do to prevent plantar fasciitis?
- Get your hiking shoes expertly fitted.
- Look at using inserts to support high arches or flat feet.
- Get into a daily routine with your foot exercises and stretching routine.
- Regular foot self-care, particularly epsom salt baths and massages.
Prevention is all well and good if you don’t have a previous injury. So what should you be doing if you already have plantar fasciitis?
*Please note this is just advice and we recommend you talk with your doctor.
Common medical treatments for plantar fasciitis include anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, stretching and rehabilitation, applying ice, foot inserts, custom shoes and night splinting.
A lot of this you can do at home.
Stretches & Exercises – Although good for prevention, stretching and exercising are also good for plantar fasciitis recovery.
Massage – Self-massage is a great way to help reduce pain and stretch the plantar fascia. Use your thumbs to massage your heel and the arch of your foot.
Night Splints – If you’ve suffered from plantar fasciitis for extended time, you might try a night splint. These splints stretch your arches, achilles and calves while you sleep.
Athletic Tape – Although taping your foot won’t treat or cure your heel pain, you can use it to support and stabilise your foot, reducing the pain as the plantar fasciitis heals.
Insoles – Shoe insoles work by distributing your weight more evenly. If you have high arches, they are also useful for providing arch support. You’ll probably only need to wear inserts for a few months. If you can’t find comfortable premade insoles, consider getting custom orthotics.
Untuck Your Bed Sheets – It might sound weird, but sleeping in tucked-in bed sheets puts unnecessary pressure on your feet. Untuck your sheets, and you may see a reduction in your symptoms.
Plantar Fasciitis Socks – For some people, compression socks for plantar fasciitis can make a difference. You shouldn’t wear them if you have diabetes or any other blood circulation issue but they can help relieve pain and support your fascia while it heals.
Ice/Heat – Icing and heating is an easy rehab you can do at home. For best results alternate between ice and heat, applying 3-4 times a day for up to 20 minutes.
Rest – Probably not what you want to hear when all you want to do is get back out on the trails! But plantar fasciitis is an overuse injury – resting gives your foot the time it needs to heal and recover.
Remember, the more often you do foot exercises and massage your feet, the more effective the pain relief will be.
When you’re walking, each step starts by raising your heel and letting your body weight come forward onto the ball of your foot. At a certain point you propel yourself forward by “pushing off” your big toe and allowing your weight to shift to the other foot. If your toe stays flat on the ground and doesn’t lift to push off, you run the risk of suddenly injuring the area around the joint.
The most common symptoms of turf toe include pain, swelling, and limited joint movement at the base of one big toe. The symptoms develop slowly and gradually get worse over time if it’s caused by repetitive injury like hiking.
As another overuse tear, ice/heat packs and rest are the best ways to heal turf toe.
By wearing well fitted hiking shoes with excellent support you can prevent the toe joint from excessive bending and force with pushing off.
Aftermarket insoles or orthopedically fitted insoles can help by providing a better fit inside your shoe and preventing soft tissue injury or a ligament strain that affects the big toe joint.
Compression bandages or taping can help reduce movement in your big toe, providing support and allowing it to heal.
Laying down with your foot elevated will help drain fluid and keep swelling down.
Hiking Foot Care Kit
Because good foot care when you’re hiking is so important, make sure you’re prepared with a hiking foot care kit. Here’s a checklist of items to pack a homemade kit that will protect your feet:
- Extra pair of socks – You’ll want these in case your socks become wet or sandy
- Athletic tape – Use it to tape potential problem areas
- Moleskin – Protects your feet from blisters caused by irritation
- Blister patches – Provide blister relief and promote faster healing
- Antiseptic or antibiotic ointment – Apply after popping a blister and cover with a blister patch
- Alcohol wipes – Disinfect blisters that may have torn or ripped
- Safety pin – Use to drain blister fluid
If you’d rather just buy one with everything in it, try this one.
After Hiking Foot Care
When you get home and finally get your hiking boots off, we all know that sigh of relief!
But then you go to take a few tentative shoeless steps and your feet feel like plates of swollen meat!
After hike care for your feet will help you recover much faster.
Temperature therapy – Soak your feet in hot water for 20 minutes after your hike. You can use epsom salts (which are magnesium crystals great for healing) or essential oils like lavender or eucalyptus to stimulate blood circulation and relieve soreness.
A foot massage after soaking is a great way to further relieve soreness in your lower limbs. Of course, it’s even better if you have a loved one who either owes you a favor or is willing to massage your feet. (Not finding any takers? Bribery could help…)
Use moisturiser for your foot massage to help prevent your skin from becoming too dry. Excessive dryness can lead to cracking and fissures, which are painful and increase the risk of a potential infection.
Icing your swollen feet for 15-20 minutes three times a day will serve to reduce swelling and inflammation.
In addition to soaking, massaging, and icing your feet, rest and elevation is important. Soreness is partially the result of the constant pressure pushing down onto your feet during your hike which is why your feet throb so much after you get your shoes off. Elevate your feet several times a day for at least fifteen minutes allowing blood to flow freely through your feet and legs and easing the pressure in your feet.
As you can see there are many facets to footcare but they’re all integral to keeping your feet healthy and you out on the trails more!
We love how the desire to spend more time outdoors demands that we look after our bodies better. They are, after all, our most important piece of hiking equipment.
So don’t let the nagging feelings of burn and hurt stop you from having a good time on your next trail adventure. Using a combination of these preventive measures is sure to help you enjoy the beauty of your natural surroundings without the stinging pain in your feet.