When it comes to hiking, happy feet mean a happy trip. Having been through the mill with my feet, I have become exceptionally fussy about foot care. I hiked on a broken foot bone, sprained ankle and credit card sized blisters for 71 kilometres of a 76 kilometre multi day hike one year and I learned the hard way. Here are the rules of good foot care:
1) Start with a good foundation. Buy a boot which fits perfectly and get a heat moulded insole or a prescription insole if you need it. Perfect fit means the toes don’t touch the end or sides (even if you wind up and kick a wall), the heel does not slip and slide (walking uphill, downhill or on even terrain), it has good arch support (most factory insoles are not good enough) and the boot does not feel pinched anywhere. Trying boots on, at the end of a day of walking, in the sock layers you will wear, is crucial to boot fit. Your feet swell throughout the day and may be up to a half size larger by the end of the day than they are at the beginning.
2) If you are prone to blisters, physical care of your feet is as important as what you wear on them. Before you put those boots on, wash the feet, dry the feet, trim the toenails short, straight across and don’t round off the corners unless you like ingrown toenails. If you are prone to ingrown toenails (or get one on the trail) clip a ‘V’ shaped notch in the centre of the toenail to reduce pressure in the corners. Washing the sweat salt off your feet each day before you get socks and boots is crucial to happy feet, this prevents irritation from the salt and reduces bacteria in blisters and nail beds.
P.S. Someone asked me about toenail loss. Sadly, I have experienced lost toenails and it is nasty. Pressure and friction cause toenail loss. The nail can fall off for three reasons: bruising, blistering and infection of the nail bed; all of which cause inflammation in the nail bed and thereby forcing it off the nail bed. Preventing lost toenails is, first and foremost, facilitated by checking your boot fit (see point 1.) Secondly, checking your sock fit. Seamless toes on socks can help reduce pressure and friction (see point 5.) Third, clip the toenails the day before you head out, keeping them short prevents undue pressure on the end of the toenails (see point 2.) Finally, watch your tape placement when taping toes. Any tape overtop the toenail can lift up on the nail, create friction and result in a blister under the nail which will cause the nail to fall off (see point 3.)
Should the nail begin to come off: keep it clean, treat with an anti bacterial/anti fungal and do not take the nail off. Removing the nail exposes the sensitive nail bed underneath and will force you to have to limp (and possibly cry) the rest of the way home. If the nail is completely lifting off while on the trail, tape that bad boy down until you get home but make sure you clean, dry, treat and retape once a day minimum. As long as the nail is content to stay in place, leave it be until the new nail growing out underneath replaces it. The new nail will be slightly pebbled as it grows out, you can file the top smoother as it grows out. If you loose a toenail or start to loose one, a physician may prescribe antibiotics to help prevent infection or treat any existing infection.
3) In new boots or if you are prone to blisters, cover the spot with duct tape (for heels and ankles) and or fabric medical or kinesiology tape (for toes.) Here, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, do this before the blister forms. Try to use a single strip of tape and avoid overlaps to prevent making friction ridges with the layers of tape. Also avoid layering tape overtop toenails without placing something non sticky (think gauze or tape smooth side down) over it first. Smooth wrinkles and clip slits in the tape to lay the tape as smooth as possible over areas which wrinkles and overlap are impossible to avoid. If there must be a wrinkle or overlap try to place it where there will be the least friction.
Should you get a blister, do not pop the blister. Popping a blister breaks the skin and makes it more prone to infection; instead apply a blister cushion, a gauze pad or even a second layer of duct tape smooth side against the blister and layer another piece of duct tape over top to hold and seal in place.
4) Apply a foot deodorizer or foot drying powder. Things like Gold Bond or other commercial drying powders can keep your feet dryer, less stinky and blister free.
5) Socks. Dry feet are happy feet, two layers of socks are crucial. Don’t do just any socks though, quick drying, moisture wicking, well made, socks are the backpackers best friends. Do not use cotton, ever. Do use wool, merino is my favourite and worth the pretty pennies you lay out for them. One sock should be a wicking, light weight, seamless, skin tight layer and the other a cushioned wicking layer. Look for seamless, gender specific,paneled (different knit weight over different areas) socks. Make sure your sock is long enough to cover all the areas your boot rests against skin.
Some socks are made as a single sock with two layers, some have individual toes which will keep you blister free if you are prone to toe blisters. Liner socks can be used between sock layers to keep your heavier socks and your boots dry but may also cause wrinkles so use with caution. Finally, start out with clean dry socks every day. Sweat salt build up in the socks and can wreak havoc with your skin, have enough pairs you can wash and dry pairs between every use. If you notice your feet feeling damp mid day, take your boots off, check your taping and change your socks.
6) Check your technique. Google hiking boot lacing techniques and try some out. Have a look at your laces and see if you can find a lace which will not release as much during the day. As a general rule a flat lace will hold tighter but isn’t as strong as a round lace. A Kevlar flat lace is an exception, my Kevlar boot laces have outlived a couple pairs of boots. Also look into hiking techniques to keep your rhythm even and your pace consistent without putting additional strain on your feet. Things like rest steps and proper foot planting techniques can save your feet and ankles.
7) A word on ankles: though not really part of the foot, the ankle is a crucial piece of the multifaceted implement which gets backpackers and athletes from point A to point B. Ankle support is a highly personalized and specific branch of foot care I have had best results referring to a professional and doing a fair amount of trial and error. What works for one hiker may not work for another because there may be different muscle groups and joints affected by injury, occupation and or physiology.
First and foremost, if you have weak ankles, go see a physiotherapist and work through the strength issues and have them teach you an effective taping and or wrapping methods for your specific ankle struggles. Braces, if fitted properly can be a life saver; if improperly fitted, can be disastrous. Get a professional opinion, hiking lame for a week is not worth it.
Check out your boots, footware is also highly personal and route specific. If you have weak ankles you can choose light footware with heavy bracing, midweight footware with midweight taping/wrapping or heavy footware with minimal taping or wrapping. The boots you already have and are comfortable for your foot indicates which camp you should pitch your tent. You may do a variation of all three methods based on the route or trip you are taking.
The advantage of light footware and heavy bracing is lower overall weight and faster drying times when (yes, when) they do get wet. On the flip side, lighter shoes tend to break down easier and faster and braces are expensive and fragile compared to a heavier model. Midweight boots with midweight support techniques is the best of both worlds if and only if: you are good at wrapping and taping. Proper ankle support techniques take skill, it’s a skill worth learning and can save your bacon if you get a mid trail injury. On the other hand, this method also requires carrying taping and or wrapping supplies and poses some extra risk for blistering, especially if you are not fastidious about washing the wrap or replacing the tape. Finally, there is the heavy boot option, heavy boots have the advantage of being highly supportive, low maintenance, and superior durability and water resistance. You may find with the right boot you do not require any taping or wrapping, if you don’t find the right boot you may find they are of little to no help or support. The heavy boot option comes with the disadvantages of being heavy and lacking flexibility and needing to be a better fit than any other option, heavier boots come at an additional cost but they will last you many more seasons compared to lighter options.
Finally look into trek poles, they are good for making you more stable on your feet and make a great set of crutches or a splint if you have an injury. Trek poles can also be used as tent poles to lower pack weight and increase multi-functionality.
Thanks for the read and if you have questions or suggestions I have missed please comment below. Happy hiking!