Sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it? Yet, as simple as that sounds, feet are often taken for granted and, other than what lies between your ears, few things are as important on a hike as sound, healthy feet. Unfortunately, hiking has the propensity to wreak havoc with feet and feet that hurt or get injured will make even the most spectacular of journeys, miserable.
Proper foot care starts with blister prevention. Blisters are caused by heat, moisture and friction, or the combination of the three. If one can keep their feet cool and dry, and minimize rubbing, they have already won half the battle. Here are a few considerations that may help you do that and go a long way towards reducing the likelihood of blisters.
Hikers should not wear cotton socks; cotton socks will absorb moisture and remain damp until taken off and dried. Cotton should always be avoided when hiking, no matter what the use. By the way, when you are shopping for a new cool shirt to wear on your next hiking trip and you see some cotton beauties that say they are “wicking”, don’t believe them. The only wicking cotton will ever do is from one cotton fiber to the neighboring cotton fiber as they absorb and retain moisture. That said, let’s not go down the “cotton kills” highway for now and instead let’s get back to our blog about feet. Instead of cotton socks, use synthetic or wool socks that will allow for the movement of perspiration through the material to the exterior so that it can be evaporated from the outside surface of the fabric.
To help eliminate friction, use double layer socks or socks with liners. A liner sock can be any thin sock that is next to your foot with an over-sock on top of it. The idea is that whatever rubbing does exist, occurs between the two sock layers instead of between the sock and your foot. If you do not want to use separate liner socks, there are many sock manufacturers that make socks that are double layered and I almost always hike with Wright Socks, which have this double layer construction.
Make sure your socks fit. Small feet need small socks and big feet need big socks. Wrinkles in socks that are too large for your feet are almost certain to form blisters, and likewise, cushioned socks that have cushioning where it doesn’t belong because the socks are too small, can be problematic.
Always bring extra socks. Socks are relatively lightweight and changing socks in the middle of a hike will always provide a cooler, dryer environment for your feet with the additional benefit that it always feels great to put on fresh socks. Use the sock changing process as an opportunity to open up the laces of your shoes or boots to get a bit of air in them to help dry them out briefly.
As a general rule, hike with the lightest most breathable shoes you can that will provide the support that you, personally, require. More and more hikers are using trail running shoes for summer day hikes and even some who are out on long treks with heavy packs are looking at lightweight alternatives to the traditional heavy boot. If you need the support of boots, then by all means use them, but where you can get away with less support, try to do such. The amount of support that everyone needs is different and so decisions on footwear need to be made on an individual basis.
In terms of footwear, waterproof means hotter. Waterproof boots do not breath as well as their non-waterproof cousins. Evaluate whether you really need that Gore-Tex liner or the heavy wax protectant on your expensive leather boots. In some situations, you may need the waterproof capabilities of these technologies, but if your trip is through dry regions, during dry seasons, evaluate this consideration carefully.
If your hike has many steam crossings where you must wade through the current, (not just step from rock to rock), consider bringing along some water shoes or sandals rather than filling your boots with water and then hiking in them all day. If you must wade with your boots, do it quickly and take them off immediately upon reaching the other bank. Dump them out and dry them as best you can and then put on dry socks. Please do not misconstrue my words here, I DO NOT recommend wading through current barefoot where you might cut the bottom of your foot on streambed debris, but, if you wade through water with your boots on, your feet may pay the price for doing such.
Remember that feet swell during the day, particularly on hot summer days. Make sure that your footwear will accommodate this swelling. It is better to have shoes a half a size too big and to wear an extra sock in the morning, than to have them cramped and sweaty in the afternoon, just make sure that your foot is not moving all around in the boot during the morning hours and that you are able to secure it with an extra sock.
Always break in your shoes or boots well before your hike. The best footwear for hiking is that which is halfway through its expected life. All shoes and boots, even the newest “no break-in required” boots, need breaking in. If you cannot get the opportunity to break-in your new boots on the trail, wear them to the office, around the neighborhood or at the grocery store. Sure, everyone may talk, but it will just announce to the world that you are a kick ass hiker kind of person who takes their gear seriously. They should be so lucky as to have a pair of nice new boots like you!
To powder or not to powder
Some hikers like to use cornstarch, talc or other powders in their boots or shoes to help reduce friction and to absorb moisture. Others say it clumps up and may actually cause blisters. The difference may be in how much one sweats or how much powder one uses, but the concept is a good one and you may want to try it while you break in those new shoes. Likewise, distance runners often coat their feet with Vaseline before placing them in socks to minimize the friction during the race. While I would not promote slathering your feet with Vaseline every day for a long-distance hike, the takeaway of a lubricant under the sock is a good one. Where are your problem areas? Where do you sometimes get hotspots? Use a little Vaseline or a balm like Joshua Tree Climbing Salve to pre-lubricate the area before putting on your socks.
My feet get very hot in the summer months and as a result they sweat in hiking boots. On long summer hikes, I used to spray them first with antiperspirant spray which didn’t make them any cooler, but did keep them from sweating up a storm in my boots. It may sound unusual but this remedy is not so far-fetched. There are a number of companies now that make antiperspirant foot powders and antiperspirant lotions for the feet. If you have this same issue, you may want to try one of these products that are available OTC at most neighborhood pharmacies.
When it is hot, put out the fire
Blisters do not just happen. Your body signals to you that there is a problem coming and gives you the chance to remedy it. This signal is often in the form of a hot spot and hot spots should not be ignored. Stop, take off your shoes and examine the area. It might be just a wrinkle in your sock, or you might be able to find that something is rubbing. You can add some lubricant to the area, or perhaps tape it or put some moleskin around it to protect it. If you treat it now, you may not have to treat a blister later.
Oh no! Blister!
Your Blister Kit
So, despite your best efforts you have a blister. What do you do now? The first thing is that you need to pull out your blister kit to assess the tools available to address the problem? What, you don’t have a blister kit? Well you should, and this is what you should have in it:
1 Roll (or cut lengths on non-stick backing) of Leukotape P
1 Roll (or cut lengths) of waterproof Kineseo-Tex tape
1 Roll of Micropore tape
1 small bottle of adhesive promoter (either Mastisol or Tincture of Benzoin)
Q tips for applying adhesive promoter
Small amount of foot powder or adhesive remover
Syringe or needle
The strongest tape in your kit is the Leukotape and it can be used for most blister repairs. The Kinesio-Tex tape should be used with the adhesive promoter and can be used where there are complicated curves such as between the toes, and the Micropore tape, also used with the promoter, is used over the edges of the tape to keep it adhered. Always round out your tape corners to help keep them from coming up. Use the foot powder for skin that got adhesive promoter on it which is not covered by tape to keep the area from sticking to your socks.
Before applying a piece of tape, clean the area well with an alcohol wipe and allow it to dry. If you are using a promoter, apply it to the area that will be covered by the tape but avoid going beyond the intended area. DO NOT get promoter on your blisters, in fact, if you are taping over an existing blister, it is a good idea to put a little salve or Vaseline on the blister to keep the tape from sticking to the cover of the blister. If you are taping over a curved surface and you have wrinkles in the tape, pull the tape together into flaps and cut those off so that you have a smooth surface instead.
Space here will not allow me to go into all the ways to tape particular blisters and there are good videos on the web for all the typical areas. One would do well to watch some videos, get a few ideas, and then look for common themes among them. Practice taping at home, where you can try multiple times to get it right. Once you get what you feel is a good taping job, put a sock on and wear it for a while. How does it feel? Keep it on for a day and judge the effectiveness at the end of the day. As a general rule, avoid multiple layers of tape and keep your taping as small as possible while still making sure there is enough sound skin for the tape to adhere securely. Don’t let your practice taping create new blisters. If you feel irritation, stop the experiment and try again.
The syringe is to drain blisters (if you use a needle instead, be sure to sterilize it in a flame first), the tweezers are to help you place small pieces of tape, and the scissors are to help you cut and shape your tape. The Blisto-bans in your kit are good for the back of the heal. If you do not have them, a piece of Leukotape can be used instead if you get a blister in this blister-prone area. If you have trouble keeping the tape adhered, use promoter and consider taping the edges with promoter and the micropore tape.
What about the Krazy glue; you thought I left that out, didn’t you? Here goes, and this is going to hurt… If you have a large blister with a flap of skin that is still partially attached but is coming off, you can glue the flap down using the Krazy Glue and then tape over it to protect it. I am not joking; this type of glue is routinely used by surgeons. The glue will burn like hell against the raw skin, and you must make sure the area is clean so that you are not gluing bacteria into the wound, but this type of repair can be extremely effective if it is done right. Be careful not to get any glue on your fingers or other areas since everything will stick to it. The glue dries in less than a minute and the pain level drops off quickly as the glue dries.
When you are out for a day of hiking, you usually just want to finish the hike, but when you are on a long hike over many days, you need repairs that will last. These tapes and treatments are all intended to be durable. How long they last will depend on the extent of the injury and whether the issue that caused the injury to begin with has been rectified. Often a good taping will last several days but on a long, multi-day, hike, it is good practice each morning to examine your feet and your bandages to make sure everything is tight and sound. If required, it is far better to replace your taping then, while you have the time and the opportunity, rather than later, on the trail, when suddenly your tape starts to slide, move, or come off and you do not have a clean, comfortable area in which to work.
Wrapping up, (no pun intended)
Feet are one of those things that get little thought until they are in trouble, and then you can think of little else beyond relief from the pain you are experiencing. Hopefully, what I have shared here will help you keep your feet in tip top condition so that they can remain, out of mind. As is true with many things in hiking, practice these foot care strategies at home, where you can reverse decisions instantly if things don’t work as expected. Break in your boots, try some foot powder or antiperspirant, tape up your toes, learn to take care of your feet now so that you will be ready to take care of them on the trail should the need arise. Now, my hiking friends, you are ready to travel by foot.