Backpacking Foot Care | Average Hiker
Backpacking Foot Care Mistakes
Backpacking foot care is a topic that is near and dear to me. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years. Mixed in with weather, weight, environment, etc., lies a good deal of just plain bone headedness. I'll go over some of the causes, and then a few preventative measures I could have taken to prevent the disasters. Finally, I'll follow up with what I do now to prevent backpacking foot pain.
For those that are a little squeamish I have added some foot photos, so be advised! I have kept these badges of honor to a minimum though. If you enjoy “The Walking Dead” or “The Surgery Channel” send me a note, and I’ll send you some large images.
Backpacking Foot Care & Blisters
Blisters had popped up on Day 1, and I had spent my first night at Hauser Creek, stabbing and running thread through the blisters. Day 2 was filled with moleskin and body glide/balm, and by Day 3 I was muttering profanities as I limped through the desert.
Eagle Rocks were just a hazy, grey blob as I hobbled my way into Warner Springs with leaking, puss filled abscesses on the pads of both feet. Tears streamed down my face as I hobbled up to the front desk of the resort that was open at the time.
Warner Springs Angel
Warner Springs was where I experienced my first trail angel on the PCT. As employees gathered around to stare at the foot I held up like a lame animal, a woman pushed the group aside to reach out and hand me her car keys. She was older, with dark hair and very serious eyes. I later learned she was the manager. “Go get what you need,” she said as she pushed her keys towards me. My eyes teared up as I let out a shuddering sigh and thanked her repeatedly.
I ended up staying at the resort for 4 days while I soaked my feet in hot water and Epsom salts three times a day. Basically, I just stayed off my feet and let them start the healing process. When I did begin hiking again, very gingerly, it was in shoes a size and a half larger, wrapped up like mummy feet. Adding inserts with holes cut in them to relieve pressure on the abscesses also helped.
Reasons for the Blisters
Ultimately, there were two real causes for the blisters and abscesses. Instead of starting the hike with a half size larger shoe, or a 10, I started with what I normally wore, a size 9.5. They were the same type of trail runners I wore on the AT, and had a more permeated (more holes) mesh upper. Sand and silt entered more easily in the desert, and the tighter fit caused rubbing on the bottom of my feet and around my toes. Rubbing with fine grained sand paper.
I started the trail about 40 pounds heavier than I had been on the Appalachian Trail three years earlier. This combined with my 40 pound pack (including food and water) meant I was consistently slamming 80 pounds down onto already high maintenance feet. Being the sensitive feet that they are, they retaliated.
Preventing the Blisters
I have never been able to completely prevent blisters, but I do keep them to a “quick minimum” on long distance hikes now. Foot care for Long Distance Hiking, at least in my case, has often been to just wait out the blisters. In this case, using a less porous mesh in the desert to keep out the sand and silt would have greatly reduced the blisters and hot spots. Not being a slob when I started, and being in shape, would have prevented the blisters from turning to abscesses after only a week and a half of hiking.
By the time I had reached the Sierras, I had hiked off the weight, and foot issues were a thing of the past. Other than soreness from constant pounding, my feet were like LEATHER!
Backpacking Foot Care & Wet Feet
Constantly wet feet, and how to handle them, was another painful lesson learned. It was also a lesson that knocked me off the trail for two weeks, and into the emergency room!
In a nutshell…
My shoes were pretty worn, and dirt and sand had begun to collect in them after Mount Cube. My socks were also soaked, so I had the added benefit of slipping and sliding! I knew I should stop and clean them out but I wanted to get to the top of Mount Smart and the Fire Warden's Cabin. Stubborn!
Once in the cabin, I stripped off my wet socks and cringed to see the strips skin missing from my toes. I wrapped up the piggies and headed down the mountain. The bandages began to slide off within a mile. Ugh…
Related Posts: Skinless Toes & Mila the Poodle
Off the Trail in Woodstock, VT
A day later, I bailed into Lyme, NH via an amazing woman and family that insisted I take their daughter's bedroom since she was away at college (that post is here). Pride drove me back to the trail after two days. Hanover passed in a blur of pain, although I remember the breakfast at Lou's, and I finally headed off trail outside Woodstock, NH after my foot had developed a nice case of trench foot and a nifty little infection.
Moral of the Story – LISTEN TO YOUR FEET!
Preventing Wet Feet Issues
The infection from wet feet could definitely have been prevented with several precautions.
- Change shoes when they get holes in them. Obvious, I know…
- Stop hiking when it feels as if sand paper is rubbing off your skin
- As soon as you get debris in your shoes, stop and clean your shoes and feet.
- Stop immediately if you get debris in your shoes and clean it out. Did I list that one already? Seriously – stop!
- Stop throughout the day and air out your feet on breaks. Let them dry.
Foot Care First Aid Kit
My first aid kit has definitely slimmed down as I've gained experience, but I don't think my feet will ever completely go without blisters. I now try to just eliminate the causes and minimize the few blisters I do still get. My First Aid Kit supplies for my feet include the following…
- Medium and small band aids
- Mole skin
- Nexcair Waterproof Tape
- Duct tape
Related Post: Plantar Fasciitis Hurts
Trail Runners and Socks
The debate, Trail Runners vs Boots, has never been a debate for me. I've always worn trail runners. As a matter of fact, I can't really offer an argument because I don't really have a comparison – at least one I can remember. I even climbed Kilimanjaro in trail runners, much to the dismay of our guides.
My trail runners have changed a couple of times. First, I migrated from Goretex to non-waterproof trail runners, and recently I switched from Salomon's to Hoka's. I made the latest change for comfort. Over the years, foot soreness has increased, and I really like the support and cushion of the thick soled Hoka Challenger ATR's. The large foot box is also a plus. They are a very roomy, comfortable shoe.
Socks have been a whirling dervish! Smart wool, liners, Sealskin, Darn Tough, Injinji, etc., – I think I've tried them all. In the end I've settled on Smartwool. They are tough, comfortable, and I always find them on sale. Keeping my feet clean and dry has really been the solution though, along with not being bone headed. The type of sock has really never made that much of a difference to me.
Backpacking Foot Care Solutions for My Hikes
My foot care solutions have definitely evolved and changed over the years, and I have learned a lot through trial and error. If I had to rank my “learnings,” number one would probably be “Don't be stubborn.” This is my downfall in many things. The rest could easily be summarized like this…
- HOKA Challenger ATR 5's – comfort, roominess, and large toe box
- Smartwool – tough and comfortable
- Stop on breaks and keep feet dry and clean
- Let feet breath and completely dry out at night
- Moleskin – carry it
- Nexcare Tape – keep lots of it
- Final Tip – if there is lot's of wet and snow – like day after day, dry your feet, put on dry socks, and seal them in some type of plastic bag. I've done this in cold, slushy, snowy conditions.