5 Tips for Taking Care of Your Feet on a Backpacking Trip

The ideal backdrop for a backpacking trip
Bill Wight/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Just imagine it: An azure sky. A peaceful, crystal-clear alpine lake. And you, sitting by that lake, feeling the power and powerlessness that comes from being self-sufficient in a wide-open world that could care less about your number of Twitter followers.

Then, to this scene, add black flies. No problem: You brought bug repellant. Now add 20 tent sites, one of which is occupied by a group who brought a battery-powered satellite radio capable of picking up the Red Sox game. No problem: You'll focus on the sound of your whispering camp stove. Then, add a salt-starved marmot who makes off with your watch in the night. No problem: The thought of said marmot forever waking up with your alarm at 5:45 a.m. offsets the loss.

But the final straw is your feet. You hiked 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) with a 65-pound (29.5-kilogram) pack on your back to reach this idyllic spot, and you have no choice but to hike that same 9 miles out. Unfortunately, your heels are riddled with blisters. And it's amazing how much misery those little blisters can bring. You could handle the bugs, the loud neighbors, the thieving fauna. But this -- the blisters -- has truly tarnished your backpacking ideal.

What should you have done to protect your feet on the hike in?

5

The Right Boots

You'll need the right boots for the expected conditions of your backpacking trip.
You'll need the right boots for the expected conditions of your backpacking trip.
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You wouldn't dance the Nutcracker in hiking boots, and, similarly, you shouldn't hike in slippers. The most important thing to consider with hiking boots is their stiffness. You may be able to get away with wearing your running shoes or trail runners on day hikes, but with your mobile hotel room (i.e. your backpack) pushing down on your back, you'll need something that puts a little more stiffness between your feet and every rock in the trail. Also, your ankles were built to support the weight of your body; not the extra weight of your pack. So, they'll need some support in the form of a high-top boot -- one that comes up over your ankle bone and, in a sense, splints your foot to your leg. A high-top also keeps debris like dirt and small rocks out of your boots -- debris that could rub blisters.

Of course, even within the category of stiffish high-top boots, there's a whole spectrum of options, ranging from a summer hiker make of nylon, Gortex and suede, to a crampon-compatible mountaineering boot [source: Appalachian Mountain Club]. Now's the time for realism: What kind of backpacking are you really going to do? If you're carrying a light load over a short distance (say less than 30 pounds/13.6 kilograms over less than 10 miles/16 kilometers), you may be able to get away with a sole that has some bend. If you're carrying a load of more than 50 pounds (22.6 kilograms) for a longer trip (and especially with off-trail hiking), you'll need a boot that makes that distinctive "thunk-thunk" sound -- without much flex in the sole. A stiff sole saves your feet from feeling every bump in the trail.

4

The Right Fit

You'll be thankful for a waterproof pair of boots and wool socks as you slop through this.
You'll be thankful for a waterproof pair of boots and wool socks as you slop through this.
Daniel H. Bailey/Photolibrary/Getty Images

A perfect-looking boot that fits all wrong is vastly inferior to an ugly boot that loves your feet. Basically, you want a boot that holds your foot but leaves your toes free. It should be tight enough that it won't rub blisters, with enough room in the toes that you won't destroy your toenails as you hike downhill.

First, consider snugness: In both width and volume, you want a boot that hugs your foot without squishing it. With that in mind, when trying on boots, be sure to wear the socks you plan to don during your hike. Then feel the width. If a boot is too wide, your foot will slide, and if it's too narrow, you'll eventually get foot cramps. Narrow brands include Sportiva and Merrell, and wider brands include New Balance and Asolo [source: Backpacker.com]. You'll also want to take into account that feet have a tendency to swell over the course of a long hike.

Then consider your toes. When you're hiking uphill, you don't have to worry as much about your toes. But when you're going downhill, if your boots are too short, your toes and nails will ram into the front of the boot, which may cause your toenails to turn black. When you're trying on boots at the store, be sure you can wiggle your toes in each pair. Then, unlace the boot and shove your toes to the front: There should be about a finger's width between your heel and the back of the boot [source: GreatOutdoors.com].

Please note that it's nearly impossible to buy the right boots for your feet online. You need to try on a pair of boots before you buy them. (And once you've spent a half-hour with a salesperson, you might as well buy them from him or her rather than online.)

3

Break 'Em In

We don't recommend you hike 10 miles (16 kilometers) with a pack on your back in any boots -- even the most perfect boots, gifted to you on high by a choir of footwear angles -- without breaking them in first. The need to break in a boot is especially true with burlier boots -- the stiffer your boot, the longer it takes to break in.

The creases you make in your boots as you break them in will form the shape of the boot for its life, so be sure you do it right [source: REI.com]. Wear them around the house with the socks you'll hike in and make sure the lacing is tight against the boot's tongue, which should lay flat. Then start with short day hikes and slowly, slowly increase the distance.

If your new leather boots are killing you and you don't want to buy a new pair, try this fix: Soak the boots in warm water before wearing them with your hiking socks. A wet foot in a wet boot is no fun to begin with and will quickly create blisters, but molding a wet boot to your foot can be a last-resort break-in trick.

2

Gear Up to Stay Dry

Wool or synthetic socks are your best bet. Cotton will hold onto moisture, rub more and cause blisters.
Wool or synthetic socks are your best bet. Cotton will hold onto moisture, rub more and cause blisters.
Daniel H. Bailey/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Start with the right socks -- a moisture-wicking synthetic liner inside a wool-mix sock is a popular choice [source: Pacific Crest Trail Association]. Then try to keep your feet clean and dry -- fabric "gators" that wrap around your boot and leg close the gap at the top of your boot, not only keeping out moisture but also keeping grime from sneaking in.

If your feet sweat, take your boots and socks off during rest breaks. If possible cool your feet off in a stream and then elevate them. Consider carrying a few extra pairs of socks and changing into them at these rest breaks. Wet skin increases friction and friction causes blisters.

Rinse out your nasty, sweaty, grimy socks in a stream and hang them on the outside of your pack. Not only will this trick ensure you have another clean, dry pair of socks to change into, but perhaps it will keep your hiking partners from crowding behind you on the trail.

1

Hot Spot Care

Have you heard the backpacking axiom, "Eat before you're hungry; drink before you're thirsty"? These statements are true because once you're hungry or thirsty, it can be hard to regain optimum energy. Now take that little nugget of wisdom and multiply it by a gazillion and you have the cardinal rule of backpacking foot care: Stop foot pain before it starts.

While in football or tennis it might be admirable to play through the pain, in backpacking it's just stupid. As you hike, be aware of how your feet feel, and especially if you feel any "hot spots," stop immediately and take care of them before they form blisters. In the long run, a couple of stops in a hike's first few miles will annoy your hiking partners much less than listening to you whine as you hobble and slow everyone down for the remainder of the hike.

First, be aware of any places your boot typically rubs your foot. Before you start hiking, apply moleskin, duct tape or medical tape to those areas. After you start hiking, if you feel any other hot spots, stop, take off your socks and boots, dry the affected area and apply the same to those areas as well. As you hike, monitor these areas, and especially if you feel the moleskin or duct tape fall off, stop and reapply as needed.

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Sources

  • Backpacker. "Wide-footer hiking boots." July 2010. http://www.backpacker.com/gear/ask_kristin/89
  • Lanza, Michael. "The agony of the feet: avoid it by buying the right boots in the first place." Appalachian Mountain Club. May 1999. http://www.outdoors.org/publications/outdoors/1999/1999-feetagony-main.cfm
  • REI staff. "Breaking in your hiking boots." REI. January 2009. http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/breaking+in+hiking+boots.html
  • Pacific Crest Trail Association "Foot care." http://www.pcta.org/planning/before_trip/health/foot.asp