How to Care for Your Feet on a Long Hike
When I hiked the High Sierra Trail in the summer of 2018, I didn’t enjoy the hike as much as I would have liked to because of foot pain.
I spent the following year researching and trying every method to prevent foot pain on the trail. I’ve even gone to the podiatrist.
Typically consistent hiker foot pain on the trail is caused by plantar fasciitis. If you’re concerned, go see a doctor. This advice is what has worked for me and is not meant to substitute medical advice.
Foot pain can taint even the most remarkable experience. So I’ve partnered with Injinji to share how I prevent foot pain on long day hikes, multi-day backpacking trips, and even week long treks.
Wear the right shoes
One of the reasons I’ve had foot pain is that I didn’t wear the right shoes for me.
Always get hiking shoes in at least half a size bigger. You want to make sure that your toes don’t touch the front of your boot. Otherwise, your toes will push up against the front of your shoes on the steep downhill sections of the trail and you’ll lose a couple of toenails. My second attempt to Mt. Whitney, I day hiked and wore my street shoe size in hiking boots. When I got to the car, I found out that my right big toenail had lifted, then in the weeks after it blackened and eventually fell off.
Choose a shoe in the “Goldilocks zone,” not too big but not too small. When choosing a hiking boot, make nothing rubs your foot the wrong way. That the back of the shoe doesn’t rub your heel, the insole doesn’t rub your arch, etc. I’ve gotten blisters around the edges of my heel and outsides of my arch because the insole of the shoe sat right on the edge of and over 10+ miles, it rubs creates a blister. If the insoles don’t sit the right way, you can always change out the insoles or even get custom insoles you’d get from your doctor.
As I prepared for the John Muir Trail, I tried so many different hiking boots. From previous hikes, I figured out I needed a wider toe box, a soft insole, ankle support while having a stiff overall shoe so my foot and ankle didn’t move around too much on uneven terrain. I learned what my feet needed and searched for the right shoe for me. Not all feet are created equal. The key is to find the right shoe for you.
Wear the right socks
I wear Injinji socks. I like that they’re toe socks!
When your toes are separated, properly aligned and splayed, your weight is distributed evenly which allows your entire foot to be engaged in any activity. It also helps to improve your balance and posture.
Another benefit of toe socks is that it prevents my toes from rubbing together. With each toe protected, it prevents skin-on-skin friction and protects your foot from blisters and hot spots. Also since each toe is covered in sweat-wicking fabric, it will keep your feet dryer and less prone to blisters. When choosing a good sock, avoid cotton, it retains moisture. Choose a sock made from synthetic or wool fabric.
Stretch it out
One of the best things I learned in my 10+ years of dancing ballet, is learning how to stretch. Especially learning how to stretch my feet.
Taking time each day to stretch can ease your discomfort and improve your range of motion.
When stopping for lunch and at camp for the evening, I take off my shoes and stretch out my feet. Just like the other muscles in our body need to be stretched, the same for our feet!
Stretching keeps muscles flexible, strong, healthy and helps maintain a range of motion in your joints. Without it, our muscles shorten and become tight. This puts you at risk for pain, strains, and muscle damage. Stretch when your body is warm.
When your body is cold, the fibers in your muscles aren’t prepared and can be damaged. So stretching right when you stop for lunch and when you get to camp is a perfect time to stretch. Your body is still warmed up from the hike.
But don’t just stretch out your feet. Stretch out your calves and ankles too! It’s all connected. If your calves are tight, it affects the way you walk and puts unnecessary pressure on your feet, ankles, and knees.
Here are the stretches that I do on and off the trail:
Rolling the bottom of your foot on a ball (like a tennis ball) can ease arch pain, heel pain and even help treat plantar fasciitis.
Two minutes on each foot.
Sit with your feet flat on the floor with the ball nearby.
Put your foot on top of the ball and roll it around, massaging the bottom of your foot. You can use it to massage the ball of your foot, your arch, and your heel. Increase and decrease pressure as needed.
This one is recommended for plantar fasciitis especially.
Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 3 times per foot.
Stand facing a wall, you can also use a tree or rock if you’re on the trail.
Place your hands at shoulder height and width at the wall in front of you.
Take a step forward with your right foot so that it is now only a few inches from the wall.
Shift your weight onto your right leg and bend at the knee. Keeping both heels on the ground, lean your upper body slowly toward the wall until you feel a good stretch happening along with the calf muscles of your left leg.
Toe Stretch/Toe Splay
This movement will help you to gain control over toe muscles and it’s a nice stretch after a long day in hiking boots. You can add a looping rubber band or hair tie around the toes of each foot to make it harder.
Hold for 5 seconds, repeat 10 times.
You can do this sitting or standing.
Spread all of your toes apart as far as comfortable.
This stretch helps with the range of motion. You can do this stretch from either sitting, lying, or standing positions.
10 circles in each direction, repeat 2 times per foot.
Slowly turn your ankle in circles to the left side, then repeat to the right side.
Keep the movement small, focusing on the ankle and foot, not your entire leg.
Cross Leg Ankle Stretch
This stretch helps the muscles on the top of your foot and ankle.
Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Sit with left leg crossed over your right knee.
Hold your right foot in your hands.
Use your right hand to bend your left toes and ankle downward, like you’re pointing your toes.
If you don’t have a thera-band, you can use a towel for this stretch.
Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 3 times per foot.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight in front of you.
Wrap the band around the balls of your feet and your toes on one foot.
Hold the band, one side in each arm. Slightly pull on the band to give it some resistance.
Pull your foot back towards you until you start to feel a stretch at the bottom of your foot.
This can be done sitting or standing. I prefer to do it standing, and use my body weight to help deepen the stretch.
Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 3 times per foot.
Stand by a wall, a tree or a counter.
Start with both feet facing forward and parallel.
Lift your heel on one foot as if to stand on your toes, and bend your knee.
Don’t sickle your foot (rolling it outwards), keep the weight evenly distributed and towards your big toe.
If you need extra, push your body weight forward to deepen the stretch.
Soak your body and feet
I try to camp near a lake, so I can enjoy nature’s ice bath.
Alpine lakes are cold enough to reduce the soreness after a long day of hiking
Traditionally athletes use ice baths to help with recovery. Ice baths reduce inflammation and improve recovery by changing the way blood and other fluids flow through our bodies. When you get into an ice bath, your blood vessels constrict and when you get back out, they open up. This process helps flush away metabolic waste post-workout.
This is especially true for helping move stagnant fluids in your lymph nodes throughout your body. Increased blood flow also floods your cells with nutrients and oxygen which also helps with recovery.
We don’t have ice baths in the backcountry, but we do have lakes! Even just soaking your feet for a short while during your lunch break will help you push through to camp.
Treat blisters and hot spots quickly
I know that I constantly get blisters around my heels, so before I even hike, I apply moleskin to reduce the friction in that area.
As you’re hiking, if you feel an uncomfortable spot, take your shoes and socks off. If the area is even a little red, apply protection tape, bandages, moleskin, etc. Keep your preferred blister protection in your first aid kit, and keep your first aid kit somewhere that’s easy to reach.
For more tips on blister prevention, read this blog post.
When choosing a good sock, avoid cotton, it retains moisture. Choose a sock made from synthetic or wool fabric. I wear the Injinji Outdoor Midweight Crew NuWool sock on long hikes and backpacking trips.
My feet sweat, and I’ve noticed because these socks are thicker, that they absorb moisture much better than the thinner socks I’ve worn on long hikes. At first, I was worried that my feet would overheat since they are thicker, but I haven’t had that problem at all!
I feel like the extra padding and cushion helps prevent the soles of my feet from starting to hurt sooner on 10+ mile hikes.
Bring two pairs of socks and change your socks halfway through the day to keep your feet dry! It also comes in handy if your feet get wet during a water crossing. You can hang the first pair of socks on the outside of your pack (assuming it’s not raining) to dry out under the sun.
Waterproof shoes, although some more breathable than others, reduce the ability for your foot to breathe compared to not waterproof shoes. Because of the waterproof coating, it’s harder for the moisture inside of your shoe to evaporate. Especially during the hot summer months when your foot will sweat more. I now wear not waterproof boots during the summer months and save the waterproof boots for snowy hikes during the winter months.
Let your feet relax in camp
I bring camp shoes with me so I can take off my hiking boots and let my feet breathe and relax. The camp shoes can be water shoes, sandals, down booties, UGG boots, or fuzzy slippers.
When backpacking I bring water shoes for water crossings and to jump into lakes and rivers with. So in camp, I put them on with fuzzy socks. It’s a nice treat for my feet.