One of the Most Important Things About Hiking…
You ever heard of the adage “you can learn something new everyday”? Well, maybe it’s not an adage, but it should be. A couple of years ago, some young Marines taught me a valuable lesson on a backcountry hike. The lesson was one that I’ve taken to heart. Disclaimer: The observations that follow are based on my experiences and are not medical advice.
When you think about which part of your body takes the most abuse on the trail, what comes to mind? For me it is the feet. Your tootsies can really take a beating out there. If you’ve been hiking for a while, you have probably suffered from some of the maladies that I’ll discuss. My first cardinal sin of hiking was buying shoes that fit. In other words, I got boots the same size as my everyday shoes. They worked great on short hikes on varied terrain. However, my week of hiking in Yosemite demonstrated the flaw to my thinking. After a long hike, the downhill stretch hurt my toes. You see, the feet can swell and the arches tend to flatten a bit on long hikes. The result can be a foot that is up to one size larger than normal. Since the toes have nowhere to go, they bang up against the toe box in your boot. The result may take a few days, but the toenails turn black and blue and eventually fall off. Lesson Learned - Buy hiking shoes/boots that are at least 1/2 to 1 size larger than normal. You can make up the difference with thicker socks.
Blisters, unavoidable – right? Not always. While the primary cause of blisters is friction, moisture (sweat) is a key contributing factor. Reduce the rubbing and moisture and you will typically get less blisters. After your toes, the heels take the most abuse on your feet. You can reduce heel rubbing by a shoe that fits well. You can also use a lubricant made especially for runners which is somewhat effective. Shoes that are too wide in the back allow for excessive movement and will rub those seven layers of skin off by lunchtime. Some tips to reduce moisture – use synthetic sock liners followed by the appropriate thickness of wool socks. The merino wool works well for me. Together, these socks wick away moisture where it has a chance to evaporate. Lastly, as far as blisters go, dirt in your shoe – it is an abrasive that increases the risk of blisters. The solution is to pick up some gaiters to slip over your shoes. There are many varieties from simple synthetic pullover to heavy-duty trail blazers that resist cactus. They do a great job at keeping debris out of your shoes.
By far, the most comforting thing that you can do on extended treks is to occasionally stop and take your shoes and socks off. This is especially true on those warmer hikes, but the feet perspire on those winter hikes due to the thicker socks. A 5 minute break cooling your jets will go a long way in warding of those blisters. Massaging the bottom and ball of your feet is very therapeutic. Be careful, as I’ve read of hikers losing a boot over a cliff. Can you imagine hiking out in your socks?
On extended backcountry trips, it is imperative that you baby those feet at the end of the day. I usually break out the wet or antiseptic wipes and give my feet a good cleaning. It’s always a good idea to apply some triple antibiotic ointment to any open blisters or abrasions. It is possible to get an infection from an open blister or raw area on your feet within days, especially if you fiord a few streams. Afterwards, I’ll rub some foot lotion or ointment (like Gold Bond or Kerasal) to moisturize, before putting on a clean pair of socks at bedtime. Your feet will appreciate it and the socks will keep your feet comfy. Like many of you, I’ve logged hundreds of trail miles on these feet and they haven’t failed me yet. Take care of them and you’ll be amazed where they can take you.