Happy Feet: Your Guide to Not Having Angry Ones Like Mine on the Trail!
My feet suck when it comes to hiking. No, like they really, really suck. I quite possibly have the softest feet in trail history. My feet used to be so soft and dainty, you would think I spent an hour a day soaking them in a vat of lotion with every intention of poking every stranger I met with them to demonstrate how magically gentle and smooth they were. Okay, now that I’ve grossed you out, my point is I suffered through a ridiculous amount of hell when I first attempted a thru hike since every time I would solve one issue with my feet, a new one would arise. There is no fool proof way for blister prevention and treatment that works for everyone, I should know! Not all feet are created equal, and what may be a quick fix for one person may fail to help someone else. There are even people out there who won’t get a single blister their entire hike. Damn you. Through trial and error, you might find yourself a remedy discussed below that will save you a lot of strife in the future. May God save your soul.
First thing first…SHOES!!!
This is your most important gear! Your lifeline! With bad shoes you won’t be traveling far, or at least comfortably. I initially picked a pair of shoes that I thought would be perfect. I’ve hiked in them a ton of times and they felt great! What I never considered is the amount of swelling that occurs to your feet during a thru hike. You’ll be doing more miles than you may be used to doing and doing them consistently to the point where your feet will feel like they might grow and split your shoes into shreds like the Incredible Hulk. This led to blisters, chaffing, wandering toenails, and it would reoccur more than I’m proud of discussing. I ditched my shoes and tried a new pair at Neels Gap which were too big, but their shoe selection was limited at the time, and I needed something different STAT (my wallet cried tears of emptiness). Of course the predictable happened and more blisters developed, however I was relieved that my feet no longer felt like they were in vices.
Choosing What To Wear:
There are 3 main options for what you will be treading dirt in:
- Hiking Boots:
- recommended if you’re carrying a medium to heavy load (your pack size matters!)
- provides ankle support
- more stability
- heavier than shoes
- they’re stiff which reduces foot fatigue, but you may have to sacrifice comfort
- Trail Running Shoes:
- not recommended if carrying a medium to heavy load
- no ankle support
- may sacrifice stability
- less sturdy; more wear and tear
- more comfort, but more penetration from the elements (more foot fatigue than a boot)
- Hiking Shoes:
- recommended if you’re carrying a light to medium load
- no ankle support
- good stability
- generally more lightweight than a boot, but heavier than a trail runner
- stiffer than a trail runner, so less foot fatigue, but you may have to sacrifice comfort
Waterproof vs. Not:
- will keep feet warmer (ideal in cold weather)
- prevents moisture from coming in
- not breathable – may cause feet to sweat more (moisture = blisters)
- allows cooler air in (ideal for warmer weather)
- allows moisture in (may I recommend Goretex socks? OR the poor man’s way: plastic bags tucked under insoles?)
- more breathable for sweaty feet
Insoles, Sizes, & Other Concerns:
- Stock or New Insoles? – You can change your insoles after your shoes are feeling a bit too broken in, or change them off the bat if you want to adjust the comfort level. Other people just prefer stock depending on how they feel.
- Prepare for Swelling! – Get a ½ or full size larger, and with a properly sized toe box (wiggle those toes!), to compensate for foot swell.
- Wear The Proper Socks – Try on your new shoes with the socks you’ll be using on the trail (see below under blister prevention for more on purchasing the right socks):
- Boots: moderate/thick wool socks recommended
- Shoes: more lightweight, thinner wool or synthetic socks recommended
- Not all feet are created equal: There are wide feet, narrow feet, differences in foot arch and differences in arch support in shoes. Different shoes cater to different feet.
- Two different sized feet? – Freak! Just kidding. This is more common than you think and I have this issue myself. Go with the larger size over the smaller, and if it’s a dramatic difference, you can adjust the shoe with the thickness of your socks if need be.
- Loosen the laces then kick your toe to the front of the shoe (or boot). There should be enough room to fit the width of your pinky finger between your heel and the heel of the shoe.
- Kick your heel to the back of your shoe, then lace up evenly (not too tight; not too loose). After doing laps and walking up and down inclines (there should be somewhere available in the store to test this), there should be little to no movement of your foot in the shoe (in the heel region especially), which could cause chaffing later on.
- If they feel right altogether, walk to the register, buy them, cry about the price later, and go home to break those suckers in!
Even after having my Cinderella shoe moment in Franklin, NC with the shoe gurus in Outdoor 76, I still had issues because I’m hard headed and wasn’t focused on…
- The type of socks matter:
- Cotton isn’t recommended since they aren’t moisture wicking, so go with wool or synthetic.
- Avoid socks with thick stitching in the toe or heel area.
- Some people, myself included, wear thin toe sock liners under their socks which makes them more breathable, and keeps toes apart while hiking, which prevents blisters from forming between your toes (I love Injinji).
- Keep feet dry:
- Just not too, too dry! (overly dry skin can lead to chaffing too).
- Try talcum or cornstarch foot/body powder such as Gold Bond to put in shoes, in socks, and on feet.
- Have a dry pair of socks to change into, and try to dry out the moist ones at the end of the day.
- Air feet out often:
- Take those shoes and socks off during breaks (ie. during snack or lunch breaks; as soon as you’re finished for the day).
- Make putting your shoes and socks on one of the last things you do before heading out in the morning.
- Prevent chaffing:
- Clean socks are gentler on feet than dirty socks (especially if they can stand up on their own). Do laundry when you can.
- When you feel a blister starting to form, rub it with a non-oily lubricant, such as Body Glide or Sports Shield, found in most running or biking stores.
- Keep your toenails trimmed:
- This can prevent your toe nails from painfully abandoning you during your hike.
Since I was lousy at prevention, I became skilled in the art of blister treatment. Here are some ways to prevent your foot issues from getting worse by…
Treating Your Blisters:
- Keep blisters clean and dry – After doing so, you may want to use some antibiotic ointment as well. Otherwise infection may occur and you’ll be paying a visit to the doctor to get a Rx for cellulitis (been there, done that)!
- To pop or not to pop? – This is arguable. Sometimes it’s more painful to keep it intact, while other times its far more painful after popping. Sometimes a callus forms when you don’t pop them, while other times the chaffing causes more pain that makes you walk differently resulting in, you guessed it, more blisters! If you decide to pop it, use a sterile sewing needle on clean skin to avoid infection.
- Prevent further chaffing and more blisters – I find that using band-aids and moleskin alone fails me because my feet are gross and sweat more than the average Jane. They’re good padding though, so I usually position the moleskin or padded band-aid over the blister then tape tape tape! Sometimes tape causes more chaffing if you’re using medical or duct tape, so I found that properly trimmed KT-tape, the much cheaper knock off brand of course, works wonders in comparison. Also not a bad idea for keeping toenails temporarily attached to your feet! Second Skin is good to provide a protective layer over popped blisters. Similar in result, although not particularly good for you, super glue is another option for putting a protective seal over nasty blisters (Guilty! But hey, it provided days worth of help after waiting forever for it to dry).
- Change the bandages often – Yes, keeping them on for 3 days or more at a time is too long and may cause your foot to fall off!
- Foot soaks – Once you get into town, if you have blisters that have popped (or if you do it yourself once you get there), I found out by accident that soaking your clean feet in a bathtub or bucket, some hotels have them for ice, of Epson Salt not only assist with achy muscles, but dries out those nasty blisters too.
To keep your feet from failing you during your hike, make sure to have the right shoes (and socks), and practice good preventative skills so you won’t have to worry about the treating part! I hope your are one of the select few that rarely has any foot issues on the trail, but if not, maybe this post will help prevent them. Don’t be like me! Trust me, it takes away from the thrill of the outdoors when you’re stressing over every step! If you have any other foot remedies, suggestions, comments or stories of struggle, sadness, and/or foot horror; feel free to share them down below!
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Chacos. End of story. I’ve hiked all over the world in Chacos or Tevas and never regretted it for a minute. No blisters. No pinching. No jammed toes. I’ve even used them with Yaktraks in the spring when there’s still snow on the trails.
“My wallet cried tears of emptiness” hahaha preach it. I super appreciate that this article covers more than the typical “Get good socks and shoes that fit” advice. Super helpful!