That aching feeling you get in your muscles after finishing a hike is satisfying. However, the same cannot be said of ankle sprains, blisters, and broken toenails. These medical complaints can ruin a long-distance walk. Not only that, but blistered feet and broken toenails can easily become infected.
You shouldn’t let this put you off hiking, though. As long as you strengthen your feet, wear the correct gear, and equip yourself with some basic medical supplies, you’re unlikely to become injured. We aim to show you how to protect your feet when walking long distances.
Table of Contents:
- 1 How to Get Your Feet Ready for Hiking
- 1.1 What Are the Risks of Long-Distance Walking?
- 1.2 How to Choose the Right Walking Shoes
- 1.3 How to Find the Perfect-Fitting Footwear
- 1.4 Lacing-up to Prevent Blisters
- 1.5 Which Socks Are Best for Hiking?
- 1.6 How to Harden Skin on Feet
- 1.7 How to Strengthen Your Feet and Ankles
- 1.8 How to Tape Feet for Walking
- 1.9 How to Stop Feet Getting Sweaty
- 1.10 Can I Go Hiking with Toenail Fungus?
- 1.11 What to Do On the Morning of Your Hike
- 1.12 Things to Take on Your Hike
- 1.13 How to Prevent Athlete’s Foot on a Multi-Day Hike
- 1.14 Foot Pain While Hiking: What Should I Do?
- 1.15 Treat Foot Pain After Walking
- 1.16 Should I Pop a Blister?
- 1.17 Other Related Articles:
How to Get Your Feet Ready for Hiking
Preparing the feet for trekking is not difficult, but it does take planning and organization. You’ll need to consider the following factors:
- Pick the Right Walking Gear – When choosing your equipment, consider the terrain you’ll be walking on and the weather you’ll be contending with.
- Develop Strong and Flexible Feet – Agile, stable feet are less likely to experience ankle sprains, broken toes, and nerve injuries.
- Injury Awareness – If you’ve had a foot or ankle injury in the past, it could flare-up on a long-distance walk, so you may need to take extra precautions.
- Improve your Gait and Posture – If you have bad posture or a weak core, you may struggle to walk on difficult terrain. It pays to try and improve your gait before setting off.
- Harden your Feet – If your skin is too soft, it will be prone to blistering. You’ll want to avoid making your skin dry or cracked. We’ll show you how to harden the skin on your feet sensibly.
- Learn Blister prevention – Blisters and hiking go hand-in-hand, so you may find it useful to learn some blister prevention techniques.
- Practice Toenail Care – Make sure your toenails are neat and tidy before setting off on a long-distance walk – this will help to prevent toenail infections.
- Come Prepared – It’s a good idea to bring some extra supplies and basic first aid tools to look after your feet during your hike.
What Are the Risks of Long-Distance Walking?
Long-distance walking is an excellent form of cardiovascular activity that can improve circulation, boost mood, and help you lose weight. When it comes to the health of your feet, there are some risks associated with long-distance walking that you should be aware of. These include:
- Blisters (occasionally leading to infection)
- Foot or Ankle Injuries (overuse injuries, tendonitis, ankle sprains)
- Trapped Nerves (Morton’s neuroma, tarsal tunnel syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, Achilles pain)
- Foot or Toe Cramps
- Fungal Infections
- Toenail Injuries
- Subungual Hematoma (bleeding under a toenail – usually the big toe)
Although many of these conditions can be treated quite simply, it makes sense to try and prevent them before they arise. With that in mind, let’s explore some prevention methods in a bit more detail.
How to Choose the Right Walking Shoes
Many ankle injuries and bad blisters are caused by poorly fitting shoes – so take the time to find a pair that suits your needs. Consider the distance and terrain of your walks. This will determine whether you opt for a sturdy hiking boot or a walking shoe.
Sturdy Hiking Boots
If you’re planning to hike rugged winter trails or mountains, or you’re going to be carrying a heavy backpack, you should opt for a hiking boot. Hiking boots provide excellent ankle support and will help you navigate uneven terrain safely.
Most hiking boots have a steel or fiberglass shank. The shank is the section of material running across the top of the shoe. This shank relieves some of the pressure placed on the foot, allowing you to walk for longer while carrying a heavy backpack.
Although sturdy hiking boots do an excellent job at stabilizing the ankle and relieving pressure, they are heavy and somewhat cumbersome so shouldn’t be worn on trails that don’t require such a heavy-duty shoe. Having said that, if you have ongoing ankle instability or foot complaints, a podiatrist may recommend you hike in sturdy boots at all times to protect your feet.
Walking Shoes (Trail Shoes)
If you’re going to be walking across semi-rural terrains, or climbing hills, – walking shoes will be a more suitable purchase. Similarly, if you’re going to be traveling very light, walking shoes will probably suit you better.
Lots of hikers have success with walking shoes, or “trail running” shoes. These shoes give a good amount of ankle support to stop the foot pronating or twisting, but they don’t come up as high as traditional walking boots. Not only that, these shoes are predominantly made from nylon or synthetics, so they are very lightweight.
If you’re going on a multi-day hike, with varied terrain, it would be wise to take one pair of sturdy boots and one pair of walking shoes. In any case, it’s always handy to have a backup pair of shoes on a long walk.
How to Find the Perfect-Fitting Footwear
You can buy the most expensive pair of walking boots in the world, but if they don’t fit your feet, they won’t be much good.
Consider the following guidelines before committing to your purchase:
- Get walking shoes that are one size bigger than the regular shoes you buy. However, don’t get too hung up on sizes. Purchase whichever shoe feels best for you – whether that’s one size bigger, two sizes bigger or even one size smaller than you’d usually go for.
- Don’t try shoes on first thing in the morning as your feet will be at their smallest. Do some light exercise before you head to the shop, so your feet will have expanded a little.
- Make sure you’re wearing hiking socks to try on the shoes.
- Can you wiggle your toes comfortably in the boot? If not, do not purchase. Walking shoes should support your foot firmly, but they should not crowd your toes.
- Raise yourself onto the balls of your feet. Can you feel your foot and ankle moving around a lot inside the boot? If there’s a lot of movement, you’ll probably end up getting blisters on your heel, or the side of your foot.
- Put the boots on unlaced and tip your foot forwards like a ballerina. Can you squeeze your index finger between your heel and the shoe? This is a good sign! However, if the gap is much wider than an index finger, this suggests the boot is too roomy for your foot and won’t offer enough support.
- Many people have one foot that’s slightly larger than the other. If you have a big difference (i.e., half a size or more), you should consider using an insole on one side.
Once you’ve purchased your boots, it’s time to start breaking them in. You should begin this process at least a week before your long hike; go for short 15-minute walks in your new boots until you get used to them.
Lacing-up to Prevent Blisters
Many first-time hikers find themselves covered in blisters – particularly while they’re getting used to a new pair of walking shoes. If you find your new purchase is causing too many blisters, don’t be too quick to replace the boots. Instead, try lacing them differently.
There are several different shoe-lacing techniques you can try, depending on the type of problem you’re facing. One of the most common issues hikers face is heel slippage (particularly if they’re doing a lot of downhill walking). This type of slippage can cause painful blisters to develop at the back of the heel. If you face this problem, try the “heel lock” method for tying your shoelaces.
- Begin by lacing your walking shoe as you normally would – stopping just before you reach the top.
- Most shoes have an additional eyelet (lacing hole) that is just next to the top lacing hole – at a slight right-angle.
- Once you’ve located this additional eyelet, thread the right shoelace through this eyelet hole on the right, so that it creates a loop in the lace. Repeat on the left side.
- You’ll have one loop on the left and one loop on the right.
- Cross the right lace through the left loop (and vice versa) and pull the laces tight, tying a knot as you normally would.
- This will pull the shoe snugly around the ankle and stop slippage (don’t pull the knot too tight as this could also cause heel friction).
So, when you’re breaking in your shoes, notice if you have any hotspots or issues. There’s a lacing technique out there to fix most foot complaints.
Which Socks Are Best for Hiking?
When it comes to hiking socks – there are hundreds to choose from. The issue of socks divides many hikers; no one can agree on the best type, which can be confusing for novice walkers. The following tips should be helpful:
It’s advisable to opt for a wool sock, a synthetic sock – or a wool/synthetic mix. Wool helps to regulate temperature so should stop your feet becoming overly hot or cold. Not only that, it has natural anti-microbial qualities so it helps prevent nasty foot infections and stops your feet from smelling bad. It’s best to opt for merino wool socks as these are the smoothest and comfiest available.
If you’re on a budget, socks made of polyester or polypropylene are also a good option because they wick away sweat and moisture. Look for socks that advertise themselves as “sweat wicking.” Socks made of polyester also dry very quickly if you need to wash them during your hike.
Choosing socks that fit snugly is extremely important; if they’re too big or too small, you’ll probably get blisters. Look at the shape of your foot – is it wide or narrow? If it’s particularly narrow or wide, look for socks that cater to your needs. Also, when you put your socks on, make sure the seams line up correctly to avoid blisters.
Many hikers swear by “toe socks.” These socks keep your toes warm and toasty on cold days and remind you not to tense your toes during a hike. Finally, consider how high your shoe/boot comes up. You need to pick a sock that comes at least as high as your shoe (ideally a centimeter or two higher).
Layering is a tried and tested technique practiced by many hikers to prevent friction blisters. The idea is, rubbing occurs between the two socks, rather than between your foot and the shoe.
The most cost-effective way to achieve this is to place a pair of nylon socks (pop socks) underneath your regular hiking socks. Nylon socks are incredibly thin so won’t add any bulk. What’s more, nylon dries very quickly and is highly durable. You can also purchase lining socks from a sports shop, but nylons tend to do the job just as well, for a more affordable price.
We know that compression socks are useful for airplane journeys (to improve circulation), but they can be invaluable for hikes too. Although a walk is likely to boost circulation, it can cause problems with blood flow in the foot and ankle area because tight boots and repetitive movements can put a strain on the blood vessels.
If you’re going on a multi-day hike, it’s a good idea to alternate between standard socks and calf-length compression socks. Alternatively, you could opt for a compression ‘sleeve’ for your calves.
How to Harden Skin on Feet
Thicker skin is more resilient to heat, friction, and sweat. It’s important not to harden the skin too much, because very dry, hard skin is prone to cracking. It’s dangerous to go hiking with cracked skin because bacteria can easily enter through the cracks in your feet – causing an infection.
With that in mind, here are some gentle ways you can toughen your skin:
Saline Foot Baths
Salt water is an excellent skin hardener. Add some regular salt to tepid water and bathe your feet for at least 20 minutes – every other day.
Saline footbaths will harden the skin on your feet slowly without drying it out too much. Also, try rotating regular salts with Epsom salts. These crystals of magnesium sulfate can help to strengthen and enrich the skin.
Black Tea Foot Bath
There is some evidence to suggest that the tannin in black tea can help thicken and protect the skin. Soaking in black tea has the added benefit of eliminating foot odor.
Witch Hazel Rub
This lotion is very astringent, so it has the power to absorb excess oil from the skin. It has potent anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, so using this product on the feet will bring many additional benefits besides hardening the feet.
Because witch hazel is very strong, it’s a good idea to combine it with a small amount of olive oil or jojoba oil before applying to the skin. Massage the solution into your feet and leave overnight. Always perform a patch test first as witch hazel can cause skin reactions.
Tea Tree Oil Rub
Like witch hazel, tea tree essential oil can dry out the skin (but it also offers many health benefits too!) Try combining 5-6 drops of tea tree oil with a teaspoon of jojoba oil and rubbing it into the feet and leave for 20 minutes. Always perform a patch test before using essential oils.
One of the best ways to harden your feet is to walk barefoot. However, it’s important to transition slowly and to walk on low-risk terrains such as the beach, concrete that’s mostly free of debris, or grass that is cut short (so you can see any hazards). If you don’t want to go barefoot, try walking in minimalist sandals – this should also help to harden the feet.
Some people recommended using rubbing alcohol to harden the skin, but this should be avoided. It will ‘harden’ the skin quickly, but you’ll probably suffer cracked skin as a result.
If you see the signs of the skin cracking, particularly deep cracks in the heels, you should seek treatment before going on a hike.
How to Strengthen Your Feet and Ankles
Twisted ankles, foot sprains, and bruised toes can occur when you hike on unpredictable terrains. Strengthening your feet and ankles will help you prevent such injuries occurring.
According to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, Chronic Ankle Instability is a common condition that affects many people – including runners, long-distance hikers, and people who are overweight.
People with this condition feel wobbly on their ankles and sometimes get the sensation they’re going to fall. It’s more common in people that pronate their feet (roll their feet outwards when walking or running). The first-line treatment for Chronic Ankle Instability is physical therapy.
Often, this condition is caused by a sprained ankle that fails to heal fully. So, if you’ve had a foot or ankle injury in the past, be mindful that hiking could flare-up an old injury.
Even if you haven’t injured yourself in the past, hiking on uneven terrain requires strong, flexible feet. As such, it’s a good idea to ‘prepare’ your feet and ankles with some simple strength training exercises.
This is a very simple exercise the strengthens the muscles in the foot. Stand with your legs a little closer than hip-width apart. Slowly raise yourself up onto the balls of your feet and hold for a few seconds, before lowering yourself back down.
Try and make the movement as controlled as possible. Repeat 3 sets of 20 raises – daily. If you continue this for a couple of weeks, you’ll start to see progress.
To make this exercise more challenging, try to stand on one leg, and do a foot raise on just one leg while trying to balance. This will develop your core strength and will strengthen muscles in your legs, too.
These hops are great for strengthening the ankle. If you feel any pain in your ankle while doing star hops, this suggests you are still recovering from an ankle injury or may have instability issues in this area.
Stand with your legs slightly apart and keep the core muscles engaged. Lift one knee off the ground, and keep the other leg planted firmly on the floor (with a slight bend in the knee).
You’re going to hop in a star shape. First, hop directly forwards, then hop back to your original position. Then, hop slightly to the right, and hop back to the middle position; follow this star shape clockwise. There are 8 ‘spokes’ to the star, which means you’ll do 16 hops in total. Repeat this exercise twice on each foot.
If you haven’t got the patience to try exercises at home, or you’re worried about your technique – try joining a yoga class instead. Yoga (or Pilates) can help you become a much stronger hiker.
Traditional yoga is performed barefoot, and you are encouraged to use your feet to build strength and agility throughout the whole body. Yoga also improves your core strength and posture – which will reduce the likelihood of injury.
How to Tape Feet for Walking
Foot taping might seem a bit unnecessary, but most people can benefit from some element of taping. Taping can improve your foot mechanics by positioning the foot, ankle, and toes in their correct position. This can prevent biomechanical injuries and deformities (flat foot syndrome, hammer toes, sprains, and strains) but it can also prevent skin injuries such as blisters, chafing and swelling.
What Type of Tape?
If you want to try taping, it’s important to purchase a durable tape. By far the best tape for sports strapping is zinc oxide tape. This tape is extremely rigid and won’t come loose when your skin gets sweaty.
Where Do I Place the Tape?
As with many things, foot taping requires a bit of trial and error on your part. Tape is commonly used to align crooked toes so that they do not chafe and blister during long walks.
Similarly, taping the big toe to the second toe can help to prevent subungual hematoma. Some people find it more comfortable to wear a toe splint (a toe sleeve) and then place tape around it to secure it in place.
Tape can also be used to correct issues such as bunions and plantar fasciitis.
If have plantar fasciitis:
- Place a strip of tape along the base of the foot (at the ball of the foot).
- Starting just below the pinky toe, run a strip of tape down around the heel and back up to where the tape started (at the pinky toe).
- Repeat again, running the tape down around the ankle but allow it to cross the base of the foot in an ‘X’ shape, so it ends at your big toe.
- Repeat step 2 again.
This will keep the foot stable and prevent the plantar muscle from becoming overly aggravated.
Although taping can help to prevent injuries and blisters, never tape skin that is already blistered. When you remove the tape, this will tear the skin of the blister, potentially leading to infection.
How to Stop Feet Getting Sweaty
Studies have shown that friction blisters are more likely to occur on damp and sweaty skin. Of course, there’s no way to stop sweating altogether; sweat is the sign of a good workout.
Nonetheless, there are ways you can prevent feet from becoming overly wet and sticky.
Firstly, you could try spraying antiperspirant deodorant onto the soles of your feet before setting off. Some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of this trick, but they shouldn’t be.
According to a study on Science Direct, applying antiperspirant to the soles of the feet is an effective way of preventing blisters during hiking.
According to this study, you should search for an antiperspirant that contains aluminum chloride hexahydrate. It’s a good idea to test a small amount on a short walk to see if there’s any skin irritation.
Foot powders help to mop up the dampness (and odor) of sweaty feet. If you don’t want to shell out on a sports powder, talcum powder can work just as well.
However, it’s important to apply this product very sparingly – too much can aggravate the skin, making things a lot worse.
Change Socks Regularly
If you’re going on a one-day hike, take an extra pair of socks for sweaty feet with you and change them at the halfway point.
If you are a going on a multi-day hike, it might not be practical to take lots of extra socks with you so take a small bottle of detergent so that you can wash your socks during your trip.
Can I Go Hiking with Toenail Fungus?
Having a fungal toenail infection should not stop you from participating in outdoor activities. However, you should take some extra precautions to ensure there is adequate protection for your toes when walking.
If you’re planning to go on a long hike, it’s a good idea to see a podiatrist before setting off. They’ll be able to inspect your toes and trim back your toenails to the correct level, so they don’t become aggravated on your walk. If you’re going to cut the toenails yourself, be careful not to cut them too far back as this could worsen your infection.
Take a few extra pairs of socks with you and change them as regularly as you can. Make sure you do not allow anyone else to come into contact with your socks or feet.
If you are treating your toenail fungus with nail lacquer, paint a generous layer of this on your nails before you set off, but don’t take this nail polish with you. You will not be able to wash your hands thoroughly during a hike, so it’s best to avoid touching the toenail as much as possible until you return home.
If you are experiencing pain with your fungal nail infection, take shorter walks close to home, in case your foot becomes too painful.
What to Do On the Morning of Your Hike
So, you’ve done everything you can to prepare for your walk, and now you’re ready to set off. Use the following checklist to make sure you’re fully prepared for your hike:
- Inspect your feet – check your toenails are trimmed, and any wounds are covered with a fresh bandage.
- Make sure your feet are clean and dry.
- Tape the feet if necessary.
- Spray antiperspirant on to the soles of your feet (or add a light layer of foot powder).
- Rub Vaseline or sports lubricant on your blister ‘hotspots’ (this could be the backs of heels, toes, etc.)
- Put your favorite pair of socks on and check the creases and seams are aligned.
- Inspect the inside of your shoes/boots to ensure the insoles are in place and there are no loose threads or stitches that could cause blisters.
- Lace your shoes according to your chosen method.
Things to Take on Your Hike
The duration and location of your hike will dictate the kind of supplies you take with you.
However, consider taking the following items to protect your feet:
- An extra pair of socks
- A simple first-aid kid (a pack of antiseptic wipes or a bottle of saline solution and some blister plasters)
- Extra tape and toe-splints
- Foldable walking poles (If you’re carrying a heavy backpack, take some foldable walking poles. Backpacks can place a lot of pressure on the feet, but walking poles can help to alleviate this pressure– reducing the risk of your feet swelling)
- A compression sleeve or compression socks
- Detergent to clean your socks (if going on a long hike)
- Insect repellant (some insects/pests can penetrate thick socks, so protect your feet)
- Some salty snacks and drinking water to prevent dehydration
How to Prevent Athlete’s Foot on a Multi-Day Hike
It can be difficult to stay clean on a multi-day hike, particularly if you plan to camp in the wilderness without any formal washing facilities. Common issues that arise on multi-day hikes included diarrhea and bacterial and fungal infections.
Follow these tips to help keep athletes’ foot at bay:
- Don’t take old, worn out trainers on your trip – these tend to harbor fungi and bacteria that can cause infections. Your feet are damp and sweaty on a hike – so they are at their most vulnerable. Opt for hiking boots made from breathable fabrics and carry two pairs of boots/shoes with you in case one pair become waterlogged.
- If you’re hiking in the wilderness, your feet are bound to get wet at times. At the end of the day, try to wash your feet in some fresh water and dry them in the fresh air. Fungi can be picked up from the ground so try not to walk around camp with soggy feet. When your feet have fully dried, put a clean pair of socks on to sleep in.
- Take a concentrated detergent with you to wash your socks as you go.
If you suspect you’ve developed ringworm of the feet, treat athlete’s foot immediately after returning home to stop, the infection spreading to your toenails.
Foot Pain While Hiking: What Should I Do?
Even when we take all the precautions necessary, accidents can happen. At the first sign of pain, it’s best to investigate and take any necessary action to stop the problem worsening.
The First Signs of a Blister
If you start to develop pain on the heel or ball of the foot while hiking, this is a sign that a blister is probably developing. Follow these steps:
- Your foot is probably sweaty. If there is water nearby, try and wash your feet (but make sure you allow them to dry thoroughly).
- Apply a blister plaster to the area of the foot that seems sore.
- Put a clean pair of socks on if you have one.
- When tying your shoelaces, consider if tying your laces differently would help you. For example, if the blister is developing on the heel, try to heel lock method discussed earlier.
If your feet feel sore and fatigued, make sure you are taking regular breaks. If you’re a beginner hiker, you’re hiking with kids, or it’s very hot and humid, breaks become even more important.
To prevent fatigued feet, wilderness hikers often break for 5 minutes, after every 55 minutes of walking. During their 5-minute pitstop, they will elevate or stretch their legs, to prevent lactic acid building up in their muscles. In addition to these short breaks, take the time to stop for lunch, so you don’t risk overdoing it.
Leg and Foot Cramps
Foot cramps or leg cramps are a sign of dehydration. Sit down for a few minutes and take the time to sip some water. You may be lacking sodium so eat a salty snack. If the cramps do not pass, try some simple stretches to lengthen the muscles.
If you suddenly find it difficult to walk (despite taking a rest), you should not force yourself to continue. Some people persevere, even after spraining their ankle, thinking that the injury will pass. Ankle sprains can only heal with adequate rest time, so continuing to walk on a sprained ankle could make things a whole lot worse.
According to the Journal of Wilderness Medicine, ankle strain and back pain are the two most common ailments experienced by 41% of wilderness walkers. Hikers that develop these symptoms usually terminate their hike early.
Cutting a hike short can be one of the most frustrating things, especially if you’ve had it planned for a long time. Nonetheless, you should always listen to your body and avoid “pushing through” pain. As a beginner hiker, try to plan routes that are easily accessible by road in case you need to call for assistance.
Treat Foot Pain After Walking
Foot care after hiking is just as important as foot care preparation. The following treatments will help to rejuvenate your feet after a long walk.
- Massage your feet with a ball – Sit in a chair and place a ball underneath your feet. Guide the ball around the floor using only your feet – this will stretch out all the little muscles in your feet and ankles.
- Foot soaks – It’s thought that the magnesium in Epsom salts helps to relax and strengthen muscles. If you don’t want to try a foot soak, massage liquid magnesium into your feet and calves instead.
- Elevate – Sleep with your legs elevated for at least 2-3 days after a hike. This will boost circulation and help reduce any swelling in the feet.
- See a Podiatrist – If you have pain in your feet that has not subsided within a couple of weeks, it’s worth seeing a podiatrist. They will be able to offer you specialist advice, and many prescribe orthotics if necessary.
Should I Pop a Blister?
After you’ve finished your hike, you might notice a blister or two on your feet. It can be tempting to lance these blisters, but according to the Journal of Wilderness Medicine, you should not interfere with blisters on your feet.
A blister is your body’s natural “cushioning.” If you burst this cushion, your wound becomes susceptible to infection.
The best thing to do is to wait for a blister to burst on its own. When it does, wash the skin with a simple saline solution, and apply a gauze pad if the blister is large. Never scrape away any loose skin around the blister as this will dramatically prolong the healing time.
If you put a blister plaster on during your hike, wait for this plaster to fall off on its own. If you pull it off prematurely, this may rip the blister, and prolong healing time.
Now that you know how to prepare for a hike (and recover from one!) you’re less likely to suffer blisters, ankle sprains, and broken toenails. Staying fit and flexible will protect against many of these foot complaints, so try to walk on a regular basis to keep your strength up.