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A Guide to Healthy Hiking Feet: Hiking Foot Injuries and Foot Care

When your feet get injured out on the trail, there's nothing worse. This guide catalogs all the different foot injuries you can encounter, how to treat them, and how to know when it's time to seek medical attention.

There are many injuries you can inflict upon your feet out on the trail such as blisters, blackened or lost toenails, sprained arches, tendonitis, trench foot, bone spurs, plantar fasciitis, and more, but almost all of these foot injuries are easily avoided by knowing the right information, and hiking well-prepared.

In this article we’ll cover the most common foot injuries, and how to deal with these backpacking injuries while in the wilderness. Also, we highly suggest that you check out one of our featured articles below which contains loads of great information and will help you choose the best footwear reducing your chances of receiving a foot injury, or something more serious.

What are Blisters, How Do They Form, and How Do You Deal With Them While Hiking?

Blisters are the most common bodily injury and they form because moisture and friction are not being managed properly. The simplest way to reduce your chance of a blister forming is to wear two layers of socks, or pick up a pair of wrightsocks, or similarly designed sock.

If you’re wearing wrightsocks, which are highly engineered double layered socks with an internal liner made of a blended fabric of synthetic materials, and an external layer of woven fabric made from merino wool, nylon, and lycra, you can reduce your chance of a blister forming as the dual fabrics rub together, instead of on your skin.

While it is true that wrightsocks are a bit more expensive than an average sock, their construction’s incredible since they are dual layered and made of the best moisture wicking materials which keeps your feet feeling dry in wet conditions.

In fact, merino wool can be up to 35-40% saturated with water and the fabric will still feel dry to the touch which makes merino wool one of the best sock materials on the market.

Below, we’ve provided our favorite unisex wrightsocks and the way these feel when they’re in a shoe is remarkably better than the average sock.

Another option you can choose is a pair of toe socks will separate out your toes and force the friction onto the fabric and not your skin.

This is the same way that the wrightsocks operate and it’s such a luxury out on the trail. If your feet are exceptionally prone to blisters, you’ll want to pick up a few pairs of high quality toe socks like the ones we’ve provided below. These ones in particular, made by Injinji are super high quality and are great at preventing hot spots.

In addition to the socks you’re wearing, your choice of shoes plays a major role in determining how much moisture will remain trapped around your foot once it’s there.

Contrary to popular belief, choosing a waterproof shoe with a built-in semi-permeable membrane, a layer built into a shoe with tiny holes which only allows water molecules to travel out of the shoe, isn’t always the best option for every situation due to the drying times of these types of shoes.

In rainy conditions, there’ll be water splashing everywhere which will always seep into your shoes regardless of the membrane being present, especially if you make a misstep into a puddle disguised puddle. What this means that it’s senseless to choose a shoe which will take twice the drying time, when your feet are going to be wet regardless.

With that in mind, you’ll want to pick out a pair of fully-breathable mesh trail runners for your all-around hiking shoes since they have the fastest drying time of any type of hiking shoe, and will often be dry or just lightly damp, by the time you wake up in the morning to start your journey for the day.

The only time that we really believe you should use a shoe with a built in semi-permeable membrane is for winter hiking in deep snow where the boot needs to stop snow from entering the shoe which will accelerate the rate of frostbite. Top-grain leather boots can also be a great option with a couple layers of synthetic or merino wool socks for insulation.

In fact, since we’re talking about shoes and how important they are for healthy feet, we have composed a wonderful page for you with some of the highest quality trail runners on the market, along with a couple mid-cut boots for winter hiking adventures, so you can easily find the best shoes for your adventure.

We’ve also provided a bunch of detailed information within these articles, and linked to our other useful articles, such as the one at the top of the page, which will help you pick out the most comfortable, and appropriate footwear for your feet.

Currently, I’m wearing the Moab II Hiking Shoes by Merrell, which you’ll find in the articles below, and they feel fantastic on the trail, and even on concrete or for every day wear, especially with Wrightsocks. Plus, the stock insoles that were provided with the shoes are really comfortable which is kind of rare for shoes since I always find myself swapping out insoles instantly when I purchase a pair of shoes.

Anyways though, If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or suggestions about these articles we’d love to hear back from you, so please do not hesitate to leave a message! Also, perhaps leave a comment within one of the articles stating which hiking shoes you’re using now, or which ones you believe are the best!

How to Prevent and Deal With Blisters While Hiking and Backpacking

Now that we’ve covered shoes and socks which will reduce your chances of almost all foot injuries by a significant amount, we’ve come to one of the most annoying aspects of long hikes, which will inevitably form regardless of your equipment, blisters.

Blisters can become exceptionally painful over time if they become infected or if they’re not treated for a while, and can start to feel like a searing hot fire poker stabbing your foot.

Leaving a blister untreated will cause the wound to expand and bacteria will begin to collect and multiply within the blister leading to infection, which makes it critically important to prevent blisters as soon as possible, or they can develop into something much more serious.

In the worst case scenario a heavily infected blister will require antibiotic ointment, and an extended rest for a day to rest the affected area a bit and prevent further infection and damage to the wound, or you can just stick a piece of tape on it.

There are all sorts of different methods for treating blisters and there’s numerous ideas about how to treat them among the community.

Some people think you should leave the blisters alone for a full day before popping them, and others think it’s best to pop them right away, but ultimately the best option is always to prevent the growth of bacteria at the wound site.

There are a few different tools you’ll want to bring along to treat blisters and they include: a small tube of antibiotic ointment, or hand sanitizer, adhesive bandages, leukotape, moleskin, or even duct tape if you’re really lacking materials, so you can prevent and reduce the friction at the blister site.

Regardless of the tool you use to treat your blister though, the best choice is to always treat a hot spot immediately, which is the result of excessive friction on a spot on your foot, the moment you you sense it, instead of waiting.

It’s really not wise to wait and fix the blister later just because you want reach a destination, or maybe because you might feel awkward making the group wait.

Foot care is easily the most important aspect of long distance hiking, and constantly caring for your feet will always lead to a more enjoyable experience while out on the trail.

How to Treat Blisters While Hiking and Backpacking

Before you continue reading it should be noted that popping a blister doesn’t hurt, and it’s a relief to pop them since painful pressure can build up under the skin. If you’re sensitive though, you may want to prepare yourself a bit before you read the next sentence.

One method that people use out on the trail to treat blisters, and reduce the risk of infection, is to heat up a safety pin with a lighter until it’s red hot and then pop the blister with the heated safety pin, and rub a disinfectant such as antibiotic ointment or hand sanitizer over the blister.

This is probably the simplest way to pop a blister, but hand sanitizer isn’t the best option unless you really have no other means of sanitation.

The reason is because alcohol strips away the skin’s natural oils and dries out the surface of the wound making it more susceptible to further injury from friction. So, only use hand sanitizer if you absolutely must, and always take care to protect the wound with a bandage or adhesive.

Another method people use to treat blisters on the trail is to heat up a sewing needle with a lighter to purge off any bacteria, then thread the needle with approximately six inches of thread, and then finally coat the needle and thread with antibiotic ointment.

Next, with careful precision, poke the needle through one side of the blister and then out the other while cutting off the needle so there’s roughly one inch, or a couple of centimeters of thread dangling from both sides. Finally, a bandage or piece of leukotape over the top of the blister completes the process to protect the wound site.

This is actually a great method, but rather technical, and works because the thread allows the interior of the blister to wick away the trapped moisture inside of it through capillary action.

Then the moisture follows the thread to escape outward into the air and also creates a path for the antibiotic ointment to enter the wound site to neutralize the bacteria within.

Blisters Summary

It’s much better to take a break for a few minutes and tape up a hot spot on your foot, than it is to deal with a massive and painful blister during the day.

Picking up a pair of wrightsocks or toe socks will drastically reduce your chance of a blister forming, plus your choice of a shoe will play a major role in the amount of friction on your feet, as well as the amount of moisture that remains trapped in your shoe. Managing both the moisture and friction on your feet are the keys to success.

Ten minutes out of every hour spent resting your feet is one of the most important tasks to follow for long distance hiking, and will reduce your chance of receiving almost every injury on this list by a large margin.

When it comes to wound treatment, a small tube of antibiotic ointment, and either a package of adhesive bandages, leukotape, moleskin, or duct tape to help reduce the friction at the blister point will be paramount. You’ll also want to think about bringing along a safety pin attached to a hat, a few standard Bic lighters, and a sewing needle, to the treat blisters on the spot.

Prevention is always better than treatment for blisters, and this statement holds true for the next foot injury on the list, blacked or lost toenails.

Blackened or Lost Toenails

Another very common injury while hiking is blackened or lost toenails. If you’ve had time to read through the sections within Backpacking and Hiking Footwear: Choosing Hiking Boots or Shoes, you’ll know that the primary the reasons for blackened or lost toenails are poorly sized shoes without a large enough gap between the tips of your toes and the front of the shoe, or too long of toenails.

When you’re walking down a hill your feet will slide forward, and if your shoes have an improper fit, and your nails are too long, your toes will strike the front of the shoe leading to damaged toe nails.

The nail will of course heal back over the course of about six months to a year, or sometimes longer if it’s your big toe, but ultimately this injury’s easily avoidable.

Maintaining your nails, and wearing a properly sized shoe are the best practices, and since it’s also best to be resting for ten minutes out of every hour to prevent injuries anyways and swapping to dry socks around lunch time is also important, there’s plenty of time to maintain all foot grooming practices.

Please refer back to the section on How to Size Your Shoes within the link provided below, where we describe how to choose the proper sized shoes, and in turn, avoid this injury, with knowledge about the wiggle test, thumb test, and toe tap test, and much more.

Sprained Arches

Click here to read more about Sprained Arches at MedlinePlus.gov

The result of torn ligaments in the muscles of the foot, sprained arches can come from the constant pressure and weight being applied to the arches of your feet, or steps on hard and jagged surface where your foot bends in an abnormal way.

You can avoid spraining the muscles in your feet by stretching often, choosing gradual elevation to continue the hike as opposed to quick shortcuts across rocks, wearing the proper shoes, and resting for ten minutes of every hour.

Your choice of steps on the trail and the construction of your shoes are also critically important. For off-trail adventures on rugged terrain a boot or shoe containing a shank, which is often a piece of metal or thick nylon built into a shoe to prevent bending, is ideal to prevent foot injuries which result from stepping on rocks or tree roots.

According to Medicine Plus, which is linked above, a minor incident of sprained arches will take approximately two to four weeks to heal, a moderate injury six to eight weeks, and a severe injury, at least six to eight months.

In addition, always choose your steps wisely and especially use a headlamp, or clip on light at night since you’re far more likely to make a misstep on a tree root or rock on a pitch dark trail.

We suggest this inexpensive, highly rated, and 6,000 lumen headlamp from Eoto Light which will illuminate even the darkest trails. Plus, this headlamp comes with the proper cord attachment for recharging it in a power bank like the one below.

Also, if you’re looking for a great power bank that’s affordable, and ultra high capacity this highly popular universal charging battery made by Bonai which will work for nearly every device on the market.

A couple of these are wonderful to have, especially if you’re blogging, filming videos or photographing the scenery. Each battery has a 30,000 mAh capacity which will charge your phone three to seven times, depending on the device.

A powerful light if you’re out night hiking is critical for avoiding slips or missteps, and a power bank will help you to keep your headlamp charged, but a portable charger’s really at its best when you’ve set up camp for the night and you’re ready to relax and read a book, or watch a movie before bed.

Trench Foot

Click here to read more about Trench Foot at the Center for Disease Control’s website.

Most people have heard of trench foot, and it’s the result of a wet foot cramped up in a cool boot for too long, but it’s not widely known how long until your foot will reach the actual stages of trench foot.

With trench foot, an immersion foot syndrome, your foot becomes super saturated with water which begins to destroy the cells in your feet and toes creating openings for bacteria to fester. If you’ve ever had pruned feet that were discolored and sensitive to the touch after removing them from your shoe, that’s the early stages of trench foot.

Once you’ve left your feet in the wet environment for longer than this point, blisters will form and without treatment your cell will start to fall away and separate from your body causing permanent damage to the tissue with a potential loss of limb, or appendage.

Trench foot can happen very fast, and within just twelve hours of wet conditions, the duration of a long hike, you can be in the medium to advanced stages of trench foot.

Even if the conditions are dry, but your feet are sweating profusely, it is advised to remove your socks at least twice per day, to prevent any immersion foot syndromes.

The best practice is to carry 2 pairs of wrightsocks for hiking during the day and keep those on rotation. Then, keep 1-2 pairs of socks inside your pack in a dry place for sleeping only to drastically reduce your risk of hypothermia at night.

To keep your feet dry, if you’re heading into a really swampy area and think your feet will be saturated for a long period of time, you can also along talcum powder to completely dry out your feet.

A general rule of thumb if you’re hiking is to change your socks every four hours to be safe. With that in mind, if you start your hike in the morning then lunch time is good to do a sock swap, then dinner time, and then again right before bed into your dedicated sleeping socks.

Bone Spurs

Click here to read more about Bone Spurs at Health.Harvard.edu

Twenty five percent of all the bones in your body are in your feet, so there’s a lot of room for bones to be damaged while walking. When a section of a bone has grown to extend beyond its normal shape that’s a bone spur.

Bones are a hard living tissue, and a bone spur is formed by the grinding of bones which causes damage and triggers the production of more bone in the area to protect the structure.

In fact, a common method of fighters is to constantly punch a pillar wrapped in rope, or bricks and pieces of wood, to strength the bones over time, but this leads to horrible arthritis.

For most hikers, bone spurs aren’t much of an issue and proper shoes can help to reduce the rate at which bone spurs will form by lowering the amount of impact and friction on the bones in the foot or ankle.

There are surgical procedures that can remove bone spurs as well which are demonstrated in 3D with a lot of wonderful information by following this link.

The long story short when it comes to bone spurs is don’t push yourself to meet mileage deadlines too much and allow yourself to relax a few times per day out on the trail to prevent damage to your bones.

Achilles Tendinitis

Tendinitis in hikers is more of times caused by high cut hiking boots rubbing on the Achilles tendon. If you read through the Backpacking and Hiking Footwear: Choosing Hiking Boots and Shoes article you’ll see a section which describes how to fit your shoes under “How to Break In Hiking Boots and Prepare Them for the Trail.”

In that section it describes how to lace your boots by leaving the top two lace hooks undone, tilting your knee forward about ten degrees to allow one finger to slide between the gap at the back of your ankle between your Achilles tendon and the Achilles notch of the boot, then finishing up your tying in that position.

Doing this allows free range of motion while walking and keeps your Achilles tendon from rubbing on the liner and heel cap of the boot. This will also reduce your chance of having blisters form on your heels.

Achilles tendinitis can also turn into plantar fasciitis since the tendon starts in the calf muscle and wraps down around the heel into the bottom of the foot. So, stretching your leg muscles is very beneficial because it makes your muscles more elastic and reduces the chances of them being torn or damaged from constant use. Follow the link to this article to learn about leg stretches that can help you keep your body in good shape for hiking.

Please read this article to learn more about Tendonitis, how to care for it, and when you should reach out to a medical professional for assistance.

Plantar Fasciitis, Posterior Tibial Tendonitis, and Peroneal Tendonitis

In general, there are four reasons for foot pain, or any other pain out on the trail. Improper nutrition, inflammation, muscle tightness, or improper footwear.

With poor nutrition your muscles lack the proteins to repair and heal the tiny tears caused by vigorous physical activity. The cells lack the carbohydrates needed to energize them and fats which carry vitamins throughout the body, they also lack the vitamins to help fight against infection and carry oxygen, and they lack the iron to help that oxygen be carried and keep your muscles growing in a healthy way.

All of these nutritional deficiencies together cause your muscles to fatigue more frequently which reduces their ability to stretch and causes tightness, and can then lead to inflammation.

Maintaining proper nutrition, and drinking a lot of water, is the cornerstone to keeping your muscles healthy. Finding a nutritional tracker app on your phone can help you follow your nutritional needs.

There are a few popular phone apps such as Cronometer, and MyFitnessPal which will allow you to type in the food you’ve eaten and see what nutrients you’re lacking. We suggest you check them out.

Beyond nutrition there’s stretching. Foot pain often starts well above the foot in the calf and thigh muscles. Stretching your feet, ankles, calves, and thighs before, during and after a hike will help them be more elastic and reduce the chances of them tearing.

Please follow this link to see foot stretching exercises, and click on this link to see stretches for your legs and upper body. Stretching your upper body is also important for back which is carrying your backpack. You should view stretching with a holistic approach and stretch your entire body since everything is connected.

Next there is footwear. We suggest you go find a Dr. Scholls insole machine, or visit a podiatrist, and get insoles fit to the shape of your foot. This is one of the best investments you can make for yourself and it makes a world of difference. Please do this for your feet, you won’t regret it.

So, in summary, if you have proper nutrition, you’re stretching three times a day and drinking plenty of water, and you have good shoes with proper insoles for the shape of your feet, and you’re still feeling foot pain, you need to go see a medical professional. There is no substitute for having a doctor examine you. Don’t mistake a search engine for a medical degree.

Please read this article to learn more about Plantar Fasciitis, how it’s diagnosed, how it can be prevented, how it can be treated, and how you know when to reach out to a medical professional for assistance.

Please visit this article to learn more about Posterior Tibial Tendonitis, what its causes are, what the stages of it are, and how it is treated by surgical measures.

Conclusion

There are numerous ways to injure your feet out on the trail, but most of them are avoidable through proper nutrition, stretching, quality footwear, and keeping your feet dry. We can’t stress enough how important it is to be thinking about your feet while out on the trail and how to keep them safe and healthy.

As you noticed throughout each section we referred you to websites with better information than what we provided here because as we explained we are not medical professionals. If you can think of any other foot problems that can arise while hiking please let us know down in the comments section below. We always love hearing your questions, comments, concerns, or suggestions since it makes this website a better place.

As always, thanks so much for being here, and Happy Trails!

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