If you are an athlete who cycles, lifts weight, swims or participates in equestrian sports, you probably spend a great deal of time preparing your body for your sport. Oddly, hikers often fail to give the same sort of care and attention to preparing their feet for their sport.
In this article, we will discuss the process you should follow to strengthen and prepare your feet for hiking and to outfit them properly so that you can enjoy long treks relatively pain-free. Read on to learn more.
Why prepare your feet?
It is very important that you prepare your feet properly and take good care of them in order to make the most of hiking as a sport or pastime. If you set off on a hike or a long distance walk without preparing your feet, you are sure to have a dreadful time.
Poorly cared for feet can cause a hike or even a little walk to be torturous. As a matter of fact, if your feet are in very bad shape when you set off on a long hike you could be risking serious injury or worse. Being stuck in the wilderness with broken down feet is definitely a situation to be avoided!
If you don’t believe that proper foot care is important consider the fact that it has been a major focus in the military for well over a century. In fact, early in the 20th century the Army Service Schools in the United States produced a publication called The Soldier’s Foot & The Military Shoe to help soldiers of all ranks learn how to take good care of their feet, boots and shoes to avoid pain and injuries on long marches.
This publication explained that good foot care and properly fitted boots are of the utmost importance for foot of soldiers for reasons of both physical and mental health. The publication makes the argument that soldiers who have sore, aching and injured feet can hinder the morale of the entire company. The reason for this is that their attention is sure to be more focused upon their own feet than on the mission of their platoon.
It is easy to transfer this logic to modern-day hiking. Whether you are hiking on your own, with a buddy or in a group you don’t want your focus to be on your blisters, sore toes, cramps and other foot problems. Thinking about and complaining about your poor feet will quickly put a damper on everyone’s mood and ruin your hiking experience.
What to do to take care of your feet before long hike
Begin getting your feet hiking-fit long before you begin hiking. Start by choosing just the right pair of hiking boots and breaking them in properly well in advance of your anticipated hike.
To do this, you should go to a reputable outdoor supply shop and work with a shoe department representative. Don’t just purchase your boots online or at a big box store. You’ll need to work with someone who knows how to fit boots and shoes so that you can start off with boots that are properly suited to your feet.
Be sure to do your shopping late in the day. In this way, you can be certain that your feet are at their maximum size. Feet swell throughout the day, and shopping at the end of the day is sure to result in better fitted shoes or boots.
Wear the socks that you plan to wear when you go hiking. This is another important point that will help you get boots that are truly fitted to your hiking needs.
How to tell your boots fit
Well-fitted boots should be secure at the heel and have plenty of room in the toe box so that you can move your toes around and even spread them a bit. When your boots are too tight in the toes, it will cause your toes to be smashed and/or curled. This is very painful, especially when you are walking downhill, and it can cause foot deformity and loss of toenails.
When you try on your boots walk around enough to be sure that your feet will not slide around. Sliding creates friction and causes blisters.
Break your hiking boots in
Once you have purchased your new hiking boots, don’t just put them on the shelf in your closet until your next hike! You want to wear them in increments in order to loosen them up and condition your feet. Begin by wearing them for chores, errands and short walks.
Don’t overdo it! Start out by wearing them for a few minutes or a half an hour at a time. Take them off and allow them to air and give your feet a chance to recover before wearing them again. Wearing for a few minutes every day or two will soon break those boots in so that you can wear them comfortably on your next hike.
While breaking your boots in, pay close attention to any areas of sensitivity. Even the best fitted boots may rub a bit here and there. Be aware of this and be prepared to treat any tender areas by taking proper foot care supplies with you when you hike.
Be sure to put your boots on correctly
Most of us just lace our boots up from bottom to top and consider it done, but there are actually very specific ways to lace your boots that will help adjust the amount of pressure and support they supply.
Remember that the goal is to keep your heel firmly in place and keep the body and toe box of your boot loose enough to provide for good circulation, proper arch support and comfortable toe wiggling.
To accomplish this, you may wish to try a dual lacing system. This is a method that was introduced by Major Joe Martin in a book that he wrote to help young men prepare for military service. It was entitled Get Selected For Special Forces Successfully.
In this book, Major Martin describes lacing up your boots in two increments. To do this, you would lace the shoe portion of the boot with one pair of short laces and then lace the ankle and lower leg portion with another pair.
By doing this, you can keep the tension on the shoe part fairly loose to allow for flexibility and good circulation. Separately, you can adjust the ankle and lower leg portion of your boot in a way that is most comfortable and workable for you – be that tight or loose.
By custom lacing your boots, you can be sure of an exact fit that will provide maximum comfort. Once you have found a good lacing combination, be sure to walk enough to determine whether or not your boots are providing enough arch support. If not, look into over-the-counter orthotics to help cushion and support your arches.
How to prepare feet for hiking
Just as you need strong arms for baseball, strong core muscles for golf and overall strength and stamina for football, you also need well-prepared, strong, flexible feet for hiking. In order to accomplish this, you must take good care of your feet. Here’s how!
1. Pay attention to your toenails!
It’s always smart to keep your toenails properly trimmed and well-cared-for. This is especially true just before hiking. Be sure to trim your toenails before you set out on a hike. If long toenails cause pressure on your toes, you will be uncomfortable while hiking and you may even experience injury to the nail bed and/or lose a nail or two.
To trim your toenails properly, be sure to cut straight across. Don’t curve in at the edges because this can cause ingrown toenails. Be careful not to cut your nails too short because cutting into the quick is not only painful, it can also increase your risk of developing an infection.
Don’t stop with clipping. Be sure to file your toenails as well so that you don’t have rough edges getting caught in your socks. Rough toenail edges can cause friction, and that’s always a problem when hiking.
2. Use foot care products wisely.
There are number of products that you can use to condition the skin of your feet, help reduce sweating and minimize friction. Some choices include:
- Foot antiperspirant spray
- Foot powder
- Foot lotion
Some articles will tell you to use petroleum jelly to moisturise your feet and hold foot powder in place to reduce friction. This is really not a good idea. Never use petroleum jelly on your feet unless you want to develop athlete’s foot.
Petroleum-based oil products hold in moisture and prevent your skin from breathing. This sets up perfect conditions for athlete’s foot to develop, and a case of athlete’s foot will definitely cramp your style when it comes to hiking.
Instead, choose a natural foot lotion or balm that does not contain petroleum products. The inclusion of oil of peppermint or spearmint is a nice touch that helps your feet feel better and also naturally combats the development of feet fungus.
3. Learn how to treat foot injuries.
When you go hiking, you should have a compact, foot first aid kit handy. It should contain supplies such as:
- Rubbing alcohol swabs
- Antibiotic ointment
- Athletic tape
- Extra socks
All of these products can be used to treat the hotspots that precede blistering or to treat blisters themselves.
Learning exactly how you can treat your own sore spots on your feet takes a bit of practice and hit and miss. This is yet another reason why breaking your boots in well in advance is a good idea. When you feel areas of pressure during your practice walks, try taping, using Band-Aids and other methods to protect these sensitive areas. Trial and error will help you to learn what works best for you.
Note that Superglue may seem like a strange thing to keep in your foot first aid kit, but it can be very handy if you have a blister that breaks. You can use it to hold the skin in place over the injury to prevent further damage. Be sure to clean the open wound thoroughly. Follow this up with a an application of Superglue. Cover it with a Band-Aid, gauze and/or tape for comfort and protection.
Once you have treated your injury, put on fresh, clean, dry socks to help keep your feet refreshed and comfortable. Be sure to clip your used socks onto the outside of your backpack so that they can dry and air out as you walk. If you wad them up and stick them in a pocket, they are sure to develop fungus.
4. Choose your socks with care.
It’s smart to use a two-sock system to avoid friction. Begin with a very thin, moisture wicking, close-fitting synthetic sock. Wear these socks inside-out to prevent having seams rub and cause pressure points.
Cover your tight-fitting socks with thicker 100 percent wool or wool blend socks. These provide padding and protection while absorbing moisture that has been wicked away by your inner pair of socks. You should also wear this pair of socks inside out to prevent irritation from seams.
5. Don’t wear cotton socks!
Cotton socks are very absorbent, but they don’t dry quickly. Just as moisture held in by petroleum jelly can cause athlete’s foot, moisture held against your skin by wet cotton socks will create conditions that are conducive to development of athlete’s foot. Additionally, when you wear wet socks you’re very likely to develop blisters.
6. Give your feet a chance to air out.
Whenever you feel painful spots (i.e. hotspots) on the skin of your feet while hiking it is a harbinger of a blister to come. You can avoid having this sensation by being certain to take off your boots and allowing your feet to air whenever possible. Naturally, if you do feel a painful, hotspot sensation you should stop right away, take off your boots and perform preventative first aid as described above.
7. Treat blisters promptly and properly.
If you do develop a small blister, you’ll want to treat it and protect it right away. If it is not broken, you should clean it with an alcohol swab, apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment and cover it with a Band-Aid or gauze. Tape it as well to provide extra cushioning and secure your Band-Aid/gauze in place.
If you perform this first aid as soon as you begin to feel a blister, you are unlikely to develop a large blister. If you ignore your symptoms, you may very well find a big, swollen, painful blister on your foot when you take your boots off. If this is the case, you may want to drain the liquid from the blister by lancing it with a sterilised pin or needle or the sterilised tip of a very sharp knife. Be sure to follow-up by cleaning, medicating and covering the blister.
If you take off your boots and find a broken blister, you may wish to use superglue to secure the skin in place as described above.
There’s a good reason why the Boy Scouts use this as their motto. To prepare yourself:
- Purchase your hiking boots carefully.
- Break your boots in well.
- Condition your feet.
- Carry proper foot first-aid.
When you follow these smart tips, you can be fairly certain of having successful, enjoyable, pain and injury free hiking and long distance walk experiences.