There are certain proud accomplishments for most people in life: graduating high school or college, job promotions, having children, paying off their student loans or mortgage. One of my prouder moments was when I summited Katahdin with all 10 original toenails, and only four blisters during the entire 2,200-mile trek.
I am very meticulous about my feet, although at first glance you wouldn’t be able to tell. In fact, the lack of polish, close-clipped nails, gnarly callouses, and general shape of my feet mean I will never make a career as a foot model. But I have a routine on (and off) trail that helps keep blisters at bay and toenails firmly in their beds.
1) Prevention is key. We all know that moment in the hike where we start to feel a “hot spot” on our foot – that slightly sore, rubbed place. Many of us just power on (it doesn’t hurt that badly) and, before you know it, a blister appears. When you start to feel a hot spot, stop. Take of your boot and socks. Air that foot out. Clean the area as best you can – some hand sanitizer works for me. Grab a piece of duct tape or moleskin. Apply to the area where you can feel a blister may start. I know it’s annoying to stop for a few minutes, but your feet will thank you in the long run.
2) Keep your toenails clipped. I know many of us (myself included) are weight weenies and don’t want to carry any unnecessary items, but for the light weight of a small pair of clippers, it’s worth it. Keeping your toenails clipped keeps them from rubbing against your shoe (especially on those descents), ruining the nail beds, and losing your toenail.
3) Consider using baby powder, deodorant, or body glide. For added prevention against blisters, I know some hikers that apply these products to their feet. I don’t, but they help some people.
4) Break in new boots before a long hike, if possible. I say “if possible” because if your boots die on trail and you have to buy a brand new pair, you’ll just have to deal (that’s why I had two blisters after buying replacements for my Lowas in Kent, Connecticut). In a perfect world, you’r break in two pairs of boots and have one on standby to ship if/when you need to replace them.
5) Lace your boots to tailor to your specific foots needs. Keeping the laces a bit loose helps. I have a tall (thick?) foot and the big blood vessel that runs across the top of my foot gets compressed and causes my feet to tingle, then feel sharp, stabbing pinpricks. It’s miserable. So now I lace my boots in a manner that skips that part of my foot entirely. I might make a future post with pictures and steps for different lacing techniques, but you can find several examples online.
6) Get a good insole. With a few exceptions, many boots come with inadequate insoles for the long haul. I like Superfeet Green insoles – they fit my foot well and seem to extend the “comfort” life of my boots and trail runners. Word to the wise: don’t just go with the size on the box. I ended up needing a large (for my size 7 foot) rather than a small, because the large just fit the best overall. I had a lot of cutting down to do, but I’m glad I didn’t just grab the suggested size.
7) Get high quality socks. Wool socks are the way to go, in my opinion. They are wicking, odor resistant, and thick enough for good comfort while not making your foot all sweaty. I prefer the Darn Tough brand, because they really do hold up. I bought two pairs before my AT trek, and two pairs about halfway through. I still have those two pairs and wear them 2-3 times a week.
8) Consider sock liners. I wear injinji toe socks all the time under my Darn Toughs. Similar to the wool socks, I bought two pairs before the trail and two in the middle, and still wear those last two. They don’t hold up as well as the Darn Toughs, and I don’t wear them every week, but they are still worth the money. They really cut down on rubbing and friction, which cuts down on the number of blisters.
9) Clean your feet every night. My nightly routine (after getting to camp and doing camp chores) is:
– Take off boots and socks
– Air feet for a few minutes
– Clean with a baby wipe
– Add baby powder (I rarely did this; just whenever a tramily member had some to spare)
– Only wear camp shoes (usually cheap flip flops) the rest of the evening
When it is really cold, I wear my camp socks (next day’s socks) and my camp shoes.
10) Keep your feet tough. Have calloused, rough feet helps fight against blisters. It’s not pretty, to be sure, but it works. I hike and climb a lot, which tends to really rub and get nice callouses, and I walk around barefoot pretty much any time I can. I’m lucky to have a partner that doesn’t mind gross rough feet. 🙂
Even with all these steps, I did still experience some foot pain on my thruhike. There were random foot pains, and in the morning or after a long break the first few steps felt like I was walking on glass. 20+ miles a day over rocky, mountainous terrain isn’t exactly the best for your feet. My big toes went numb about a month in and it took about three months post-trail to have all sensation return.
But the walk in the woods is still 100% worth it.