Tips for Healthy Feet While Hiking
Posted by Jenn F. on Monday, September 17th, 2012
It’s not scientifically autumn for a few more days, but for most people, the beginning of September marks the real beginning of the season. Although some might think of summer as hiking season, I think fall is the perfect time, when it’s still warm enough outside to avoid heavy winter coats, but just cool enough so that you’re not pouring sweat the whole time you’re out in the woods. If you live in a region where the leaves change color, it’s an especially wonderful time to hit the trails in a national park or hike up a mountain.
Of course with all that walking, your feet can run into all kinds of trouble. Let’s talk about hiking and foot problems and what you can do to avoid them.
When you’re out hiking, you can suffer from sudden, traumatic injuries, such as:
- Ankle sprains and fractures
- Various foot bone fractures
- Toe fractures
- Heel fractures
If you hike a lot, though, or suddenly find yourself off on a ten mile trek after a lazy summer poolside, you can also develop overuse injuries in your feet, including:
- Shin splints
- Calf strains
- Black toenail
- Plantar fasciitis
- Achilles tendonitis
None of these are fun, so here are some tips to keep your feet and ankles healthy when you hike.
Stop I don’t mean stop hiking, I mean if you’ve suffered some kind of traumatic injury, stop and get help or head home. Don’t tell your group, “It’s nothing!” and go on for the next five miles just because you don’t want to ruin everyone else’s good time. Putting weight on your injured foot or ankle will just make the injury worse. Don’t ignore the pain–try to get off your ankle as soon as possible. If you have a first aid kit (and hopefully you or someone in your group does), stop and tape up your ankle. If you can find a big strong branch to use as a cane, that can help too (or a friend with a strong shoulder to lean on). Obviously if you’re far out on a trail and the only way home is to limp on both feet, then that’s what you’ll have to do. If you can do something to cut down on the time you’re on your injured foot or ankle, though, do it. When you get back to civilization, see a podiatrist at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900) to get your injury checked out and treated.
Shoes Choose the right kind of shoes or boots. Boots offer more support and overall protection, but they’re heavier and less flexible. Shoes for trails or hiking are lighter and often made of a breathable material. Think about what kind of hiking you usually do and choose accordingly. If you’re in a hot climate and walking on fairly gentle trails, then shoes might be better for you. If you’re usually in rougher terrain and colder or wetter weather, then boots might be right. A salesperson at a good outdoor sports store should be able to help you make a decision. And of course, choose shoes that fit. Don’t just casually order online shoes in a size you’re “pretty sure” will fit. Go try them on, preferably late in the day when your feet are swollen. Also wear the socks you usually would wear while hiking. Shoes that don’t fit can cause all kinds of miserable injuries, including blisters from too big shoes that allow your feet to rub up and down against the heel and black toenails from shoes that fit too tightly at the toe (there should be about 3/8-1/2 inch between the longest toe and the top of the shoe). Finally, if you get new shoes or boots, don’t forget to break them in by wearing them around the house or on short errands for a few days before setting off on that twenty mile hike.
Socks Yes, socks are just as important as shoes. Choose moisture wicking socks so your sweaty feet will stay dry. Make sure they’re breathable. If you’re going to be out in cold weather, I find it’s better to wear a couple of pairs of thinner socks than suffocate my feet in heavy warm ones. Avoid socks with a seam across the top that can rub on the top of your toes and make sure they don’t bunch up around your heels or toes.
More socks Literally more socks, as in bring an extra pair, just in case you sweat through the ones you’re wearing or get caught in the rain or step in a puddle.
Keep ‘em dry Damp feet inside shoes are vulnerable to bacteria and nasty fungal infections; wet skin also blisters more easily. In addition to the aforementioned extra socks, you might want to sprinkle some foot powder in your socks to help absorb moisture. If you have really sweaty feet, try putting antiperspirant on them.
Keep ‘em wet Well, not wet, but moist. If you’re prone to blisters, you can cut down on the friction that causes them by putting petroleum jelly or any other lubricant on areas of your feet vulnerable to blistering. Don’t put on so much so often that your socks get gunky, though.
Take barefoot breaks I don’t mean walk barefoot, unless you have the tough feet of a Nepali sherpa. I mean take frequent breaks from walking where you can stop, take your shoes and socks off and elevate your feet. Give your feet at least fifteen minutes of rest every few miles, or more if the terrain is particularly rough. If you’re near a clean looking creek, pond, or riverbank, you can cool your feet off in the water. However–and this is super important–make sure they are absolutely 100% dry before you put your socks back on, or you’ll be at risk for the aforementioned blisters and fungal infections.
Don’t overload Make sure your pack isn’t too heavy for you to walk comfortably. An overly heavy pack puts more weight on your feet and can also put a strain on your calf muscles and Achilles tendons. I know everyone wants to look awesomely super strong, but you don’t look awesomely super strong if you’re limping.
Pack a first aid kit This is not what you should take out when you’re trying to lighten your pack. You don’t have to bring tons of things, just bandages, tape, antiseptic creams, duct tape (great for blisters), maybe ibuprofen. Many sports stores sell prepackaged ones, or here’s an example of what to include if you’re making your own first aid kit.
Hopefully these are some tips that will keep you healthy while you’re on the trail. Enjoy the lovely weather as long as you can!
If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. Geldwert, Dr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.