We crossed over 1000 miles outside of Franklin, NC. Seeing different foot problems on both halves of our hike, I’d like to share what I’ve learned in hopes it helps future hikers!
This is all based on my personal experience as a hiker and should not be taken as medical advice.
Gear For Your Feet
Socks: always have backups
Preventing rubbing between your toes, sides of feet, and heels is vital to foot health. To do this, I wear Injinji sock liners with a pair of Darn Tough socks. What I pack: 2 pairs of Injinji liners, 2 pairs of Darn Tough socks, and 1 pair of Injinji socks for sleeping.
Shoes: make sure they’re flexible
When I first started last summer, I wore Keen hiking shoes. While they were comfortable for daily life, they were too restricting for thru hiking. After hiking with around 30 lbs on your back for days, your feet will flatten out some. I found that my already wide feet spread out too much for my starting shoes and I developed blisters.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure your toes don’t touch the end of the shoes while going downhill. That will prevent some rubbing. If you need less cushion, Altras work well (what I use) and there are many people using Hokas for more cushion.
Regardless of the cushion, zero drop or not, flexible upper fabric will give your toes room to move freely throughout the day. I also use Dr. Scholl’s plantar fasciitis insoles to support my arches.
New for 2023: Gaitors
I decided to add these for this year as I was expecting it to be wetter. Not only do gaitors keep dirt out of your shoes, by covering the opening, they slow down water entering your shoes. The ones I use are from Dirty Girl.
Other Prevention Measures
Stretching & Massaging
Every morning and evening I rub the arches and heels of my feet. I’ve been fortunate to never have knee pain, but I often have pain in my heels to ankles. Doing this helps me prepare for the day and relax after a day of hiking.
During the day, especially on uphills, I stretch. It only takes a minute or two to roll your ankles by moving your toes pretending to spell out words.
Keeping them dry
I’ve been fortunate to not have to hike too long in rain at a time. At lunch break, I take off my socks to let my feet dry out. When I get to camp, I take my socks off while setting up camp until they dry out. Then, I change into my camp socks and sandals. I drape my hiking socks over my tent or pack to help them dry out.
If it rains, I wipe off my feet when I get to camp with a camp towel (hand towel size from REI) and try not to sleep in socks to keep them dry overnight.
Keeping them clean
Aside from drying out my feet, I also wipe them off with a damp camp towel. Any dirt that got in could cause irritation or blisters the following day.
Something I’m trying to do more, actually wash my feet with camp soap. That might have helped me prevent a toe infection.
Other supplies to bring
- Camp Towel
- Biodegradable soap
- KT tape, for covering hot spots or blisters
- Bandages, in case of cuts or open blisters
- Antibiotic ointment
- Medical tape
- A needle, for popping blisters at camp. Better choose when they pop when it can be in a clean as possible environment!
Whenever you start to feel a spot that feels hot or like something is stuck in your shoe, stop and check. It could be debris or rubbing from walking. If you see a spot that is starting to look red, put a piece of KT tape over it. I’ve heard good things about leukotape but never tried it. When I got horrible blisters in Maryland, a hiker gave me KT tape to help me cover them. It stays on for days, acting like a second skin.
The sometimes unavoidable followup to hot spots. With wide feet and already messed up toes, blisters were common. Once the skin has gotten tender and filled with fluid, it’s time to keep an eye out for when to pop it. It’s difficult to pick when to pop them. I usually wait until it’s just big enough I can poke a needle completely in & out, across the blister.
It may not be best practice to pop blisters, but I’d rather pop them versus let them pop during the day and get infected.
To pop a blister, sterilize a sewing needle with hand sanitizer. I use the cushion part of a bandaid to wipe off the hand sanitizer. I also wash my foot with filtered water, dry it, then with hand sanitizer. Next, gently poke the needle into the side of the blister and back out across the blister, just barely through the skin before pulling it back. It shouldn’t hurt going just through the top layer of skin. Carefully drain the pus out by pressing down with a clean piece of toilet paper or bandage cotton piece.
Once all the liquid is out, I wipe some antibiotic ointment over it, place a bandage over it, and secure with medical or kt tape.
I had the unfortunate experience of getting a toe infection on the trail this year.
After 12 miles in the rain before Hiawasee, GA, my big toe started hurting. Thinking it was just my sock liner getting under my toenail, I switched to a fresh sock liner and kept hiking. When the pain, swelling, redness and toenail discoloring got more severe, I went to an urgent care in Franklin. They were able to prescribe me antibiotics so I could get back on the trail.
If you are experiencing pain for many days in a localized spot, go to an urgent care. It could save you from a more severe problem.
I haven’t lost any toenails yet. To prevent this, I keep my toenails trimmed and clean as possible. When trimming, I try to do it straight across so they don’t dig into the sides of my toes as they grow as much.
Nerve & joint pain
Listen to your body when something hurts and try to stretch or rub the affected and surrounding area. If something is majorly impacting your ability to hike, consider taking a nero or zero to give it some rest. Taking breaks throughout the day or reducing mileage can also help.
Since last update we’ve made it into North Carolina and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s slowly getting warmer and has been mostly dry.
I’ve loved all the little flowers up in the Smokies! It’s been great noticing more flowers in the last week. We’re looking forward to spring!
I read Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer on this last section of trail. I’ve learned the basics of moss biology from college, but had no idea of the significance in indigenous cultures and the variety between species. While the book can sometimes dry, it is informative and a must read for any botany fans!
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