Preparing Your Feet for Hiking

It’s that time of year when the outdoors calls, and for many of us we are left wondering how to safely protect and support our feet and ankles as we launch into a more active lifestyle.

Which brings us to shoes, shoes, shoes… They are the most important and most critical piece of equipment that you have control over. Unfortunately, your grandmother’s bunions are there for the long haul, so managing the feet you’ve got, the best you can, takes some preventative care. When planning a hike, proper fitted boots or hiking shoes are the first line of defense against foot and ankle injuries that may include: blisters, sprains, and fractures.  It has been estimated that roughly 60% of people have different sized feet, so when shopping for proper hiking gear, always fit for the larger one.  Fit is also important as hills and various changes in trail elevation will cause your foot to shift in your boots.

One method to quickly assess your boot’s fit is to loosen the laces and while standing up, slide your foot forward toward the toe end of your boot.  Try to wear the exact sock thickness during this fitting period that you anticipate using for your hike.  Next, have someone check for proper room by placing a finger between your heel and the rear of the boot.  Not an exact science, but you should not have more room than one fingerbreadth.  If so, you may need to size up or down accordingly.

In addition to a successful fit, a stiffer sole can enhance stability over uneven ground.  You should always assess the boot or shoe for “torsional rigidity,” which is a simple twisting or bending test that can be performed.  The goal is having good traction and enough rigidity in the arch and heel region to reduce unwanted bending forces.  

First shoe has poor torsional rigidity with a simple bend test

The second two shoes provide much better torsional stability. The sneaker on the top and a hiking boot on the bottom. 

A breathable shoe with some water resistant/proof properties is preferable in many conditions. One rule of thumb is any device that you can simply bend the toes and heel with one hand easily, is likely to be too flexible.  It should be mentioned that more and more hikers have made the switch from old school leather hiking boots to trail running shoes or rugged sneakers.  The newer “hiking shoe” is less likely to require a lengthy break in period, but still must undergo monitoring in the initial phases. 

Our foot structure is variable whether you have been given a high arched (cavus foot) or flat (planus foot). It’s important to note that changes in trail terrain are handled differently for these foot types. Also, our ankle strength and stability play an important role in resisting unwanted forces on a trail.  The position of our joints, specifically our subtalar joint (an articulation between two of the tarsal bones in the foot – the calcaneus (heel bone) and talus (bone above the heel bone)), plays a large role as a shock absorber for these terrain changes.

Your local foot and ankle specialist can assess both your foot type and joint alignment and may suggest use of an over the counter insert/insole, or custom orthotic.  One word of caution however, some store-bought insoles may not be correct for your foot/ankle structure.  An incorrect shoe and insert combination may cause more harm, so seek professional guidance. 

What shoes should I hike inChoosing your Socks:

In addition to proper fitting footgear such as boots or hiking shoes, your sock choice is important.  When choosing the appropriate socks, I look for specific characteristics to help prevent foot injuries.  An ideal sock has moisture wicking capabilities, fits snuggly and should not have large seams or harsh pressure points. The best moisture wicking materials include synthetic materials or wool. It is best to avoid cotton.  Basically, many of these synthetic materials are successful by acting in a hydrophobic manner, keeping water away.  Cotton is the opposite, it absorbs water and sweat, predisposing you to blister formation more easily and sometimes contributing to cold-related injuries depending on the temperature. People who frequently blister would benefit from a sock liner as well.

One troublesome and common hiking injury involves the formation of a blister, they are unwelcome and they can really hamper a good long hike.  Blisters usually form from a combination of excessive heat, friction and moisture. Blisters may be the number one nuisance related to improper fit.  Often the culprit is a loose heel fit.  Simply tightening down the laces to decrease unwanted room in the heel is usually insufficient.  You may consider trying a thicker sock, an over the counter insert/insole, or custom orthotic from your local foot specialist which helps lock the foot in place. 

Treatment for blisters is also important:

In many cases you can treat your blister by padding the area with various bandages and working to remove the initial source that created the blister in the first place.  Since your skin serves as a natural barrier against infection, we try not to peel the skin off the top of the blister.  If the area opens on its own, it is ideal to keep the region as clean as possible.

In some cases, blisters may require medical attention.  Always reach out to your friendly professional podiatrist if you notice signs of infection such as; redness, pus, or blood coming from the blister.

Feet Shoes for HikingSome additional advice:

Avoiding injury from brush, thorns, rocks or other trail debris can be difficult, but taking some simple precautions are recommended. One of the most common risks includes twisting your foot or ankle by slipping on a rock or tripping on a root.

It’s advised to “Pay attention” to your surroundings, avoid distractions that may inhibit your awareness of obstacles on the trail.

Wear long pants and or high socks when hiking on trails that have overgrown vegetation.

This may prevent injury from poison ivy, poison oak or sharp objects along the trail.  It is also a preferred barrier to the frequent tick.  Another commonly used hiking gear includes the use of gaiters.  By placing these devices over the top of a boot you can inhibit debris from entering your shoe gear and thus reducing friction. 

Now let’s get your feet ready for a safer hike! 

With roughly 3 million annual hikers, The Foot and Ankle Specialists of the Mid-Atlantic are here for you, as the largest foot and ankle specialty group along the central Appalachian Trail corridor.

Stay Safe and Have Fun!

Dr. Daniel Yarmel, a board certified foot and ankle specialist, provides care in Harrisburg, PA  and Newport, PA (a location adjacent to the Appalachian Trail).  Although more recently frequenting the neighborhood and local community hikes with the family, prior extending hikes are vividly remembered. He has enjoyed section hikes throughout portions of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Vermont. Also, several sections of the Long Trail in Vermont, and areas of the Adirondack Park in New York.  Backpacking and hiking highlights include; extended expeditions through South Eastern Alaska (Including Wrangell–St. Elias and Denali National Parks) and Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.






Disclaimer: The information on this site is provided for your assistance only; this site does not provide podiatric advice. You should never diagnose or treat yourself for a podiatric condition based on the information provided herein, and the information is not provided for that purpose. Likewise, you should never determine the treatment is unnecessary based on this information. The information contained here and is not a substitute for podiatric care provided by a licensed podiatric professional. The information provided herein is not podiatric, medical or professional advice.This site does not create a doctor-patient relationship.

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