A primer on foot care for long section and thru-hikers
Ever since I walked the Pacific Crest Trail Mexico-to-Canada (2,668 miles) in 2013, I’ve felt my feet are a more valuable part of me. I am thankful for them, I honor them, I am completely amazed by them. These weird, sinuey, bony wedges on the end of my legs ended up elevated to the status of my heart and my head: priceless. They’re the best. Love my feet!
But shit isn’t easy on the PCT, and I’m writing now to share things I learned about feet for those of you considering your first long hike. The PCT was my first long hike, and I had my fair share of feet trouble, but I made it. And I learned a lot. And I’m going to share it all with you here.
On the first day I made the 20 mile stretch to Lake Morena, but I sprained my ankle. I was trying to keep up with some sporty kids, and though I’m glad I made it to Lake Morena, I don’t necessarily recommend shooting for that on your first day unless you’re an experienced hiker. I was not experienced. I arrived with a mildly sprained ankle, and my first 5 blisters. I had finished the last five miles in my Waldies rubber sandals because my feet were just burning hot. Like, red-mother-fucking-hot on fire. So here you have the three most common predicaments of the first 800 miles: sprains, blisters, and hot feet.
Let’s rewind a little bit. Think about hiking the PCT. What will it be like? You might have no idea, so it’s a little fun to imagine. But remember this, and remember it well: hiking long distances is painful. Period. It hurts. It hurts somewhere, to some degree, almost every day. I remember one day in Washington I realized I hadn’t hurt for a few days, maybe even a week. I had a moment of awe and then POP! Something in my foot went. Even the strongest hikers experience discomfort. Be prepared for this, and be prepared to walk through it if you want a long distance hike.
This year I worked for three weeks at Ziggy and the Bear’s, meeting about 500 hikers as they came through, and the most common reason they were quitting was pain. I wouldn’t say injury, because many of those injuries could be walked through, but they were quitting because they didn’t want to bear the pain any longer. I walked to Canada, but it was sometimes excruciating, and there was limping, and cursing, and a lot of pretending the pain away. Bottom line? Beat this into your head: thru-hikes will hurt. Thru hikers sometimes hike through unbearable pain.
Your feet are your most important asset. They will carry you to Canada. Useless feet, useless everything else. So I’ll go through a list of things you will probably encounter, and discuss different ways hikers cope.
Sprains happens most commonly after rolling your ankle. You will probably roll your ankle, recover clumsily further injuring yourself, curse and swear you’ll never do it again. Then you’ll do it again and again until your ankles grow strong and you really know how to hike. And then you’ll still occasionally do it. Mild sprains can be walked off, but make sure to:
- Listen to your body
- Get on the anti-inflammatories
- Use hiking poles and gently favor the other foot
- Monitor for increased pain & swelling. If your shoes get tight and the pain unbearable, you need to go off trail a week or two. Not the end of the world.
Dude, the desert is hot. I mean, really hot. If you stop to talk to some day-hiker for just a minute, your feet will spontaneously combust and you will smell the stinky foot smoke. Heat is one of the main precursors to blisters and general misery and so you need to keep the dogs cool. Buy ventilated shoes for the desert. No Gortex, no hiking boots, no thick wool socks. Wear trail runners and one or two pairs of thin socks. Hey, but keep your preference. If you know you can trudge through the desert in leather boots for hundreds of miles because you owe the gods some debt, then by all means. Do it. But here’s the sane thing to do. When you stop walking, stand in the shade. Feet in the shade, always.
- Listen to your body
- Take your shoes off when your feet get hot. Yes, that means stop hiking, sit down, and take off your shoes. Take off your shoes any other time you stop for snacks. Let them air out.
- If you are stopped by a stream, put your feet in the stream. DOWNSTREAM of where hikers would collect water, and away from feces or other obvious contaminates if you have open wounds. Otherwise you nasty.
- Consider hiking with sandals. My Waldies Arubas weighed 10oz for a pair and I carried them all the way to Canada because they were trail gold. (There are other great lightweight options, too.) GOLD! Other hikers were so jealous! When my feet were done for the day but I still needed to make miles, I’d take off the sneakers, put on the sandals, and make another five miles. Granted, I’d have to hike a little more carefully to avoid rough terrain, but my feet were cool and dry, and my soul sang with delight.
- Consider taking off your gaiters. I know they work, but they do make your feet warmer. I hiked without them and didn’t notice I was having much more trouble with trail debris in my shoes than other hikers. Ironically, I got the most sand debris in my shoes in the Sierra. That was when I switched to Brooks Cascadias, and that might have had something to do with it. Until then, I had been fine. But sand in the Sierra? REALLY?
- Take your shoes off. You don’t know how many times I’ve seen hikers stop, sun-stroked and delirious, and start to chat about their miles and where they camped, bla bla. It’s 105º outside and their feet are melting and they somehow need to be reminded to take off their shoes? Don’t be that person. Take off your shoes whenever you stop.
Hotspots are precursers to blisters. If you’ve never had a hotspot on your feet while walking before, you’ll know it when you feel it. It feels like a spot of your foot is hot. This is your last warning that something is going terribly wrong. STOP WALKING NOW! Take off your shoes, clean the sand and dust and debris out, shake out your socks, put some tape over the hotspot and the area around it, carefully put your shoes back on and keep going. If you pretend it isn’t happening it’ll be too late in just minutes.
Very often, PCT hikers will mutilate their $130 pair of shoes, cutting off the toe, cutting out the heel — doing whatever it takes to alleviate a hot spot and keep walking. Do not get attached to your shoes. Get attached to your feet.
Practically unavoidable. I worked in hospitals as a Registered Nurse for eight years and we were instructed, especially on burn units, to never disturb a blister. But on the trail it’s different. You will find hikers experimenting with their blisters in ways you can’t even imagine now.
It’s nasty. And it doesn’t matter. Find what works for you and your blisters and do it now. Likely your approach will change in a week, and that’s OK too. But what works for your hiking buddy might not work for you. Here are some things people try to prevent blisters:
- Keep your feet as dry and cool as possible — good luck!
- Carry 2-3 pairs of socks, and stop to rinse out a pair every day and then let dry on the back of your pack while hiking. You should have at least one clean pair every day. When your feet are in trouble, try to change your socks twice a day. It’s extra work, but it’s worth it.
- Wear shoes with nice wide toe beds. Go up a size to make sure you can’t feel your toes touch the front of your shoes EVER (jump, squat, try moving to test this). Don’t go up more than two sizes; that is ridiculous. Read about Achilles tendonitis for more on why. Essentially, the longer the shoe, the longer the arch support. You want arch support where it belongs, not half way across your foot and too far forward.
- Lace your shoes deliberately, every time. Put your shoes on like you are professional athlete about to compete in a world class event. Because you are. Make sure all sand and dirt and debris is knocked out of your shoes. Make sure your socks are on correctly. Holes in your socks can cause chafing and blisters. Untwist the laces. Lay down the shoe tongue neatly. Lace them up to the top to cinch the shoe around the ankle and prevent heel lift. For walking, you want them fairly loose around the toe and arch, and snug around the ankle. Every time.
- Some people, including myself, had luck with anti-chafing goop on their feet. I used plain old coconut oil to lubricate between my toes and found this helped immeasurably. The oil also sealed deep cracks and eased searing pain. The lube will collect silt, but no matter, your feet get dirty either way.
- Keep your feet clean. I say this knowing it’s near impossible, but try. Rinse them when you can even though they’ll just get dirty again. Wash them before going to bed, even if it’s a pathetic, lazy swabbing. Your feet need to always be as clean and dry as possible. You will find this task nearly impossible, but try.
- Toed socks, like Injinjis. They’re not for everyone but I think they can help if you’re prone to getting blisters between your toes. They helped me but I abandoned them once I stopped getting blisters at around mile 800.
- Bandages: use whatever. I’ve seen duct tape most commonly, and it’s one of the only things that will stay in place. Leukotape — a bit harder to obtain — is super gooey sticky and some people swear by it to treat and prevent blisters. I wouldn’t bother with gel bandages as it’s hard to keep them in place unless you really tape them down. And then they still tend to move and bunch up. Some folks superglued patches over blisters and forgot about them. I never heard back. Moleskin – it works for a lot of people but you’ll probably have to put tape over it. Bandaids — forget about it. Athletic tape worked really well for me, and was also handy for other foot problems. I found it much more useful than duct tape, which I hardly used on trail.
- Treatments: go for it. I’ve seen slicing with knives, clipping with scissors, the standard poke (but usually with a borrowed needle), the whole sewing-a-needle-and-thread-thru-the-blister-to-make-a-wick thing, salves, etc. etc. But my little bit of advice is: do your blister popping or threading at night, before you go to sleep. If you do it while you still have walking to do, you’re going to be wincing a lot. A night’s sleep allows your blister some time to dry out and heal. Also, a little hole is likely to heal over and your blister will fill again. If you’re going to pop a blister, put a slit in it. Do not do foot soaks if you have wounds on your feet (unless advised by a doctor or forced to by The Bear). Your blisters need to dry out to heal.
- If you have a big space between your big and second toe like I do, you might be prone to blisters in there. Mine were quite bad for at least 500 miles until I got a silicone toe spacer (such as this gel toe separator set, also available at Rite Aid) and put it between my toes (sometimes with a little coconut oil). I used it daily until my feet healed and calloused and then didn’t need it any longer. I was surprised it would stay in place, but it did, and I believe it saved me. I have this problem each time I start a long hike with soft feet, and sometimes I’ve strategically put other things like a small piece of thermarest pad, between my toes to separate them, stop the chafing, and prevent those between-the-toe blisters.
- Recurring blisters will often turn into callouses. Sexy, thick callouses will form all over the feet. Callouses are great until they grow too thick and rigid and dry, at which point they crack. Deeply. And this stings and smarts sooooo bad. So, I recommend you add shaving down callouses to your foot care routine. You won’t necessarily have a pumice; use a rough rock or your knife. Mine got so thick I was probably shaving 0.5mm slices off the sides of my feet at a time, about once a week. My feet still had plenty of callous, and I was avoiding cracks. If you do get cracks, cut away the thick, hard, dead skin surrounding them so they can heal.
- Keep your toenails trimmed. Not many people carry clippers but some do and you can borrow from them. Or carry a small knife, like a eetsy-bitsy Leatherman CS – it’s super tiny and great for so many projects. It has a file to round nails after clipping them with the built-in scissors. Long toenails can create shoe-fit issues as well as toe wounds and blisters.
Cheryl Strayed sensationalized this dreaded scenario in her book “Wild,” but I didn’t see any lost toenails on friends of mine in 2013. We were a relatively sane bunch. But in 2014, I saw some missing toenails, and when I was shown these there was clear evidence of TOES GNASHING on FRONTS OF SHOES. Come on, people. The trail already hurts, how many of you are out there on some purgatory mission? Get the shoes that fit and then lace them correctly. If they are laced around your ankle, your foot will not slide forward as much when you are descending, and you will not get gnashing. If they are gnashing and you know it, consider stopping for the day, soaking your feet in cool water to shrink them, or hiking barefoot or in sandals. There are always options! I don’t have much experience with losing toenails but from the conversations I overheard this summer, when it happens to you… you sorta know what to do. Like when you have a scab, and can’t help picking it. The women who had this didn’t seem to complain of very much pain, and weren’t nervous about hiking without their nails. I think it’s one of those things that looks and sounds worse than the reality.
You’ll invariably get some sort of fungus from having wet feet all the time. I got a few fungal toenails but didn’t really have time to deal with it on trail. I bought some Oil of Oregano when I got home and put it on those nails for several weeks and it went away. A lot of hikers carried fungal cream and used that, and a lot of hikers depended on Gold Bond medicated foot powder to keep the nasty feet under control.
I only met one hiker with Morton’s Toe and he was struggling with it in southern Oregon. He was miserable and didn’t know why that one part of the pad of his foot would hurt. I myself have had issues with this and so I put it out there as a heads-up (and hopefully not as a jinx). I don’t know what happened to this fellow, but if I were him, I would have gone in for a new pair of shoes to help better pad my forefoot. It’s really not comfortable to feel like you’re walking on the knuckle of your second toe.
Tendonitis is an inflammation of a tendon generally from overuse. If you want to get to Canada, obviously you have to keep using the tendon, so your goals should be addressing the cause and mitigating future abuse. Forget R-I-C-E (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) because most those things are impossible when you’re hiking 25 miles a day. Icing is generally only good for the initial phase of an injury anyway, and then one would switch to heat (also impossible on trail). Use stretching, warming up slowly at the start of the day, anti-inflammatories, and massage, and try taping. But always – try to figure out what is causing it so you can prevent it. Are you walking funny? Are your shoes wrong? Is your pack loaded unevenly? Are you walking funny? You should optimally be planting your feet flatly, square-on forward — no tip-toeing or heel-slamming (both are very detrimental to your hike). Are you constantly walking on the off-camber on the West side of a slope?
My great trail friend Cherub suffered Posterior Tibial Tendonitis for about 20,000 miles in 2013 and still finished the PCT, and so I mention it here. Stretch it out, take your anti-inflammatories, wear supportive shoes in the correct size, get off trail here and there for a rest.
The painful predicament of plantar fasciitis a hike-ender for all those except the most tough and determined. I did not suffer it but at times felt it coming on as an ache and extreme tightness in the arch of my foot. Lots of deep tissue massage and stretching my toes back towards my knees helped. One of the best and “easiest” ways to treat it on trail (since you need to be walking all day) is to keep your feet extended at night, either with braces or by taping your toes up towards your knees. Flexing your foot (pointing your toes) is aggravating to this condition. All of these stretches would be very helpful if you suspect you have Plantar fasciitis.
Shin Splints vs. Achilles Heel
I suffered both tremendously and discovered a correlation between heel-toe drop and discomfort either way. Zero drop shoes like Altras will lengthen and strain the Achilles tendon, causing discomfort for a lot of people. Shoes with higher heels will lengthen the muscles on the front of the leg, making one more prone to shin splints. So, when my shoes were new and the heel foam still not squished down yet, I struggled with shin splints, and I knew when they were getting old because my achilles would start acting up. Take caution – it’s a bit risky changing your heel-toe drop drastically and suddenly (but you still need to get new shoes here and there). Take care of the muscles in your ankles and lower legs by stretching and massaging and rolling them out whenever possible. If you have shin splints, start each day slow and stretch out your shins whenever they start to ache — even if it means you can only walk a few feet at a time. They will warm up and you might find, like I did, that after a slow first few miles I could easily thereafter hike another 30. Another thing to consider is your gait — is your stride too long? If you are taking huge strides you are probably landing on your heels (heel strike) and this aggravates many lower limb issues. Take quick, short strides and try to land flat on your foot.
When my shin splints got unbearable in southern Oregon I took a couple days to rest. I rolled them out with a pie roller (desperate times call for desperate measures) and bought some KT Tape. I applied it according to the directions in the box for shin splints. I do believe KT Tape saved my hike; it was magic for shin splints. Beware though that shin splints can lead to tibial stress fractures if ignored and exercise is continued.
As far as everyone talking about how the feet “grow” on a thru-hike… I still don’t quite believe it. My theory is that most hikers require bigger shoes when their Achilles tendons swell. Mine swelled to the point where my heel jutted out an extra 1/4″! So I sized up one size and was fine. I still wear the same size shoe I did before the trail, but wasn’t able to get into them until my Achilles swelling went down. Your feet don’t really grow but your Achilles will.
I smashed the 2nd and 3rd metatarsals of my right foot about a year before hiking the PCT. About 300 miles into the PCT, I got in an angry mood, struck off at a 4-5mph pace in my sandals over hard sand and rock, and gave myself a stress fracture. I knew it was broken because it felt just as bad as when I initially smashed my foot, but I knew it was a stress fracture, because there was no cracking, popping, or instability when I manipulated the foot. Every step was excruciating. I got to the Saufley’s, and hung out a few days, then hobbled to the Anderson’s and hung out several more days. I was devastated. I couldn’t hike; each step was agony. I commiserated with Girly Girl, who was suffering terrible knee troubles, and who found me a roll of athletic tape in the hiker box. I got creative, and came up with something that allowed me to hike with more of an ache than a bite. This year I shared my solution with another hiker (Double Tap) experiencing the same pain, and he was able to finish the PCT as well. We both strongly believe this works.
Here’s my thinking: 1.5” wide athletic tape is fantastic for splinting sprains and strains, so why couldn’t it stabilize a mild break? I wrapped the arch of my foot (where it hurt the most) in a figure 8, making it so that my arch couldn’t splay as much when I stepped and the offending bone wouldn’t have as much mobility. Just a couple loops, loose enough so that my foot had full range of motion, but tight enough to prevent splaying. The difference was measurable. I left the tape on for days until it started to peel, then replaced it. Within a few weeks I was able to walk well again. I waited another week and then stopped wearing the tape. I also took Ibuprofen several times a day, and a calcium/magnesium/vitamin D tablet daily, but that’s it. It’s all I did.
I met a very young man who went to the doctor from the Saufley’s this summer and returned with a huge splint. I tried to give him some options, because he seemed curious. The trail is going to hurt, and the worst thing that is going to happen to a stress fracture is a fracture, so what did he have to lose? His choice was to go home with the splint and return in six weeks to hike. What he was forgetting though was that in six weeks, his foot and leg were going to be so withered from disuse that it would be until next year before he could hike long distance again.
So, consider the options. Your foot, if babied, is going to heal either way, walk or no walk. You will know when it’s time to stop, but it’s mostly dependent on your pain threshold. How much do you want this?
This gets a little advice-y, which I would like to avoid, but these are common sense and part of the unspoken trail pact. Do they need to be said out loud? Yes, sadly they do!
- Listen to your body.
- Injured or not, breathe! Especially when you are injured or at high elevations, you need to remember to breathe deeply in and out. Your muscles and tissues are needing huge amounts of oxygen, and needing huge amounts of CO2 cleared. When we’re scared or stressed we tend to hold our breath, and then we just don’t heal or perform as well. Breathing is basic. Do it all the time.
- Take time to take care of yourself. Eat well. Drink plenty of water. Phone home. Have a bath. Massage yourself. Get horizontal. Sleep. You can’t get to Canada if you can’t walk! Saying goodbye to hiking buddies because you need town days is not the end of the world. Most people go out to the PCT for an adventure, and part of adventure is letting go of attachments, expectations, and itineraries. You will meet new great friends and have many magical times up trail. But only if you take care of yourself.
- If you’ve never done a long hike before, give up all your self-imposed rules, because you’ll have to break most of them.
- Lighten your load. Whether this means losing body weight or pack weight, do it. Every ounce does make a difference.
- Spend the time and the money necessary to find the cause and devise a solution. Ignorance or avoidance of a problem is not an approach. You have to be very deliberate (unless you’re very lucky) to get to Canada. Sit down, or lay down, and think through problems. What really caused this blister? What really caused this inflammation? What else could it be? Sometimes drilling it down like this makes the solution really simple.
- Try not to limp very much. This sounds silly, but not only will you freak people out with worry, but you will set off a cascade of bad kinetics in your body, possibly causing further injury. Maintaining a regular gait and good posture will lend to better healing, even if it’s miserable now. Use your gut, your hiking poles, your anti-inflammatories, any splints or bandages available, and figure something out.
- Try not to complain. Unless you’ve established with your conversation partner(s) that complaining is helpful and funny and cathartic (which it is most the time IMO), don’t do it. Everyone is in pain on the trail, and your complaining only adds to their troubles. I make this mistake, so many other people make this mistake, but life’s just easier if you don’t complain around just anyone.
- Take full responsibility for your own problems, and consider how important they really are, if at all.
- Remember how damn lucky you are to be out on the trail, and how incredibly beautiful it is. It’s so wonderful even though it HURTS SO DAMN MUCH!
There are a handful of specific shoes which are perennial favorites on the PCT:
- Brooks Cascadias. It is said that if you don’t know which way the trail goes, follow the distinctive Cascadia prints. I wore these through the Sierra, and was neither disappointed nor impressed. Avoid the Cascadia 9s and 10s, try eBay for Cascadia 8 or buy 11s. Made in China.
- Merrell Moab Ventilators
- The La Sportiva Wildcat mountain running shoe is getting more and more popular on long trails.
- Salomon S-Lab – I’m hearing from some big hikers that these are excellent shoes
- Altra Lone Peaks – these shoes have a cultish following. I recommend easing into these carefully, especially if you live your life in heeled shoes. Live/work in high heels? AVOID. I wore these 500 miles in Utah and ended up crippled (and they fell apart). Just sayin’. Made in China.
- New Balance Leadville 1210s I am very happy with this shoe, more so than the Cascadia, for several reasons. Version 1 was made in USA, comes in wide sizes which approximate the Altra without the zero lift. Avoid Version 2 (v2). Version 3 is actually OK though also made in China. I recommend trying wides unless you have very narrow feet.
- Keen Kovens and Arroyos
- Chaco Z2 Sandals
Almost nobody hikes the PCT in Nikes, Asics, or Adidas. If you know nothing, go on the wisdom of people who walked before you and choose from the list above. I didn’t take my own advice and went with the Leadvilles before they were popular, but it was because I knew they were extremely similar to the Cascadias and I like the brand. Maybe you will scout something new, but be careful, very thoughtful.
Insoles. Be careful choosing alternative insoles because a few millimeters or different rigidities can make a huge (sometimes hike-ending) difference. My intuition tells me that if I’m spending enough on my shoes they come with a decent, well-engineered insole meant for most people. Also, if I’m getting new shoes frequently enough, I’m getting enough support. If you truly have unique feet, find insoles to correct any footfall issues.
Here’s the bottom line about shoes:
ALWAYS buy well-made, lightweight shoes. They should retail at least $110, never scrimp (unless there is an emergency on trail and you need an interim pair to get you a short stretch). Go cheap on anything else but your feet. You can usually get these $130 shoes for $80 on sale if you watch for sales. As a PCT hiker you become a world-class athlete. World class athletes get world-class shoes.
ALWAYS replace your shoes after ~500 miles of walking. Have 5-6 pairs for the trail, and buy them as you go in case you need to make changes in size or style. Anything more than 500 miles starts to be torture on your feet, a countdown to meltdown. I am never impressed by the hiker who shows me the raggedy shoes he walked 1200 miles in. Why? What is this, purgatory? If you don’t have at least enough money to get decent shoes for the trail, you should reconsider the entire trip.
DO NOT walk out of any shoe store with shoes that you already feel rubbing in places. This summer, in a moment of desperation, I bought a pair of Nikes for a hike on the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood. I had forgotten my Cascadias. The Nikes touched my heel in a funny way but I didn’t think anything of it. $75 shoes. I’ve never had such miserable heel blisters in my life, and finished the last 5 miles of the Timberline Trail barefoot. Your shoes should feel like slippers now. They might feel like masters of torture 20 miles down the PCT, but right now, around your house and around town, they should feel like fancy, magical slippers. You should love your shoes, and trust them. They will house your feet all the way to Canada.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor; I am a retired nurse. This blog post is not medical advice or diagnostic. Take your health into your own hands and my words here with a grain of salt. If you are inconsolably worried, confused or in uncontrolled pain, visit a doctor. Take care of yourself.
If you want to see my PCT gear review, click here. To see the photographs I took everyday on the PCT in 2013, check out my Instagram account. To contact me, click here. If you have other ideas about PCT feet, or is there something I forgot or got wrong, please leave a comment!
Shoes like Waldies
Telic makes purpose-driven flip-flops and z-strap foam shoes in the USA, marketed as a recovery shoe. Very thick sole, practically a mule, and heavy as Crocs.
Dawgs also makes a X-strap like Waldies, and a Z-strap and three-strap sandal that look appropriate. Cheap, light. Imported.