Getting outside and exploring all of the amazing wilderness and public lands around us is something everyone should do. Whether you’re an incredibly experienced ultra-runner, mountaineer, or you just like to do a day-hike every now and then, a lot of this time outside is going to be spent on your feet. If you don’t take care of your feet, trips get cut short, canceled, or you may not enjoy them as much as you should. There are a handful of strategies that you can take to greatly improve the comfort of your feet so that you can enjoy the hike, run, walk, or whatever activity gets you into the great outdoors.
The first thing you need to realize is that there is not a whole lot between your feet and the unrelenting surface not far beneath them. Picking the right shoes and socks for your feet and activity goes a long way toward keeping your feet in good working order. Everyone’s feet are different, and different activities require different kinds of support and breathability. You wouldn’t take bulky backpacking boots on a surfing trip, and you wouldn’t take your sandals up high mountains in Alaska, either. Finding the right shoe for you and for your adventure type takes a lot of time, but it is time well spent if your feet stay healthy throughout your travels.
Once you find a shoe that fits your foot and your activity, break it in! Different shoes have different break-in periods, but the stiffer the shoe, the more breaking in it’ll need. Avoid starting a long trek or run with new footwear; if the break-in period is rough, you could face discomfort or blisters that effect your trip. Also, get socks that are breathable and that don’t alter the fit of the shoe too much. Some feet prefer liner socks and some don’t, so experiment and see what works for you. When you get on the trail, the name of the game is keeping your feet dry and not too hot. Maintaining a good foot temperature can be tricky: If your feet get cold, they'll get numb and you'll lose dexterity and comfort; if they get too hot, your feet will sweat and you’re more likely to get blisters. A proven strategy that hopefully won’t gross out your hiking partners is to air your feet out on long hot hikes, and maybe even dip them in a cold stream before drying them out and continuing the hike. Keeping those feet dry is the most important thing for comfort on a really long day.
Another common way that feet get upset is when you ask them to do more than they’re ready for. Just like you have to build up your cardio, leg muscles, and other parts of your body when you demand more of them, your feet need to get stronger too. There are tons of tiny muscles and connective tissue that just get beat up if you increase the intensity or duration of your activity too fast. Work up to big trips slowly, regardless of your footwear choice, and your feet will thank you. This means training in terms of distance, time, and also elevation change, which is often the most punishing stat of them all.
What happens if all this preparation fails and you find that your feet are not coping with the challenge ahead? What actually causes blisters? To put it delicately, a blister is the result of too much heat on a targeted area of the body, and this heat is typically caused by friction. When rubbing in one part of your shoe continues for hours, the constant friction heats up the area, and the body responds by developing a fluid buffer over the heated area to dissipate heat because liquid conducts heat very efficiently. This rubbing often happens when your feet are wet, since that increases the friction through a variety of factors, hence the goal to keep your feet dry.
A hot spot is a sign that a blister is forming. It will be obvious in that it is red, tender, and warmer than the surrounding tissue. Air it out to cool it down and dry it out, then stick athletic tape or moleskin to cover it and provide a less abrasive surface, which will help cut down the rubbing. Drying out your feet will also help this material stick more successfully. If you missed the boat and you have a full-blown blister, should you pop it? In an ideal case, you should let a blister heal normally, but if you are still continuing the activity, the danger of the blister popping by itself in your shoe increases risk of infection. In most cases while hiking it is actually better to drain the blister yourself in a controlled environment. It is very important that you do this in a clean setting and immediately wash, disinfect, and then bandage the area to keep it from getting infected.
When you are just out for a quick stroll or a run, you likely won’t have a full medical kit with you, but it is imperative that you have the gear you need to prevent a medical situation from getting worse while on full day hikes or extended backpacking trips. A blister can kill a trip before it really starts, but having a well-stocked medkit can save a trip from disaster. A kit to handle all situations your feet may encounter should really have a few key things: moleskin, a safety pin, 2ndSkin, disinfectant, and bandages.
All your feet really ask of you is to keep them warm and dry while keeping them from overheating. If you can manage that, they’ll keep taking you to all the amazing places you want to see.