You limp into camp for the night, collapse on a rock and rip off your boots. Your feet, which have been screaming for the last two hours, are all but dead as you pushed through the pain to meet your mileage. Removing your socks, your fear is confirmed - blisters. And not just any blisters - these mammoth blisters would eat your past blisters for breakfast. You look around camp, then back at your feet, "How in the world am I going to walk on these things again tomorrow?" Where did you go wrong? And, how can you better care for your feet as a thru-hiker (Or as any hiker for that matter)? Proper foot care is vital for any backpacking. Those things at the end of your ankles happen to be your solo form of transportation. So lets set them up for success. We talked with Isabelle Eastham, Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker class of 2016 and PCT bound in June '17, about choosing the right socks, shoes, avoiding trench foot, hot spots and how to care for blister.
This is a three-part series based on a Q&A we had with an experienced thru-hiker. She gives us advice on how best to prepare for the trail. Stay tuned as we cover a few backpacking essentials like foot care, bug management, and what to have in your first aid kit.
Choosing The Best Shoes for a Thru-Hike
Nothing's worse than spending a few hundred dollars on a pair of hiking boots only to find yourself, a week into your trek, sitting on the edge of an overlook, contemplating chucking the wretched things over the side. Everyone has a different walk, so this advice must be taken with a grain of salt as you embark on your own researching to find what might be best for you. And, that's exactly what you need to do, find the shoes that are best for you.
One of Isabelle's greatest suggestions is to make sure your shoes let your feet breath! Whether you like the idea or not, your feet will be sweating. And that moisture needs an escape route. Perpetually wet boots will put you well on your way to trench foot. And, NOBODY likes trench foot.
Isabelle's shoe of choice is ALTRA's trail running shoe. On first look, she admits, these shoes aren't extremely appealing. They give off a major platypus vibe. Which, is actually a strategic part of the shoe's design. Not only do these shoes allow your feet to breath, minimizing hot spots, but also, the wide shoe allows your toes to spread out which maximizes balance and comfort. Isabelle gave us her review of Altra's womens trail running shoe and shared that the lack of support, around the ankle, is compromised by the wide sole. The ability to engage every part of her foot, in these shoes, helps keep the ankles from rolling.
Choosing The Best Socks for a Thru-Hike
The right socks might be as equally important as the right shoes for long hikes or backpacking excursions. At least, when considering blisters and hot spot prevention. Having the wrong socks will cause points of friction, where your foot continuously rubs, causing hot spots and eventually blisters.
Isabelle's sock brand of choice is Darn Tough. There are many reasons these socks are great. One, for their lifetime warranty and two, because they work with your foot instead of against it. Another tip, Isabelle mentioned, was to find toe socks designed specifically for hiking (make sure they are actually hiking toe socks - not just a funky pair from your middle school days). She noted that she really began to experience blistering, toward the end of her thru-hike, between her toes. Toe socks help solve this problem by putting some cushion between the rubbing skin.
We also collected two other great tips, from Isabelle, on how to avoid blisters and how to heal blisters while on trail. First off, beyond just having the right shoes and socks, avoiding blisters during a long hike can also be done by making sure to keep everything the same temperature. Everything meaning your feet, socks and shoes. If you plan to get in, step in, or swim in water - LEAVE YOUR SOCKS AND SHOES ON. At least, that is, if you plan to continue hiking immediately after. Also, this is another reason to make sure you have shoes that allow your feet to breath and dry.
Blister care tip number two, from our lovely thru-hiker, is on how to heal hiking blisters while on the trail. Isabelle learned this trick while on the AT and says she swears by it. In her First-Aid kit, you'll find a small needle and thread. To heal a blister, she sanitizes the blister spot and sterilizes the needle in the fire. Then, making there is thread on the needle, the needle is run through the blister and out the other side, leaving the thread inside the blister. The needle is cut off and the thread is left overnight. In the morning, new skin has formed as the thread and small hole has allowed the liquid to drain and skin to re-attach. Strange? Maybe. But you might just be glad to have that one in your back pocket.