How to take care of your feet while thru hiking

How to take care of your feet while thru hiking

Written by: Shilletha Curtis. Shilletha Curtis "Dragonsky" is a hiker, writer and influencer from New Jersey who is currently pursuing the Triple Crown of Hiking. She graduated from Rutgers University in 2014 but found her calling in nature. She recently completed the Appalachian Trail in 2021 and headed out to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail in April 2022. Shilletha's goals are to be the first lesbian Black woman to achieve the status with the completion of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2023. Follow Shilletha on Instagram at @i_am_dragonsky.

My feet have carried me from Georgia to Maine in a single excursion, and I have more appreciation for them ever before.

I had taken my feet for granted, until I started thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) and ended up secluded and confined to the walls of a hotel in Franklin, North Carolina for four days. My raw pinky toe had been rubbing against my poorly fitting boot, changing my gait and causing me unbearable pain. Not only that, my ankles began to swell up with fluid. 

I knew I had to listen to my body. Something was wrong and I had to address it.

Once I did, I realized the importance of taking care of my feet. Although there is no magical combination of hiking shoe/boot and sock combination that works for every person, it's important to find the right combination that works well for you.  Outside of that, I have taken things I learned from the experience of thru-hiking, speaking with a foot professional at my local outdoor store, and from trial and error to help my feet feel their best.

Here are my top tips for keeping your feet feeling great while hiking.

Elevate your legs and feet

This is a huge one, especially for those who walk around with what seems like water sloshing around in your ankles. Studies show that elevating your legs and feet reduces swelling by using gravity to your advantage. Fight the gravity, don't let it keep your legs and feet down! The rewards also include better blood circulation and relief from muscle tension. I had issues doing this on trail but found it easier to do it at night at camp when I laid down. I’d gather any extra gear and prop my feet up.

Cold Water Therapy

Rivers, creeks and ponds (without leeches!) are a hiker's best friend. At every water source I found, I would hydrate and let my tender feet soak. Water is the center of life — we need it to sustain our bodies, including our feet. Swollen and weary feet deserve some time at nature’s spa. Soak your feet as much as you can in the coldest water you can find. Natural and clean sources — meaning clear water, not water that looks like chocolate milk — is best. Just five minutes can make a difference. The refreshing frigid water will literally shock your feet back to life.

Massage or Roll-Out Your Feet

Cork balls and hands are great tools for helping your feet wind down after a long day of hiking.  As a beginning hiker, I never knew about the wonders of rolling out the bottom of my foot with a cork ball but now, we've become inseparable.  On the trail, I developed plantar fasciitis and I had two choices. One: grin and bear it by neglecting my feet. Or, a much better choice:  roll out and massage my feet every day. At first it was a nuisance but then I got into a routine of rolling my feet for at least two minutes on each foot. Thirty seconds does the job but I liked to really work my sore tendons out. It helps tremendously with foot pain and inflammation.

Take Breaks

I have always been a huge advocate of taking days off from a thru-hike to let my feet heal. I always double-zero on the AT because I knew one day would not be sufficient for my feet. On those days, especially if I am at a hostel, I will take a sitz foot bath, then ice my feet while staying  off of them as much as possible. Taking breaks also applies to the days I am hiking. It is so easy to get into a habit of wanting to be efficient and doing big miles but just remember that when you take a loan from the bank, you have to pay it back. I usually take three breaks a day, pull off my shoes and socks and sit for about twenty minutes. The constant contact of foot to ground takes its toll and breaks are always appreciated.

Feet are critical to hiking and demand our respect and tenderness. The key to preventing foot injuries is to make them a priority in the first place. Knowing how to take care of them before a hike can make the difference between a lovely trip or a miserable one that costs you pain, suffering or even worse — your whole hike. Before I thru-hiked the AT, I did copious amounts of research on gear, weather and resupply but didn't learn about how to take care of my feet.

I learned the hard way and turned my pain into power. Everyday I embrace my feet and I thank them for carrying me. Whether it's to the grocery store or across the country, my feet deserve it, and so do yours.

June 10, 2022