Protecting your feet is crucial when hiking. They take the full impact of every stride, and nothing will ruin your hike faster than sore or blistered feet. That said, you should know that there are ways to toughen your feet that will allow you to hike miles upon miles without worry of blisters.
7 tips to toughen up your feet for hiking are:
- Go barefoot
- Walk on uneven surfaces
- Try trail running
- Carry a backpack
- Do foot exercises
- Apply rubbing alcohol
- Wear sandals
Toughening up your feet can reap big rewards on hikes of any distance, helping prevent the dreaded blisters. Below, we will look at what causes hiking blisters, tips on how to toughen up your feet and how long this can take, as well as how to prevent sore feet while hiking.
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Why Do You Need To Have Tough Feet For Hiking?
You need to have tough feet for hiking because they are the part of your body constantly coming into contact with the trails, which are often hard and rugged. If your feet are not tough enough to tolerate the demands of hiking, you will experience blisters, soreness, and other discomfort.
The softer the skin on your feet, the quicker the abrasive nature of hiking will take a toll. The tougher your feet are, the more they can cope with the rigors and stresses of hiking. Ensuring you are wearing correctly fitted hiking boots with comfortable hiking socks is one measure you can take to help prevent your feet from becoming sore during a hike.
By gradually toughening your feet you can protect them from some of the common issues that affect hikers. The primary issue hikers face here is blisters. Developing blisters is a sure-fire way to ruin a good hike and can even lead to infection if the skin were to burst. Luckily, there are several ways to reduce or eliminate the risk of blisters from your hiking experience.
What Causes Hiking Blisters?
Friction causes hiking blisters. When your hiking boots and socks rub against your feet, it causes the skin to move. This causes the thick, top layers of skin to move more than the layers beneath, resulting in the separation of the layers. The gap is filled with fluid, creating the raised blister.
A blister is our body’s way of protecting damaged skin to help it heal. Though the body has good intentions, these blisters are uncomfortable and become increasingly painful as you continue to walk on your hike.
The main causes of friction that can result in blisters are:
- Ill-fitting hiking boots or hiking shoes
- New footwear that has not been sufficiently broken in
- Wet feet
- Inappropriate socks for hiking
- Excess heat due to footwear and socks with poor ventilation
- Feet that are dirty
- Feet that have not been toughened up
Should You Burst A Blister?
You should not burst a blister, and instead you should try to protect it. When hiking you cannot easily control the outcome once you have burst it. Opening the blister exposes the wound to bacteria and increases the risk of infection, which could be a dangerous situation when you are out hiking.
Popping a blister should be a last resort when hiking, as it is extremely difficult to keep the fresh wound clean while in the great outdoors. You may not even have clean socks to put back on over the blister once popped, further increasing risk of infection.
You should only consider popping blisters at the end of your hike and in conditions where you can keep it clean. Even then, if you can leave a blister to heal naturally, it is best to do so. Blisters usually heal after a few days once a hike is over. Therefore, protecting the skin with a plaster or a bandage can be the best way to go.
What Are Calluses?
Calluses are hardened patches of skin that can be found on the soles of feet. They form over time due to friction, much like how a blister forms, and act as a protective layer. They are beneficial as they toughen skin that may have previously been vulnerable to friction and blistering.
Going way back in time, calluses would have been our ancestors’ main line of defense in protecting their feet while walking barefoot for many centuries before shoes were developed. Calluses protect against abrasion, uneven ground, and hot and cold temperatures.
So, developing calluses is one way for hikers to protect their feet against blisters. Though they are not pretty, they should not be shaved off as they are the skin’s line of defense against friction. They are formed from layers of thick, hardened skin and have less feeling than softer skin on the sole of the foot. This means you won’t feel pain from calluses like you would with a blister.
Once calluses form, you should see less blisters in that area of the foot and possibly none. They might not look particularly attractive or feel nice to the touch, but they play a key role in helping to toughen up your feet and minimize future blisters when hiking.
How Long Does It Take To Toughen Your Feet?
How long it takes to toughen your feet depends on how often you are hiking and how many miles you are covering. Calluses, which offer natural protection from blisters, can start to form in as little as 2 to 4 weeks. The more you hike, the sooner calluses will form.
How quickly calluses form can also depend on an individual’s foot structure, as some areas of the foot may not see as much friction or strike the ground in a manner that is consistent enough to form a callous. Generally though, the more activity you do and the more time you spend on your feet, the quicker calluses form and the sooner you will toughen your feet for hiking.
7 Tips To Toughen Up Your Feet For Hiking
1. Go Barefoot
Before the days of shoes, walking barefoot was the only option. This helped our ancestors develop the calluses required to better protect their feet from the environment and the weather. Ultimately, walking barefoot is the most natural way of toughening your feet for hiking.
If you are not used to walking barefoot you can start by going barefoot around the house. When you have more confidence, you can then try walking barefoot outside for 10 to 15 minutes on a hard surface such as a tarmac footpath. You should gradually increase the time you spend walking outdoors barefoot.
Walking barefoot on an abrasive surface should start to form the calluses that will offer extra protection from blisters. Over time you should find your feet are less sensitive to the surface you are walking on, a good sign your feet are starting to toughen up.
2. Walk On Uneven Surfaces
Whether barefoot or not, walking on different surfaces and uneven terrain will help strengthen and toughen your feet. When you are hiking you are rarely walking over completely flat, smooth trails. Instead, you will most likely be walking on uneven surfaces and across rocky terrain.
If you stick to walking on smooth surfaces like tarmac, the parts of the feet that come in to contact with the terrain and rocks on more uneven surfaces won’t be tough enough. By walking on various surfaces and terrain, you can ensure all areas of the foot are equally toughened and ready for hiking.
Local trails and parks are good places to find the varying surfaces that can help toughen up your feet. If you can also go barefoot then this is a good opportunity to apply two of these tips in one hit. Combining both tips may lead to calluses forming faster.
3. Try Trail Running
If you are a keen runner or are considering running as part of an overall fitness plan, then look to head out to the trails rather than sticking to the road. Running on the road can help toughen up your feet, but just as walking only on hard, flat footpaths, you would be limiting the areas of the feet you toughen.
Running on trails causes your feet to develop toleration for twists and turns on uneven surfaces. This replicates the underfoot conditions you can expect when hiking. With the uneven surface, more areas of your feet will come into contact with the ground, resulting in toughening the entire foot evenly.
If you are not keen on running trails alone, try and entice a friend or family member of a similar fitness level to join the run. If you do not know anyone who runs, joining a running club can be a great way of hitting the trails with like-minded people. This makes running more social, likely making it more pleasurable too.
4. Carry A Backpack
Carrying a backpack can help toughen your feet, even on very short hikes. If you are new to hiking completely, then you should walk without a backpack first and add a lightweight backpack later. You can then gradually build up the weight you are carrying until it reaches a weight close to what you expect to carry when hiking.
The additional weight can help speed the process of toughening your feet and gives you a chance to adjust to carrying loaded backpacks prior to longer hiking trips. Make sure the weight changes during this process are gradual, as going from no additional weight directly to a heavy load on your back could result in blisters rather than toughening.
5. Do Foot Exercises
Foot exercises are a good way to strengthen and tone the muscles in and around the bottom of your feet. Examples of such exercises include:
- Heel raises, raising your heels as high as you can while keeping the toes on the ground
- Rolling your foot over a round object, like a tennis ball or even a wine bottle
- Using your toes to grab a towel and pull it toward your foot
- Curling your toes against the ground without a towel
Different people will benefit more from different foot exercises as the structure of people’s feet varies. However, finding the exercises that work best for you will help toughen up your feet for hiking.
6. Apply Rubbing Alcohol
Applying rubbing alcohol to the soles of the feet has long been used by both amateur and professional athletes to toughen up their feet. Also known as surgical spirits, rubbing alcohol is usually applied a few times a week for up to four weeks to gain the desired effect.
The goal of using rubbing alcohol is to dry the skin and make it harder. Although, you want to ensure your feet don’t become so dry that they crack and become painful. Rubbing alcohol can be applied using a sponge or a cotton swab.
A substitute for rubbing alcohol is strong tea, which contains tannins. Endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, are among those known to use strongly brewed tea to toughen their feet. They soak their feet in tea brewed with around four tea bags, having obviously waited for the brew to cool down some first!
7. Wear Sandals
Sandals are a good alternative when going barefoot is not a practical option, like when the ground is rugged or strewn with rocks and stones. Walking or hiking, where appropriate, in thin sandals will help harden your feet, as well as letting you adjust to walking with your feet more exposed to the surface below.
Therefore, wearing sandals can be a good way to transition to barefoot walking. Sandals can help your feet adapt to walking without socks and with minimal padding, making it a more comfortable experience when you eventually transition to barefoot walking.
How To Prevent Getting Sore Feet When Hiking
You do not have to be doomed with sore feet after a long hike, as there are preventative measures that you can take. Just as there are several methods for preventing blisters, there are many ways you can prepare to avoid having sore feet after hiking.
Wear The Right Hiking Boots Or Hiking Shoes
An ill-fitting pair of hiking boots or footwear that is not designed for hiking trails are likely to leave you suffering from sore feet. Instead of settling on an old pair of trainers you have at home, your feet will thank you if you invest in a pair of quality hiking boots or hiking shoes. Specialist hiking footwear is designed to tolerate the rigors of uneven and rocky trails.
Try your hiking boots or hiking shoes on before purchasing to ensure they feel comfortable. If you are buying in-store, have a walk around to make sure they are snug but not too tight. If the footwear cramps the toes or pinches on the foot, look for a better fitting pair. Wear the socks you expect to hike in when trying on hiking footwear.
If you plan to hike only in summer then you may want to opt for more lightweight, breathable footwear. In more severe weather, you may want to invest in more heavy duty, durable and waterproof boots. Whatever type of footwear you buy, ensure they have good grip. Talking to a hiking expert at a specialist store can help you buy the right footwear for your type of hiking.
Always Break In Your New Hiking Boots
To avoid sore and painful feet, resist the temptation to head straight out to the trails in your newly bought hiking boots. This may be easier said than done but hiking in new boots can be a painful experience. Hiking boots made from heavy duty leather tend to be stiffer than hiking shoes, but you will need to break in any new pair, regardless of type or material.
It is best to break in new hiking boots gradually, wearing them for short leisure trips and errands first, and then wearing them on shorter hikes. Build up the distance of your hikes gradually while breaking in new boots. Even comfortable fitting boots can make your feet sore after too many miles, so it is best not to try a long-distance hike immediately without a gradual buildup of mileage.
Wear Thin Socks
Wearing thinner socks can reduce the amount of sweat on the soles of your feet. When you sweat the moisture retained in the sock and hiking boot can increase friction. As we mentioned previously, when there is friction, it can lead to blisters and sore feet.
Of course, when you are hiking in winter conditions you will likely need to wear a pair of thicker socks. Although the cooler temperatures should mean you sweat less, everyone is different. Some hikers wear a thinner, moisture-wicking inner sock underneath the thicker sock to reduce the rubbing caused by sweat.
With the two-sock approach the idea is that the inner sock wicks sweat away from the foot, while the thicker, outer sock protects against any external moisture. Wool is usually a good insulating fabric for the thicker second sock, whereas you should avoid cotton as it is highly absorptive of water.
Air Your Feet Whenever You Can
Keeping your feet as dry as possible is another way to avoid sore feet and keep them blister free. Moisture increases the likelihood of rubbing that can soon irritate your feet. If you are camping out, try to go barefoot around the camp to help dry your feet as well as giving time to air out your socks and hiking boots.
If your boots are damp inside, you can pack them with dry leaves to try and absorb the moisture. Be careful when drying boots if you have built a fire while camping, as placing boots too close to the fire could damage the material. Instead, walk away from the fire until you can no longer feel its heat. Gradually step back toward the fire until you feel its warmth and place your boots there.
Ideally, you want to take off your shoes and socks during any break you take when hiking, even during short, 10-minute rest breaks. Any time spent airing your feet, as well as your socks and hiking boots, will help reduce the chance of moisture-induced rubbing of the feet.
Putting yourself through a hike that is above your skill level is certain to leave you with sore feet. Like all endurance pursuits, hiking requires a gradual build-up of mileage and difficulty to complete a more challenging hiking distance successfully.
Extra miles usually mean extra backpack weight due to additional supplies, another element that places more strain on the feet. It is better for overall safety, as well as better for your feet, to set realistic hiking goals where you gradually build your endurance and the toughness of your feet to tolerate more challenging hikes.
Pack Extra Socks
Foot health is so important for successful hiking. Therefore, you should do all you can to ensure your feet are in the best condition possible. Packing at least one extra pair of socks will help you keep your feet drier, as well as prevent any dirt or debris that has accumulated from rubbing against your skin.
You should still be airing out your socks at every available opportunity and a change of socks allows you to air the previously worn pair while you hike by attaching them to your backpack. This also saves space for other essentials within the backpack.
If you are on a multi-day hike you may decide to take more than one spare pair of socks. However, it is very unlikely you will take a pair for each day of your trip to ensure you keep your pack as light as possible. Camping near a freshwater source will give you a good opportunity to rinse a pair of socks and dry them out before their next wear.
By toughening up your feet for hiking, you can prevent the dreaded blisters. You toughen your feet by forming calluses, which are hardened patches of skin. There are many ways to do this, including walking barefoot, walking on uneven surfaces, running on trails, and completing various foot exercises. You should also wear the right footwear and keep your feet dry to prevent soreness when hiking.