7 Ways To Eliminate Foot Pain While Hiking

#1: Carry Lightweight Backpacking Gear

This is the most obvious suggestion, but also the most important. Every step you take sends a tiny jolt through your feet that is magnified by the weight of your backpack and all your gear. Over the course of a long backpacking trip this can lead to big-time foot pain and injuries like: blisters, shin splints, heel spurs and plantar fasciitis. Reducing your gear weight means less impact on your feet and less foot pain.

Articles About Lightweight Backpacking Gear:

The “Big 3″ Backpacking Gear Items
5 Heavyweight Backpacking Gear Items You Can Replace With Ultralight Alternatives
Top 5 Backpacks For Thru-hiking and Multi-day Hikes
How To Pack A Lightweight Backpack

#2: Wear Lightweight, Breathable Shoes (That Fit)

The best shoes for lightweight backpacking are trail-runners, cross-trainers and lightweight boots. When choosing a hiking shoe look for one that is lightweight, breathable, flexible and (most importantly) fits your foot. Traditional heavy leather boots are not good footwear because they are stiff and abrasive to the feet. Buy your shoes one size larger than you would normally wear to make room for foot swelling, which can happen on longer hikes.

Popular Lightweight Hiking Shoes & Boots:

#3: Wear Socks That Provide Enough Cushion (But Not So Thick They Overheat Your Feet)

When choosing hiking socks you want a combination of cushion and breathability. Too thin and they won’t provide enough protection from abrasion and impact against your shoes. Too thick and your feet will sweat like a sauna. Most backpackers I know wear lightweight hiking socks or running socks made from merino wool (and sometimes synthetic materials like nylon, Coolmax or blends).

Popular Lightweight Hiking Socks:

#4: Replace The Cheap Insoles That Come With Your Hiking Shoes With High Quality Insoles

Unfortunately, most hiking shoes come with cheap foam insoles. They don’t provide enough arch support or shock absorption and usually end up flat as a pancake within a few hundred miles. So you’ll need to cough up another $35 or so for some high quality replacements. The good news is that aftermarket insoles typically outlast the shoes they go in, so when you replace your shoes after 800 miles you can keep on using the insoles.

Popular Hiking Insoles:

#5: Take Frequent Rest Breaks, Remove Your Shoes And Elevate Your Feet

When hiking in hot weather, uneven terrain, or over long distances your feet will probably tend to swell and throb some. This happens when blood flows to your feet in response to the microscopic injuries that occur every time you slam them into the ground. To counteract this effect I like to take frequent “shoes off, feet up” rest breaks.

The following schedule allows me to cover 20 miles in about ten hours. If I need to do more miles I just keep repeating the same pattern of hiking and resting:

2.5 miles (15 minute feet break)
2.5 miles (45 minute morning snack break)
2.5 miles (15 minute feet break)
2.5 miles (1.5 hour lunch break)
2.5 miles (15 minute feet break)
2.5 miles (45 minute afternoon snack break)
2.5 miles (15 minute feet break)
2.5 miles (dinner and camp)

I remove my shoes and socks, elevate my feet and rest them on my pack at every break. This gives them a chance to air out and for the blood to drain back into my legs and relieve any swelling. Plus it feels really good :)

#6: Clean Your Feet Often (And Dunk Them In Cold Creeks Whenever Possible)

Nothing in the world feels better on swollen, achy feet than getting dunked in a nice cold creek! The flowing water massages your tootsies, increases circulation, numbs the pain, reduces inflammation and makes everything feel good for a little while.

My dirty dogs

As an added benefit, it cleans off the abrasive grime (dirt + sweat) that tends to accumulate on your feet as an unfortunate side-effect of wearing breathable shoes with lots of mesh panels.

Too bad there is not always a good creek available. But it’s still a good idea to clean your feet frequently. When there is no convenient water source nearby I use a moistened bandana to wipe off the grime.

Keeping your feet clean and smooth and free of gunk goes a long way toward preventing hot spots and blisters because it eliminates a big source of friction between your feet and socks (dirt).

#7: Be Proactive About Fixing “Hot Spots” (Before They Develop Into Blisters)

If you follow the first six suggestions in this list: carry lightweight gear, wear good shoes, socks and insoles, take frequent rest breaks and keep your feet clean you will have eliminated most of the sources of friction that cause blisters. But sometimes they are unavoidable, and that’s when you need the “McGuyver” of hiking remedies: duct tape.

There are commercial blister bandages (like moleskin, second skin, etc.) but none of them work as well as duct tape. The beauty of duct tape is that it’s slippery on the outside and super-sticky on the inside. Apply it to a hot spot on your foot and it will stick for a long time, even with sweaty feet, while the slick outside surface glides smoothly against whatever your foot was rubbing on (reducing friction).

The key is to apply duct tape as soon as you start feeling that tell-tale tingle of a hot spot. DO NOT put it off until your next planned break. Stop, drop and tape immediately.

Despite your best efforts you may still develop a blister. Here is the best way I know to fix them: Wait until you get to camp (don’t mess with it while you still got walking to do). Run a threaded, sterilized needle through one end of the blister and out the other side, leaving the thread in place overnight. As you sleep the goop will leach out along the thread, slowly draining the blister, and in the morning it will resemble a flat, dry, hard callous.

Seal the ex-blister with Liquid Bandage and duct tape or band-aid over it. If possible, identify and eliminate the source of friction that caused the blister in the first place, so it doesn’t cause any further aggravation.

LAST RESORT: Take Ibuprofin (“Vitamin I”)

Finally, if nothing else works, you can always turn to drugs. “Vitamin I” is the pet name given to ibuprofin by hikers (because it is such a commonly used anti-inflammatory and anti-pain medicine on the trail). Drugs do not eliminate the source of the discomfort, but they can provide temporary relief by numbing the pain until you can find and fix the real problem.

Have a question about fixing foot pain, or a suggestion from your own experience? Please post your comments below…

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41 Responses to “7 Ways To Eliminate Foot Pain While Hiking”

  1. Thanks. I love your well-tested, reliable advice on equipment, health, and everything else.

  2. I’d like to point out that you have to compromise on the shoes if you are hiking in the desert. I did a four-day hike in the high desert of Southern California recently, and several times I got cactus spines stuck laterally through the sides of my shoes. Next time I’ll go with my Hi-Tec leathers, which are the lightest and most comfortable leathers I’ve found. Otherwise, I agree completely with Erik.

  3. Erik – Great advice on foot care.. I would add to wash out your socks to keep them clean as well. Not sure my wife the nurse would agree with the draining of the blister, but prevention is definitely the way to go.

  4. Be careful with “Vitamin I.” You really have to be very careful with NSAIDS, as when you are de-hydrated those drugs are hell on your kidneys and liver.

  5. Thanks for the advice Eric. I left the PCT at Walker Pass (2004) because of foot pain. In addition to blisters, I developed planar fasciitis due to, I think, heavy boots, heavy backpack, and just plain heavy. I’ve used duct tape and the needle and thread solution for blisters. Both work great. What also helps is leaving the thread in place until the area has calloused. It keeps the blister drained and reduces the risk of the blistered skin tearing off.

  6. Good stuff as always Erik!

    When I did 2,000 miles of the PCT this last year, I only got 6 blisters, and they were all fairly minor. Never had to use duct tape thankfully.

    One way I treated them was to use a clean needle, threaded with either thread or dental floss. I had thoroughly rubbed into the thread/floss some antibiotic ointment, then lanced the blister through from one side to the other. I left about 2 cm of thread on each side, and left it there overnight, sometimes through the next day. Seemed to really help, and the ointment prevented infection.

    Rawhide
    http://tr4f.wordpress.com

  7. #8 (and then you don’t need #1-7)
    Wear Chaco sandals — no pain, no hot spots, no blisters, ever. And I live in the desert. No problem. I went through the boot thing. The human foot wasn’t meant to be confined in boots. They suck. Try sandals, Erik. You’ll like ‘em. Guaranteed.

  8. A long, long time ago an outdoorsman famous for his Evererest ascent and experiential teachings suggested that I wear tennis shoes rather than heavy boots when backpacking. One step further for me now is a zero drop heel trail running shoe — that just may help with all of the common injuries that prevail in long distance hiking or ultra miles with trail running. Its important to spend time allowing the calves to adjust to a lower heel There are other factors that can relate to injury; diet, anaerobic limits, adequate sleep, stress. The suggested intervals of rest to me are a wonderul and sensible suggestion. Middle age hikers are more prone to achilles tendonitis for example and a real show stopper. A more specific exercise is to noodge ones backside right up to the base of a tree trunk, keeping the hips down and do some turns with the ankles without creating stretch. (if I may… look for the windows between the leaves, and the leaves … relax and breath … ok, too much for some … apologies. The important thing is to be supine, feet up and enjoy.) Pre-conditioning will definitely bode well for success and a happier experience. Even a blister is injury enough to drain energy. So having coverage for them is imperative even shoes are broken in. There is a lot of information available on YouTube etc. for strengthening feet. Thanks for seeing through such a long post.

  9. The schedule is great, as a newbie, it gives a clear goal to work towards.
    Thanks!

  10. excellent advice, I like all your tips. As a doctor I like your treatment of blisters, but the needle does not need to be sterile if the thread is not.
    I also recommend Dr Scholl’s pads for corns, blisters, and other hotspots, because they move the pressure away from the irritated area.

  11. Y’know, Clelland advocates Hydropel… any thoughts?

  12. I love all of the suggestions and agree 100% with them. One other thing that made a world of difference for me with foot pain: stretch often. Once I realized that some of the pain on the bottom of my feet could be solved by stretching out my calves and achilles, along with your other suggestions, I became a pain-free hiker!

  13. Elite distance hikers such as Ray J, Scott W, Eric D use thin mens nylon dress socks. If they are not thick enough wear two or three pairs. They are way cooler than merino wool.

    For the first couple weeks, when my feet are still soft, I use merino toe socks to protect my tender feet and switch to mens nylon dress socks when they get harder.

  14. Thanks for all the suggestions everyone.

    @Don Bacon: I’ve never tried hiking long distances in sandals yet but I do wear them a lot when I’m at home and on shorter walks. Do you wear socks with your sandals or go barefoot? Also, do you use bag balm or anything to keep your feet moisturized? One problem I have with sandals is my heels get really dry and cracked.

    @RodentWhisperer: I don’t have any experience with Hydropel (anti-friction ointment). Sounds like it might work well for reducing skin-to-skin contact (like toes rubbing together, thigh chafing, etc.). I don’t know how well it would work for skin to sock contact. It seems like the inside of your sock might rub it off your feet like a towel (or maybe not).

    Lollygag: Thanks for mentioning nylon dress socks. I’ve been meaning to try them for quite a while. Mainly just because dress socks are so much cheaper than hiking socks ;) One thing to point out is that those guys carry ultralight packs with a base weight usually of 10 pounds or less, so they don’t need as much cushion from a sock.

  15. Erik, excellent point about the nylon socks. My husband and I ended our PCT thru hike only 600 miles in due to his severe (debilitating) blisters. I think the problem was that we were using an ultralight hiking philosophy (a la Ray Jardine) with packs that were too heavy. Too much weight, lightweight shoes, and nylon dress socks were a combination that ended our trek.

  16. Dunking your feet often in cold water softens the calluses and skin and can contribute to blisters reforming.
    Also agree with poster about taking Vit I for every little hurt. I got ulcers from taking so much. Tylenol works fine.

  17. I recommend “testing” duct tape on your skin before going out in the field. I have had an allergic reaction to it (plus epsom salts).
    But I’m a delicate flower. ;-)

    My podiatrist hooked me up with medical adhesive to use on hot spots and then apply moleskin. I used to have awesome moleskin that stuck on me like white on rice… it was in a roll in a light blue box. (Tossed the box)

    Tried dr scholls & numerous others that don’t stay on worth a flip. I also tried something called “Blistop” by Flexitol – don’t waste your time.

    I tend to get blisters in the same spots, so proactively, I spray the adhesive, slap on the moleskin & I’m good.

    If anyone knows the brand of the awesome moleskin I can’t find, you’d be my hero/ine.

  18. @Erik
    On sandals, yes consider drying. I’m not a through hiker so while I use Vaseline at home I forego it for a week or two on the trail b/c of odor.
    I have taken to wearing toe socks on trail for some protection, reduced toe chafing and also for less dryness.
    I have weak ankles — they roll on me occasionally — but sandals w/less support haven’t been a problem.
    The improvement in comfort with sandals, again, is amazing. Say good-bye and good riddance to blisters.
    It sure simplifies fording also. Wet socks? Not a problem. Cools off the doggies real nice.
    PS: Thanks for everything you do. Used your Atlas’s on the John Muir and elsewhere on the PCT and LOVE them. We’ve hiked with (and under) non-believers (there are some) and we can’t understand their reluctance to know where the trail goes and where to camp. Why doesn’t everyone want to know those things?
    PPS: Anita and I just adopted a section of the PCT north of Kwaaymii Pt. in the Lagunas — give us a (virtual) wave on your way through while enjoying the best PCT section with our compliments.

  19. Hydropel is a wonder! I use it on my feet and inner thighs. I now hike rash free and have never had a blister from hiking. Mind you, I do not have the distinct honor of being a through hiker but more of a section hiker.
    Great topic!

  20. I just received my SeaSkinz waterproof socks which will transform my Chaco sandals into cozy dry boots if I encounter any white stuff. At least that’s the plan — no more frozen feet in snow. Source Basspro, mfr danalco.com, wt. med pair 5 oz.

  21. I took up running to control my diabetes (so far almost 8 years and no meds) I have found that Body Glide applied before every run has kept my feet blister free. Would that also work for backpacking?

  22. Hi Erik,

    I did the first 550 miles of the PCT last year and carried some baby wipes – each night I washed my feet with one and rubbed in some cream (from Norfolk Lavender in the UK). I suspect what cream isn’t very important – the massage and the softening seem to work. I didn’t have any blisters at all. I used Salomon shoes with thin under socks and bridgedale medium hiking socks over them. I had no trouble with feet getting hot.

    Thanks for all the articles.

    Robin (UK)

  23. what do you recommend to keep your fingers from drying and cracking around the fingernails?

    • @Peter Norkus: I’ve never had the problem of my fingers drying and cracking personally, but I do get some pretty bad chapped lips while hiking which I use Carmex for. I often see salves designed to fix things like cracked heels and dry skin in the drugstore which I imagine would work well. The waxy type would probably be better suited for hiking than the lotiony type. At least that is what I have found with lip balms.

    • Hello I recomend shea butter it used to be sold. In drugstores purified it is sold by ponds but does not hold up well in car. So it is rubbed all. Over nails and cuticals I worked out doors and was a hairdressor licensed IT ASLO HELPS WRIST FINGERS AND KNEES STIffiNESS it has been used for centuries in scalp and hair moisterizzzing ethnic hair products. I do not recomend buying off street or at farmers market as it is called womens gold aas famlies have guarded process passsed. From generation to generation will help you I was a med. Tech. So yes this works!

  24. I hiked 41 miles, 3 1/2 days over thanksgiving on the Florida trail. everything was great, all my needs were met, i was comfortable except for blisters on both feet. I use the Montrail Enduro Soles with the Merrell Moab Ventilator inserts. The heel of the insert created a small ridge that rubbed my heels and caused blisters. Any suggestions? Anyone?

    Steve

    • @Steve: A few things you might want to try: Make sure your feet are not slipping around inside your shoe. Blisters are usually caused by abrasion so if your heels were rubbing back and forth against the insert that could cause a blister. If your shoes are too loose you can fill up the extra area with a thicker sock (or multiple socks) or cinch the laces down tighter or maybe you might need a different size or width shoe. Another thing you can look at it is the material on the inside of your sock. A lot of the wool hiker socks have sort of a carpet-like interior lining that is sort of fluffy but also sort of tough on your feet if they aren’t toughened up already. You could try putting something more slippery like a nylon dress sock inside your regular sock and see how that treats the inside of your feet. Finally the Enduro soles might just be too hard on the top (they are more cushy than superfeet but still pretty stiff) or they may be shaped wrong for your foot. I’ve never used this feature myself, but you are supposed to be able to heat the insoles up in the microwave and then walk around in them to get them to conform to your foot. Another thing you might try (if you have enough room in your shoe) is to put a cheap soft insole (like the kind from the drug store) on top of the Montrails. The only major downside of the Merrel Moab shoes that I have found is that they have a stiff sole with not a lot of shock absoption built in so they tend to pound the bottom of your feet a bit until you get the right insole/sock combination. Oh, one more thing. When you are walking pay attention to how you put your foot down. I used to clomp around and it really beat the heck out of the bottom of my feet but then I learned to place my foot down methodically with each step and that helped a lot. Good luck!

  25. Erik, I too would like to put out a warning about Ibuprofin. Under doctor’s advice I have taken ibupropfin after heavy physical activities. Even while taking only the recommended dosage I have had serious stomach issues and had my sigmoid colon removed. Recent studies suggest it may be from long term use of over the counter anti-inflammatories.

    Thank you for your blog,
    Hoot

  26. Erik, I have a big problem with my feet sweating. I just hiked a local trail that is just a little over 5 miles. Had sock liners, smart wools, and the green super feet. I changed my socks halfway through the hike. What else can I do to keep my feet from sweating so much. By the end of the hike I needed to soak my feet in the cooler I left in my truck. My fellow hiker could not believe how wet my sock were.

    Please help.

  27. Andrew Skurka recommends Sportslick which is similar to Body Glide but it also contains an anti fungal and anti bacteria agent. It’s also cheaper. My longest continual hike has been 600 miles on the AT. I used Sportslick religiously and had zero blisters. I highly endorse the product.

  28. Erik, I have a problem with my sock bunching under my toes. Especially on my right. I have tried just about every kind of sock there is including the lightweight merino trail runners and nothing seems to help. Merrell Moab Vent shoe, Montrail Enduro soles, I even tried the toe socks but still get that bunching under the toes at the crease. Drives me CRAZY!!!! Any suggestions?

    • @Matt: It seems to me that in order for your sock to bunch up like that under your toes it would have to be gradually getting pulled down into your shoe as you walk. If you can keep your sock taught and anchored in the right place around your heel and ankle there shouldn’t be enough loose material to bunch up under the toes. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head that might help:

      1) Experiment with different height socks (ankle, quarter and calf-height) to see if one type does a better job of holding the sock in place than others. Look for socks that have a strong elastic band at the top. Maybe even try a smaller size sock.

      2) Make sure that your heel is not sliding back and forth inside your shoe. If your heel is slipping around too much it can create a ratcheting effect that will draw your sock down into the shoe with every step. Try cinching your shoe laces tighter. Maybe try another size or model of shoe with a tighter heel area.

      3) Make sure you have enough room in your toe box and that your toes are properly extended and not curling up as you walk. If your toes are curling, they could be grabbing the sock material underneath them like claws, and gradually gathering it into that area.

      4) As a last resort maybe you could devise some sort of retainer to go over your sock that will hold it in place. Something like a thin elastic ankle support, ace bandage or even a loop of duct tape wrapped around the outside of your sock above the ankle.

  29. Thanks Erik!!! You have given me food for thought. I actually just switched up a size in shoes to 14 and went to a wide to accommodate my foot. I’ve always worn a 13 but it seemed like my toes would end up jamming after a hike of 8-12 miles. I actually just lost the big toenail on my right foot after a 12 mile hike a couple of weeks ago. That’s when I switched to 14W. The Moab Ventilator accommodates the toe well now but I get the same bunching under the toes I’ve always gotten. I just got them and I’m wearing them to work trying to break them in before a hike. With my sedentary job as a jeweler, I know I’ll have an issue on the trail. I’m going to see a podiatrist and see if there’s an issue with my foot. I get a painful callous under my 4th toe where the 3rd overlaps the skin. Makes a hard edge I’ve clipped off many times but it would be nice if I could do away with the problem permanently!!!
    Thanks again!!!!

  30. Hi Erik, I am getting ready to hit the AT in a couple weeks. I have been hiking all fall and in December invested in a new pair of Vasque 2.2 Breeze gtx boots that I love. However in the last couple weeks, I noticed “stuff” between my toes, went to the doctor, and was told it is possibly athlete’s feet that could get worse if not taken care of. Through examination, we discovered the back pads of 4 toes had bloody cracks across the bottoms where there is a crevice right above the rest of the foot. The doctor recommended vinegar soaks and a prescribed ointment applied thinly twice a day. And he said not to cover the area. It’s been a long 3 days of sitting around but I need to get this cleared up. He practically recommended everything you described about breaks, etc when I start hiking again. Long story short: What do I do if these cracks aren’t healed in 2 weeks when my flight leaves? Obviously I have to wear shoes and socks, but I don’t want to make it worse. It isn’t outrageous looking now. You’d never know I had anything until you looked on the bottom of my feet and pried my toes apart to see anything. I have a size 10 1/2 left foot and a 10 right foot and these new boots are 11′s.. I am sure hoping at this stage of the game that my feet haven’t grown more and these boots are too small. But the doctor mentioned about giving my toes enough room to breathe better. Any thoughts? Thanks so much. P.S. I am female and looking for comfortable men’s boots in the next size up for me has not been easy at all.

    • @Thea: In the summertime I wear sandals most of the time (when I’m not hiking) and get deep painful cracks in the soles of my feet. I’ve found that Bag Balm does wonders. What I do is apply bag balm generously to the area 2-3 times a day and wear a nice cushy pair of socks over it all the time (even to bed) to keep the moisture in. It usually takes 3-7 days before the cracks start to heal and the pain goes away completely. It’s a little different from your doctors recommendations, but if all else fails it’s worth a shot. Good luck.

    • Hi,

      I’ve suffered from athlete’s foot for years and have been through creams and dry-sprays which just about manage the problem. Then last summer I completed the 800km Camino across Spain and used toe-socks as my liners beneath lightweight running socks and found that the problem disappeared completely. i thought it might have something to do with my twice-daily ritual of wiping my feet down with a dettol solution, and it may have, but when I got home the problem re-appeared. On a whim I tried wearing toe-socks for a week and the athlete’s foot started to clear up again. I now exclusively wear toe-socks, whether it be as liner socks for walking, or just beneath my shoes for work. No more athlete’s foot! :) Good luck.

  31. There is a pill, iconazole, taken once a week for 3-6 months that cures athlete’s foot 90%.
    Bleeding painful cracks between toes is probably fungal.

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