Foot Health for Hiking and Backpacking
Hiking and backpacking present challenges to even the healthiest and best-conditioned feet. Carrying even a small pack can create changes in your body’s center of gravity that significantly affect your gait. Therefore, you need footwear and padded socks designed specifically for these activities.
As a rule, the heavier the load you are carrying, the more support you need in your footwear. IPFH recommends that you wear only properly selected and fitted, as part of an integrated approach, padded socks with appropriate shoes or boots and any inserts or orthotics prescribed or recommended by a doctor or foot health professional. Fit can be "fine tuned" before or during a trip by using various boot and shoe lacing techniques.
Following are more specific types of hiking and the characteristics of the appropriate shoes or boots:
- Day hiking: Typically, day hikers carry relatively small packs weighing up to 10 -12 pounds. Appropriate footwear for day hiking can be lightweight, cut low or above the ankle, with relatively flexible soles and without an aggressive outer sole (by “aggressive,” we mean thick, usually with deep treads that grip nearly any surface, whether wet or dry). However, on challenging terrain— terrain that changes in type and/or elevation, rocky or wet —it makes sense to wear more supportive footwear, such as the types that are appropriate for longer hikes (below).
- Backpacking overnight or weekends: Backpackers who spend the night on the trail must carry heavier loads, including food, sleeping gear and some form of shelter. Packs may weigh 30 to 40 pounds. Your footwear for these short trips should be supportive in both the foot and ankle areas, and have a stiffer shank (the part of the sole under the midfoot area that connects the heel and the forefoot) so that flex is limited and feet are more protected from uneven trails and the increased pressure from the weight of the pack. Many people prefer low-cut hiking shoes or trail runners, but boots that support the ankles are recommended, especially if the terrain is uneven or changes substantially over the course of the hike.
- Backpacking multi-day trips (trekking): The same strategies apply here as for overnight trips, although packs may weigh more, depending on how much extra clothing and food you’re carrying, re-supply frequency, weather conditions, and the amount of time you’ll spend on the trail. Packs may weigh as much as 50 pounds, although with the advent of ultra-light backpacks (and a good re-supply plan), longer distance backpackers can limit their loads to 25 to 30 pounds. Footwear for these longer trips should provide plenty of support for the ankles and have a relatively stiff shank. Boots with primarily leather uppers are often recommended; they may need “breaking in” if you’re going to wear them for long distance trekking. To find out if your boots need to be broken in first, ask your outdoor retailer or specialty shop, or contact the manufacturer.
Sandals and minimalist footwear are now becoming popular for hiking. Whatever you wear should protect your toes, provide adequate ankle support, and protect the soles of your feet. Never hike in flip flops or open-heel footwear – this is especially dangerous in mountainous terrain where tripping and falling can be a potentially life-threatening occurrence.
If you’re new to hiking and just starting out, it is best to consult an expert at an outdoor retailer or specialty shop. These experts can assist you in analyzing your feet and your gait, and in choosing the best footwear for your foot type and the kind of hiking you plan to do. The most frequently cited foot condition for hikers is blisters. Take steps to protect yourself in advance. Click here to learn more.
Hiking, and especially backpacking, can be hard on your entire body. Before you undertake long hikes or multi-day backpacking trips, make sure that your feet, and your entire body are in trail shape. Remember that carrying even a relatively small pack changes your center of gravity and your gait, and can put increased load on your spine and muscles. See these links for information on getting in shape for hiking and backpacking:
http://www.backpacker.com/skills/fitness/how-to-get-in-shape-for-hiking/ (the Backpacker site has many articles about getting and staying in shape - search the main site or enter key words to find specific exercises and information)
Whenever you hike, be sure to practice proper foot hygiene. Being in the outdoors exposes you to a different set of potential hazards than your home environment, and you need to protect yourself from, for example, exposure to excess heat (and cold, in some cases), dirt, prickly plants, biting or stinging insects, and allergens such as poison ivy and poison oak.