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How Hikers Can Avoid Blisters and Other Foot Problems

Although I do not work in the medical field, I feel as if I am at least somewhat qualified to write a basic article on foot care.

By: Thomas Johnson + Save to a List

Hiking is an activity that requires extensive use of the feet. We rely on them to carry us safely to the end of the trail. If a serious foot problem develops while on the trail it can dramatically affect the speed of travel and possibly even make travel impossible. Because the job our feet perform is so important, it is necessary to make sure they stay in good shape.

Although I do not work in the medical field, I feel as if I am at least somewhat qualified to write a basic article on foot care. This is because I have experienced and observed several common foot problems over the years including blisters, ingrown toenails, and twisted ankles.


Blisters are probably the most common foot problem that affects hikers. They usually start off as hot spots on the feet caused by rubbing of the foot against the footwear or the seam of a sock. If these hot spots are taken care of quickly by adjusting the seam of the sock or applying moleskin they may not get any worse. However, if the hot spots are not cared for they will likely evolve into painful blisters that will make every step feel like you are walking on broken glass. That makes it very hard to maintain a decent pace and keep up with the other hikers in a group (unless they all have blisters, too).

I find that most hikers don’t check their feet very often even if they feel a hot spot forming. I think this is mainly because removing boots and socks can be kind of a hassle and it is human nature to think that a problem will go away if is ignored. Unfortunately, hot spots don’t go away and only get worse the more you walk on them. I have been a victim of this optimistic mentality myself, pulling my boots off at the end of the day to find painful blisters that probably could have been prevented.

When I end up with an unbroken blister and it is very painful I usually cut it open to drain it, apply triple antibiotic ointment, and affix a bandage. Some people say you should not cut them open as they could become infected, but that may not be practical when you have to walk another two or three days over rugged terrain to get to your car. It seems to me that once you puncture and drain them, the pain becomes less intense. If you are going to be cutting into yourself with your pocket knife it is probably a good idea to sanitize the blade as best you can. Alcohol pads in a first aid kit can come in handy for this.

Ingrown Toenails

Another foot problem that can be very painful is an ingrown toenail. The pain is caused by the toenail growing into the foot. This can happen if the toenail if improperly cut on the corners, shoes fit are too tight, or the toenail is shattered into pieces (possibly from dropping a heavy object onto the foot). As the toenail is growing back it enters into the flesh of the foot causing great agony.

When I was attending the infantry course for the National Guard in Yakima, Washington a guy with a bunk close to mine was suffering from a very badly ingrown toenail. He had tried to remove a portion of the toenail with his pocket knife but only made things worse as it became infected. A day or two later he could barely walk and hobbled around the barracks in a great deal of pain. His toe was red, swollen and looked absolutely terrible. He was in so much pain he refused to put his boot on and had to be helped out the door to see a doctor.

Twisted Ankles

Twisting an ankle in the middle of a remote area could cause loss of mobility and put a hiker in a dangerous situation. This is especially true if he or she is alone and without a way to communicate with the outside world. I always recommend hiking with a friend or two. Not only is it nice to have someone to talk to, but that friend may be needed to go find help in an emergency. If one of the hikers is immobilized another other person can do things like prepare food for the injured and keep wild animals at bay until help arrives.

A good way to help avoid twisting an ankle is to wear over the ankle boots that provide plenty of ankle support. Stepping carefully and not being in a rush can also help. In rocky areas I have used a hiking staff to help maintain my balance and plant my feet surely. If your foot gets caught between two rocks and you fall over, there is a good possibility that an ankle injury will be the result.

Many years ago I was attending a mountaineering and rappelling course on Cheju-Do Island in South Korea. At the end of the course the students were separated into teams and competed to finish a course consisting of various rock climbs, rappels, and building/traversing a rope bridge. As my team was traveling across a rocky area near the beach one of our team members twisted his ankle and we had to carry him through a good portion of the course. He was unable to put any weight on his ankle and was effectively immobilized. Luckily we eventually made contact with a member of the course cadre and once the injured man was evacuated we were able to finish the course (albeit in last place).

Cover photo: Kevin Kaminski

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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