Hiking isn’t much fun when you have sore feet. There are so many different things that can cause sore feet out on the trail.
We pulled together all the different solutions we’ve tried or seen work over the years so you hopefully don’t have to suffer through sore feet on a hike again.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. If something hurts a lot go see a doctor.
Buy good boots
Buying good boots and shoes that fit well will prevent a lot of problems down the road, err, trail.
How do you buy good boots you might ask?
Spend a lot of time in them when you’re buying. There is no magic pair of boots that will be perfect for everyone, but there is a perfect pair for your feet out there somewhere. Wear them in the store when you buy them and in the house. Most stores will take back boots that haven’t been worn outside no problem.
Test test test. If you have any issues whatsoever that can’t be sorted with different insoles or lacing, take them back and try others.
Make sure the boots have enough room for your toes to spread out, your heel doesn’t slip up and down on inclines or stairs and your toes don’t hit the end going downhill.
See our guide to buying hiking boots for more details.
Also take care of your boots. Keep them clean. Condition the uppers if they are leather. Re-waterproof them every year. Don’t dry them near hot items. Store them in stable temperatures. Take care of your boots and they’ll take care of you.
Pick the right boots
Wait we just bought the right boots, right?
Yes, but this part is picking the right boots for the trip. Don’t wear bigger boots than you have to. In fact don’t wear boots at all if you can.
Trail runners and hiking shoes are lighter and more flexible than hiking boots. Your legs will have to lift less and won’t get tired as quickly. They tend to be mesh and very breathable.
Don’t hike 20 km in trail runners with 40 pounds on your back the first day. You’ll have to work up to that and break in your feet too, but you’ll get there.
Waterproof boots are good for wet weather, cold and snowy conditions. For the rest try to wear lighter weight shoes and your feet will thank you.
Break in your boots
Most hiking boots need to be broken in. Start at home wearing them around the house. Make sure you are going to keep them.
Get out on errands around town or working. Then upgrade to short hikes on the trails and work up from there. Never make big jumps in mileage or weight on your back. Lighter, more flexible boots will be easier to break in. Larger leather boots will take the longest.
For the steps we recommend to break in your boots see our guide to breaking in hiking boots.
Break in your feet
Along with breaking in your boots, you’ll need to break in your feet. They might be used to sitting on the couch and walking around work, not being thrashed through the woods for 20 km.
Just like if you working up to lifting 200 pounds at the gym, start small and work up. Every time you go out walk a bit longer or carry a bit more weight.
Walking outside barefoot also helps toughen up your feet. Running around on the beach will thicken the skin and strengthen your foot muscles.
Stretch feet and legs
Muscles can get stiff and tight as you hike. They get tighter, pull on parts of your legs and feet in the wrong way, resulting in pain.
Here are a few stretches you can do on the trail, on breaks or at camp, to loosen up those tight muscles.
Heel raises – Stand with your toes on a raised surface like a stair, tent pad, or rock, holding something for balance. Lift up on your toes and raise your heels higher than what you’re standing on. Now slowly drop your heels down going lower than your toes until you feel a stretch.
Ball roll – Bring a golf, lacrosse or cork ball with you (cork is lightest). At camp or on breaks put your foot on the ball and roll it around, massaging your feet. Focus on tighter spots and gradually push harder. Breathe deeply as you work into the tight spots.
Ankle circles – With your toes on the ground and your heel in the air, slowly move your ankle in a clockwise direction starting with smaller circles and expanding to larger ones. Switch directions and then switch feet.
Calf stretch – Standing with both feet together facing forward, step one foot forward. Keep both heels on the ground and push your hips forward slightly. You should feel a bit of a stretch in the calf muscle of the back foot. I find it easier to lean on something like a tree.
Thera-band stretch – Sit with your feet out in front of you. Wrap a t-shirt, towel or Thera-band (large elastic band for working out) around the balls and toes on one foot. Pull back slightly. This will stretch the calf of that foot.
Any weight training you can do that works your feet, ankles and legs will pay off in spades hiking. Hiking a lot is also one way to work out those legs!
The insoles that come with your boots are likely thin with low support. Aftermarket insoles like SOLE and Superfeet have stronger arch support. If your feet don’t take up all the vertical space in your boots, you can use insoles to take up that room so your feet slip around less.
When shopping for insoles match up the height of the arch support with your foot. If you have a low arch, you won’t need much support. Also match the thickness of your insole. If your boot is already a good volume (the space inside) for your foot, then you’ll just need a thin one.
Hotspots and Blisters
Hotspots are small irritations on your skin when something rubs. It can be a bit of dirt, tight spot on your boot, a sock wrinkle, your heel sliding up and down or toes rubbing together. Hotspots can lead to blisters if they aren’t dealt with.
Always stop immediately if there is something irritating your feet. Your hiking buddies may not want to stop but better to address a small issue now, than have to deal with a larger issue later.
Common solutions for hotspots are taping up with medical tape, Leukotape, or moleskin. Duct tape can even work if you don’t have anything else. Anything to take the friction instead of your skin. Lubricating with a Runner’s Glide or HikeGoo can work well. Some people swear by a foot powder to soak up the moisture. Careful with how much you use as it can clump and cause problems.
If you know you get hotspots in some places after a certain distance you might want to pre-tape. A particularly long day on the trail might require taping before anything is even a problem. Changing socks can help clean out dirt and dust, and put a fresh dry sock back on your skin.
See our guide on preventing and treating blisters for more about how not to get hotspots and blisters.
Clean and chill feet
Dirty feet can cause hotspots and blisters. Hot feet can be swollen and irritated. Dunking those feet in a cold stream or lake is one of the best parts of hiking.
Give those feet a scrub if you can. Get all the dirt and grime off. If you are going to use soap, make sure it’s away from the water source itself and the soap is biodegradable. Please don’t dump soap into a water source.
Water bladders full of cold water also feel good if you’re a distance away from the water. And make sure those feet are nice and dry before hiking again.
Good socks, changed regularly
Try not to hike in cotton socks. They absorb water and keep it against your skin which is not what we want. Synthetic or merino wool is best. I prefer merino as it wicks well and smells less.
Keep the socks as thin as possible. Thinner socks are cooler and more breathable, leading to less sweat and less hotspots and blisters.
Rotating through 2 pairs of socks works great. If I can spare the weight I like to wear one pair in the morning, change into another pair for the afternoon and a third in camp. Try and keep the camp pair is dry for sleeping if it’s cold (although I hate sleeping in socks).
Keep the socks as clean. Wash them if you can. Gaiters help keep the stuff out.
If you often run into issues with blisters on toes, try to switch to footwear with a wider toe box that doesn’t squish your toes together, and try toe socks. Toe socks have a spot for each toe like a glove and take the friction instead of your skin.
Air out your feet
Even with the best ventilation, moisture can accumulate in your boots and shoes. If your boots have a waterproof membrane, it’s actually trapping moisture inside. That moisture can lead to blisters.
Any time you stop for lunch or camp, air out those feet. Pull off your boot and socks, even the insoles in your boots, and let everything dry out. Prevents blisters and feels great too.
Mesh boots or trail runners offer better ventilation than waterproof ones, so choose mesh whenever you can. Your feet will be drier with less irritation.
Elevate your legs
Putting your legs up can improve circulation and reduce swelling. When you’re on a break or in camp get them up higher than your heart by laying on the ground or in a hammock.
Massage your feet
Giving your feet a good ol’ massage feels great and will probably have you walking better the next day too. With just 30 seconds of massage, you can reduce foot pain and inflammation and reduce chances of plantar fasciitis. I’m not saying it’s going to get rid of it all but it will certainly help.
You can just use your hands to massage or a ball like a lacrosse or cork ball. Cork balls are lighter.
To massage with a cork ball, set the ball on the ground and put your foot on it, either sitting or standing. Roll it around, pressing into your foot, looking for tight places in your foot.
Another good option is a toe massage.
Toe massage: Interlace toes and fingers and flex back and forth. Do 10 times on each foot. (good one from Bearfoottheory.com)
If your toenails are sharp or long, it’s going to cause problems. They can dig into toes next to them and cut or cause blisters. If they’re too long out the front and your boots are too short, they’ll bang against the end resulting in black or lifting toenails.
More weight is harder on your feet. The lighter your boots, shoes and pack are the better. Start by leaving anything unnecessary at home. Stay safe and take essentials and safety gear but try to travel light. If you’re hungry for new gear, lighten up what you currently carry.
Sometimes just lacing different can make a difference with how your feet feel.
Heel lock lacing can keep your heel in place.
Surgeon’s knots let you lace the bottom a different tightness from the top.
Window lacing runs laces around sore spots on the top of your feet.
See our guide to lacing your boots for more ideas on how to make your feet happy.
Plantar Fasciitis sucks. It’s painful. Walking is hard.
There’s a fascia that runs along the bottom of your foot, connecting your toes to your heel along the arch of your foot. When that fascia is inflamed every step can feel like your heel is on fire. If you think you have this, check with your doctor on what to do with it. Stretching and ice usually helps me.
To help prevent it we can do a few things.
Good boots with good insoles will let you feet move like they should while getting support underneath in the arch area. Aftermarket insoles will help support your arch better than the thin ones that come in most boots, especially if you have high arches.
Work up from low distances and weight. Starting at 20km with 40 pounds on your back will kill your feet (not to mention the rest of you). Start small and work up, increasing a bit of distance and weight at the same time. This is part of breaking in your feet.
See the stretching and rolling sections above. Take care of your feet. Stretch and roll before, on and after the trail.
Do you have any go to methods for keeping your feet happy and healthy? We’d love to hear them in the comments below for everyone else to try.
Very helpful and simple tips. Fabulous post!
Great ideas. I’m particularly interested in the comment about weight training involving feet/ankles/legs if you could elaborate on that, since there’s so many different exercises that are possible. Are there any in particular you’d recommend?