A Thru-Hikers Story About Bad Feet

May 28, 2016 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: blister care, Foot Care, Footcare, Health 

Today’s post is a thru-hiker’s story about her experiences with her feet. It’s one that make you grimace when you hear the details and see the pictures. I share the story because there are lessons to be learned. Here’s her story.

“This past April, I started the Pacific Crest Trail intending to thru-hike northern-bound to the Oregon/Washington border. I’m an experienced long distance thru-hiker and frequently hike 20-25 miles without issue.

Taped feet with gauze and white athletic tape.

Taped feet with gauze and white athletic tape.

“Rarely do I get blisters, and I have no calluses. The day I started at Campo, California, I hiked a 20-mile day and was shocked to find my toe pads laden with deep blisters at the end of the day and a couple smaller surface blisters on my little toes. This is how the trip started! I did my best triage but wasn’t very familiar with how to treat such ailments, and so continued hiking.

“By the time I’d reached mile 350 on the trail, my feet were an absolute mess. Blisters had become wounds, wounds became infected, toenails were falling off and each foot was severely compromised. At one point I sat on the edge of the trail so frustrated I was in tears! What was wrong with my feet?

Healing left foot

Healing left foot

“Only after my feet got good and angry did I switch to a larger size shoe in hopes of accompanying the swelling. I think one of my mistakes early on was that I used gauze and Neosporin along with athletic tape and made mummies of the feet. Add to this 90-degree heat through the desert and my feet looked like big balloons, which barely fit in shoes. They were so painful that one day while walking, I took my socks off to give my feet more room. That caused heel blisters. But aside from cutting the sides out of my shoes, I had no other choice. I was in a remote area hardly able to walk despite taking NSAIDS.

Healing right foot

Healing right foot

“After I hit Big Bear Lake, I rested for 4.5 days in hopes of curing my issues. When I set back out on the trail I switched to Altra Olympus 2.0, in a half size larger than normal (for swelling issues) since they offered more cushion. I hiked for two days, but my feet were not healed all the way and I suffered terribly during that timeframe. Blisters popped up in places they’d never been, likely because my gait was compromised and I was still in pain. I was finally able to hobble down to a highway and hitchhike to a town where I put on flip-flops, rented a car and flew home.

“I’d never had these issues before in all my years of long treks. When I got home, I started researching foot care online and came across your book, which I downloaded. I read it cover to cover and feel it’s the part of the puzzle that I never knew I needed and also, the solution moving forward. I’m following your advice with the tapes and have been practicing with bandaging as you suggest, including the betadine prep and a dab of zinc oxide on the new recovering skin. I also purchased some powders and lubes and will take the whole shooting match with me when I get back out on the trail.

“I’m also trying Injinji liners to see if that helps, although my feet aren’t particularly sweaty. I believe that the deep blisters in my toe pads were due to the heavy water weight I had to carry through the desert, which was different than how I trained since I underestimated how much water I’d need in such a harsh environment. I did wear trail gaiters, but my shoes were Altra Lone Peak 2.5’s and they allowed dirt to come in. There was a lot of abrasive mica in the desert soils and it’s hard to keep feet clean with little water available. I used wet wipes but it was still hard to get the grit out. My pack’s base weight is very low at 14 pounds, so I’m doing everything I can to keep the pack as light as possible and have lots of experience with backpacking. Nothing else hurts – no hip, knee or ankle pain – just these silly feet.

“I did not make any changes to my shoe or sock choices before starting. I used the same combination I’ve used for years without problems. Things I did not do which I probably should have: take more breaks, start out slower and not push huge days, wipe my feet off several times a day with wet wipes, change socks more frequently, stop more for hot spots, listen to my body, and take preventative measures to not get blisters.”

I initially asked the thru-hiker my usual questions. Did you change footwear, socks, conditioning, etc? Were you wearing good socks? Was the weather a factor? Do you wear gaiters? Do your shoes/boots have a mesh upper that allows grit and dirt inside? It sounds like your feet rebelled at what you wanted them to do. We traded emails several time with her providing answers and my giving suggestions.

The lessons I mentioned at the start of the post? Here are a few that pertain to thru-hikers, hikers in general, runners, ultrarunners, and adventure racers.

  • Know your event. Carrying extra water, food, and other supplies in a weighted fannypack, hydration pack or backpack can put extra stresses on your feet.
  • Know any possible weather issues. Heat, rain, and humidity can all cause problems.
  • Know any possible trail/road issues: water, stream crossings, desert sand, grit, and rocks.
  • Know about any special accommodations necessary for like swelling feet, and grit or sand getting into your shoes’ mesh uppers.
  • Know what to do when you have problems with your feet and have the supplies to fix them. Practice ahead of time to refine your skills.
  • Know how to get your blistered feet back into hiking/running condition.

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