Battered hiking feet deserve pampering
July 14, 2007
Experienced hiker Tim Mellin was set for a voyage in the Uintas, which would include some aerobic hiking and fly-fishing in the backcountry.
"I started out on a trail I had not researched. I enjoyed going out and going wandering," Mellin said.
He admits that was his first mistake. His second and third mistakes weren’t realized until later, somewhere in the middle of a 15-mile slog.
"I started out with a brand new pair of shoes, I didn’t have any first-aid kit or Moleskin, and I got the biggest, ugliest blister," Mellin said.
Even the experienced can be overconfident, and he was a prime example of that on this day. The searing-pain from his new shoes’ repeated chafing nearly crippled him on the trail.
"I had to use leaves off of a tree to pad my foot to make it back," Mellin said. "It was just awful. It’s one of those, where you get halfway down and you say to yourself, ‘You goomba.’"
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He said he didn’t plan his hike or think about where he was going, which turned into one of his most forgettable trips into the outdoors.
"A whole cacophony of bad things happened because of that," Mellin said. "It was just a beautiful day, but a bad day."
Mellin, a bio-mechanical specialist and chiropractor with 29 years of health care experience, said he knew better, and he has some advice for other hikers.
The first thing is to pamper your feet.
"They are your connection to the ground," Mellin said. "You really need to take care of that. They hold the entire weight of the body on them.
Feet take a beating, especially on a trail with rough, unpredictable terrain. Countless footsteps hold up the full weight of a person and usually an extra 20-60 pounds in a backpack.
Without proper gear, that regular pounding can be the cause of foot, knee, hip and back injuries.
"I see a lot of people with foot problems," Mellin said. "Partly based on the way we live our lives. We sit at desks, we spend hours a day leaning over looking at the computer. That causes back problems, which hurt when people start to go hiking, it causes lots of problems."
Surprisingly, the first step in indulging feet, is not buying comfortable shoes, Mellin said.
"The first thing is a good orthotic, a custom-made orthotic," he said.
Orthotics are foot or heel inserts that help create better arch support. With a custom-made orthotic, the insert is formed and molded to one’s foot. In Mellin’s office it takes about 15 minutes to get one. This can make a shoe or hiking boot feel customized to the individual.
Mellin said there are "great" shoes out there but "shoes and boots are designed for someone else, anyone but you."
Orthotics prevents the arch of the foot from flattening out too much, which can solve knee and lower back pain.
"It also solves shin splints, plantar fasciitis and fatigue in the foot and back of the leg," Mellin said. "I recommend them for anyone who is walking and spending any time on their feet in their shoes or ski boots or anything else. It’s a vital for people who spend time in their shoes."
After the sole is taken care of, a good stable shoe is the next step for a hiker. In the local stores that carry hiking footwear, there is a plethora of trail running and hiking shoes. Different styles are geared for people interested in day hikes without a large backpack.
"The heel sits low to the ground on trail-running shoes and gives lateral stability, and the soles are firmer than regular running shoes," said Scott Wilson, owner of The Active Sole.
The firmness helps when going over sharp rocks and rough terrain. The trail shoes are lighter and usually cost less than heavy hiking boots.
"They’re more versatile," Wilson said. "You can wear them to the gym and they’re even good for beginner mountain bike riding."
The laces on these products usually help pull the foot up to avoid slippage that may lead to blisters and toenail problems. There are also products with Gore-Tex lining and other waterproof material. People, Wilson said, buy those shoes for snowshoeing. They are usually a warmer shoe and there’s not enough rain in the Park City summer for people to buy them.
There are different types of shoes that cater to various levels. Some use different types of rubber treads to stick to any surface. Some of the shoes are more rigid than others to keep debris out of the shoe and withstand more punishment. People choose each shoe based mostly on personal preference, Wilson said.
"It’s always better to wear a more rugged or more ugly shoe," Mellin said. "They are typically built better. People wear different kind of shoes for fashion more than they do for (performance)."
Brent McElhaney, the assistant manager for White Pine Touring, said comfort is important when choosing a shoe because everybody’s foot is shaped differently.
Some people enjoy light and comfortable shoes like hiking sandals.
"They are open and a lot cooler," Wilson said.
Some sandals, he said, provide excellent arch support and have thick soles to withstand rocky trails. But the open nature of sandals leave feet vulnerable to abrasions and stubbed toes. There are some water hiking shoes that are similar to sandals that protect the toe better, however.
"For short hikes, sandals are not a problem," Mellin said. "River hiking in the slots, I recommend a water hiking shoe. They protect the foot a little better, but I recommend taking them off and going back to a regular hiking shoe after. A regular hiking shoe is going to support your foot better."
For more intense hikes, a strong hiking boot is recommended.
"For a multi-day hike or carrying a 50-60 pound pack, you’re going to want something to carry that weight," McElhaney said.
The boots are heavier but each heavy step will be more supported. These boots also give more stability to prevent rolling ankles when stepping on a rock or tree branch.
"On a heavier duty hike, you definitely want support that goes over the ankle. The more rigid sole also helps the ball of the foot from wearing down. Hiking in tennis shoes, that’s why you get pain in front of your foot. That’s why trails shoes are as rigid as they are," Mellin said.
Good socks that don’t hold sweat also help with comfort and prevention of blisters. Wilson recommends wicking socks, or thin socks that help move the sweat off the foot. Mellin suggests polyester socks and taking an extra pair to switch them on a break.
But "what’s more important is what you have under your foot," Mellin said. "There are some great shoes out there, too many to go into."
No matter the shoe, breaking them in is crucial. Hikers should wear new shoes around the house for a few days prior to a hike. Mellin said a quick way to break them in is soaking them and wear them until they dry.
Lastly, McElhaney said, is to be safe on the trail.
"Be careful," McElhaney said. "Be slow and precise on wear you place your feet with rocks and look ahead at terrain."
Foot care for hikers
*A good solid boot or hiking shoe
*Always carry Moleskin and bandages
*Bring a second pair of socks
*Let someone know where you are going.
*Watch the trail