When I first got into hiking seriously back in 2008 I joined a Meetup Group. Before becoming a backpacker, I spent a lot of time on front country camping trips doing day hikes. On one such trip, I remember sitting around a campfire with some veteran hikers and I found myself in a conversation that was borderline horrifying to me. In fact, many of you who are hiking have probably heard a conversation very similar to this one: "You don't want to see my feet! I've lost so many toenails I can't even count them all!" "Oh yeah, I have two black ones right now - both big ones!" "My first backpacking trip I lost seven nails!" "I get so many blisters I'm pretty sure my trail name should be bubble wrap!" "Yeah, I don't think I've had a solid set of nails in 10 years!" As I listened to this in slight horror I realized that yes, indeed, I was not a real hiker yet. And thanks to this conversation, I wasn't looking forward to being a hiker either!
A few years down the line I did join the real hiker club. Thanks to a long day of hiking in boots that were too heavy, I got to camp and immediately shed the footwear to walk barefoot in a cold mountain stream. The stream was in fact so cold that when I banged my toe on a rock I didn't feel a thing. Later that night, however, a small purple lump showed up directly in the middle of my toenail. Six months later, that nail had to be surgically removed thanks to the fact that the bruise never healed, nor caused me to lose that nail. Finally, I had become a real hiker. Honestly though, does losing or bruising nails REALLY make us a real hiker? I'm here to tell you guys that NO, LOSING TOENAILS ISN'T NORMAL OR A RITE OF PASSAGE! This post will deal with some footwear myths and facts to help you avoid the most ridiculous Rite of Passage hikers hear about.
MYTH: You should Always Buy Your Boots a Full Size Bigger Than Your Shoes
If you need to buy your boots a full size bigger than your normal shoes, this tells me you're not wearing the proper size shoe in the first place! In fact, most Americans are not wearing the correct shoe size for their foot. A proper hiking, trail running, or backpacking shoe should not only be long enough, it should also be wide enough to accomodate your feet in both their swollen and normal conditions. To get properly fitted for a hiking, trail running, or backpacking shoe I HIGHLY recommend going to a running store and not an outdoor retailer first. Running store employees are properly trained to watch your gait, measure your feet (both width and length) and look for wear patterns on your shoes to recommend a corrective insole if you need it. They'll ask you your daily/weekly mileage, terrain you plan on traveling, and even what your long-term goals are. THEN, they'll go in the back and find the brands and styles that will work best for you.
MYTH: A Heavy Boot Will Solve All Your Foot Problems
Which of these sounds better for a foot in normal conditions: A heavy, inflexible, non-breathable shoe; or a lightweight, breathable, flexible shoe? Now, add in the rocky, muddy, wet conditions of a mountain trail. While hiking boots definitely have a place in the hiking world, a lightweight and breathable boot or shoe will do you much better in most conditions. In the past several years, many running shoe companies have expanded into a line of trail shoes and some even offer a high topped shoe to rival many hiking boots. Other outdoor companies make heavy duty, breathable shoes with moderate ankle support. Whether you decide on a boot or a shoe, light and breathable with some flexibility, not heavy and solid, will keep your feet happy.
MYTH: Always Wear A Sock Liner And You'll Never Get Blisters
Just like one shoe doesn't fit all, one sock solution doesn't work for everyone either! Sock liners do help prevent friction in high pressure areas of the feet. Injinji toe socks also make liners to help separate your toes and prevent between-the-toe blisters; however, sock liners aren't your "quick" fix for blisters or black toenails. Getting a properly fitted, properly breathing, properly weighted shoe is the first line of defense. Secondly, making sure you're wearing a wicking sock, like a wool or bamboo variety, will also help pull moisture away from your feet. Third, determining if your blisters are caused by pressure on your foot or debris in your shoe also helps! Some people can solve their blister problems by wearing a gaiter to cover the tops of their shoes or boots and prevent debris from rubbing their feet.
MYTH: Buy A Pair of Insoles And Never Have Foot Problems Again
Are you guys noticing a pattern yet? Hikers often have a "one size fits all" solution for foot problems, but just like the other myths we've covered, an insole will not help all hikers solve their problems. Many insole brands you can buy off the shelf in a store will tell you that being uncomfortable is all a part of the break-in process because your body doesn't know how to walk on it's own (I'm paraphrasing here). Not every hiker needs an insole to help solve their blister or toenail problems. In fact, many hikers can avoid the insole by getting a properly fitted, properly cushioned shoe or boot in the first place.
Have you ever lost toenails or gotten severe blisters on a hike? What did you do to help remedy the situation?