Basic Foot and Boot Care for Backpacking

Proper foot and boot care are essential for maintaining your feet and footwear in good condition so that your feet and boots are good to go when needed. This post is aimed at explaining basic concepts about foot and hiking boot care to help you keep your feet happy and make your hiking boots last longer.

Sooner or later most hikers realize the need to maintain healthy feet regardless of the cost. The majority prefers to administer self-aid to their individual foot problems and only if the problems turn out to be unmanageable and painful, a podiatrist is sought out. One of the basics of proper foot care is to wash both feet daily. For example, pouring cold water over them provides relief on hot summer days. It’s important to give your feet free air time. You can remove your footwear and socks several times during the day to let your feet cool down and air.

Shoes play an important role in getting maximum efficiency from your body’s movements. Maximum foot efficiency depends most importantly on correctly fitting the right hiking shoe. Hiking boots should protect the feet from abrasion and minimize the incidence of injury. They should adequately support the feet, ankles, and legs and be flexible and shock absorbent enough to allow excellent performance. Selecting the right hiking boot will ensure that your foot is properly supported and balanced. Comfort and cushioning are also important considerations, especially through long periods of training or performance or when unusual stresses occur as when hiking at an altitude, for example.

Boot care and maintenance is an important part of the whole hiking experience. Proper boot care can not only extend the life of your trekking shoes but can also make sure that you feel more comfortable on the trail.

Happy foot

Foot care

Basic foot care

There’re some basic rules for maintaining your feet in good condition that you can apply before you hit the trail, during your hikes, and after long hiking days:

  • Wash your hiking socks daily (without using soap) to wash away grit, skin particles, and sweat.
  • Let your feet dry and air out at least once a day.
  • A clean, dry, and warm pair of socks at night helps your feet recover overnight.

Unfortunately, there is no technique to keep your feet dry in prolonged wet conditions (waterproof hiking boots and waterproof socks won’t help you). Instead, focus your efforts on minimizing the effects of wet feet:

  • Your feet need to be well hydrated. You can apply a moisturizer to your feet at night after they have dried out. To be efficient, it needs enough time to absorb well into the skin.
  • Wear thin hiking socks and lightweight shoes. They dry much faster than waterproof footwear or backpacking boots.
  • Test your hiking boots in advance, especially before long multi-day hikes.

Foot care is important so keeping your feet in good condition is one of the best things you can do to ensure pain-free hiking for yourself and for your feet. When possible, dry wet feet to avoid softening the skin too much.

Hot foot and foot odor

Hot foot and foot odor can be helped by using breathable hiking shoes with antibacterial insoles. It’s also advisable to wear hiking socks made of good quality, moisture-wicking, natural fibers like merino wool. Merino wool is soft and comfortable and has antimicrobial properties that prevent the growth of odor-causing bacteria. Hiking normally requires a thin synthetic inner layer and a thick outer layer. Keep in mind that proper shoe fit and sock selection are essential for preventing most types of skin injuries on the trail.

Two conditions may affect the skin of the foot. The condition of producing excessive perspiration is called hyperhidrosis, while anhidrosis is called the inability to produce and/or deliver sweat to the surface of the skin. Although sweat doesn’t smell itself, foot sweat creates a beneficial environment for odor-causing germs. Sweat itself is odorless but promotes bacterial growth, and the resultant odor is a product of the bacterial decomposition of surface protein debris. Wearing closed-toe shoes exacerbates the situation because they can easily trap and retain moisture, which creates a perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. A backpacker should change socks once or twice a day, especially when hiking in hot weather. The use of a foot powder usually helps to keep the excessive sweating under control, while the use of moisturizing creams for skin hydration is the best treatment for dry skin. Whenever your feet start to feel hot, take off your shoes and give your feet a chance to breathe, while airing your footwear for a while. This should also reduce foot odor. The best treatment for foul-smelling sweat on the foot (the so-called bromhidrosis) is the daily use of antibacterial soap.

Backpacker airing feet in the desert

Your feet need to breathe regularly especially in hot environments

Nail care

Toenails should be cut short and square because long nails can bruise, cut into the toes on either side and inflict pain during descents. Moreover, if toenails are properly cut and without sharp edges, problems at the corners of the nails will be markedly reduced.

There are two other problems that can befall your toenails on the trail: black nails (subungual hematoma), and fungus of the nails (onychomycosis). If bleeding and pain occur under the nail, see a podiatrist. The podiatrist will drill a hole under the nail plate and the blood will escape through this hole. This process is painless so you don’t have to worry about it. Fungal infection is usually the result of an invasion of a fungus into a nail. The best prevention is to wear properly fitted shoes and to control the length and thickness of your toenails. To reduce the chance of black nails, your toes shouldn’t bump against the toe box on your footwear (best way to test it is when walking downhill); your boots should also provide enough toe space for you to wiggle your toes to prevent toes pressing against one another.

Blisters

Blisters are wounds that usually come as a result of friction but (during backpacking and camping) they can also be caused by burns, sunburns, frostbite, allergic reactions, viral and bacterial infections, and exposure to poison plants such as sumac, oak, and poison ivy. Blisters basically are the answer of your body to damaged skin and usually need time to heal on their own. Unfortunately, blisters on your feet can be more painful and may need more time to heal because avoiding friction around the damaged skin is hardly possible when on the trail.

How to prevent blister formation

Prevention of blisters is difficult but you can (at least) try to reduce the risk. Prevention begins with identifying rubbing surfaces. Properly-fitted gear and footwear that is broken-in is the first step in prevention. Additionally, identifying hot spots and treating these will prevent the pain associated with a blister. The likelihood of the formation of friction blisters is way higher if the feet are wet so it’s important to reduce moisture by transporting water away from your feet. Wearing boots or shoes that provide good moisture transportation from the inside outwards by allowing drainage and ventilation is very effective in hot environments. Wear moisture-wicking socks (no cotton) and use foot powder to minimize moisture. Smooth out all wrinkles in your outdoor socks before you put your shoes on, change your socks as often as possible, and do not reuse socks a second time without washing them. Wearing two socks helps too. Remember that the effectiveness of layering depends mainly on the inner sock - it should be moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and preferably non-absorbing (merino wool absorbs moisture but has other properties such as good moisture management that make it suitable). All these will help prevent blisters.

Treatment of blisters

Once formed, blisters can be very painful and difficult to heal. Removing the fluid inside a blister will minimize the pain. Wash your hands, sterilize a needle, and clean the blister and the skin around it with antiseptic such as alcohol or iodine. Sterilizing a needle in the backcountry is best done by flaming the needle and allowing it to cool. Another way of doing this is to disinfect the needle with rubbing alcohol. Then create pinholes at the lowest point on the blister and allow fluid to drain. It may be necessary to drain the blister several times over the first day after blister formation. Antiseptic wipes or piece of toilet tissue can be used to absorb the fluid and wipe the area dry. Maintaining the integrity of the outer skin flap will reduce pain and promote healing. Eventually, the outer skin flap will dry.

What is common to all blister remedies is that the blister must be covered to prevent infection and cushioned against further rubbing. The key points to any blister dressing are to provide adequate padding and to keep the blister clean, dry, and free of debris. You can cover a blister with ordinary adhesive tape, moleskin, micropore tape, or even duct tape from your repair kit. Friction causes blisters, so try to find and remove the cause, though it may not be obvious. In such a case, you just have to hope that covering the blister will solve the problem. Application of Vaseline can also help prevent serious problems.

Hiking boot care

Hiking boots are subjected to two types of wear, abrasion (wear and tear) and “aging”. Aging of shoes is mainly a result of chemical processes and can be appreciably delayed if the trekking shoes are made with materials that have a built-in resistance to corrosive bacterial erosion. The primary causes of chemical breakdown are friction, humidity, bacterial erosion, perspiration, and heat.

Shoe care tools

How to clean hiking boots

How to clean leather

Leather hiking boots must be kept dust-free because when small grains of dust are allowed to accumulate on leather shoes, they cut into the leather with every step you take. Cleaning leather hiking boots is simple but should be done regularly if you want your boots to serve you for long years. You can wipe the dust off your leather boots with a dry or damp rag. If you want to use and moisturizing soap, you need to apply the soap to the outside of the boot. If mud dries on the uppers, they can harden and crack. A soft brush helps remove mud, though be careful not to scratch the leather. If you want to remove stains, there are specific cleaning products for this. You can clean the insides of boots using a clean, damp cloth. Be careful when cleaning waterproof hiking shoes or boots since the membrane is very thin and fragile.

How to clean suede leather

Suede leather should be treated with a dry brush or sponge. There are special suede cleaning kits where you can find a special brush for cleaning this type of leather. Don’t bring suede into contact with water because this can cause cracks and make the material stiff. To maintain the look of suede, use silicone-based liquid (or spray) or wax-cream after cleaning. Application of silicone-based liquid or spray should be preferred to wax-cream with a high concentration of wax.

How to clean nubuck leather

Nubuck leather is soft leather, which is more absorbent than some other leathers and should dry without cracking or stiffening. Just as in the case of suede leather, after cleaning use silicone-based liquid or spray.

How to clean nylon (polyamide)

Nylon (and poromeric) materials are best cleaned with a damp cloth or soft brush since treatment with creams, polishes or silicone solutions will block the pores of the fabric and reduce its breathability.

How to clean canvas

Canvas (including mesh) can be washed; however, careful hand washing with mild soap and a soft brush is better than putting the shoes in a washing machine. Generally, canvas can be machine-washed, however, the main problem is that some of the other materials in the hiking shoe may be affected. Wash the shoelaces separately in soap and water (you can use bleach as well). If you hang your shoes outside to dry, hang them for an eyelet. When the hiking shoe is new or newly cleaned, spraying the canvas with spray starch will prevent dirt from getting into the fabric.

Muddy hiking boots

Muddy hiking boots, especially leather boots, should be cleaned in time 

How to condition and polish leather boots

Over time leather boots lose some of the natural oils that make them soft and pliable (especially if stored in warm, dry climates). Choose a conditioner that is specific to the type of leather used to make your shoes. However, you don’t need to use a leather shoe conditioner if you use a conditioning soap, or regularly apply a paste or cream polish to your hiking shoes. These products already function as conditioners.

There are four basic forms of shoe polish: cream, paste, wax, and liquid. Cream and paste polishes soak into the leather, resulting in a color that lasts. They also can act as conditioners. Wax polish offers extra protection for your shoes so use it if your shoes are regularly exposed to rain, mud, etc. Additionally, wax polish offers a first-class shine. The biggest disadvantage of using wax polish is that it may dry out leather. Use liquid polish if you want a polish that will dry quickly.

How to dry hiking boots

Best ways to dry hiking boots

The way you dry your shoes is important. The best way to dry hiking footwear is to allow it to air dry. Hiking boots should be left in a cool, dry place to dry slowly, with the insoles removed and the tongues fully open. Stuffing a newspaper inside the shoes will also help them dry by drawing the moisture out. Just don’t forget to replace the newspaper when it gets wet.

Best ways NOT to dry hiking boots

Drying footwear can be a problem on long hikes when it is tempting to dry sodden boots by a fire. Try not to do that. Excessive heat is very likely to make leather harden and split and may melt the glues that hold footwear together. Wet footwear should never be dried in a hot place such as next to a car heater, a house radiator, or a campfire.

Treatment after drying your boots

When wet footwear has dried, it needs to be treated to restore suppleness and water repellency. All boots can be treated, including waterproof hiking boots. It is important that the water repellency of the outer is maintained because if it fails and the outer soaks up moisture, breathability will be impaired. Remove the laces and open the tongue fully so you don’t miss any areas. Make sure that you don’t forget to treat the base of the tongue since it is a key leak point.

The most important thing to remember is that drying takes time and you shouldn’t force it.

How to waterproof hiking boots

To be truly waterproof a boot must have a membrane sandwiched inside the materials. Waterproof hiking shoes leak rarely, though some people argue that it happens quite often. What’s really happening is that the boot’s original DWR (durable water repellent) has worn off, so the upper materials get saturated. The feeling of “wet foot” comes from this.

Keep your boots well-conditioned and regularly treat them with a waterproofer, and your feet will feel and stay dry. Depending on how hard you use your hiking boots, you may want to waterproof them more often or not so often. For regular hikers, this could be up to a couple of times a season.

Proper waterproofing treatment increases water repellency and ensures a longer lifespan for your boots by keeping leather footwear supple. It also depends in part on the type of leather. Boot waterproofing is easy and you shouldn’t be concerned about it. Basically, you have two choices:

  • Use wax or oil

    Use wax or oil if your boots are worn primarily outdoors (e.g., hiking boots), or if the boot is made of a mixed material such as nylon and leather (don’t apply waterproofing oils and waxes to suede or nubuck as they will damage the quality of the leather). You need to clean the boots first. Then apply the wax or oil with a cloth or brush. Be sure to work the product into the boots’ creases. Allow the boots to stand overnight. Waxes work best when applied to warm, dry leather in the evening before wearing the shoes so that there’s enough time for the wax to soak in. There is a trade-off between the amount of wax you apply, the degree of water resistance obtained, and the breathability of your hiking boots. Several layers of wax will mean better and longer-lasting water resistance but less breathability. Thus, don’t use too much wax for your summer hikes when footwear’s breathability is essential.
  • Use a waterproofing spray

    Use a waterproofing spray if your shoes are made of more delicate leather, or if the climate is mild to moderately wet. Clean the shoes and then spray evenly from 20-30 cm. Allow the shoes to stand overnight. Water-based treatments such as Nikwax can be applied to wet leather. They don’t block the spaces between the fibers, so footwear remains breathable. Additionally, they don’t wear off quickly. Water-based products have other advantages. They’re environmentally friendly, non-flammable and don’t give off noxious fumes, so they are safe to use indoors. There are also care kits such as the Revivex Suede and Fabric Boot Care Kit and Revivex Rain Boot Care Kit that can prolong the life of your boots and keep them looking as new by cleaning and waterproofing them.

Both methods have their advantages as a waterproofing spray is easier to apply. Some waterproofing oils, such as mink oil, actually condition leather shoes.

Waterproofing a hiking boot with Revivex Boot Care Kit

Waterproofing a hiking boot with Revivex Suede and Fabric Boot Care Kit

Caring for the soles of your shoes

There are different materials that are used in the construction of the soles of hiking shoes. While hiking, many of these materials are subjected to water, mud, and abrasive surfaces such as rock, gravel, and turf. Most soles are best cleaned with a stiff, dry brush or under a water tap and dried immediately with a dry cloth. Oils and chemicals should not be brought into contact with soling materials - they can lead to the deterioration of the shoes.

Conclusion

You need to care for your feet because your backpacking adventures depend on them being in good condition. Wash them regularly and let them air out at least once a day; keep them dry and well hydrated; wash your hiking socks daily and always start the day with a clean pair of socks. Use breathable hiking boots (or waterproof hiking boots depending on the conditions) with antibacterial insoles for odor resistance and wear socks made of good quality, moisture-wicking fibers that won’t absorb a ton of water, won’t take ages to dry, and won’t wrinkle. Identify hot spots and treat them to prevent the formation of a blister and always cut your toenails short and square to prevent bruise and cuts into the toes on either side.

The full spectrum of caring for your hiking boots includes cleaning, conditioning, polishing, drying, waterproofing, and storing. Proper maintenance of your trekking shoes can extend their life and more importantly, can ensure more comfort for you and for your feet on the trail.

 

Related Articles

Hiking Boots and Shoes

Important Characteristics of Hiking Boots

Construction of a Hiking Shoe

Footwear for Summer Backpacking

How to Choose Hiking Socks

Barefoot Hiking

Foot and Ankle Injuries on the Trail

Skin Problems

 

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Basic foot and boot care for backpacking


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