About the Author: Deborah Peel is a writer, blogger, marketer, mother, lover of big trees and isolated mountain tops. Her passion is writing to build a better world and sharing her backpacking and hiking adventures, one step at a time.
Sara’s doctor called the meaty open wounds on the back of her feet “exceptional damage” and that was a couple of weeks after her epic footwear fail! Hikers and backpackers hear it and read it everywhere – be picky about what you put on your feet and pay attention to how they’re feeling when you’re on the trail. If your feet are talking to you, if you’re feeling a hot spot, you may have a blister developing and that can ruin not just your whole day but end your whole trip. But, that’s not what happened to Sara.
Sara has been backpacking with her husband AK for eight years. She’s been through her share of foot trauma and hers is a cautionary tale from which other hikers can learn. One summer, she was backpacking in lightweight boots she really liked – until she took a 30-mile journey with a long, steep descent, followed by more ascents and descents. She discovered her boots were a bit too short and lost eight of her toenails. It was a long summer for Sara living in a hot climate and wearing sandals. She just knew everyone was staring at her “ugly” toes!
Sara says, “I had to learn to protect my feet. I’ve had sensitive feet all my life and I’ve had to try all different socks, liners, and boots to find the right ones that keep me comfortable and safe on the trail.”
Sara found that toe sock liners, wool wicking socks, an additional inexpensive insole (think Dr. Scholl’s) and a truly well-fitting boot are her winning combination. Her preferred boot is Lowa, although they are still a little heavier than she’d like. This boot gives her the foot and ankle support she needs, protecting her feet and giving her confidence as she’s moved into longer hikes across increasingly difficult terrain, sometimes requiring scrambling, bouldering and bushwhacking. She’s a big believer in trying your own footwear combination for a short distance to see if it’s for you. For instance, she suggests easing into toe sock liners that help stop the rubbing that can cause blisters. She finds that toe socks slightly spread your toes out and alter the stretch on your ligaments and a few short hikes can help you adjust.
The trip that ended with holes in the areas between her heels and ankles was supposed to be a two-night backpacking adventure past Granite Lake and up Seven Up Pass in California’s Trinity Alps Wilderness. The reward for hiking to the 8,100-foot Seven Up Peak would be magical views of Bear Basin, Granite Creek, and the Four Lakes Loop. She had changed boots and they’d been feeling okay. For this trip, she decided to add a new insole. That’s all it took to change her foot position and change everything.
To reach the saddle, she and AK ascended 2,000 feet in 2 miles. She could feel the spot between the back of her heels and ankles rubbing on her boots. Did she stop, drop the pack, and doctor up her feet? No. She chose to push through. “It was a huge mistake not listening to my body,” says Sara. “I was damaging myself but stubbornly kept ascending.” She made it to the top and then another four miles down to Diamond Lake, their planned tent site. “When I removed my boots, I was traumatized by what I saw. This wasn’t a blister problem. My heel was rubbed raw, no skin was left, and I had holes bigger than a quarter.” She covered the holes with a square of moleskin secured with duct tape. The next day she had to put the boots back on for the 12-mile hike out. The trip was painfully over and so was her backpacking for the rest of the season.
Six weeks of recovery with absolutely no hiking was a huge wake-up call after Sara’s epic footwear fail. She admits, “It really hurt my pride that I didn’t hike smart. I learned there is a balance to knowing when it’s safe to push through some pain, a challenge, and when you need to listen to your body.” The very first trip of the next backpacking season, Sara and AK conquered Seven Up Pass. There were no issues and no brand-new insoles.