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Foot problems associated with hiking boots - and how to fix them

It is essential to get a good marriage between your foot and your boot to have a comfortable day out. Compared to most shoes people tend to wear, the hiking boot is generally one of the most comfortable shoes in our collections. 

In a podiatry clinic hiking boots are the shoes least likely to cause problems. However there are consistent problems encountered, usually as a result of the wrong foot going into the wrong boot, or that the hiker is unaware or has forgotten, a few simple tricks.

1. “My toe nails keep cutting into my neighbouring toes”

This is a very common problem and can leave you with rather bloody and painful toes. Yet it can be easily avoided. The simplest reason for the problem is you have failed to cut your nails recently and they are a bit too long. It is always worth a careful check of your feet just before you go for a hike and checking the nail length should be your first stop. 

  • Try and keep your nails no longer than 3 or 4mm from the point where your skin is attached to your nail. 
  • Try not to cut your nails too short either, especially if you are a teenager, as this can provoke in-growing toenails. 
  • Rub your finger along the free edge feeling for sharp corners. 
  • Trim any sharp corners and give your nail a quick file. 

Some foot health practitioners, chiropodists and podiatrists advise you cut your nails straight across. Be careful with this advice as if often leaves pointed corners and if you have a toe that curves inwards (common on the little toe and the one next door) you’ll need to follow the rounded shape of your toe end to stay comfortable.

2. “The toe box is too narrow for the foot”

Generally, there are two reasons for this to occur. Either your foot is wide or you have ‘bunions’. People with very square forefeet can have great difficulty getting their toe box comfortable, especially if they also have narrow heels. 

The first metatarsal bone drifting outwards causes bunions, correctly known as hallux valgus or hallux abducto-valgus, while the big toe is pulled inwards. It is commonly inherited, but is caused by a muscle imbalance, in part due to environmental factors such as hard flat ground and footwear style. Therefore it would be beneficial to prevent this from deteriorating unnecessarily with ill-fitting boots. Also if you get the toe box too tight you’ll certainly increase the risk of nail injuries, like blacked bruised and in-growing nails. 

When you are being fitted for a boot, always make sure you have the socks with you are going to wear in that boot. Once inside, try and wriggle your toes. You should be able to wriggle them up freely, spread them out a little, and also be able to grip them down a little. Toe deformities such as hammertoes won’t help with toe box space, especially if you have already developed corns on the tops or tips of the toes. If you already have a boot that is a little tight, try changing the lacing technique as it can often give you a little more space. 

If you are still unable to get fitted comfortably consider seeing a podiatrist, but do ask to see if she or he is familiar with hiking problems.

3. “I get numbness and pain in my middle toes after walking for a while”

This is usually caused by a nerve entrapment between the metatarsal bones, which results in a thickening of the fibrous coating of the toe nerves. Known as plantar digital neurofibroma the most common type affects the 3rd and 4th toes and is called Morton’s neuroma. The sooner this problem is dealt with the better, as given time they may need surgery to resolve. 

The most common reasons that the toe box of your shoe is too tight or your forefoot muscles have weakened, and very often it is a combination of both. Foot strengthening exercises can be very helpful. Consider trying the ‘Healthystep’ Gripper Ball, which is available in good hiking stores, as a simple way to strengthen your feet. Used regularly it can resolve the problem. 

You can also try some insoles with metatarsal support, such as the Heelfixkit ones, but make sure you remove your hiking boot in-sock first or else you’ll make the shoe too tight irritating the nerve further. Other types of forefoot pain can be helped in a similar way. 

If these simple techniques don’t resolve the problem seek the advice of a Podiatrist.

4. “I have a high instep and the top of my foot is compressed by the boot”

People with higher arches or a condition known as forefoot equinus, where the forefoot is positioned lower than the heel when the foot is not weight bearing, are particularly prone to this. Both foot types can develop osteoarthritis in the midfoot. 

Make sure the boot has sufficient depth to accommodate your foot. Despite this you may still have problems especially if your boot strays away from the more traditional styles and are slimmer shaped. 

You may need a boot with a softer leather upper, while a Gore-tex upper is often more forgiving. Try the lacing style below to decrease midfoot compression. Again if the problem persists, see a podiatrist.

5.”I get pain in my big toe, sometimes during, often after I go hiking”

The big toe joint is the second most common joint to get osteoarthritis in after the knees. Needless to say a lot of hikers, particularly as we enter our 5th and 6th decade of life start to develop osteoarthritis in the big toe joint. The precise cause isn’t known, but as osteoarthritis has been found in fossil feet of Homo erectus, so it maybe just a bit of a fault in the structure of the foot considering it’s evolutionary roots as an opposable structure like a thumb.  

Taking glucosamine and omega 3 may help slow the process the simplest advice is to check the shape of the outsole of your boot. Most people need a little flexibility where the boot covers the toe joints, but if you have an arthritic big toe pick a very stiff sole with a convex outer surface. The shoe can then act as a rocker avoiding the need to bend your toe so much. 

Exercising the toe with a ‘Gripper Ball’ can help as long as you still have some movement in the big toe joint, as can simple inlays with an arch support that drop away from the big toe joint. However, this is a condition that might need some professional medical advice.

6. “I get blisters at the back of my heel”

This is a very common problem for the new hiker or with the new pair of boots. Sometimes the skin isn’t used to the extra amount of friction a long walk creates compared to inactive urban living. The new shoe can be a bit stiff at the back of the heel counter or the back of the shoe has too much curve in the heel counter for the shape of your heel, and cuts in. Finally some people have an extra bulge of bone at the back of the heel, known as a Haglund’s deformity or pump bump. If you have the latter or the heel counter feels very stiff. 

A good option is to use a hammer and start hitting the back of the shoe until the heel counter becomes more flexible. You might want to see your boot fitter for advice before you try this, and the fitter might do it for you. This rather crude technique gets many a new shoe into a comfortable shape.  If you are new to hiking you may need to cover the heel over the blister point until the skin toughens up a bit. 

If you get a blister and you are going to keep walking, the best technique is wipe a clean needle in an alcohol wipe, then gently piece the blister in one or two places. Carefully compress the fluid out, and once you’ve pressed it flat firmly apply a plaster.  Don’t pull the blister off, as it takes much longer to heal. You might need to repeat the drainage for up to 48 hours after your walk. Blisters are always a good justification to take a small first aid pack with you.

One final piece of advice, ask your boot fitter about the shape of the last of the boot. Some shoes have quite a curved last, which can make you roll your foot in if you don’t need that curve Most people need a straight last, which means the bisection of the heel should match the bisection of the forefoot. Getting this boot-last shape wrong for your feet can lead to a lot of problems.

Andrew Horwood M.Pod.A

Musculoskeletal Podiatrist at Leeds Podiatry Clinic, The Good Health Centre, Leeds, and Product Designer at Healthystep Ltd.