After hiking hundreds of miles in New Mexico, Arizona, and California, I have a good understanding of how to take care of feet in desert conditions. My main goal is to keep my feet dry, cool, and debris free. I accomplish this with a good pair of trail runners, gaiters, lightweight socks, and regular foot care.
I wear trail runners when I hike in the desert. When I started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the shoes I wore had a very porous mesh, and sand and dirt sifted into the shoes. I would empty them, but not often enough. Not only was there still a fine layer of sand in the bottom of the shoes, but my socks also had sand particles embedded in the fabric. Even though I dumped the sand out, the residue continued to rub my feet.
By the end of the PCT, I switched to trail runners without porous mesh uppers and stopped getting blisters. That was a key discovery. I have used liners, sandals, Crocs, you name it. Nothing else works as well.
I now wear HOKA Challengers. The upper is a dual mesh that keeps out all but the tiniest grains of dust and remains breathable enough to keep my feet cool in hot temperatures. These are by far the most comfortable trail runners I have worn and have eliminated the discomfort I have from plantar fasciitis. The most comfortable choice for me though, especially in the desert, is a trail runner with a tight double mesh upper.
When I hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT), I wore the short gaiters but switched to the longer gaiters on the PCT and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). I moved away from gaiters for a few years after that, mostly because it seemed like I was always messing with the straps and did not really need them.
When I was planning to hike the Arizona Trail (AZT), I knew there would be a lot of rock and sand, so I decided to give gaiters another go. I did not expect to do much cross-country hiking and just needed something to keep out light dirt and debris. Dirty Girl Gaiters were my choice for that hike and I am glad I wore them. They did a good job keeping debris and dirt out of my shoes.
My only note on the Dirty Girl gaiters is that I had to superglue the Velcro to my shoes after about three days of hiking. The adhesive on the Velcro that comes with their Gaiters did not hold up to hard hiking.
I mostly wear ultra-light mini crew socks Smartwool socks. Other good socks I have used for blisters are Injinji Toe Socks. If you are prone to blisters around your toes, these are great, because smaller toes can be a little awkward when it comes to applying band-aids or moleskin. I’ve worn Injini socks at the start of a hike until my feet toughen up and then switched back to ultra-light mini crew socks from Smartwool.
Regular Foot Care
I have a bad habit of ignoring foot pain when hiking hard and have learned some hard lessons because of it. The single most important thing I have learned when hiking in hot, sandy environments is to try and keep my feet as dry as possible. If my skin stays moist over a long period of time, the desert sands rub it raw.
Recently, on the AZT, I would take off my socks and let them dry in the sun, on any break longer than 10 minutes. This also allowed my feet to breathe and dry out. For example (before I had to leave the trail sure to the pandemic), over 9 days, hiking 17-24 miles/day, I had one small blister. I was pleased with the performance of my footwear and foot care system and look forward to finishing that trail when I can go back.
The Bottom Line
To sum it up, my advice when it comes to desert hiking foot care is to:
- Avoid shoes with porous mesh because they let abrasive sand into your shoes.
- Wear gaiters to keep light dirt and debris from entering your shoes from above.
- Wear lightweight socks that dry quickly.
- Keep your feet dry by drying out your socks and feet whenever you take a break.