Rocksylvania, Bootsylvania, Painsylvania… the Appalachian Trail’s seventh northernmost state goes by many names. But with or without a snappy moniker, all AT thru-hikers know to fear the infamous rocks of Pennsylvania.
They really are that terrible. The rocks are one of the main reasons northern PA consistently ranks among the least popular sections of the AT.
If you’re like me, you’ll charge straight through Pennsylvania like it’s any other state, channeling Dance Dance Revolution as you stomp your way down the trail, sharp rocks be damned.
Do not be like me, reader. By the time I got through the state, every step was wincingly painful, my plantar fasciitis was flaring, and my ankles—well, the less that’s said about them, the better. (My hiker hobble got so bad that once, upon standing up from a quick break, I staggered so dramatically I just about wiped out another passing thru-hiker). What’s worse, that throbbing pain stayed with me the rest of the way to Katahdin.
If I had been just a little, just the tiniest bit smarter in my approach to Pennsylvania, I could have saved myself a world of physical and metaphorical hurt. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes. If I could do it all over again, there are seven things I would have done differently that would hopefully have allowed me to get through Rocksylvania relatively unscathed.
7 Ways to Survive Rocksylvania with Your Feet Intact
1. Fewer miles, more zeroes.
Remember the RICE acronym: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation are the keys to recovery. Rest is a hard thing to come by on a thru-hike, where the only way forward is through, but you can still give your feet a break by dropping your daily mileage and budgeting in a few extra zero days. Trust me, Rocksylvania is really not the state in which to push yourself to the absolute limits of your endurance.
If you’ve gotten comfortable with 20 miles per day by this point, try dropping to 15-18 miles daily when you hit Duncannon, PA. Sure, slowing down means it will take you longer to complete the section, but devoting more of your day to rest and recovery will hopefully make the hiking less painful and more sustainable.
READ NEXT – Appalachian Trail State Profile: Pennsylvania
2. Soak Your Tootsies Every Chance You Get (and Use Ice in Town)
Continuing with the RICE approach to recovery, the next step is to apply ice to reduce inflammation. Of course, you won’t be able to literally ice your feet in the backcountry, but you can stick them in a nice, cool, flowing stream for a similar effect. There’s nothing quite as soothing on a hot summer day when your feet are killing you than a luxurious soak during your lunch or snack break. Just remember to give your feet a few minutes to air dry before you put your socks and shoes back on and carry on your way.
Meanwhile, take advantage of town days to give your feet a nice ice bath. Sticking your precious tootsies in a bucket of ice cubes isn’t the most wonderful feeling, I’ll admit, but it’s worth it. Maybe you can allow yourself a nice, luxurious Epsom salt soak later on as a consolation prize.
3. Wear Compression Socks at Camp
I wear this kind. I put them on as soon as I get to camp and wear them for a couple of hours. Sometimes I even put them on a few miles before reaching camp, as they do nicely to relieve my end-of-the-day hiker hobble. It’s amazing how much they improve general foot pain—and for plantar fasciitis sufferers like me, they’re an absolute game-changer. I can’t wear them to sleep as I invariably wake up with stabbing pains in my feet after a couple of hours—that could just be me though. Either way, these babies are my magic bullet. I wear them as needed on and off the trail to manage plantar fasciitis and other foot problems.
4. Elevate Your Feet
Speaking of reducing inflammation, another effective strategy you can try is elevating your feet for 15-30 minutes each day after you finish hiking. If your feet are elevated above your heart, gravity will help excess blood to drain from them—and it feels so good.
One of my favorite parts of the day is getting camp set up and kicking back with my feet propped against a big tree or the shelter wall for a while. During this cherished R&R time, I typically eat snacks, read a book on my phone, visit with other hikers, or nap. And all the while, my feet are enjoying a much-needed break and a chance to relieve inflammation without resorting to ibuprofen.
I also like to multitask with some (very) gentle stretching by pointing and flexing my toes and doing ankle circles while my feet are up.
5. New Kicks
Trust me: you’ll want to start this section with as much protection between your feet and the ground as possible (not to mention plenty of tread). So even if your current hiking shoes are still in OK shape, I recommend mailing yourself a fresh pair in Boiling Springs or Duncannon. (If you prefer to shop in person, the closest REI is in Mechanicsburg, PA, roughly 11 miles outside of Boiling Springs).
I normally favor trail runners (specifically Altra Lone Peaks), but if I could do it all again, I would temporarily switch to a sturdy pair of boots with a thick, protective sole and good ankle support for the Pennsylvania rocks. The clunkiness would be worth it just to not have chronic foot pain for the next thousand miles. If this seems too extreme to you, consider upgrading to a trail runner with more cushioning (for instance, one of our reviewers is currently testing the Altra Olympus, a more heavily cushioned alternative to the Lone Peak, through Rocksylvania).
At the very least, start with new insoles and a fresh pair of your favorite shoe. You can always mail your current pair home or send them a few hundred miles ahead if they still have life in them.
6. Stretching and Massage
I try to stretch every night no matter where I’m hiking, but I really double down in a rough and rocky area like Pennsylvania. Focus on gentle stretches for your feet: pointing and flexing your toes, mountain climbers to target your Achilles tendon, ankle circles, etc.(Don’t neglect the rest of your muscles, though—it’s all connected!) If my arches get tight during the day, it also really helps me to curl and uncurl my toes a few times to release some of the tension.
A little self-massage at the end of the day is also a good thing. Since hiking the AT, I’ve picked up a lightweight cork massage ball that I now rarely hike without. It does a better job massaging my feet than my hands, and it’s much less effort too—so I’m more likely to do it on a regular basis, even when I’m feeling lazy (aka all the time). Massage doesn’t just feel good: it also stimulates healing by promoting circulation.
7. Leukotape for Days
Now is the time to double down on blister management. Many thru-hikers have developed calluses and dialed in their shoes footcare routine by this point in the hike. As a result, they may have been enjoying relatively blister-free hiking for hundreds of miles now.
Even if that applies to you, don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. Pennsylvania is a) extremely hot, muggy, and sweaty by the time most NOBOs roll through, and b) as we’ve thoroughly pointed out, full of stabby, twisty, terrible rocks. As a result, your blister potential might be the highest it’s been since Georgia. Respond accordingly.
Air your feet frequently, wear sock liners, and/or preemptively Leukotape the shit out of your hot spots. Don’t add blisters to your extensive list of podiatric woes in Pennsylvania.
A Few Other Things You Should Know About Rocksylvania
The first 100 miles or so of Pennsylvania are actually quite delightful. Southern PA boasts some of the most charming, meticulously maintained shelters on the entire trail (courtesy of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s diligent volunteers), the tread is smooth and easy, and if you’re there in late spring, the mountain laurel and rhododendron blooms make the whole area feel charmed.
The trouble with the rocks is in the northernmost 130 miles of the state starting around the town of Duncannon. From endless fields of jumbled, ankle-turning boulders to miles of trail densely studded with small, jagged, immovable stones that dig into your soles and constantly force your footfalls to an awkward angle, Rocksylvania’s got it all.
And the rocks persist through most of New Jersey, too, though admittedly they aren’t quite as horrible—by then, you’re far enough north to benefit from the scouring effect of retreating glaciers during the last Ice Age, which left the rocks somewhat more rounded.
Needless to say, after over 200 miles on these rocks, my feet were in rough shape. But it didn’t have to be that way. If I had taken some of the basic precautions outlined above, I could have spared myself a world of hurt.
The good news? These tips apply well beyond Rocksylvania. Use them any time you encounter foot pain along the way (it’s bound to happen more than once on a 2,200-mile trail, after all). Better yet, be proactive and start babying your soles long before you end up hobbling and footsore. They’re your most valuable assets as a hiker—they’re worth a little extra TLC.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Vernr (@yourstrulyjillian).