Some people are a bit squeamish about feet. Others think they’re the most interesting part of the human body. But whatever your view, there’s no denying that your feet are one (or more precisely two) of the most important bits of kit on a long-distance walk.
Problems with your feet can really curtail your enjoyment of a hike, so it pays to do everything you can to prepare them in advance of your trip, and look after them once you’re on the trail.
Here are a few tips to ensure your carefully laid holiday plans aren’t trampled upon by problem feet.
If you’re buying new boots for your trip, the most important thing is to spend enough time researching and trying on boots, and to allow enough time to wear them in before you start your holiday. If you buy some new boots a couple of days before you’re due to start, and you wear them for the first time on your first day’s hiking, you’re asking for trouble!
There’s a huge amount of choice out there these days – gone are the days when all walking boots were made of stiff, heavy leather. Waterproof materials like Gore-Tex have meant that modern walking boots can be flexible and lightweight, and more closely resemble sturdy trainers. But it’s important that your boots still give you the support you’ll need for the type of walking you’re doing. A good outdoor shop will have staff that will spend time talking to you about your needs and will help you choose the right boots. You can even get custom-moulded footbeds to go into the bottom of your boots to give you more support and comfort – any skiers out there will certainly be able to tell you about the benefits of these.
Socks and technology aren’t often two words that go together – but as with boots, there have been great strides (no pun intended) in the technology used to make socks especially designed for walkers. Obviously your choice of socks will be influenced by the weather – an October walk on the West Highland Way and a walk on the Amalfi Coast in August will clearly not require the same type of socks! But the main thing to bear in mind is that friction and moisture are your two worst enemies when it comes to blister prevention. Merino wool is particularly good for keeping feet warm without being too thick, and is great for drawing moisture away from the skin. It also has natural anti-bacterial properties.
As with your boots, the important thing is to find the best option for you, as there is a huge amount of choice out there. Once again, the staff at a good outdoor shop will be able to give you some good advice and talk you through the options.
Finally, if you’re on a walk where your luggage is being transferred for you, (hopefully by Sherpa Van!) it’s worth taking a clean pair of socks for each day’s walking. If this isn’t possible, then try to ensure that your socks get properly dried out each night.
There are many types of blister tapes out there, but the best ones these days are made from the same material you sometimes see sports stars wearing on various parts of their body to help protect and stretch muscles. The trick is that this type of tape is moisture (i.e. sweat) resistant, so the tape won’t come away from your skin if your feet get a bit damp. Leukotape is a well-known brand, but there are plenty of others available.
You can use the tape as prevention for blisters on the areas of the feet that receive the most pressure – the ball, the heel, the bottom of the big toe. But really, as everyone’s feet are different, you can put tape on any parts of your feet that you know are susceptible to rubbing against the inside of your boots.
This is a simple one – keep your toenails short! If they’re too long they’ll rub against the front of your boots and this will cause damage and pain to your toes. It’s amazing how quickly your toenails can grow as well – so if your trip is a week or more long, it’s worth packing some nail clippers so you can keep them trimmed throughout your walk. Experts recommend cutting straight across the top of the nail rather than a rounded shape, as this stops the corners of the nails digging into your toes, and reduces the risk of ingrowing toenails. Filing your toenails also helps to ensure you don’t have any rough or sharp edges that can do damage to your toes.
It’s a really good idea to keep your feet moisturised to stop skin drying out ,which in turn causes friction and makes blisters more likely. You can use a standard skin moisturiser or specialist foot cream – rub it all over your feet, and especially in between your toes before you go to bed each night, and again before putting your socks and boots on in the morning. Beware using petroleum-based products such as Vaseline if your skin is particularly dry, as many experts say that this traps in moisturiser and makes you more prone to developing athlete’s foot.
There are also some really good foot balms on the market that you can use after a day’s walking, that use natural ingredients to soothe your feet and can even help to strengthen the skin, which protects against blisters.
This cannot be stressed too much. People often start to feel pain when out walking, but decide to carry on until the end of the day – sometimes because they don’t want to feel like they’re holding up their fellow walkers. But blisters can develop very quickly, and a few minutes treating the early signs of a blister, or ‘hot-spot’ can save a hug amount of time, and pain, in the long run.
If you feel a hot-spot start to develop, take off your boots and socks and try and dry your feet as much as you can. Apply some foot cream and blister tape to the affected area. If you’re carrying a spare pair of clean, dry socks in your bag, now is the time to use them – if not, try and dry your socks out as much as possible in the time you have available before you put them back on. We can’t guarantee that this will stop a full-blown blister developing, but it’ll give you the best chance of getting through to the point when you can give your feet a proper clean and rest.
We’re guessing that most walkers won’t need too much persuasion with this one after a long day’s walking! But it’s worth mentioning because of its importance. If you’re walking somewhere dry and warm, take your boots and socks off when you stop for lunch or a break – even just a few minutes in the fresh air will be enough to dry away any moisture. Try to wash, dry and moisturise your feet as soon as you can after you’ve finished your day’s walking. If you’re heading back out, hopefully to a nice pub for some dinner and a well-earned drink, put clean socks on and some fresh shoes if you’ve packed them (and if you’re using Sherpa Van to transfer your luggage, why wouldn’t you?). But as soon as you’re back in your hotel room or tent, let those feet breathe and repair themselves ready for the next day.
Follow these tips and you’ll be giving yourself the best possible chance of keeping your feet happy. And happy feet make happy walkers!