Love them or loathe them, find them ugly, hate them being touched or fetish-ise them, whatever your feeling about feet they are going to play a big part in every trip you take to the outdoors. So its worth saying a few words about looking after them, so that they can look after you, mile after mile.
As any survival expert (which we do not profess to be) will tell you; out in the wilderness, if you can’t walk, you die. In extreme circumstances, being immobile can leave you prey to wild animals, unable to reach help, possibly unable to reach food or water and certainly unable to get yourself back to civilization. As part of a group you become a burden, slowing down, tiring and potentially endangering your team, so the importance of a good foot care regimen cannot be understated.
We aren’t going dive into the confusing world of boots and socks and liner socks and materials here, its just too big a subject, this is just a few pointers to set you out on a daily foot care habit that will add to the care that well chosen socks and boots will give your feet.
Whenever you have your boots and socks off, you should be inspecting your feet for damage and signs of excessive wear. Look for red spots that may be starting to rub but not yet become sore. Deal with them before they become a problem. Look for dry patches or signs of athlete’s foot which can take many guises. Search the internet for images using the words ‘foot infection’ so you know what you are looking for, but I would suggest you don’t do it whilst you’re eating as they can be pretty disgusting.
Smell is also an indicator of a problem. If your feet smell ‘cheesy’ then that could indicate the presence of fungus or dead skin. In this case use a fungal foot cream or powder on your feet, sprinkle foot powder in your boots and quarantine that pair of socks and don’t wear them again until you have thoroughly washed them with a biological washing agent.
Before you go on a hike, learn about the bio-mechanics of how a foot works. Understand how the different muscles interact with each other, how and where they attach to the bones and what they look like in a resting state. This will help you to feel for potential knots, twists or strains that can lead to foot cramp and severe pain.
As you moisturise your feet before bed, give them a thorough massage. Don’t just give them a bit of a rub; really feel each bone and muscle and work them between your thumb and fingers to stretch them, kneed them and help increase the blood supply to the smaller capillaries and muscles. Work the joints to stretch out the tendons and increase flexibility.
Squeeze each toe gently, in turn, so that it turns white, then check that they ‘pink up’ again quickly, indicating good circulation. If they don’t then it may indicate the start of a problem that needs medical attention.
If your feet have been trapped inside boots for several hours, carrying your entire body weight and your gear, don’t they deserve a bit of TLC?!
I’m going to say it as plainly as I can; taking unnecessary risks with your ankles and feet is utterly stupid!
Jumping out of trees, leaping over streams, trampling into undergrowth, kicking rocks, stamping on branches to break them for your fire; before you do any of these things, check yourself – do you need to do this? Is there a safer way? Do I have a tool for this?
A twisted, sprained or even broken ankle, will put you out of action for long periods and could be a real problem if you are far from help. The soles of the feet are very sensitive to impact (anyone who has seen the movie ‘Midnight Express’ will recall that scene) and so landing with your full body weight on an uneven surface can leave you in a lot of pain. Just don’t!
Rest is extremely important to your feet. They work hard all day carrying you around, balancing your weight, moulding themselves around obstacles and living inside socks and boots. Whenever you get the chance to sit down, loosen your boots, even take them off, give them a rub and let them relax. Ten minutes taking the weight off will let the blood flow round the smaller capillaries, allow the smaller muscles to rest and re-align and the joints to stretch. Make time for foot rest on a regular basis.
Letting your feet dry out in the fresh air can be as good as a tonic. Wash and cool them in a stream if you get chance and let them relax and restore their natural shape. Cold water will also help take down any swelling. Trapped inside boots for long periods, each foot can sweat as much as half a cup per day so getting them out in Nature’s natural washer/drier will give them a refreshing boost.
So, let’s talk about the kit you should consider taking with you. Its going to add a tiny amount of weight to your kit but it will be worth ten times its weight in gold. Again, this is just the stuff I take and as I always tell my kids as they leave the house without a coat “Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.”
Here is a list of a few things you should consider carrying in your foot-care kit.
- Small Face Cloth
A small face cloth is ideal for cleaning and soothing weary feet along the way and at the end of the day. It can be kept damp in a small dry bag and refreshed from your water bottle. Keeping your feet clean is an important part of their care as it will reduce the incidence of blisters as well as the possibility of fungal or other infections.
A face cloth soaked in cold water and wrapped around the foot will help to take down swelling and cool hot-spots that may be turning into blisters.
Drying your feet thoroughly after cleaning them is extremely important. Wet feet are a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria and much more susceptible to the friction that causes blisters than well dried feet.
- Lubricants and Powders
The point of using a lubricant or powder on your feet is the same in both cases; to create a protective barrier and to reduce moisture, helping prevent the conditions that lead to blisters forming in the first place.
Anyone who does any serious distance cycling will tell you the importance of ‘Chamois Cream’. Coming in various guises this is a lubricant cream that coats the padding in your shorts and the more delicate areas of your shorts’ contents to prevent saddle sore. It can feel pretty gross, slapping loads of goo around your sensitive areas, but believe me, one you’ve used it, you’ll never ride without it.
The same is true of foot lubricants and walking. The object of the exercise is to prevent the blister inducing conditions forming and minimize the rubbing between sock and foot, both of which lead to hot-spots and then blisters. Lubricants work by creating a slippery, but not wet, surface between toes and between sock and foot, minimizing ‘friction rub’ that leads to blisters. Many products contain some high melting-point hard wax that slows its absorption into the skin, leaving a protective barrier on the surface of the foot, for much longer.
Rather than creating a lubricating barrier, powders do the opposite and seek to remove any moisture from the surface of the feet, again minimizing friction. Remember that it is damp or moist skin that is most prone to friction and therefor most likely to produce blisters. You can see this in practice by trying this test;
Rub the tip or your forefinger and thumb of the same hand on a piece of dry cloth a few times – your trousers will suffice. Now rub them together (like you are suggesting someone owes you money!). There will be very little friction between them. Now lick them and rub them together a little then dry them like before.
Again do the ‘show me the money’ rub. You will see how the friction has increased just from a tiny amount of moisture.
Now imagine this is your toes; sweaty and rubbing against a sock and each other!
Powders contain a high concentration of talc which absorbs moisture and dries the skin (which is why it is used in baby powder to prevent nappy rash) and this helps to remove the conditions that lead to blisters. The thing to be mindful of when using powders, however, is that as they absorb moisture they can create ‘clumps’ and this can in itself lead to sore spots and blisters. If you are using powder it is best to apply it sparingly and often, rather than filling your socks and boots with it.
With lubricants and powders its important to find out what works best for you so do some experiments on shorter walks and compare the results afterwards.
- Nail scissors / Clippers / Pumice
Like everything in the outdoors, good planning is 90 per cent of the key to success. No matter how well fitted your boots are, a toenail that is slightly too long, a hard callous on the side of your big toe or simply a damaged toe nail can lead to rubbing and eventual pain, even bleeding and infection. Its important when out walking to be able to deal with these things before they become a serious problem and impede your mobility. Keeping a set of nail scissors or clippers and a pumice stone in your kit will allow you to carry out most foot-maintenance tasks and keep you on your feet.
- Foot Moisturiser
To give your feet the best chance to repair and heal, moisturize and massage them last thing at night, just before you climb into your sleeping bag. Use a good quality moisturiser, preferably with lanolin as this helps the skin heal and soothes sore spots (ask any nursing mother!). The body uses your sleeping hours to do repair work and so what better time to let it heal your feet than when they aren’t in use?!
The most fastidious foot-care regimen is still no guarantee of a blister-free existence and so its also worth keeping a few specialist items in your first-aid kit to deal with the worst-case scenario.
Your first aid kit should contain a few essential items for dealing with blisters:
- Zinc Oxide Tape
- Hydrocolloid plasters
- Hypodermic needle (sterile packed for piercing the blister)
- Antiseptic cream
- Low adherent dressing pads
- Micro-porous tape
The first sign of a blister forming is when you feel that ‘hot spot’ on your foot. This is essentially friction-burn in progress. Just as when you put your hand on a hot iron and burn yourself, a blister is also a burn, just a burn caused by friction on the skin.
So what do you do with a hot spot?
A hot spot is your last warning sign before you get a blister. Its your last chance to carry out blister prevention so ignore it at your peril!
There are essentially five stages to a bister:
Stage 1 – No Blister.
This is the best time to do blister prevention – moisturise, use powder or lubricant, follow a good foot care regimen.
Stage 2 – Hot Spot
This is your foot telling you something is wrong and needs attention and you should do the following:
- Stop walking and find somewhere to sit down
- Take off your boot and sock
- Check that it is still a hot spot and not yet a blister.
- Clean and dry the area.
- Check your foot, sock and boot for a foreign object that could be causing a problem (this could be as simple as a loose thread in your sock).
- Apply a good covering of Zinc Oxide tape to the area, making sure that the edges of the tape go well past the edges of the hot spot. Also ensure that the tape is tight and well fitted with no wrinkles and don’t introduce more ‘rubbing spots’. The tape is now going to create a protective layer between your skin and the rubbing spot in your sock.
- Give your foot, sock and boot time to dry out and air
- Put your sock back on and pull it up tight. Ruffled socks inside the boot are one of the worst culprits for blisters
- Put your boot back on and make sure it is well fitted and tied up tight. A sloppily fitting boot is also a blister-maker.
- Be mindful of the hot spot and assess it every few hundred yards. If it still hurts, start again from 1!
Stage 3 – Intact Blister
An intact blister looks like a water bubble in the skin. What has happened here is that the friction burn has reached the point where the body’s defence mechanism has kicked-in and to try to prevent further and deeper skin damage it has flooded the area with ‘Serum’ which is a clear fluid that helps to cushion the area and create a protective barrier.
At this stage you can still do some work to stop it getting worse and you can minimize the pain to a ‘mild discomfort’ which, if you are sensible, shouldn’t immobilise you.
Provided that the blister is superficial and doesn’t penetrate the deeper layers of skin, you can use a sterile hypodermic needle to pierce the top layers of skin to allow the blister to drain. Let it dry out as much as you can but DO NOT be tempted to peel the skin off. The skin will create a protective top layer that will help to prevent infection and reduce rub on the deeper, more sensitive layers.
When you are happy that the blister has drained and is as dry as you can get it, you have a couple of options. Firstly, put a tiny blob of antiseptic cream around the piercing you made, just for good measure and then apply a covering:
Zinc Oxide Tape
This is a typically white, adhesive tape that is thin, has a high adhesion, low elasticity and high tensile strength. It can be layered up and once it sticks it stays stuck so make sure you position it correctly. Make it tight but if you are wrapping a toe, remember to allow room for blood flow.
A ‘Colloid’ is a substance that is, at a molecular level, evenly distributed through a second substance, with a stability so that it does not settle out. Milk, for example is an emulsion, which is a type of colloid, where butterfat is evenly distributed through water. Unlike oil and water, a colloid will not separate out.
Hydrocolloid plasters are made up of gelatin, suspending a water-soluble polymer that forms a gel. This serves a dual purpose in that it absorbs the excess moisture from the blister, but as it swells, it also creates a cushioned, protective layer whilst the healing process takes place. These plasters look a bit like a piece of transparent rubber and are quite a bit thicker than fabric plasters. They are fantastic for sealing off the skin from infection and should be a ‘must have’ in your first aid kit.
Stage 4 – Burst Blister
This is where the blister skin has broken and the serum has leaked out but the skin skill covers the damaged area. There will probably be a small hole or tear in the surface skin layer. DO NOT be tempted to pull the skin off as this will probably be stuck to the softer layers beneath and will help to create a protective layer.
In this case, clean the area well, dry it thoroughly and treat it as you would with an intact blister, using antiseptic, zinc oxide tape or a hydrocolloid plaster.
Stage 5 – Open Blister
An open blister is usually the result of continued rubbing once it has burst. The serum will have leaked out and the loose covering of skin will have torn or simply sloughed off. This is referred to as the blister having been de-roofed (kind of self explanatory). If the skin is still moist then it may be possible to move it back in place to help cover the wound. If not then you should carefully remove the dead skin, retaining as much of it as you can and then treat it as you would any other wound (if you don’t know how to treat wounds then you should learn, before going out in the wild with sharp, hot, pointy and bitey things).
Disinfect the area using a sterile wipe from your first aid kit, or you could use a solution of water and potassium permanganate and a cotton swab. Apply some antiseptic cream and dress it with a low adherent dressing, held securely with either zinc oxide tape or micro-porous tape. Have no illusions, this is now going to be a source of some considerable pain and not going to get any better by further walking. If you can rest for the night, then leave it to air before dressing it or simply go home as this may be your best option. If you must continue then you may want to take some pain killers, but only use them as directed and do not attempt to apply anything other than antiseptic directly to the wound.
So there it is, our recommendations for some basic principles for looking after your feet. Make them as ritualistic as cleaning your teeth and you will probably find that it becomes a nice bit of self-pampering to end the day and you should wake the next day raring to go!