Successful hiking: looking after your feet

By Carolyn Barry November 8, 2013
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You can never underestimate the importance of looking after your feet on a big hike.

IF THERE’S ONE THING I’ve always underestimated in all my bushwalking years, it’s been my feet. Like many people, I’ve taken the time (and the money) getting good gear that will keep me comfortable, dry, protected, hydrated.

But I’ve always just put up with blisters as a kind of necessary evil for getting into the outdoors. After virtually tearing my heals to shreds while hiking in full leather (broken in) boots in the Grand Tetons in the US, I vowed never again to wear full leathers. That helped the blister situation, but with a tough walk and a heavy pack blisters are still inevitable.

After talking to a few people who had done the Oxfam Trailwalker before and ended up with horrendous blisters (see Australian Mountain Bike editor Chris Southwood’s gnarly blister below), it scared me into really thinking about looking after my feet.

According to sports podiatrist Emily Smith, somewhere around 80 per cent (or more!) of entrants in the Trailwalker in Sydney last year suffered from blisters. That’s a staggering number. I don’t want to be one of those statistics.

So I decided to do all I could for my feet when I trekked a good chunk of the Larapinta Trail last week. I was walking the trail for fun, but it turned out to be a seriously good training walk for Oxfam. It is without a doubt the most rugged track I have ever trekked (and I’ve hiked in many tough tracks around the Rocky Mountains, Tasmania, NZ, to name a few).

About 60km out of the 85km of the sections I did was on sharp, rocky creek beds and then on even sharper, rockier ridges. It was a literal boot breaker. In fact, the Larapinta guides typically go through 3-4 pairs a season themselves.

I typically walked 16km a day with a heavy pack (with a pack about 40-45 per cent of my body weight), but while my boots didn’t last the trail, my feet amazingly did. I had just one hot spot on each foot (in the same place) and NO blisters. I put this down to two interventions:

1) Taping my feet
I’ve never done this before, so I thought I’d give it a try. I followed the directions from the video above from the guys at Sports Podiatry, and even added another layer or so, as I couldn’t quite remember how much to cover my foot when I was out on the trail. The taping provided stability and a second skin. Even when there was three days of constant drizzling rain, the taping stayed put for the first two days on one foot and then almost the whole time on the other.

I still got a hot spot on each foot, but since the taping well and truly covered it, there wasn’t really anything more I could do. But the tape provided a barrier so that a blister never developed.

2) Toe socks
The guys at Injinji sent some socks to test. And there is no better, more rugged trail than the Larapinta for testing gear. I’ve also never tried wearing two socks, but very quickly I found a great combination in a toe sock liner and a normal Icebreaker sock over the top. The liner sock is so thin you don’t actually feel the material between your toes, but it does a great job of wicking moisture and keeping blisters at bay. The two-sock system means any rubbing or friction generally occurs between the socks and not between material and your skin.

One difference though, is that I was able to have a night’s rest between sections of the trail. Being on your feet for 30-40 hours almost continuously is still another story. But I’ll definitely be taping my feet and wearing the toe-sock/Icebreaker combo for the main event.

Emily’s tips for foot care during the long haul are:

  • foot taping (see video above)
  • have a second pair of dry, well-worn in shoes as backup
  • use a liner sock and a thick sock over the top – like a coolmax liner and a wool/nylon blend. 100% wool is not necessarily the best, especially on its own
  • do NOT use cotton socks (they hold moisture and increase friction)
  • if your feet get wet, change socks and shoes if necesary – keeping your feet dry will go a long way to blister prevention
  • take care of ‘hot spots’ (warn, red, sore areas of friction on your skin) before they turn into a blister.

Team Australian Geographic Adventure Oxfam Trailwalker page