“Take care of your feet Rifleman Legon, and your feet will take care of you.” In a previous life I was in the Territorial Army. Our boots were stitched leather with hard rubber soles. Comfort was a bonus and could not be taken for granted: it was something you earned with a long process of breaking in, good personal skills, copious boot polish and a few pearls of wisdom passed down through the ranks. In turn, blistered feet and black bruised toe nails, biding their time before they would simply fall off, were regular companions for me as I hobbled to work on a Monday morning.

Modern walking and mountaineering boots paired with the right choice of socks mean that comfort is something that can be aspired to from the beginning, yet for long distance trekkers and mountaineers our feet can still be the bane of our outdoor life. Blisters, bruised toes and even trench foot are all potential deal-breakers on the mountain and without being properly tended to can pose long term health problems too. So without joining HM Forces, sit back and digest some pearls of wisdom courtesy of a few old soldiers.

End of a wet Welsh 3000s trek

Lesson #1 – poorly fitted boots at whatever price are a fool’s (and false) economy

I will begin with the beginning – poorly fitted boots. Many years ago I was passing through one of the myriad of outdoor shops that populate Snowdonia – as one does. There before me were a pair of Scarpa Manta boots in the sale and priced at 40% of the usual RRP. Who cares that they didn’t fit – I’d cross that bridge when I got to it I thought – they looked great in the box and at that price they were mine! In the space of a week of Scottish mountaineering my feet were red raw and generally trashed. The whole experience was an ibuprofen fuelled week of pain and misery.

When you buy your boots only go to a reputable shop that offers you a proper measuring and fitting service. If I walk into a shop and it hasn’t got a huge selection of boots, a ramp and a stone-bed, I won’t even ask for service, let alone buy a pair of their boots. The ramp is really important to check that your boots aren’t too small in size – if they are your toes will bruise on the down-hills.

And when you buy a pair of boots, buy some socks too. Those tired old socks you’ve been wearing were worn in and worn out with your last pair of boots…

Lesson # 2 – don’t underestimate the role of your socks

Two pairs of socks aren’t a bad idea – they compensate and allow for some of the abrasion which can cause your feet to blister.  But there are no hard and fast rules and these days I prefer using just the one pair.  Modern socks are often double layered and modern boots are extremely well padded and made from softer more malleable materials. This negates most of the original reasons for wearing more than one pair of socks. Specialist liners are sometimes a solution to blister or foot problems, especially in stiff mountain boots that won’t flex with your foot, and can be a godsend to long distance walkers who can’t wash/change their socks as often as they would like.

First of all – don’t wear cotton socks or any socks with ridges in the construction. At the same time don’t be fooled into buying 100% wool or merino wool socks. Apart from being incredibly expensive they will wear out sooner than those that combines wool with modern synthetic materials. And socks made from wholly natural fibres tend not to remove sweat from the skin’s surface as well as those containing man-made wicking materials. (If your feet don’t breathe, they get wet and are then more susceptible to blistering). Recommended are technical socks that fuse the very best New Wool with the most advanced synthetic fibres. Not cheap for a pair of socks – but vital for comfort and warmth and staving off the blisters!

Lesson # 3 – powder those plates’

Trench Foot (immersion foot) is no longer the monopoly of the soldier: it is a condition caused by prolonged wet and cold conditions. The effect is vasoconstriction depriving the feet of a blood supply. The feet become red, swollen and incredibly painful over the space of about a week. In exceptional circumstances amputation is the treatment. Hence prevention as usual is better than the cure.

On long treks foot powder is a key component in my packing list. I don’t apply it to my ‘hooves’ at the start of the day, (it can ball up and cause blisters), rather at the end after I have washed them. Even if you don’t wash your body – wash and dry your feet! Powder weighs little and yet contributes so positively to the health of your feet: helping also to stave off various fungal diseases. Not just that, but there is an enormous sense of well-being attained just from wiping your feet and then applying to them some anti-bacterial foot powder just before you push them into the depths of your pit.

Lesson #4 – preparing your feet

Even the best fitted boots with the best socks can still lead to blistering. Ultimately long distance walks and/or rigid boots are tough on your feet. But blistering can be avoided by taping up your feet. The best tape to use is 3 inch wide zinc-oxide tape. When you go on walks make a mental note of where you might be getting hot spots – but with rigid boots more than likely your heels will lift a bit inside the boot – so these areas at least will need taping up.

Start the process the night before the walk. Shave any hair from your feet, (feels kinky I know, but it’ll save the pain when it comes to removing the tape).  Best of all, get a mate to tape your feet for you. Lie on your back, bend your foot in towards you while they apply the tape smoothing it out and then crimping together any remaining creases. These creases then need to be cut off so that a smooth second skin is all that remains. Some powder over the top helps absorb any stickiness too. And, by doing this the night before, it really helps the tape to adhere to your skin as it warms it through without the abrasion.

An alternative approach is to smother your feet with vaseline or better maybe, with Glide (it’s what cyclists use around their buttocks and inner thighs). Reportedly this works a treat – but it’s no good left at home in the drawer!

Keeping your nails trimmed is also of key importance. If they are nicely trimmed back they won’t rub and cause blisters on adjacent toes, and they are far less likely to bruise too.

Lesson #5 – treating blisters

It happens – feet get blistered. There are various stages and each needs treating slightly differently. But in all cases, the sooner you stop and sort it out, the better.

First of all, you may have a hot-spot developing. In this case the skin is intact and no blister has formed. There are two things you can try. You may try rubbing in a bit of Vaseline to take out some of the friction. Alternatively it might not be too late to tape the foot up with some zinc-oxide tape – or even some gaffa-tape!

If there is any blistering however and you have some distance to go it will need popping and dressing. Try and be as clean as possible with this whole process. Clean the surrounding skin and the blister using an alcohol wipe. Clean whatever you will pop it with using a wipe and maybe the flame of a lighter too. Once drained of fluid clean the surface once again, and when it’s dry apply a blister dressing such as Compede. A cheaper alternative is to use a non-adhesive dressing stuck down with the zinc-oxide tape – and possibly more durable too. At night time, remove any dressing, clean your feet and re-dress them the next day.

If it’s the end of a walk and you’re headed home then there is nothing to be gained by draining a blister – leave it intact, keep it clean, and allow nature, the fresh air and some rest to heal it for you.

Take care of your boots and your boots will take care of your feet

image of walking boots and running trainers

Lesson #6 – take care of your boots

It’s not just your feet that need looking after. Keep your boots clean and allow air to dry them as much as possible. On a trek even if I can do nothing else I will pull out and air the insoles. Clean boots also allow the pores to breath – thus helping to keep your feet a bit dryer for a bit longer. Old newspaper is great for drying boots. Be sure to remove the first set of paper after about ten minutes – it’s likely to be sodden and unable to absorb any more water. Replace with more paper or leave your boots just to air out.

Finally, remember these sage words also inherited from my Sergeant Major: “Any fool can be uncomfortable”. Look after yourself – and now go and enjoy some mountains!

Further Reading

Ten ways to be better at map reading
Map and Compass beats a GPS Device Every Time. Here’s Why
Training for challenge walks – guide to get fit
Outdoor First Aid – Five items of essential first aid kit for the outdoors
What to do in an Emergency Outdoors
Act Now: Seize the Day
A Look at the Welsh 3000s Challenge
Ten Top Tips For Taking Better Photographs