Foot care – WARNING contains feet!

Foot care triangle

Personal Hygiene in the woods, or on long trips, is a very underrated and under discussed topic. Poor personal hygiene for extended periods can lead to health issues both physical and mental.

In this blog post we take a look at the care of our feet, a part of the body that is vital to our outdoor activities but often forgotten about until issues occur. Whilst practicing bushcraft, on a hike or out in the wilderness, staying off of our feet is very difficult. In a genuine survival situation this is especially true, there is just so much that has to be done to keep yourself alive.

What challenges do our feet face in these scenarios?

  1. Tiredness and swelling
  2. Dampness
  3. Blisters
  4. Corns, bunions and verrucas,
  5. Cracks and cuts
  6. Trench foot
  7. Injury

Tiredness and swelling
After a long hike, or just a day of being active and constantly on your feet, you generally can’t wait to get your boots off! This feeling is often caused by the feet swelling during the course of the day and the subsequent constriction that occurs along with the associated loss of blood circulation. Whilst unlikely to cause an immediate issue, over time, the build up of tiredness and swelling can cause some of the other issues discussed in this post, especially injury.

It’s important to understand that your feet will get damp when wearing footwear even on the driest and warmest days. As we exercise we sweat. This is as true for the feet as it is for other parts of our body. That sweat is captured in our socks and held close to the skin. This is exacerbated by modern boots with waterproof linings that don’t allow the moisture to be released as efficiently as needed.

Remember that  wrinkly look your hands have when you spend to long in the bath our washing up? Remember how soft the skin feels? Moisture really is at the root of a lot of the issues our feet can suffer including fungal infections, blisters, sores and in extreme cases, trench foot.

Commonly caused by the rubbing of the skin against a hard point whether that be a part of your footwear or something as simple as a seed or stone caught in your sock, blisters are in simple terms a separation between the layers of the skin. Blisters don’t form instantaneously, there is usually the warning of an increasingly uncomfortable feeling in one localised spot. This is commonly referred to as a hot spot. For those who remember the game shows of the 1990s, hot spots are not good spots and need to be dealt with immediately. If a hot spot is ignored and a blister forms this is at best uncomfortable and at worst completely debilitating especially if it bursts and becomes infected. This really is a case of prevention being better than cure.

Corns, Bunions and Verrucas
Whilst notionally outside of the scope of this blog post, they are worth mentioning to say that they need to be resolved or accounted for before any planned trip so that the don’t become an issue during the trip.

Cracks and cuts
Cracks and cuts on the feet are another potential source of infection. A cut that just won’t heal and tears open every step you take can be agony.

Trench foot
Trench foot or immersion foot syndrome is a nasty condition that became more widely recognised during World War 1. Feet that are constantly wet and cold can go blotchy, develop redness and blisters and then have bits of the skin and tissue die and fall off. In extreme cases this can lead to infection, gangrene and ultimately amputation. Even mild cases of trench foot are reported to be extremely painful.

Studies have shown that trench foot can develop on damp feet in as little as 13 hours and up to temperatures as high as 16 degrees centigrade – sounds like the typical British summer! Fortunately it is relatively easy to avoid with a little care and attention.

Another category that’s outside of the scope of this blog post but worth a mention with the popularity of zero drop shoes is injury, especially associated with the tendons of the foot. It takes time to build up the strength and resilience of the foot muscles and tendons associated with walking barefoot after a lifetime in cushioned shoes. This can lead to stretched and sore muscles and tendons that can become worse if aggravated during a long trip.

So how do we deal with these issues? As bushcrafters, we like rules of three and triangles, so here is the foot care triangle:

Foot care triangle
Foot care triangle.

The first line of defence in protection of the feet is properly fitting footwear that is adequate for the environment and well broken in. This will reduce the likelihood of hot spots occurring due to the footwear itself and will allow time for the lacing and fabric to settle in to accommodate your foot swelling whilst being tight enough to prevent the footwear moving on the foot. In simple terms, less movement equals less blisters.

Next comes high quality wool or wool blend socks. These help wick moisture away from the foot, supply a level of cushioning from rubbing and retain warmth even when damp. Three pairs of socks should be carried and used in rotation. One clean dry pair on the feet, one laundered pair on the outside of the pack (or somewhere else appropriate) drying, and one clean dry pair in the pack ready to put on.

The final element needed is a high quality foot care power that ideally contains both an anti-fugal agent and Allantoin, a compound derived from Comfrey that aids skin healing. Foot powder helps keep the surface of the skin dry and reduce friction.

When you stop for the day it’s important to follow a good foot care regime:

  1. Take your footwear and socks off
  2. Elevate your feet for 10 to 20 minutes to help reduce swelling
  3. Whilst elevated wiggle the toes to improve circulation and help your feet air dry
  4. Inspect your feet for any emerging issues
  5. Clean your feet (wash if possible or use a wet wipe)
  6. Deal with any issues
  7. Apply a thin even coat of foot powder all over the foot including between the toes
  8. Put on clean dry socks
  9. Dry footwear if possible
  10. Launder old socks and set to dry.

It’s a good idea to carry a selection of plasters, blister plasters and podiatry pads/cushions in your first aid kit to facilitate foot care. The small additional weight and bulk is well worth it.

As previously mentioned, prevention is far better than cure so fix any issues early and don’t let hot spots become blisters or other sources of infection.

It’s worth remembering that soldiers know a thing or two about walking long distances whilst heavily loaded. There is a lot of sound advise on foot care in most military manuals, many of which are available as free downloads.

Overall, spending the time to take care of your feet means that they can take care of you when you most need it. With healthy, pain free feet, your outdoor adventures will be far more enjoyable!

Healthy feet will look after you
Healthy feet will look after you

Related posts