Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Caring for your feet

In 2004, Machi (Dr. Renato Alvarado Vidal) walked the camino Frances barefoot. One of the benefits he writes about is not getting any blisters! We can’t all walk the camino barefoot but there are a few things we can do to prevent blisters. Well, there are - sometimes!

In August 2007 on the camino I thought I’d done everything right. I was wearing good quality Bridgedale sock liners under good quality Coolmax hiking socks.
I'd worn in my trusty boots with months of training for day after day trekking up and down hills and mountains, on gravel, rock and shale paths including a 700km trek on the Via Francigena to Rome.
I carried my lightweight OMM 32L backpack and weighed everything that went into it so that I didn’t carry more than 10-15% of my bodyweight.
Then, just 2 days into my hike I felt hot spots developing on both heels and on the side of my big toe.
I was really cross because I never get blisters.
Admittedly it had rained for a week and the paths were quagmires of unrelenting sludge. We started walking in the rain and continued in rain for three days. My trusty old boots were no longer waterproof and after a few kilometres became waterlogged dead weights on my feet. The rain poured down our legs and into the top of the boots and sloshed up and over wading through rivers of mud. Our socks were soggy after just a few minutes and I could hear my feet sloshing inside the boots. By the end of day two they looked like wrinkled prunes and by the end of day three I had huge blisters on both heels and a large translucent orb on the side of my left big toe.
When I discovered large developing blisters on the back of my heels I drained them and covered them with Compeed, a 2nd skin type silicone plaster much loved by camino pilgrims. BIG mistake!! Firstly, Compeed does NOT like soft, broken skin or wet, sodden socks. It does not like waterlogged boots dragging the wet socks up and down on the heels – especially when the boot has been sucked into thick mud and has to be dragged out with brute force. It does not like to be softened in a hot shower and covered up with warm, clean socks only to have cold, wet socks and boots rubbing on them again the next day. After a day or two the Compeed starts to disintegrate and any further friction causes it to adhere to the socks in gooey, messy blobs.
When I took my socks off on day four, the Compeed stuck firmly to the socks ripping the skin off the blister on my right heel. I had to cut the sock and some of the Compeed off my left heel. Both heels were a mess and for a fleeting moment (the exact moment I screamed as the sock and blister tore off) I thought that was the end of my walk!
When I hobbled into Villamyor de Monjardin the hospitalero cut away the remaining Compeed, applied an antibacterial cream to my heels, covered them with Dove pads, taped those down with plaster, covered that with sock liners, protected the heels with small wash-up sponges before putting a second pair of sock liners to keep the sponges in place. Of course I couldn’t get my boots on so I walked to Logrono in psuedo Croc sandals. There I bought hiking sandals and wore them for the remaining 600 km to Santiago. For nearly two weeks I had to change the pads and plasters every day until they skin finally healed and started to dry out.
What should I have done differently – besides walking barefoot?
I should have bought new, waterproof boots.
I should have lubricated my feet with a silicone shield every morning and during the day.
I should have attended to the hot-spots right away and not waited until we reached our destination (not an easy thing to do when it is pouring with rain and there is no shelter.)
I should NOT have used Compeed on soft, broken blisters.
A camino pilgrim said: If you use silicone ointment, polypropylene liner socks, and wool socks inside properly fitting boots, you WILL NEVER GET A BLISTER.

This year (2009) I tried all of the above, but protected the sensitive area of my feet with gel moleskin. (Picture credit - Dr Todd's) And, I didn't get a blister!

I have asked an expert foot man to give some advice on caring for feet and treating blisters - so watch this space!
Update: I wrote to John Vonhof who has one of the best websites on foot care that I have seen. He is too busy to write an article for this blog so, instead of re-inventing the wheel, I would like to refer you to his blog.
NB: Spain is a 1st World country. I'm sure that there are more 'farmacias' along the camino than there are bottle stores! The growth in the number of pilgrims means that nearly every pharmacy carries all sorts of products for the hurt, wounded, limping or ill pilgrim.
One of my favourite products is 'alcohol de romero' a wonderful, clear liquid that cools, dries and refreshes hot, tired feet and muscles.
For more on medicines along the camino, check out an earlier blog post:


  1. Our local newspaper had an article on minimalist footwear this morning. They were talking about the Vibram Five Fingers. I'm tempted.

  2. Thanks for the link! They look very interesting.
    I found a similar thing, recommended by most adventure sport websites, made by
    I'd love to try them out!

  3. Susan uses the injinji and I have tried them. The difference is that they are toe socks, while the Vibram Five Fingers are toe shoes.

    On the injinji socks, they are very comfortable, but wear out in weeks or days, getting holes on the toes. Susan has gone to wearing them as a liner sock, and then puts a normal liner sock over the toe socks. That resolves the wear problem, but is more sock than I want. I normally just wear a pair of liner socks.

  4. Hi Sil
    Great post. Thank you!!
    We all worry about blisters and foot care. So I can never get too much good advice.
    I just bought injinji socks to try, as I have heard good things about them. But I won't try them while walking the Camino, as I leave in just a few days and don't want to try something new on a long trek. I will take a pair along to wear in the afternoons with flipflops.
    Now that you mention waterproofing, I better run out and get some for my boots.
    A wonderful site you may want to visit for taking care of feet is

  5. Great post, Sil! Thank you!
    I have found out that my feet need special soles. Incredible how the soles are changing my outlook on life!

  6. I wrote an article on the camino for last month's issue of JOY magazine, a local Christian magazine. The title was "Put Soul in your Shoes". I think the 'souls' in our shoes have had an incredible influence on many of us!

  7. Thanks for your help on our blog. Keep checking!

  8. I have subsribed to receive updates from your blog and will be there in spirit.
    You two will do just fine! Here is a lovely bit of verse just for you:

    We are pilgrims on a journey,
    We are travelers on the road;
    We are here to help each other
    Walk the mile and bear the load.

    I will weep when you are weeping;
    When you laugh I'll laugh with you.
    I will share your joy and sorrow
    'Til we've seen this journey through.
    The Servant Song - by: Richard Gillard

  9. Great post! It is so important to take care of our feet. I once dropped a 60 pound backpack on my toe whilst standing on a rock! Got staph infection in the toe halfway on the trail and was stuck in the jungle for two days hoping it would heal when I finally just had to tough it out to get home! Big lesson learned for me!
    My big toe has never been the same! LOL...
    Take care of the feet!! #1 rule for the hiker...and take water...LOL

    You have a wonderful blog! I enjoyed visiting you here today!