Food for foot thoughts

My feet are wonderful things that have taken me to some spectacular places without much grumbling . That, however, does not include the first year of Coast2Coast Sweden in 2013. Not having had a blister after a decade of equally long mountain hikes in both Scandinavia and North America, I did not give foot trouble a thought when I set out from Kalmar on May 5 2013.

Sarek september 2013
Boy, did I wake up to a different reality pretty fast. And I had a couple of painful weeks, the worst being some 5-7 days out of Kalmar. So, since then I did some reading and thinking about how to manage my feet better for 2014. How did this work out, then and what are my conclusions for C2C 2015?

Just remember that people are different and perhaps even more so, are their feet. Most of us have two and they are not as identical as one usually thinks. So what might work for one foot might not work for another and what might work for me might not work for you. We all have to manage our own feet as best as we can, and, to quote the US Marines: Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.

A very good book on the subject of feet was recommended by Joe Newton after Coast2Coast 2013. It is called Fixing your Feet by John Vonhof. It concerns itself mainly with feet doing ultra runs and the likes, the parts about hiking are a bit too much on the traditional side, considering that the author thinks hiking boots are a given, which I do not agree with, particularly not on really long hikes. But what he has to say about runners feet is very useful. However, his site is a goldmine, please dig in.

The book is very good on ideas on how to avoid trashing your feet and, when that has happened, how to fix them. So I have combined this with some traditional and general knowledge from the hiking community, my army days and whatever in order to cook up something that will save my feet from embarrassing themselves and me.

Facts: I will be walking some 400 kilometers roughly and more than 90 percent being gravel roads. The rest will be asphalt and some kilometers of forest paths and board walks across the moors in a few places. This means that literally every one of hundreds of thousands of footsteps I take will be almost identical and land on a hard surface. Something you seldom do encounter on mountain trails in Scandinavia, nor anyplace where you travel cross country, away from trails. So walking on soft surfaces as much as possible, like grass beside the roads or whatever, is certainly a good idea.

Last year on C2C I used the same footwear that I have used for the last ten years, and which have worked so well for me in Scandinavia and North America, both on trails and for bushwhacking. A pair of Salomon Tech Amphibian plus very thin nylon socks, 'ladies socks', of about 50 denier or so. A combination that works extremely well in damp surroundings, like you mostly find on the Scandinavian tundra.

My own diagnosis is as follows: My footwear ventilates very well and dries out fast. But they also let dust come in, because they are made of mesh. The socks are thin and do not embrace and contain dust particles very well. That is something I have to change.

The book Fixing your feet lays down the three factors that create blisters, usually in combination:
  • Moisture
  • Friction
  • Heat

These are the factors we all have to manage in order to stay blister free.

So shoes or socks that trap moisture are to be avoided. That means Goretex shoes are not ideal. I will use Goretex socks only when I need to stay warm. The ordinary socks I use should wick well, transporting moisture away from the skin as quickly as possible.

The shoes should keep dust and sand out as much as possible. Gaiters might help. The dust that enters anyway should be contained within some reasonably thick layers of socks, keeping the dust particles from rubbing on the skin.

Socks that contain sweat and dust should be changed and rinsed regularly, to lower the friction koefficient. Anything that lowers friction on the skin should be used, including taping and ointments.

Heat should be kept to a minimum by well ventilated shoes and socks, however the weather is of course difficult to influence.

So this is what I used in 2014:

From left to right: Superfeet Carbon, Haglofs LIM Lite Low, Superfeet Copper.

Shoes were a pair of Haglofs LIM Low light  that I hade used in my training for the last month or two before C2C. They worked well, very pliant but with minimal cushioning.

For inner soles I brought three different ones. The original ones plus two from Superfeet; the Carbon and the Copper. Carbons are minimalistic, very thin and light (95 g) while still giving support while Coppers have extra cushioning (160 g). The results were obvious, since the shoes had little cushioning I ended up using the Coppers for almost the entire hike. And I was happy about their thickness.

From left to right: Superfeet Carbon, Haglofs LIM Lite Low, Superfeet Copper.
The conclusion is that in 2015 I will use shoes that have a bit more cushioning than the Haglöfs LIM Low. Even then it is not unlikelythat I will use the Carbons. I will certainly bring them.

In 2014 I also used a chemical way of lowering friction on the skin of the feet and help them to stay dry. Sportslick is one of several ointments that does this for you, these kinds of salves are often used by adventure racers. I tested this during the first day or so, applied to one foot only, in order to see if there were any differences. I could not detect any, so I skipped using the Sportslick and will not bother with it for 2015.

The blisters I acquired last year on C2C were located in such a spot on both feet that it made both Ulla and Fia suggest that I had, at least slighly, fallen front/transverse arches. This seems likely and is pretty normal when you are over 50, my doctor tells me. So far I have none of the symptoms described in the article, but the severe blisters I got were located right under the transverse arch, behind the bigger toes.

What I used in 2015 to minimize friction was using Engo patches glued to my inner soles in exactly the spot where I got my blisters last year.

 Above you can see how the Engo patches look today. To me this is evidence that there has been a lot of friction and I prefer this friction between my feet and the insoles to be on the smooth, teflon-like surface of fresh Engo patches, and not on the less than smooth surface of the insoles themselves. So I will not only use Engo patches this year, but also bring along replacements for the hike.

Blister prone area, front arch, taped with 'butterfly'
'Butterfly' on top of foot
'Butterfly' covered with ordinary tape. Note: Longer than shown, from top of foot on one side to top of the other
I will also tape my feet in that area to prevent blisters from occuring. In 2014 I used Kinesiology tape on advice from Fixing your Feet, and taped the front arch area using a 'butterfly' shaped piece of tape running between my toes and up on top of the foot as well. Underneath the foot I covered the butterfly wing with a lenght of 50 mm Hansaplast connecting to the top of the foot on both sides.

The taping idea was great, the Kinesiology tape was not. It was wonderfully soft and elastic, but had no staying power at all when it got wet. I will not use it in 2015. I will use the traditional brown Hansaplast, elastic as well and it stays on.

Above you see what I more or less ended up with in 2015. What you cannot see is the Compeed closest to the skin (yes, I got small blisters on both feet right there, but they gave me minmal problems compared to the huge ones on 2013). Then there is a 'butterfly' of Hansaplast and some duck-tape on top of that. This duck-tape was put in to further minimize friction. I do not know how well it worked.

No matter, this is what I will start with in this particular place right out of Kalmar. I will not wait for blisters, I will Compeed myself, protect and keep the Compeed in place with Hansaplast and then perhaps add something 'slicker' on top of this. And Engo patches in my shoes.

Another ancient, or at least old, trick to minimize friction is to wear double socks. The idea being that chafing will be between sock layers instead of between sock and skin. I used three or four different varieties of this in 2014.
Three pair of Smartwool Ultralight weave in different designs. I will bring two.

The first combo was two pair of Smartwool merino socks, one shorter and one slightly longer, since it is the foot area that needs the double layers and not my ankles. I was using the thinnest weave they have, the ultra light. Thin socks dry out faster, can be switched around so that the inner pair becomes the outer pair etc.

Two pair of thin Coolmax and one pair of Sole double runners socks

The second combo was two pair of generic thin Coolmax socks, to see if they somehow worked better than the merino in certain conditions. Or if they did not. The third variety is a pair of synthetic runners socks from Sole that are already made of a double material, to see how that would work.

I will also, most likely bring a couple of pairs of my regular thin nylon ladies socks, after all they weigh only 18 grams each. Quite a collection of socks it will be at any rate, since I will also bring my warm pile socks, my waterproof Rocky Goretex socks and my merino or fleece night socks, socks that I ONLY use in my sleeping bag.

I also brought a pair of Dry Max Blister guard socks with Teflon interwoven to lessen the friction simply because they are comparatively thick.

The bottom line for 2015: I started out using the double merino socks (2+2 pairs) and usually switched them at midday for the other pairs. If it was convenient I rinsed the used pair, otherwise I did just let them dry out until the next day. I took care to shake as much dust out of them as I could.

Using the Coolmax socks the same way as well as the Sole double socks I found no differences really and ended up using the merinos all the time. I will do that this year as well. Merinos are more expensive than Coolmax socks that can be found in most sporting goods store, often at a discount. My guess is that it would not matter to me if I would use merinos or Coolmax.

Another piece of advice: Be fussy. On top of all these measures I will add extreme vigilance. Whenever I feel the slightest tendency to blistering, I will take measures to stop this. And I will start out from Kalmar extremely slowly and carefully, my goal for the first day of C2C this year as well is to be the very last person to arrive in camp at Brändebomåla that night. Do not try to beat me, I can be very competitive when it comes to things like being last!


Joe Newton said...

Certainly sounds like a good system Jörgen. From the information I've gleaned from the Fix Your Feet book, and your experiences last year, your proposed system is what I might have considered for this or a similar trek.

One thing I might also consider is a more cushioned shoe than I normally choose. I'm not a fan of overly cushioned sports shoes but I also don't subscribe to the current craze of sandal wearing minimalism-at-all-costs. Pounding gravel roads all day (something we did periodically on the Jotunhiemstien) left my feet feeling pummelled. It will be interesting to hear how you get on this year.

Jörgen Johansson said...

Joe, yeah I'm aiming for the old double belt-double suspenders, hoping that the combination will work. And you are right about the cushioning there. The Lim lows are low on most things including cushioning, so that is why I thought the Copper soles were a good supplement.

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