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!

Gear - footwear for C2C

(The following is a slightly re-written version of the footwear chapter from my book Smarter Backpacking, in Swedish Lättare packning från A till Ö)
Carrying a weight on your feet takes five times more energy than carrying the same weight on your back. Thus, finding the lightest footwear that does the job has top priority for me. To me, the use of light mesh trail runners has meant less aching feet, less blisters and a lighter step every inch of the way. Getting my feet wet is no big deal as I can don waterproof socks if my feet should get cold. Even though consciously getting your feet wet sounds extreme to some people, looking for the lightest possible footwear makes for a more comfortable hike and less weariness after the day is done.

You may easily forget that your footwear also is something you carry – something that requires energy from your body to be propelled forward. When you make a list of every piece of gear you bring and their weights, you find out that footwear has a substantial weight. In my pack list, which mainly contains light or very light gear, my shoes are the heaviest single piece of equipment. The mesh shoes I have favored since 2004 weigh around 740 grams (26 oz) in my size 11. The second heaviest item is my sleeping bag at 685 grams (24 oz).

Most traditional hiking boots weigh more than 1 kilo (35 oz) per pair and at times around 2 kilos (70 oz). Climbers preparing for the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 formulated a rule of thumb; one pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back. In other words, to move something attached to your feet requires five times the amount of energy that it takes to transport the same weight on your back.

Since then quite a bit of research supports this rule of thumb. Depending on circumstances such as speed, slope and weight carried, there is of course variation. The US Army has published research that shows a weight increase span of 3.5-5.25 times. Research done by Stephen Legg and others, published in Ergonomics 1986, indicates that carrying a weight on your feet requires 6.4 times the energy output compared to carrying that weight on your back.

The mechanics behind this are not simple, but an amateur like yours truly can understand that walking and running necessitates that you move your feet vertically, against gravitation, even if the purpose only is motion on a horizontal level. Your upper body, including the pack, however, moves very little vertically when you are walking horizontally. There is also a leverage effect. Having a weight at the far end of a lever, like your leg, makes it more energy-consuming to lift your foot than if the lever had been shorter or nonexistent.

Not only the energy expenditure makes me advocate lighter and more supple footwear for hiking, than what has been the norm for a long time. Stiff and heavy boots seldom give our feet and lower legs an opportunity to bend and move in the way they were created to move. Our limbs were created to walk barefoot. The restrictions often lead to diverse ailments, from blisters to aches, in the feet and lower legs, is a claim being voiced increasingly.

I have thought that carrying a heavy load also requires heavy and sturdy footwear, which in turn means aching feet and legs. I thought this was because I was not used to hiking long distances and carrying a pack. Nowadays I tend to think that the boots themselves contribute, maybe considerably, to my weary feet at day’s end. One aim of my writings is to make clear that heavy packs and heavy boots are not a natural law for backpacking.

For almost 10 years now, on some long and strenuous wilderness hikes, I have done a lot better with a much lighter pack than I ever thought possible. I have also done better with light shoes than I ever thought was possible – in fact, a great deal better than with heavier footwear. Many hikers have similar experiences. Fortunately, the market for light and quick-drying trail running shoes has expanded explosively in recent years.

Today there is much more to choose from for the lightweight packer, than there was only a couple of years ago. In fact, there is such a wide choice that choosing can be difficult. With the huge amount of choices available, I can only offer general advice.

To start with, you have to count on getting your feet wet while hiking, most of the time. Especially if you hike in arctic or sub-arctic areas most of the time, like I do. But this is not as big a problem as most of us imagine before we try it. As long as you are on the move, your feet stay warm most of the time. However, you must be able to keep your feet warm in circumstances when wet feet tend to become cold feet. The best way for doing this is either by using water-proof breathable socks like Sealskinz or Goretex socks from different makers or neopren socks used for water sports. I use these socks onlys when my feet do not stay warm enough even will hiking vigorously. When I am sitting and resting or in camp I don warm dry socks. These can be protected from the wet shoes with waterproof socks or ordinary plastic bags.

As for the shoes, they should soak up and retain minimal amounts of water when they get wet. Remember that water is heavy and it is very energy-consuming to carry heavy weight on your feet. You might think that waterproof shoes with membranes, of the Goretex variety, should be useful, but I do not agree. Trail runners with these membranes protect your feet initially and in circumstances where you do not risk getting into water over the upper rim of the shoe, like on sidewalks.

But if you are hiking in the wilderness, you will not be able to avoid getting water into your shoes. Even walking in a lasting rain shower on a sidewalk means that water running down your legs will eventually make your feet wet. In my opinion, waterproof membranes in your shoes only stop the inevitable water from draining away from them, once it has entered. The membrane will also hinder the drying of shoes and socks.

Instead I prefer shoes that are mostly made from mesh, where the water can freely run in and out. They should also contain minimal amounts of padding that soaks up water and retains it longer than necessary. Thus, I am an advocate of the wet foot principle and claim that wet feet is no problem as long as your feet stay warm.

 If you get cold feet you need waterproof socks and insulating socks underneath those. This means that the size of the shoes has to accommodate thick as well as thin socks reasonably well. So, when I find a pair of mesh water sport shoes or trail runners that look suitable, I test if they can be used with really thin nylon socks (or barefoot) as well as with insulating socks plus waterproof socks. Shoes that are flexible enough for this are not always easy to find, but one way to increase their roominess is to take out the innersole when you are using the thickest sock combination.

Nowadays I rarely need the thick socks. Around 90% of my hiking, even in what the British would call ‘inclement weather’ is done in really thin socks and damp shoes, and it works better for me than any other solution I have found during four decades of backpacking. I also found that my shoes seldom (except for longer stretches of hiking off trail on steep slopes) need to be tied particularly tight. In fact, shoes that are close to falling off most of the time seem to give my feet a natural way of movement that keeps them from acquiring blisters or starting to ache after a long day hiking in strenuous terrain.

But this is me. If there is one thing that is very personal, it is what kind of shoes fit a certain pair of feet, or, what we believe will fit our feet. Some people have long, thin feet, others have short and chubby ones. Some people pronate, some people supinate. Some have strong ankles and some have weak ones. You cannot offer specific advice and claim that it will fit everyone, because it will not. Thus, I write solely about my experiences. You have to get your own. For several years, while covering thousands of kilometres, I have used water sport shoes for hiking. The uppers are mainly mesh and the soles provide a good grip on wet rock. Experts often claim that these shoes are not made for hiking and are not suitable. As long as my feet stay fit in them and I can walk 500 kilometers (310 miles) through the mountains and forests of northern Sweden using them, I tend to neglect such comments.

 I notice that the same experts claim that you need 2 kilo (4 lb) hiking boots for ‘demanding hikes in demanding terrain’ and that every other kind of footwear is unsuitable, because it was not made for backpacking. So far, I have found little evidence that this is not just a sales pitch that has been around for so long that magazines and writers of hiking books tend to look at it as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

So, my advice is: Try something light on your feet. There are in fact very light boots available today, if you think that changing to trail runners is a bit dramatic and extreme. But give light trail runners or mesh shoes a try. You can take them along as extra camp shoes and try to hike in them as well. If it works, fine. If not, you have your regular footwear in your pack. That is how I started, and pretty soon I realized that even though carrying heavy boots in the pack is a lot smarter (5 times smarter) than carrying them on my feet, I simply did not need them.

Sandals are an alternative type of footwear along the same lines. Many people swear by them. I have not used sandals for hiking because the sandals I have come across have been surprisingly heavy. This may change and sandals may become a viable alternative if they are made as light as my mesh shoes. I also prefer the protection that mesh provides, from sharp twigs, which you can encounter while bushwhacking. Some hikers have skipped shoes and hike barefoot; and you can find shoes that mimic walking barefoot, which have become common in the last few years.

 I have found that these bare-foot shoes take a while getting used to, so my advice is to try these at home, before you go off on a long hike.  I have used barefoot shoes in the Swedish mountains a bit and find that they work fairly well, but I prefer shoes with a bit more sole. This is probably habit, having walked a whole life in ordnary shoes it probably takes quite a bit of training to get used to barefoot shoes.

Summing this up: If you feel that what I have described it is too extreme and you want to stay with something more traditional, like boots, do not forget: Weight.

Be ruthless in your search for the lightest available footwear that is compatible with your feet. Today there are a number of light boots to be found that weigh between 500-1000 grams per pair (depending on size and make). You can save kilos ((several lbs) by choosing light instead of heavy footwear. Furthermore, you can multiply the weight difference by a factor 5 to see how much lighter your step and your hike will be.

For those interested in the particular shoes I use they are Salomon Tech Amphibians, which I have used in different reincarnations for almost a decade. I usually buy a new pair every year and use them for at least one long hike of 300-500 kilometers, mostly on wilderness trails or cross-country. Besides that I use them almost every day in summer around town.

These were the shoes I used on C2C in 2013. After that endeavour, when my feet suffered, one move I made was to change my shoes into something less 'meshy' in 2014. The theory being that they would let less grit and sand into my shoes. Grit that would create friction with blisters as a result. This theory seemed to work well enough on C2C in 2014, and I will use similar shoes but with more padding underneath for 2015.

It should be noted that I used the Salomon Tech Amphibs on my trek in Brooks Range, Alaska, a month after C2C 2014 and they worked perfectly in that wilderness, where there was a total absence of dusty roads.

For those interested in the science behind the advantages of light footwear and some of the research done on the subject, here is an article I wrote a couple of years ago. If you prefer reading in Swedish a fairly identical version of the same article can be found here.

Another interesting article is my interview with legendary backpacker and gear tester Chris Townsend on footwear.