In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
I have irritatingly sensitive feet. My mom always jokes that I can get a blister just from looking at a pair of new shoes, never mind wearing them around for a bit. In fact, I plan my shoe purchases based on brands that don’t give me blisters when I’m wearing them in (my favorites are TOMS, Sanuk, Teva, New Balance, and Chelsea Crew). So when I started planning my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, my biggest worry was what I’d do about blister prevention. I scoured hiking blogs and pilgrim groups on Facebook, looking for the magical solution that would help me avoid maiming myself on the longest walk of my life…and my hard work paid off.
I set off from St. Jean Pied de Port, France on October 8th, and arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain on November 12th. In between, I walked over 775 kilometers across a variety of terrains and through all kinds of weather – and didn’t get a single blister. In fact, my feet looked better at the end of the trip than they did when I started out! Everyone’s feet are different, and results may vary, but this is a good place to start if you’re looking for tips on how to avoid blisters on the Camino de Santiago (or any other long hike).
There are 4 pieces of the foot care puzzle when it comes to avoiding self-inflicted irritation on a hike: load, shoes, socks, and care (before, during and after).
First off, let’s look at load. A good general guideline for beginning hikers (and more experienced trekkers who haven’t walked a partially-urban route like the Camino Frances before) is to carry no more than 10% of your body weight. For a 150 lb. person, that equals out to 15 lbs, which is more than enough gear. When I left, I weighed in at 197 lbs, and was carrying 14.4 lbs of gear, not counting water. Even though I’m a weight lifter and used to carrying much larger loads, carrying just that 14.4 lbs a day for 36 days was difficult. It puts strain on your neck, shoulders, lower back, hips, knees, and – you guessed it – your feet. The extra weight can make your arches flatten out and change the shape of your feet in your shoes. This, combined with the swelling that can happen as a result of constant exercise, can not only cause foot/ankle/leg pain, but also invite opportunities for blisters. Lesson: lighten your load to lessen chances of blisters and other foot injury. I’ll talk more about this in a later blog post.
Next up is my favorite topic – shoes! Even though I might be blister-prone in my everyday life, that doesn’t keep me from being a tiny bit of a shoe addict. So when I heard that another key to blister prevention on the Camino was to buy shoes that were a size too big, I had my misgivings. I’m also not a huge fan of hiking boots. I’ve had multiple pairs over the years, but have yet to find a pair that I’d be confident about living in, pain-free, for a month. That, plus my preference for open toed, or at least breathable, shoes, really had me stressing out for a bit.
With this in mind, I again went first to the internet to ask questions and see what other people had to say about other shoe choices. You know that old adage about opinions, right? As you might guess, people have some very strong (and often smelly) ones about the type of shoes everyone should be wearing on the Camino. Some people insist everyone should be wearing boots. Others insist that sneakers are perfectly fine. Others wore hiking sandals and loved every minute. A generous subset of each group thinks that all the others are uninformed wahoos. In the end, I decided to go with my gut and take not one, but two pairs of shoes – a good pair of hiking sandals (Teva Tirras, which I wear all the time, anyway), and a pair of sturdy New Balance trail runners. I made this decision after an hour and a half at REI in Chicago, going through all of my options with a really awesome customer service person who really knew her stuff and was excited to help me find the perfect shoes. In the end, we decided that the trail runners would be breathable enough to keep my feet from getting too hot, plus comfy right out of the box – no blisters. One thing to note is that you need very hard soles to be able to compensate for the extra pack weight you’ll be carrying. Sneakers are not typically good for carrying a load long distance, but trail runners have slightly harder soles and more grip than street shoes. You can compensate even more (which I did) by getting these stiff custom insoles.
As for sizing, I wore the Tevas at my normal size, since they’re adjustable anyway. The New Balance were purchased a size too big, which hurt my vanity a bit since I already have humongous feet, but never impacted my stride. I thought at first that they might slip on my heel and rub a blister there, but after I tied them a bit tighter, there was no problem. My feet didn’t swell as much as those of other pilgrims I met, so I can’t say whether or not the extra room helped with swelling, but since I never got a blister I think I’ll continue to follow the one-size-up rule. Also, I found it incredibly useful to switch shoes after a few hours of walking. It gave my feet a break and gave me a new burst of mental energy. Lessons: Whether boots, sneakers, or sandals, wear the shoes you’re comfortable in as long as they’re appropriate for walking six to eight hours a day. Buy one size larger than your typical size. If they’re boots, wear them in a bit to make sure you’re OK in them. If you get sneakers, try trail runners and add custom insoles. Think about taking two pairs of hiking shoes if you can spare the weight.
Despite what you might think, socks can be pretty awesome. I have a newfound appreciation for these delicate foot garments. One thing that no one had ever mentioned to me before I started packing for this trip was that socks can make or break you on a long hike. The key isn’t really what kind of sock you get – though you can be sure that, just like shoes, internet citizens all have their opinions. The key is that you’re supposed to be wearing not one pair of socks, but two. From here on out, the all-powerful liner sock is going to be your best friend. A barrier between your foot and the outer sock (most people seem to love a nice, thick wool sock), the liner sock keeps the outer sock from rubbing your tender skin and causing blisters. You can buy liner socks from many different brands, out of different materials. Depending on how your feet typically rub and blister, you might even want to think about buying Injinji liner toesocks.
I think it’s important to note that I did not, strictly speaking, wear two pairs of socks. Because I wanted lightweight socks that wouldn’t make my feet feel too hot, the lovely customer service rep at REI suggested a brand called WrightSock, which boasts a special two-layer design, basically a liner sock that’s built in to the outer sock. I rotated two pairs on the trip, and was very impressed with performance. I even wore them with my sandals sometimes, much to the chagrin of my walking buddies. Lesson: liner socks are non-negotiable, whether you wear two separate pairs of socks or a pair with the liners built in. If you blister between your toes, check out toe sock liners.
Last, but certainly not least, we’ve come to the section on foot care. When you’re on the Camino, you’ll see that everyone has his or her own special way of preparing for the day’s walk. It all depends on the shape of your feet, and what you start to learn about how your body begins to exhibit basic wear and tear after a few days on the road. The most important thing to remember is that the first week is generally the hardest on your body. If you’re going to get really nasty blisters, it’s probably going to happen early on, while your feet are new at this. If you can get a blister prevention routine started from day one, you’ll be much less likely to suffer serious issues later.
One big rule for avoiding blisters on the Camino is to never take a shower or get your feet wet in the morning. Getting your feet wet makes your skin soft, and soft skin is more likely to be blister. This is especially important if you’ve already gotten a blister, but no less important as a preventative measure.
The next big rule is to always – and I cannot state this adamantly enough – stop and treat a hot spot as soon as it starts to bother you. A lot of times (sadly, not always), before a blister erupts, you’ll feel that area of your skin feeling hot, irritated, and tender. The second you feel something happening, stop, drop your pack, take off your shoes and socks and take care of that area. First, let your feet air out for a minute or two. If your socks are feeling sweaty, pin them to your pack to dry out and put on a new, dry pair. Take a look at the hot spot area. If you’ve caught it in time, a minute or two without rubbing will make it feel good enough that you’re able to apply Compeed, moleskin, or some kind of tape to the spot to prevent further contact (I prefer moleskin, as it’s cheaper, lasts longer, and can be applied to either skin or shoe). If it’s already an open wound or blister, do not apply Compeed/moleskin. You’ll have to treat and bandage it if you can. I’ll go over blister next steps in a separate post.
The third big part of caring for your feet to prevent blisters is to decide before the day’s walk what you need to do to prevent chafing. One tried-and-true method is to rub petroleum jelly on your entire foot before putting on socks. Since the idea of rubbing petroleum on my body for a month straight gave me pause, I researched similar options and found out that a lot of people like to use Alba Un-Petroleum Jelly for the job. It’s made with beeswax, coconut oil, and Vitamin E, smells pretty good, and has the side effect of making your feet look like a million dollars. Every morning, I coated both feet with un-petroleum jelly, making sure to get between my toes and up to my ankle on both feet. Early in the trip, I felt like I was getting hot spots between my last two toes on each foot, so I purchased toe tubes that are usually used for people with corns. The additional barrier kept me from getting blisters between my toes, and after a week or so my feet toughened up to where I didn’t need them anymore. I also occasionally felt hot spots on the tops of my feet where part of my sandal straps hit, so I’d put a preventative strip of moleskin on each foot each morning so I wouldn’t have to do it later in the day after I changed shoes.
Like I said, every pilgrim does something different. My German friend rubbed a deer fat (Hirschtalg) cream popular in Germany on his feet every morning to avoid blisters. My Canadian friend had walked the Camino before a few years ago and lost some toenails (yes, that’s something that happens), so this time she taped her toes up every morning. They both had great-looking feet at the end, though, because they took the time to take care of their feet every morning and listen to them throughout the day. On the other hand, I met at least one pilgrim who had to quit and go home because he had terrible blisters that got infected from a variety of compounding reasons, including wearing the wrong socks and using Compeed improperly.
Every site that I’ve linked to above is because I believe in the product and either used it with success on my Camino or saw others using it with success. There are so many different ideas out there about blister prevention, and I can’t state with 100% confidence that these ideas will work for everyone out there, but if you’re just getting started in researching ways to prevent blisters and take care of your feet on the Camino, this is a great place to start. If you have other suggestions for things that you’ve tried with great success, please leave me a comment. Also, all questions are welcome. I’ll do my best to help you find the right information, or see if there’s someone who can help you on one of the pilgrim forums online. Thanks, and Buen Camino!