Foot Care and Footwear - My Walk Across Canada
After walking 7000 km, or thereabouts, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific this past year, I don’t profess to be an expert on footwear and foot care but I do have a wealth of experience from this past year’s journey and from decades of hiking and backpacking, and I want to share that experience with you.
A little background - for most of my adult life, I’ve lived in close enough proximity that I was able to walk or cycle to work, with the exception of the odd short term jobs peppered throughout. Add to that, I’ve been an avid hiker and backpacker for more than three decades, spending much of my free time walking. The reason I mention this, is to reinforce the wealth of experience I have with a variety of footwear and with caring for my own feet. I must caveat this statement with an admission - I’m fully aware of my good fortune in having feet that are generally comfortable and healthy. Not everyone is afforded that good fortune. And, I’m in a fortunate position that I can afford quality footwear, although that hasn’t always been the case.
First and foremost, keep your feet as dry as possible. Wet feet cultivate bacteria, they increase any friction, leading to blisters and raw skin, and they can potentially foster fungal growth. Maintaining dry feet isn’t always easy. Sometimes you get caught in rain or accidentally slip into pooling water beneath snowbanks, as I had the misfortune of experiencing while wading through a meter of snow in New Brunswick. Sure, you should wear “waterproof” footwear when possible, but sometimes it just isn’t. In any case, if possible, wear dry socks. Typically, the moisture you’ll be dealing with will simply be sweat. In my experience, it is best to wear good wool hiking socks with wool sock liners. Wool limits bacterial growth, in turn limiting stink and potential problems. It also insulates well, even when wet. The liners wick moisture away from your feet to the outer sock, keeping your skin drier. In the past, I’ve often worn polypropylene sock liners, and have had good luck on short term trips, but synthetics harbour bacteria and, before long, the stink becomes “overwhelming”. Wool is best in my opinion.
Change your socks often, certainly every day at a minimum. If possible, stop throughout the day and either take your boots and socks off to let things air dry, or change your socks to clean dry ones. I understand it’s not always possible to have clean socks, especially when water is scarce. But at a very minimum, dry your socks overnight and allow your boots to dry well, including removing the insoles.
If you do experience some of the more common foot maladies, address the problem as soon as possible. Don’t wait for hours before dealing with blisters and the like as they can worsen quickly. Blisters should be drained, using a sterile needle or pin. One of the more common treatments for blisters that I witnessed on the Camino de Santiago was something called “threading”, where people would run a needle and thread through the blister then leave the thread hanging out of either end of the blister. Common sense would advise against this, as the thread is not sterile - in fact they are often ridden with bacteria - and leaving the thread in place, especially underfoot, allows a pathway for bacteria to enter under the skin. My advice would be to drain the blister, leave the skin intact, and allow your feet to dry well. The “dead” skin will eventually slough away. And remember, sometimes you have to accept reality and take a break from walking, even when you don’t want to do so. Some people find relief with Second Skin or a similar product, and even with pasting Duct Tape over the blister. In my experience, both these treatments extend the healing time and do little to minimize discomfort in walking. Another less common foot malady is “athlete’s foot”, a fungal growth. Antifungal agents can easily be purchased at most pharmacies. This can usually be avoided by keeping your feet clean and dry.
For the entirety of my walk across Canada, and for many years prior, I have worn Keen shoes and boots. I find them durable, very comfortable and excellent value. And, truth be known, Keen has been supportive of me along my journey, gifting me a new pair of boots and a pair of shoes while I walked.
My journey began in the winter in a pair of Keen winter hikers. With the exception of a few mornings when donning frozen boots, my feet were more than warm as I walked in the Maritime winter. The were durable and comfortable and, they still have plenty of life left in them. In March, I left the winter boots behind and began walking in Quebec in my Keen Pyrenees hikers. These boots already had at least 1000 km of hiking and walking wear, and I’d hoped these boots would take me the entire remaining distance across the country. They have been my most comfortable hiking boots and are made extremely well. Unfortunately, although the uppers had plenty of life left in them when I reached Kenora, ON, I’d worn through the soles, and had to replace them. I’d anticipated it a week or more before reaching Kenora so I’d ordered a pair of Keen Voyageur ventilated shoes and had them sent to the Post Office in Kenora. Again, the uppers on these shoes held up very well but I’d worn through them as I made my way through Saskatchewan. I hadn’t prepared well enough in advance that time, so I stopped in the only shoe store in Moose Jaw which carried Keen footwear. The only shoe they had in stock in my size was a Voyageur mid-ankle boot. They were a little too warm for my walk in the hot prairie summer but I was glad to have them when things began to cool in the mountains of British Columbia. These boots took me the rest of the way to Victoria, where I walked in the Pacific Ocean wearing them, then promptly put them in a trash can and wore the new Keen Pyrenees boots I’d been gifted by Keen Canada. With the usual hiking and backpacking I hope to do in the near future, these boots should last for years.
As far as socks go, I began my winter walking with two pair of Wigwam polypropylene liners and three pair of heavy weight Wigwam wool socks. In March, at the same time I changed boots and began walking in Gatineau, QC, I had three pair of Smartwool wool sock liners and three pair of Darn Tough mid-weight wool hiking socks. The Darn Tough socks were well used for a couple of seasons of hiking and began to get very thin by the time I made it to Saskatoon, where I picked up a couple of new Darn Tough mid-weight pairs to replace them. Remember that Darn Tough have a lifetime warranty on their socks, so when I returned home in the fall, I’d sent in the worn socks for free replacements. The Smartwool liners all had holes in them and I have yet to replace them.
Investing in quality footwear doesn’t have to break the bank but it does take a small investment, one that will pay rich dividends in rewarding, comfortable distances. And, when it comes to foot care, a little goes a long way. Remember, while walking, especially great distances, your feet may be your most valuable physical asset or your greatest physical challenge.