Preparing for a trek: Part 1 – Your feet

Disclaimers (optional reading but required for any piece of advice anyone puts out on the internet): I’ll start with the disclaimer that I am not a professional ANYTHING, and this is not professional advice so much as a list of things that worked for me. It’s the result of experience, consultations with a couple of physios and podiatrists, and learning from other people such as the magnificent, extremely well-travelled James. This advice is also written with a certain demographic in mind: mine, ie. a not hugely fit, not massively experienced traveller in her late twenties/early thirties, who wants to go trekking but who also isn’t used to living rough and has a couple of idiosyncrasies such as a dislike of being cold, itchy, sunburnt or in significant pain. With all this humbly in mind, I have been asked for advice in the past, based on a couple of short treks I did (two weeks alone on the Camino, partially documented here and here, and 5 days in the Himalayas with James, briefly mentioned here). I also have done a fair bit of hiking and travelling so again, not an expert, but more experienced than many of my acquaintances. So, please accept my disclaimers and I apologise if you are much more knowledgeable than me and would like to correct anything I get wrong.

Now let us begin, hopefully a good 3 months before your trip. I’ve broken it down into three sections: Your feet Training, and What to bring. And, because I’m a bit of a Type A kind of girl, I’ve also put together an 18-week training plan. I may come back and add in photos later, but my priority is to get all this up first.

Part One: Your feet (also the most important advice of all).

If you’re preparing for your first trek, before you consider ANYTHING else – the question is: Do you own a good pair of hiking boots? Because if you don’t, you want to get a pair and start breaking them in as soon as possible. Good doesn’t necessarily mean expensive, but they need to be the right size and a comfortable, fairly snug fit when wearing hiking socks.  If the answer to this is, Yes – good for you! You can skip most of the rest of this section. If you are reading this though, chances are you don’t have the right boots yet, but before you run out and buy them…

Have you ever seen a podiatrist? Now, this may seem overkill, but many people actually have a less than ideal situation going on with their feet, especially when in sports shoes, and if you’re about to spend several consecutive days hiking, you want your feet to be in top form. You may have slightly collapsed arches or a tendency to pronation, and not even know it – but a single visit to a podiatrist will generally equip you with a better understanding of how you walk, and how to walk better. For maximum efficiency, bring all your shoes with you so they can see how you walk – your running shoes, the work shoes you wear every day, the boots you defer to in winter, and off course the hiking boots if you already have them. The podiatrist will quite likely get you into orthotic soles to stabilise your feet, and wearing them daily will strengthen your ankles as you prepare for your trip.

Cost: The total cost will vary depending on where you are and how much you’re prepared to fork out for the orthotics, but it’s a worthy investment.

Now, once you have your orthotics (or a bill of clean feet from the podiatrist), head to a camping shop, armed with the orthotics and some thick socks. Socks are just as important as the boots – you want woollen socks, slightly contoured and padded, designed for hiking. Icebreaker make fantastic ones; my favourites are ones I found in Spain, but they all have in common a high percentage of wool and contouring – the contours will stop the sock from slipping and the reinforced padding protects against blisters. NO COTTON. I know we have been brought up to believe cotton is a lovely natural fabric, but it’s not lovely when you’re sweating. And artificial fibres may feel nice while you’re hiking, but they get stinky and stay stinky – trust me. Go with the woollen ones (merino is the best if you find wool itchy and uncomfortable).

Cost: Outlets or online stores will generally have affordable merino socks; you only really need 2-3 pairs (one to wash, one to wear, and one for when both are wet and you really need dry socks).

Getting someone knowledgeable to help you fit your boots will be a major asset, and if there’s no-one other than some teenage part-timer, it’s worth coming back later. You may end up dropping several hundred dollars on your boots and you don’t want the wrong ones. Whether you end up buying from the shop or taking notes and buying them cheaper online is up to you, but the advantage of buying from the shop is there will be a return/exchange policy, which gives you some time to stomp around at home and work out if they are a good fit. Choose shoes with a good strong sole – after walking for a few days, normal soles feel about as protective as tissue paper when your sore feet are walking on a gravel path. Trial them with the orthotics and socks, going both up and down an incline (most shops have a little mini-hill to climb up and down). Take your time.

Cost: I would expect to pay AUD $160 for a decent pair of boots, you might find cheaper offers online though. Also I ended up paying AUD $220 for mine and I have no regrets.

Now you’ve got your boots, you’re going to need to break them in. You can soften your boots up a bit by holding them, toes to the floor and then repeatedly flexing and bending the soles. Don’t worry, it won’t damage them, and it will soften up the stiff soles so they are more gentle on your feet. You can also experiment with the way you lace them, to reduce pressure on different parts of your feet.  Obviously the real breaking in involves wearing them in. The training plan comes with a Boot-Breaking plan, but it can be summarised as:

  • Wear them at home for at least a week first.
  • Then start taking them on walks: a short trip to the supermarket, a brief walk around the block.
  • Then the first couple of kilometres of your training walks/hikes, before swapping them for your running shoes.
  • Even once you start doing longer hikes in them, keep your running shoes in your backpack just in case.

Just in case of what? Well the gradually increasing walks will take care of building strength in your feet so they don’t feel like they’ve been attacked with a meat tenderiser, but of course you also are looking to avoid blisters. The seams inside your boots, your sweaty socks chafing against your skin, or the general weirdness of learning to walk with your ankles fully supported mean that you are likely to get blisters. However you can avoid this by pre-emptive use of blister protection band-aids. Within the first few days of breaking in your boots, you’ll know which parts of your feet get red and sore from wearing boots. Get hold of the little doughnut-shaped pads for protecting corns, and before your hike, place them strategically over the bony bits of your feet and toes. Make sure the skin is clean and dry, and heat up the pads first by rubbing them between your hands before peeling off the backing. Then after they’re on, a dusting of baby powder will help keep things dry and prevent them from catching on the inside of your sock. You can also use an anti-chafing silicon-based gel to protect your feet – I find this useful if you have just a little bit of rubbing but nothing really painful, and it’s probably more effective once your boots are more broken in.

Cost: The corn-protection plasters can be a bit expensive if you’re getting through a dozen a week, so keep your eye out for special offers and bulk buy. The gel can be expensive but you’ll be able to use it for other things too…

Source: My Camino hike was done completely unprepared in running shoes. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in so much pain in my life as I was by day 4.  My Himalayan trek was done following all of the above advice (after researching online, talking with podiatrists, physios and sports doctors) and I never gave a second’s thought to my feet. You can pick and choose which of the above tips to follow, but trust me that you do not want to spoil your hike because you’re distracted by the pain in your feet…

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