Typical Camino conversations range broadly (and sometimes wildly) from the prosaic to the profound. When it comes to the prosaic conversations, all things ‘feet’ usually feature very prominently.
Let’s face it, both prospective and experienced pilgrims like to talk about ‘feet’—A LOT—and with good reason! In the last Camino Chronicle I listed some of the problems I’ve experienced on pilgrimage (including with my feet). “Like many pilgrims I’ve experienced bed bugs, fleas, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, neuromas, blisters, gastroenteritis and influenza AND I still had the most extraordinarily wonderful time of my life on both Caminos (and would be there again now if I could swing it!).” This prompted Editor Alison Bell to suggest I start the AFotC conversation
about ‘feet’. To that end, this article presents the shared thoughts and ideas that my husband, Michael Bennett, and I have accumulated walking the Camino Francés (Autumn 2009 and Summer 2011). We can only talk from our experience. The ongoing conversation is most important because, of course, different ideas work for different people, feet and conditions.
Our first and only rule about ‘feet’ on the Camino? Be receptive but cautious about people who give you their experience as being THE RULES about ‘feet’ on the Camino!
Footcare (the general idea)
Some people suggest ‘toughening up’ your feet before you start a pilgrimage. Shirley MacLaine wrote in her bestseller The Camino that by the end of her pilgrimage her feet looked more like hooves! I preferred to start with smooth, well home-pedicured feet (getting feet to this standard can take months of preparation depending on how your feet start out in this process). Then I tried to keep my feet smooth and well pedicured during the Camino. From Michael’s experience, blisters that developed under calluses tended to stick around longer and were much harder to manage/remedy. I found keeping my toenails in good order during the Camino prevented avoidable, secondary problems.
We tried not to get dehydrated for many reasons but did believe it was best to maintain a good skin texture and reduce susceptibility to blisters. We also avoided as much as possible getting our feet wet (and tender) during the day’s walk (for example, we would leave soaking our feet in cool water until we were resting for the day). We both felt that elevating our feet at the end of the day worked wonders all round. Walking at the pace that uniquely works for each of us is also important. Trying to walk too quickly or too slowly will cause problems. Having said all that, our general idea about foot care was to expect the unexpected! For example, one of the worst times (that is, most uncertain times about whether I could continue walking my first Camino!) that I had with my feet was not from wear and tear but rather from bed bug bites! I needed to carefully manage the sores/blisters on my toes (and infection risk) caused by these bites.
Pilgrims always talk about the importance of having correct footwear which is properly selected and well-worn in. It makes sense.
On the other hand, Michael had a great ‘footwear’ experience that we call the ‘Miracle of Pamplona’ 2009. He’s got terribly flat feet so before our first Camino, he seriously researched and considered boot selection. He trained for months and months in his ‘new’ boots and before the Camino we had a 3 week holiday in NSW where he walked 20-30kms of hills in the bush each day with his backpack. The boots were OK. He landed on the Camino and these boots gave him trouble from the outset. During the first couple of days he not only lost toe-nails but also
all faith in these boots! So he abandoned them and thought he’d just have to walk in his runners even when the rain came. Obviously troubled by that idea we wandered into the only camping store we saw in Pamplona at that time. I saw a pair of shoes ‘On Sale!’ in the window, pointed vaguely and said ‘They look like you’. Feeling hopeless about it all he ‘tried them on’ in the shop–without socks and without tying the laces! He bought them without any feeling of positivity at all. Michael then walked in these brand new shoes for the rest of the Camino (and the next one too!) without one blister or other foot problems (until the soles started to wear out!). So much for all the Camino footwear Do’s and Don’ts!
I walked my first Camino in hard-soled shoes. While this style was initially good-ish for my forefoot neuromas, ultimately the hard sole and no ankle
support caused me serious Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis (which took months after the Camino to settle). During my second Camino I wore full leather boots with hard (slightly rocker-shaped) soles. Generally my feet were much happier! Some people suggest choosing footwear slightly on the large side but we both found it better for them to fit.
One thing we learned early on in our first Camino was it didn’t work for us to wash our dirty boots. We would scrape off mud and bang off dust but unnecessarily wetting our boots seemed pointless. We waterproofed our footwear well before we left. Depending on time of the year we planned to walk in the future we would consider carrying waterproofing with us. We each carried a pair of shortish, lightweight gaiters and were relieved to know they were at the ready. We practised putting the gaiters on to feel confident on the track.”
I had problems with my neuromas in shoes that I didn’t have when wearing my sandals, so I did try wearing sandals during the day. Ultimately, neither of us wore sandals during the day’s walk. We were concerned about the potential for blisters caused by the grit and stones even when wearing socks. Wearing sandals without socks, we were concerned about sun burn (or greasy mucky feet from a combination of sunblock and dust!).
On the first Camino I took sandals for the evening. Then right near the end of the first 800kms (Azura) I slipped on Michael’s Crocs (Oh so ugly!) and couldn’t believe how delightful that spongy sole was at the end of the day (and why had he kept this from me!?). On my second Camino I happily took a pair of (less ugly and) very comfortable Crocs! Michael swore by his Crocs on both Caminos because they’re waterproof, light and easy to attach to the outside of the backpack (AND who cares if you lose them!?).
During both Caminos we donned our socks more carefully and precisely than we had ever before in our lives! We bought expensive socks and were happy we did. We stopped to change our socks (and, preferably depending on the weather and/ or shelter, air our feet) every couple of hours (sometimes more often if it was very hot or very wet). We each carried 3 pairs of socks (with one pair always drying/airing on the back of each of our packs). We used bulldog clips to fasten our drying/airing socks to the backpacks (and found them to be stronger and less likely to break than pegs).
Michael swore by thoroughly washing his socks every night. I wondered if freshly washed socks were that important and just did a quick rinse sometimes. We both wore hiking socks with silver thread technology—very effective in preventing odours. In the past, we have both successfully tried wearing thin socks/stockings in combo with hiking socks but neither of us did that on the Camino because it seemed like extra effort (which wasn’t necessary for us). Some people swear by wearing two pairs of socks, one over the other. We did fine with one.
In the evenings on the Camino we would sit in simple, lovely restaurants while enjoying local delicacies and good wine. I remember the very detailed and animated discussions well. Is the Camino the only place in the world where words like ‘pus’, ‘scabs’ and ‘ooze’ seem quite normal over dinner? The dreaded blister on the Camino!
The first approach we took to managing blisters was prevention. Michael used a silicone lubricant gel around his toes and this worked well for him (we’ve heard of other people who use Vaseline in a similar way). Of course, using any lubricant will impact on the care of socks so that they remain in good condition. Both of us tried ‘moleskin’ in various areas but never really had any luck. The outcome was usually the moleskin slipping and/or bunching which added to the risk of blisters. Similarly we didn’t find the now ubiquitous
Compeed (or similar dressing product) to be THE answer ‘as advertised’ all along the Camino these days. Again the outcome was often slipping and bunching which requires frequent changes of this dressing although it should (and can in other circumstances) stay on for days. One use of Compeed that was very successful was to cover the end of the toes where Michael had lost nails from his ‘pre-miracle’ boots. Our primary action to prevent blisters was the second we felt a ‘hot spot’, if it was at all possible, we would stop immediately and change something–anything–(usually air feet and change socks). This generally worked well for us but blisters do still happened to good people!
Sahagún seems to be my place for blisters. On our first Camino, the complex of blisters I had been managing on the ball of my foot was at its peak on the way into town. On our second Camino, I had been blister free until I decided I had to see La Peregrina in the newly restored iglesia in Sahagún. The walk from the centre of town was hot and dusty on uncompleted roadway. I was wearing my evening footwear of Crocs. I arrived only to realise I didn’t have either my credential or money for the entrance fee. So I walked back into town to retrieve them and determinedly headed back to El Santuario de la Peregrina to see this
sculpture. I walked around the entire building anticipating that I’d see La Peregrina in a special display at any moment. Eventually I inquired about her location at the front desk. I was assured the building’s security was being finalised and she would arrive in two weeks. So, I headed back into town with a photograph of a photograph of La Peregrina from a book in a display case AND two blisters in a tricky spot on my heel. What was La Peregrina trying to tell THIS peregrina?!
Sometimes I had ongoing ‘hot spots’ but they either never did (or took a while to) declare themselves as blisters. I found these were more painful than just getting on with treating the blister! The minute a blister declared itself, we dealt with it. We treated blisters while the skin was still soft as soon as we took off our boots. We didn’t wait for clean spaces or after showers. We sterilised the area around the blister using Betadine cream (or antiseptic hand gel but this stung more). Then we sterilised a needle and cotton before piercing the outer rim of the white, raised skin and threading the cotton through to the other side of the blister to drain any fluid. There are then two approaches to how we dealt with the cotton. I tied the ends of my cotton together to make a loose loop. Michael didn’t, because he found if he accidentally stepped on the tied loop of cotton (for example when in the shower) it would cut out through the blister. By leaving the ends untied it was easier for the cotton to come out unintentionally, but at least if it did he found it hadn’t torn the skin.
We found we achieved immediate relief with this technique and it generally prevented the problem from escalating. Sometimes we would use this technique in conjunction with a simple bandaid (which we changed frequently). We really
liked to take those little sewing kits you sometimes get in posh hotels because the cotton is pre-threaded. Otherwise we took a little cotton threader. It all sounds pretty gruesome but anyone reading this who’s done it knows that the procedure doesn’t hurt at all which is a real bonus!
Muscle and tendon problems (and neuromas if you’re unlucky)
We used anti-inflammatory gel liberally on our feet at least morning and night. It seems simple but we really believed it made a difference. Of course people do talk about taking regular oral low-dose pain relief but we only took the occasional anti-inflammatory tablet without great relief (and oral anti-inflammatories can have other unpleasant sideeffects). I thought lower limb stretches (starting from the hips down to the toes) before I got out of bed in the morning were very helpful. I kept gently stretching my entire body during the day too. My general idea is to never be complacent about what you’re asking of your body. On my first Camino I felt as fit as a fiddle after about 700kms then started to develop shin splints walking down into Sarria.
I used walking poles the entire first Camino and thought they were helpful. On the second Camino I carried the poles in my hands, only using them on tricky paths, and didn’t really notice the difference with my feet. (Importantly, either using the poles or carrying them did very obviously help to keep down hand swelling.) Michael used one walking stick on both Caminos and would do the same again (even though he develops interestingly asymmetrical leg musculature!).
I have bilateral neuromas (a type of overgrowth of the nerves) in the forefoot of both feet. I haven’t had much luck with orthotics, so find I just managed the pain by trial and error. I experimented with how I tied my laces to give my forefoot as much room as possible (and do recommend really experimenting with laces for everyone). If at all possible I took the weight off my feet for about 15minutes every 90minutes. I found it was best to loosen my boots gradually at the end of the day rather than taking them off right away. My neuromas can cause some numbness in my toes so I made especially sure that I kept on eye on the condition of the numb skin.
Next step on the AFotC ‘conversation’ about FEET!
So that’s some of Michael’s and my experience of ‘feet’ on the Camino. Hopefully other pilgrims will add their thoughts and experiences to this starting point for the AFotC conversation. Some people describe the Camino as a ‘sole to soul’ experience. So let’s make sure as many soles can be saved as possible!
Praza do Obradoiro, 2011