This article is the second in my series “What I Learned on the Camino” WARNING: This is going to be a long post. When I was doing research before my Camino, I really wanted someone to go through their gear “post” Camino and do what I am about to do now. This is for those of you reading, that are about to do the Camino or just curious about what I wore on my feet. All. That. Way.
This is me just before arriving at the Monastery at Roncesvalles, before my feet became the bane of my Camino existence.
Shortly after this the weather got warmer and that is where the trouble began.
For weeks I battled blisters. I tried treatment after treatment and just when one blister would start to heal, another one took it’s place. I became an expert in blister treatment. Even counselling others on how to make their feet more comfortable. ”You have to know the cause before you can treat the blister.” I would tell people. The truth was, I didn’t really know the cause of my own. All I could do was guess at what was causing the problem: socks too thick or not thick enough, grit, poorly fitting insoles, laces too tight or not tight enough, too much friction or improper application of the many types of dressings, I didn’t know for sure.
My carefully researched and rigorously tested shoes of choice were Keen Targhee II. I didn’t enter into this decision lightly. During my research phase, I remember reading a post on one of the Camino forums, something about taking two pairs of running shoes and just switching them out so you always had a dry pair to put on. But, most of the forum participants, ones that had actually done the Camino, advised against it. They advocated that a good pair of waterproof, breathable hiking shoes was the way to go. So I stuck with my Keens. I had had several pairs of these in the past. They were waterproof enough to keep my feet dry trudging over the sodden moors of Scotland and England and comfortable enough to walk the hundreds of kms I put on them on the trails and pavements of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as Mexico and British Columbia. The toebox is wide enough to accommodate the swelling of my well used feet and breathable enough to keep them happy. I NEVER got blisters. NEVER.
My backups were a pair of lightweight Sketchers walking shoes. I thought they would be a good alternative to wear while exploring cities and good to have in case my Keens got wet. I did try using them in place of my Keens for a few days when the blisters were really bad, but they are Sketchers and not really designed for serious use. I also had a pair of flip flops. Great for sketchy showers and were a lifesaver when my poor blistered, swollen feet did not want to be shoved into another pair of shoes.
I took several pairs of socks. None of which (I don’t think), had any major bearing on the blisters. The most comfortable for me was a type call Wright Socks. I brought 2 pair with me. They are double layered and supposed to help wick moisture away from your skin. The only drawback is that they don’t dry that quickly after being washed and hung on a line. The double layer system is effective and I met many people who used, and swore by, a layer system of some type. Whether it is a two in one sock or a liner and an outer, just be sure to thoroughly test the socks before you leave. Early on I tested a silk liner that worked great but practically disintegrated after a dozen or so uses. I also had a pair of marino wool socks with a separate synthetic liner (that are supposed to do the same thing as the Wright Socks) and a pair of single layer toe socks. I didn’t really like the marino/synthetic combo. I can’t really say why, personal preference I guess. The toe socks I found too bulky in my shoes but combined with the flip flops they were just fine for chilly evenings. They were stripy and fun and they made me smile.
One other thing I want to mention, briefly, is the application of cream or lotion on your feet. Whether it is “bag balm”, hand lotion or marathoners chafe guard, it is all meant to reduce friction. Again, several people swore by this method of blister prevention. I have to say in all my years of hiking and tour guiding, I have never used anything on my feet and again, never had a problem. But I was willing to try anything to stop the blisters so I tried the chafe guard and then a homemade concoction of beeswax and coconut oil. They both seemed to make the situation worse for me. So I abandoned the rather weighty chafe guard container at one of the hostels.
After I returned to Canada a marathoner friend of mine suggested I go down to the local running store and ask their advice. So I did. I found out that my feet just got too hot. It is a common problem with marathoners. When I look back at some of the pictures I took of my feet (Yes, I took pictures of my feet! I spent enough time dealing with them. I might as well take pictures of them too.) I can see how swollen they were. So much so, that even after I got home, it was a good week before the swelling went away completely. My Keens were not breathable enough and the waterproofing kept the heat from escaping. My feet were fine when the weather was cooler but once it started to heat up, so did my feet. Unfortunately this was a problem that probably couldn’t have been avoided unless I could have put my feet and my Keens through the same abuse I would later put them through on the Camino.
I saw many people walking in hiking sandals. Sandals and socks in some cases and I ended up buying a pair of fairly expensive Ecco hiking sandals in Leon (definitely not the Spanish shoes I had thought I would buy). After a few days of socks and sandals or just bare feet in sandals. The problem with my blisters went away. Socks and sandals may not be fashionable but they saved my Camino. Next time (Yes, there will be a next time. I never made as far as Santiago but I got to within 130 kms of it. Due to unforeseen circumstances I had to return home without finishing. I need to finish!), I will take my sandals, a pair of good, breathable, not waterproof trail runners and three pairs of Wright socks. I had talked to a lot of people during the Camino, that said that with either the trail runners or the sandals, their feet never really got soaked. I might be carrying slightly more weight with an extra pair of good shoes in my pack but the trade-off will be worth it.
The main thing I learned that through all my research and preparation is that some things just don’t go as planned. I thought that the miles and miles I walked in my job as a tour guide would prepare my feet for the abuse I was about to put them through. In reality I don’t think anything would have prepared them for the Camino. I had thought that just talking to my local outdoor store and on-line Camino experts was enough. I wished that I would have gotten the suggestion to go down to the local marathon/running shop before embarking on the Camino. In my mind I never really equated the Camino with a marathon. (It’s not, it’s way harder.) But Marathoners know how to take care of their feet. It really should have been my first stop.
Now, after saying all that, do what is right for you. Everyone is different. People and “experts” will advocate all sorts of preventives and solutions. You really don’t know what you are dealing with until you are in that moment. Just because something worked at home, doesn’t mean the same thing will work on the Camino. All I’m saying is just do the best you can with what you have, it will all work out in the end.
I have had people ask me, with all the trouble I had, would I do the entire Camino again? While I was doing it, my answer would have been no! In fact I think my exact words were, “People that have done this more than once are crazy!”. But now, if you asked me the same question my answer would be, “In a heartbeat”.
Stay tuned for the last post in this series, What I Learned on the Camino: Tech and Photography and you can read my previous post about the gear I used in, What I Learned on the Camino: Gear. You can also read my other posts about the Camino here. And don’t forget to subscribe so all of my new posts will land directly in your in-box.
Until next time
Please Enjoy Responsibly,