During my time on the Camino I saw and met many people with foot problems. In fact, foot problems (mostly blisters) were the most common complaints I heard from my fellow pilgrims. Blisters are painful and can ruin your day or even, in rare instances, result in an early end to your pilgrimage. Blisters can also become infected which can result in a visit to a local physician and maybe even orders for a few days of unplanned rest in more extreme cases.
Caring for your feet on the Camino is the most important thing you can do to ensure a successful and happy pilgrimage. It is simply “Job Number 1.” I know that sometimes blisters or other problems happen in spite of the most careful precautions, but I also saw people who didn’t seem to have a care for their feet – and those were often the people who were suffering the most. I saw people walking in the most improper and improbable sorts of footwear and doing things that only encouraged the development of blisters rather than working to prevent them. They ended up spending their evenings caring for blisters rather than enjoying the town and getting to know their fellow pilgrims. However, in spite of their lack of care and foresight, I truly empathized with them for the discomfort they were experiencing.
Care of your feet begins long before you leave for Spain, as you purchase your footwear and prepare it for your pilgrimage. But it also continues day by day while you are on the Camino. Proper care of your feet requires close and daily attention. So, in an effort to summarize my observations on Camino foot care and to offer a few of my own suggestions, I have created a short document on the subject, which appears below. I hope it will help other pilgrims have a more pleasant Camino experience.
It is important to point out that there is no one answer or set of suggestions that will suit all people, but this is what worked for an old guy like me, and I made the entire pilgrimage (St. John Pied de Port all the way to Finesterre) without ANY blisters or other serious foot problems. Everyone’s feet are different and your mileage may differ, as they say. You will always have sore feet at the end of the day, but there are simple precautions you can take to minimize the chances of developing more serious foot problems. So, without further ado, here are my suggestions for Camino Foot Care…
Foot care on the Camino
1.) Get good hiking boots or shoes! Don’t skimp on the money here. Your shoes or boots are the most important items you will purchase for the Camino. I bought Vasque high-top boots and they were great for me. But, you really need to go to a good hiking equipment store (REI, etc.) and try on several different styles and brands to see what works best for your feet. Take as much time as you need in this process. Try them on and walk around the store a bit to see how they feel. I was there for well over an hour trying on various shoes until I settled on the Vasques. The salespeople are usually very helpful if you go to a good store. On the Camino I saw people walking in all sorts of questionable footwear and they were paying the price big time.
2.) Take time to break in your shoes/boots prior to going to Spain. Even if you only wear them around the house for a few hours a day in the weeks prior to your trip it will help. But, try taking them on a few day-long hikes if you can. There’s nothing worse than trying to break in a pair of boots while you are just starting the Camino! You will be guaranteed to get blisters.
3.) Apply petroleum jelly to your feet daily. First thing in the morning and later in the day, if needed, apply about a half-inch dollop of petroleum jelly (something like Vaseline) to each foot. Just smear it on over your entire foot and rub it in well. It sounds a little weird, but it really doesn’t get everything greasy and it WORKS! It helps your socks slip a bit over your skin while you’re hiking rather than binding and chafing. Many thanks to Anita from the American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC) – Southern California Chapter for this suggestion. The APOC is a wonderful organization and well worth joining!
4.) Wear two pairs of socks. The first pair should be thin, white liner socks (available at REI and other similar places) – get good ones. I bought white rather than colored liner socks since I didn’t want to take the chance of any dyes or other coloring materials seeping into a broken blister, if that was to occur, and maybe causing an infection. The second pair should be Merino wool hiking socks and they go on right over the liner socks. Again, this helps ensure that the liner socks, and not your skin, slip against the wool socks, thereby avoiding chafing and development of “hot spots”. As with your other items of footwear, spend the money and get good ones. When you put on your boots, keep the laces tightened enough to prevent your boots from moving, slipping, or rubbing against your feet, but not so tight that you cut off circulation.
5.) DO NOT let your feet get wet if you can at all help it. When you’ve been walking for hours in the heat and you cross over a lovely running stream, at all costs avoid the temptation to soak your feet in the nice, cold water. If you succumb to the temptation, your feet will absorb the moisture – and damp feet will develop blisters faster than you can blink. As tempting as it looks – DON’T DO IT! Wait until the end of the day and give your tired feet a nice long soak, if desired, at the albergue. If you feel that your feet are getting wet (perhaps on a rainy day), stop at some convenient spot and change out your damp socks for dry ones.
6.) Pay close attention to “hot spots” on your feet. As you are walking, pay close attention to anything that starts to feel like a “hot spot” on your feet. Hot spots usually indicate that a portion of skin is rubbing and will soon develop a blister. As soon as practical after sensing a hot spot stop and check it out. While I didn’t have this problem much, I found that Compeed blister pads worked well for me on the few occasions when I wanted to take some extra precautions. These pads (much better than moleskin or similar products) act like a cushioned “second skin” that prevents blisters from forming and helps ease the pain and facilitate healing if a blister does develop. Just peel off the protective paper from the adhesive backing and stick the Compeed pad over the hot spot or blister and forget about it. It will come off on its own in a few days. It will even stay on while showering. You can purchase Compeed in ANY pharmacy (farmacia) on the Camino. (I found it difficult to locate this item for sale in the United States.) The pads come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Just be sure to use one that is larger than the affected area you are covering. I heard a few people say that they didn’t like Compeed for one reason or another, but I thought it was great. And my opinion was shared by most people I spoke with about this. So, it’s definitely worth a try.
7.) Take time to rest your feet once or twice during the day. Find a nice shady spot, take off your pack, sit down, drink some water or other cool beverage, and then take off your shoes and socks and let everything rest, air out, and cool off for 15- 20 minutes. This is time well spent. Your feet and your body will thank you for it!
8.) Carry a pair of lightweight sandals for evening wear. Not only will your feet thank you for the more relaxed comfort the sandals will provide, this will also allow your primary boots an opportunity to air out and dry overnight. In fact, most albergues will not even allow you to take your hiking boots into the common sleeping areas – for good reason. After a few weeks on the Camino, the aroma from multiple pairs of boots next to or near your bunk will become very unpleasant and definitely not conducive to restful sleep. It’s nothing personal. It’s just a fact of life on the Camino.