Blisters and other foot problems on el Camino

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Foot Care

Will I get blisters?

Blisters are the most common foot problem encountered while walking the Camino de Santiago. In Facebook groups, discussion boards and on Youtube, people are all trying to prevent blisters from making their journey miserable.  

The problem with blisters is that once one forms it will not get better unless you stop walking or change something about your gear. While blisters form surprisingly easily and quickly, they can take days to heal. Within 2 hours of the first day of walking you can be in pain or feel a hot spot and after 4 hours, walking is misery. 

And blisters don’t limit themselves to soles of the feet. I’ve had blisters on the tops of my feet, heels and even on my palms (new walking poles and no gloves). But with some basic care, preparation, and training, you can hopefully walk the Camino blister free.  

First, let’s talk about why blisters form so you know how to prevent them in the future. 

Blisters are normally caused by friction or parts of your skin being repeatedly rubbed in the same area. 

Walking for many hours can continuously cause friction, or rubbing together, putting pressure on the skin of the feet. Whether it be your heel slipping and brushing up against the shoe, your pinky toe rubbing against the seam in your sock, or pressure from a too tightly laced shoe on the top of your foot.

Friction blisters occur swiftly and are the worst because you’ll likely to encounter the same conditions that caused the initial blister ever day on your hike. Without immediate intervention right before a blister forms, you’re in for a painful walk. Check out this video on what causes blisters.  

While blisters are not formed by heat or moisture, these two elements can lead to friction and must be prevented as well.

Moisture allows more slip in the shoe or sock and feet can begin moving when they previously hadn’t. And heat can cause feet to swell with the same effect. So pay attention to how you’re feet are feeling.  

Blister Treatment 

Blisters are best treated before they form. This comes down to wearing comfortable shoes, finding the right pair of socks and training for the Camino. We suggest breaking in your shoes at least 3 months prior to your trip, preferably longer. Breaking in your shoes will require you to walk on many different surfaces (asphalt, dirt, gravel) and up and down slopes. Really put the footwear to the test and see how they perform.

As mentioned in our shoe guide, your shoes should be comfortable from day 1, and breaking them in just allows you to see if there are any hot spots with blisters forming, find out how often you need to change your socks and most importantly to build up ankle muscles and thicker skin to prevent those future blisters. 

Wearing your shoes around the mall or at work does not constitute breaking in your shoes.

They need to be tested in hot and wet weather so you can really see how everything is working. Trust us, being familiar and comfortable with your shoes is important! 

Even with the best shoes and moisture wicking socks, sometimes people need a little extra preventative treatment. If you find your feet are getting very sweaty, and causing friction, you might want to try a spray that keeps moisture at bay and protects the feet. I’ve also seen people use powder first thing in the morning or when changing their socks mid walk. There are lots of natural balms or other preventative treatments which are great to use before any problems occur.  

Blisters will start out as hot spots on your feet, a feeling like an area is burning or very warm. This can be easily overlooked as it’s not exactly painful, more like uncomfortable. So, when training or walking it’s important to stop and note the feet often. If you feel a hot spot, stop, and look at your foot. Before a blister forms, a red irritated area will appear on the skin and this is your time to begin treatment.

At this time, you don’t have an actual blister, just the possibility of one forming under the skin but you will need to stop the friction that is causing that blister. Try changing your socks to alleviate moisture or change the socks to a thinner or thicker sock and see if that helps. You can also try retying your shoes for a tighter or looser fit. Next, just taking off your socks and shoes and letting your feet breathe a bit always helps.

If a blister definitely has not formed, then go ahead and tape your hot spots. If you take an actual blister and then remove the tape, it will tear the roof off the blister and make the situation worse, so please check that no actual blister has formed. 

Use a good tape that won’t bunch up and cause more friction and will stay on throughout the hike. We like this one or Omniflex tape, but I have seen people use duct tape when necessary. I’ve taped my hands with duct tape when blisters were forming because of my poles, and it worked fine, but a better tape will provide a little extra cushion which also takes some of the pressure off the sore spot.  

If you’re walking and discover that a blister has formed there are a few treatments that can be done depending on the type of blister. If you’re blister is roofless, meaning it’s broken the skin and is weepy, and there is no skin covering the blister, you’ll want to use Compeed. Compeed is great because it stays on for days, provides cushion and heals a weepy blister. If used on an intact blister, it will rip the roof off, but when used properly it can heal a sore in 3-4 days by providing a nice environment for healing to take place.

A lot of heel blisters tend to be deroofed because of the intense friction (think of high heeled shoes and those heel blisters).

You do not want something dry that will stick to the wound and aggravate it, and definitely don’t put tape on it. 

This blister will hurt, even with a dressing, so try and give your feet a break and change shoes or go barefoot as soon as you’ve finished walking for the day.  

If you’ve discovered an intact blister under the skin, you’ll want a treatment that prevents infection and allows the blister to heal. First, you’ll want to protect the blister by find an island bandage that is dry in the middle and will not stick to the blister. If you have to continue walking, just covering the blister won’t help much if you have the same shoes and walking is continuously putting pressure on the area. There are a couple of remedies that might help in this case. 

First, to take pressure off, either put in an insole or blister patches that change the way your foot is sitting in your shoe. Sometimes it’s just your little toe rubbing on the outside of the shoe and placing a Band-Aid on top along with a small patch that creates a space between the shoe and toe does the trick. Don’t just stick tape on it and hope it goes away, this will definitely make it worse.

If it’s really bothering you and you have a pair of hiking sandals or another pair of comfy shoes, trying using those for awhile and see how you go. It’s not recommended to change your stride to save some pain by walking only on the sides or the toes of your foot. There are pain relief foot sprays that will temporarily numb the pain and may help you make it to the next stage. Once you reach your hotel, immediately take off your socks and shoes and expose the blister to the air as much as possible. If you have flip flops or sandals, wear those for any walking you’d like to do in the evening.  

Popping blisters- the truth!  

For every person you meet on the Camino there are as probably as many recommendations about blister treatment. Some say to “dejarla en paz”, leave it in peace, and others say you must pop it with a needle and thread and leave the thread through the blister to help it drain.  

You probably only want to pop it if the blister is growing or extremely painful, otherwise try and keep it intact and it will go away on its own without risk to infection. 

Infection is a real concern with blisters on the Camino. You’re wearing the same shoes every day, sometimes they get wet, they’re always dirty and sweaty and it’s almost impossible to keep your feet in a sterile environment. If you pop it with a dirty needle, make a hole for germs to get in, or don’t have any anti-bacterial ointment, a simple blister can lead to a serious infection.  

If you decide to pop a blister, make sure everything is clean, you have Neosporin or some other antiseptic (they sell this at pharmacies in Spain), and clean it and change the dressing at least twice a day.  

Hopefully, you’ll have heeded all the advice and blisters won’t even be an issue for you while walking the Camino de Santiago.  

Other Foot issues: stories from experience 

The first time I walked the Camino I didn’t end up with any blisters, but I had terrible pain in the soles of my feet. After the third day I was in agony and almost couldn’t go on. I had worn my favorite pair of Sketchers sneakers and they just didn’t have enough sole support for the hard-packed ground. After I had taken off my shoes to rest while walking, a French pilgrim asked if he could take a picture of my feet. 

I was confused and when he showed me the picture, I couldn’t believe that both my feet were so bruised they looked black! No wonder my feet hurt. So even though the shoes were comfy, I hadn’t tested them out enough to know that they provided almost no sole support for hard roads.  

I’ve also, and many others, have lost toenails while walking the Camino. Even though it’s physically easier to walk down hills, the banging your toes take on each step down can be brutal. Either I didn’t have the right shoes, maybe my socks weren't supportive enough, or I wasn’t using my waking poles properly, but 2 black toenails and pain really put a damper on some of the miles walked.  

I have seen pilgrims walking with their shoes unlaced and opened. I have also seen numerous pairs of brand-new hiking boots just abandoned along the way (you’ll actually see a lot of abandoned shoes as you walk). I’ve seen people walk the complete Camino in sandals and socks. Everything is a journey. Try and make the best of your trip by really preparing and figuring out what works for you. If you get blister or foot pain, it’s all part of the story and journey you are on. 

Buen Camino, friends!  

 

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