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Feet, Knees, Boots & Socks

Bill Orme - from Striders 103


Feet are probably the most important asset for a walker and preparing them for a walk is essential (see Practical 3, Strider no 98-April 2004).

John Hillaby had two sayings my wife and I have taken to heart:

  • I treat my feet like a pair of new born twins'.
  • Insulted by his first blister, 'I looked at it like a priest seeing he had the pox'.

I also like his quip about 4WDs: 'All power corrupts, but horsepower corrupts absolutely'.

Alfred Wainwright never bothered to look at his feet. If he felt a pebble he just moved it under his instep rather than wasting time taking off his boots. He mustn't have had fallen arches!

Most parts of the body need care when pushed above normal demands and the feet are no exception. Don't presume that because you walk to work every day that you can suddenly walk 20 miles (30 kms) on Sunday. We walk firmly before breakfast three mornings a week to keep the feet in condition. Beyond that foot care is mostly common sense: keep them clean, air them at long breaks such as lunch and tea breaks and use good boots and socks.


When I took up walking in my 40s, like my parents, arthritis was starting to give me trouble. Before setting out on our first long walk, a 10 months stint through Europe, I consulted an orthopaedic specialist. He advised that walking would not cause more problems, but could be the best thing to improve my arthritis.

He felt that rhythmic movement would grind out the deposits that were building up; stimulate the lubricants which would also flush away the grit; and the increased oxygenation of my blood would encourage regeneration of the joint lining, not wear it away. Now 70, and over 40,000 kames of wear later, his theory seems to have worked for me. Another example of 'use it or lose it'!


Everyone has their fiercely held theory, but I mainly look for light and flexible boots and pay the price of them wearing out faster than heavy, solid boots. These comments are for the normal distance walker, not rugged mountain routes where issues such as the square edge of a rigid sole for vertical grip are important.

Certainly on long walks in sharp scree and ice I wear stronger boots. But for walking Lands End to John O'Groats or across France, or through the Australian outback, I find light, flexible boots are kinder to the feet, both in comfort and coolness.

Obviously you need to pay extra for well made boots. Look for flexible soles and light comfortable boots with support to just above the ankle. Then:

  1. Go for side protection of 1 inch (20mm) above the sole to protect against cuts in the leather.
  2. I favour leather, which I polish to protect and improve waterproofing. I have other types for special circumstances, but I find leather best.
  3. Look for a cleat at the bottom of the ankle to lock the lace before a descent, as this stops you walking on your toes and getting black toenails.
  4. Try for minimum stitching as this is one place water will eventually penetrate. I find Gore-Tex and similar products of little value after half an hour. The Gore-Tex metal advertising lug catches grass and puts unnecessary holes in the leather. Water will always enter stitching or come in over the top of the boot. Maybe it's the fairies - but it gets in. Just learn to put up with it and enjoy the walk.
  5. When trying boots on see that you can put two fingers down the back to ensure space for the toes at the front.
  6. Walk around the shop with an average pack to make sure new boots are comfortable.
  7. First wear the boots around the house so the warmth of your feet can make the leather adjust to your foot shape, then either walk through wet grass or wet the boots to further assist this process.
  8. When lacing the boots, make sure the laces are above the bottom two holes, not below, as this is where the boot creases as you walk. If they are below the holes they can put painful pressure onto the feet.
  9. If like me you have fallen arches, a small 'egg' under the instep on an insert made by an orthopaedic shoe maker can solve the problem.
  10. If you have bony feet, an insert like Sorbathane acts like an extra layer of flesh.
  11. When putting your boots on, kick back into the heel before tying the laces to give the toes space.
  12. When boots start wearing out use your old ones for training rather than wearing out your new pair. Hard cement footpaths while providing good training for the joints (again Practical 3), are hell on the soles.


My wife Nedra prefers to wear polypropylene socks under thin woollen ones, but I only wear very thin polypropylene socks. I find woollen socks make the feet sweat more and are impossible to keep clean and dry on a long walk. Not to mention the fact that they're heavier and bulkier! Tinea and other fungi love dirty socks.

To wear thin polypropylene socks on their own, you must have comfortable boots. I find thin socks keep my feet cooler, reduce sweating, are easier to keep clean and dry quickly. Walking the John Muir Trail through the Rockies (Strider no 77 April 1997) I washed the socks at lunchtime and they dried in a few minutes in the sun. Washing them in the evening and hoping they will dry over the freezing nights wasn't a good option. While these socks look frail like women's stockings, they are incredibly durable and are simple to darn.

A usual idea comes from Ray Jardine, the guru of the US Pacific Crest Trail, who says: 'I take a bag of cornflour and twice a day put my feet in it to dry them out and avoid fungi'. I am not sure how often he changes the cornflour, but each to his own I say! In fairness to Ray, I have adopted many of his suggestions, but which will have to wait for future Practicals.

This article was written by Bill Orme, Walking Volunteers, and first appeared in Strider.
Anyone is free to copy it with this acknowledgement.

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