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How to Survive: Take care of your feet to avoid making a survival situation worse

150 150 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

If you can’t walk because of an injured foot, you can’t be mobile. That can cause an emergency situation. And if you’re already there, things can go from bad to worse.

by Leon Pantenburg

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I was about two days south of Yellowstone Lake, on the Thoroughfare Creek trail in the Yellowstone backcountry, when I started hitting the beaver marshes. The trail started getting muddy, then swampy, and finally started criss-crossing the creek. I stopped, took off my boots, and put on my

My footwear: flip-flops, running shoes, Merrill walking shoes, Danner day hikers, Cabellas Outfitters and Sorel snow boots. One of these pairs of shoes will take care of my needs.

My footwear: flip-flops, running shoes, Merrill walking shoes, Danner day hikers, Cabellas Outfitters and Sorel snow boots. One of these pairs of shoes will take care of my needs. (Pantenburg photos)

running shoes to wade. 

The rest of the day I hiked in my Adidas. My feet were constantly wet, and got soft and wrinkled. But I never developed any foot problems over the 14-day backpacking trip, because I could dry out my feet at night, and my boots never got wet.

Ask any infantryman – foot care is paramount to survival.

The quickest way to turn a situation into something desperate is to hurt your foot. Once you are immobile, you can’t hike to safety, gather wood for a fire or build a shelter, set up a signal or forage for food.

It goes without saying that I am vehemently opposed to barefoot hiking. IMHO that is crazy, and I don’t care what your particular reasons for avoiding footware are. All it takes is stepping on a hidden nail, broken beer bottle or thorn to create a survival situation.

Unfortunately, many outdoorspeople don’t seem to pay much attention to their feet, and don’t plan well in the footwear area. Many people get fixated on one aspect of preparedness, and don’t think about how they might have to walk somewhere.

Also consider a spare set of footwear. I usually carry along a pair of lightweight running shoes while backpacking in case I have to wade a creek, or my hikers get damaged. No matter how well-fitting or expensive your boots are, it’s nice to take them off at the end of a long day on the trail. With the spares to wear around camp, you can dry and air out your hikers so they will be comfortable the next day.

 Here’s some of the things I’ve learned about boots over nearly four decades of backpacking, hunting and hiking in wilderness areas.

The boots I wear the most, year-round, are these uninsulated Danner Cougars. They're light enough to hike in all day, but sturdy enough to provide foot protection and ankle support. (Pantenburg photos)

The boots I wear the most, year-round, are these uninsulated Danner Cougars. They’re light enough to hike in all day, but sturdy enough to provide foot protection and ankle support.

Think about these things before you buy.

  • First and foremost: Fit. No footwear is worth a flip if  it doesn’t fit your foot correctly. Go to a backpacking or outdoors store where they know their stuff and get fitted.
  • Price: You can’t afford cheap boots. They will let you down, and Murphy’s Law says that will happen when you need your boots the most. Pay a few extra bucks upfront, and you won’t regret your choice later. You can’t hike out of a bad situation if your boots let you down.
  • What will the boots be used for? What do you anticipate doing in this footwear? An urban walking shoe is great for the concrete canyons, but in the wilderness you may best be served by an ankle-high, study leather boot. Likewise, a cold weather boot is different than something you would wear in the tropics, and both differ from the ideal desert boot. Think ahead.
  • Leather or man-made materials?   Again, the decision will depend on where you’re using the footwear. You may save considerable weight by going with lightweight synthetic materials, but  sometimes, such as trekking across boulder fields, the added protection from leather is really nice.
  •  Waterproof? I don’t like waterproof boots unless it’s wet. Then I love them! But I find that boots lined with Goretex or some other moisture barrier are hotter and make my feet sweat more. I’m guessing that at least 80 percent of time I don’t need a waterproof boot.

Whatever you buy, make sure they are well broken in before you go on a long trip.

Here are some suggestions for taking care of your feet once you are on the trail.

  • As soon as you feel a hot spot on your foot, stop and fix it before a blister develops. This can mean changing socks, applying Moleskin, a band aid, duct tape or padding to the offending area. Don’t ignore it.
  • Get good socks designed for hiking and your boots. Make sure the socks fit well, and that they are of a material that wicks moisture away from your foot. No cotton. Many hikers like to wear thin polypropylene sock liners next to their feet.
  • Change your socks at the noon break, and give your feet a chance to air and dry out. If possible, I try to rinse my socks out and hang them on the backpack to dry out.
  • Take along gaiters: These leggings can be knee-high or shorter. I like to wear six-inch gaiters when hiking the desert, or any place where there is a lot of sand or pumice. Those little rocks and grains of sand that get kicked into your shoes are a major pain.
  • Take along bread sacks. If you’re wearing low quarter hikers or non-waterproof  shoes, and it starts to rain, put the bread sack on between your sock and the shoe. It works surprisingly well, and does a lot to keep your feet dry.
  • Wash your feet. Every night, it’s a good idea to at least wipe down your feet. Pay particular attention to between your toes.
  • Make sure your toenails are trimmed and don’t rub against your sock or shoe.
  • Do you carry cotton balls and Vaseline as a firestarter? Lubricate your heels and any other place that starts to feel hot  with the cotton balls, and it can help keep a blister from forming.

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