If there is one thing that serving in the infantry with the Marine Corps has taught me, is that your feet are your most valuable tool. At first, plenty of people tried to tell me to take care of my feet, buy the right socks, use simple tips and tricks to make your life easier, but I didn’t listen. I just strapped my pack down tighter, leaned forward, and continued to march. However, it wasn’t until the deployment cycles came and my own four year stint at the schoolhouse teaching infantry to young Marines that I realized how truly important your feet are.
There are a number of ways to prevent an onslaught of hot spots and blisters while conducting hikes and foot marches. The cause of this is simple: friction plus moisture. It happens every time, the Marine who thinks they are the toughest out there, walks straight through the puddles without going around. It’s like the epic test of manhood with the winner having the wettest feet. However, they are always the ones who suffer in the end. Sweat can cause the same issues.
Movement is another aspect that you want to try and fight against when rucking. Even if your boot moves a little bit, it will begin to rub, causing hot spots and eventually blisters. And of course, the longer you have to walk, the worse it will get. Some of the things you can do to prevent this from happening, or at least reduce the amount of discomfort during the hike, are quite easy. Read on!
Wear Decent Socks
First, the type of boot socks you use can make a huge difference. The standard issue boot socks worn day to day for the military members are usually made out of cotton and retain moisture from sweat or water that gets into your boots. Cotton socks aren’t wicking, so they will keep your feet wet and cause friction, creating blisters and hot spots.
Having waterproof boots will assist greatly in reducing the amount of moisture on your feet, but not everyone has the luxury (and not all moisture comes from outside the boot). Instead, you need to use a type of sock that will wick that moisture away while regulating temperature, like a wool or poly blend sock.
There are several different thicknesses to socks, and you will need to experiment and see which one works best for you. You can also consider layering your socks with sock liners. For instance, I like to use a thicker wool sock, and have a tight, thin sock (similar to dress socks) under the wool sock. It stays dry, and with it being so thin, it breathes and allows the wool sock to do its job. There are plenty of people that do not like sock liners though, so try it out before hitting that 40 kilometer hike.
Another key component avoiding painful blisters is the fit of your boot. Don’t just assume your normal size in running or dress shoes is going to work for tactical boots. Different materials and brands will have variations in fit. Too tight or too loose can both cause the same problems, so try them on before you commit to them.
First, ensure you have the correct socks on when trying out your boot. Wool socks with a sock liner are going to fit differently than a thin poly sock. Second, try them on in the afternoon or evening, since your feet swell throughout the day. And finally, ensure the boot is laced and tied properly on your foot. You want them tight, but not so tight you cut off circulation, especially towards the top of the boot.
After this, if you have a close fit, but the boot still moves slightly on your foot, try an old military trick. We used to have old school ISO mats, which is a foam-like mat to sleep on when on the ground. They were cheap, would tear easily, and had to be replaced often. When you had one that needed to be replaced, you could repurpose it for many things, including “custom” fitting your boots. We would cut the mat into strips about three inches long, and between 1-2 inches wide depending on the boot size. We would then unlace our boots, put the iso strip under the boot laces against the boot where your shin sits, and lace the boot lace over the mat strip. This would act as a cushion and reduce the movement of the boot drastically. Any foam like material would work, although I strongly recommend not using this method until trying it out on a short walk, as it may not meet your personal needs.
Having a good boot fit also assists with the swelling. There have been a number of times when I was on a 20K hike, and when we took a ten minute break halfway through, I would sit on my pack and replenish calories and electrolytes. But when the break was over, it took another 15 minutes of slow walking to get my feet back into walking condition. This is because my feet would become swollen due to the boot not fitting correctly. The solution I used was to remain standing and leave my pack on during breaks, which in turn made me suffer along the next leg of the hike by not resting, not eating or drinking, and not cooling down my body temperature. As you can see, the second scenario caused more harm than the sore feet.
It is much easier to have a boot that fits and is worn properly.
Additional Preventative Measures
With the above tips, you will greatly improve your rucking experience and prevent a large number of the blisters and hot spots that may occur. There are additional tips below, but the above are extremely important and nothing below will be a long term solution if you skimp on proper socks and boot fit.
Moleskin: Moleskin is an extremely useful thing to have when on hikes, and is also affordable. When I didn’t have moleskin with me on rucks, it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford it or didn’t know where to find it, it was because I was being lazy. Moleskin will help by reducing the friction within the boot, and acts similarly to a sock liner in that aspect. I know plenty of people who know where their hotspots appear, and apply moleskin before they even start. You can also apply it during the hike. If you apply the moleskin directly on the hotspot, this helps in preventing the hotspot from becoming a blister.
For people that do a lot of hiking, especially service members with heavy packs and long training events during a work up cycle, blisters are going to happen no matter how many precautions are taken. When this happens, you can take moleskin and apply it directly over the blister, with a hole cut out where the blister is. The moleskin should surround the blister, with the blister remaining intact. This acts as a buffer and cushion for the blister, and reduces the amount of pressure put on the direct spot. Never pop a blister during a hike, as it increases the risk of infection, and the drainage from the blister will just be adding more moisture to the area.
Debris in the Tread: Lastly, and one that people tend to forget, is trapped debris within the underside of your boot. If a small rock gets stuck in the traction of your boot, then this can cause an unknown shift in the way you walk, which in turn creates pressure on your foot. This could lead to a hot spot and blister to form, especially since you don’t walk on that portion of your foot when taking normal steps. This is why it is important to check the bottoms of your boots when resting or if you feel abnormal pressure when walking.
All in all, hiking can be very enjoyable and help you in many ways. Unfortunately, many people who try it end up dismissing it due to foot pain and blisters. Or, for the military folks, end up going through years of pain because of a few small tips they refuse to try. If the proper socks, boots, and prevention is taken, the next ruck will be as easy as taking a walk through the park (with a heavy pack on your back and a drill sergeant screaming in your ear).
Remember, try each tip on its own and find what works best for you.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.