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I had only been in the arctic bush for three days, but as I looked down at my feet, I was shocked. The skin was white and looked like I had been in the bathtub for hours, the skin was that wrinkled. I knew the problem was a result of wearing the “bunny boots” or arctic rubber insulated boots during my survival training. And, I had not removed my boots in days. I knew I should have, but I didn’t have to worry about my feet? Or, did I? While my problem was not serious, I simply dried my feet, applied some foot powder, and placed clean dry socks on. I was going to be fine. However, if I had continued ignoring my feet, I would have had serious problems.
Ever since man starting wearing coverings on his feet, we have had problems with our feet. In World War I immersion foot was called trench foot. The injury is the result of the feet being constantly wet (from water or sweat) and it causes tissue death of the feet. Keeping feet dry was a constant problem in World War I, due to the water collecting in the bottom of the trenches. But, trench foot isn’t the only foot hazard associated with being outdoors.
Additionally, most of us, if we hunt or hike long enough will eventually develop blisters on our feet. Usually blisters form due to poorly fitting boots or from new footwear that is not broken it yet. Make sure your new boots are larger than your dress shoes (because of the socks you wear with boots are thicker). The boots should be big enough to allow you to wear a good thick pair of socks and still have room for your feet to move without rubbing. It is the rubbing (friction) of the skin on your foot against the boot that causes the blisters to form.
Both immersion foot and blisters can become extremely painful and they do not take a long time to develop either. Immersion foot can take a lot longer than a blister to occur, but you can have other problems with your feet if they are not kept dry (cracking or dead tissue). Also, as in my case above, keep in mind if your boots cause your feet to sweat when you wear them, or it they fit poorly, you could develop foot problems. Most of us have had minor cases of immersion foot or had a blister after a long hunting trip or a hike. Ok, when it comes to immersion foot, you know what causes it, what does it look like?
Immersion foot is easy to identify and you will suspect a problem with your feet the minute you remove your boots.
- The feet and toes will be white in color
- At times the socks may be discolored from the boot dye
- “Bathtub” wrinkles on the foot, like you have been in the tub for hours
- In advanced cases, you may have cracked or bleeding feet or toes
- There may be pain at the heel or ball of the foot
- Skin may peel or fall off as you remove your socks or touch the foot
Treatment of immersion foot is very simple. If you suspect immersion foot, dry your feet, keep them warm, and covered. Apply foot powder and put on dry socks as soon as you have completely dried the foot. If the injury is severe (cracked skin, bleeding, or severe pain), I suggest you seek medical treatment as soon as possible. In a survival situation, these steps may be difficult or even impossible to do at times. But, if your feet develop problems, you will have difficulty remaining mobile and that could cause serous survival repercussions.
The best way to prevent immersion foot is to keep your feet dry in the first place. There are boots on the market made of materials that allow your feet to sweat without retaining the moisture (Thinsolite ® and Goretex ® are good examples). However, if you prefer leather or rubber boots, then make sure you check your feet often during the day. At least twice a day you should stop and check your feet. Remember, your feet just have to sweat, not get soaking wet for an injury to occur.
Also, start the day out with clean dry socks on. I usually change my socks at noon, it they are damp, as I check my feet. If the weather is wet, you may have to change them more often. If necessary, you can dry your socks and boots at night by placing them near the campfire, but avoid getting them too close to the fire, or they will burn. When I change my socks, I also use a good quality foot powder, making sure I cover the “webbed skin” well between the toes. Just keep in mind, before you apply the powder, make sure your feet are completely dry. But, what if you find a blister on your foot when applying the foot powder?
Blisters are the result of your feet rubbing against a part of your boot or sock. The outer skin dies and separates from the underlying skin. The space between the two skins fills with a fluid, lymph liquid, and you now have a blister. And, as you know, blisters come in many different sizes and shapes. Well, if you have a blister, do you break it open, or leave it intact?
There are many different trains of thought on how to treat a blister. I will stick with what the military taught me, because I suspect they may know a few things about walking and feet. First, if the blister is small, there is no need to open it. By opening it you may actually increase the risk of developing an infection. Second, large blisters should be drained, but do not remove the “dead layer” of skin over the top of the blister (this layer of skin will assist in covering and protecting the sensitive skin under it). Draining a blister is a very easy process.
The area should be cleaned well with soap and water, or an alcohol pad from your survival kit. You can use a needle or safety pin that has been held over a small flame until the tip turns red. Once the need or pin has cooled, puncture the dead skin on the edge of the blister a couple of times. Then, gently massage the blister to drain the fluid. Pay close attention to the color of the fluid, it should be clear and not milky or a pus color (discoloration indications infection). After you have drained the blister, do not remove the top layer of dead skin. Apply an antibiotic ointment to the blister, cover with a band-aid, and put on clean dry socks. Check the blister each day and if your feet become wet or dirty, check it more often. But, it is easier to prevent a blister than it is to treat one in the field.
- Get properly fitting boots. If the boots are too tight, blisters will form. If the boots are too large, the foot will move inside the boot and will rub against the inside. Your boot should not fit snuggly, but rather you should have about a thumbs width of space between your big toe and the boot tip.
- Wear good quality socks and change them often. Even the friction of a sock can cause a blister to form. Wet socks may cause damage to the skin on your feet and increase the risk of getting a blister.
- Always apply a foot powder when you put on clean socks. Foot powder will absorb the dampness on you feet and help keep them dry.
- Make sure your feet are in good shape before you ever use your boots. Keep the toenails trimmed, remove calluses, and smooth any rough spots on the foot.
- Some folks even apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to their feet to reduce the amount of friction that can occur while hiking.
Each night, especially after a long day of hiking, I will check my feet very closely. I pay close attention to the color of my feet, any unusual smells, and I check for cracks under or between the toes. Any small blisters or cracks found, I treat as minor injuries and cover them with a band-aid after I have cleaned them. I never sleep in the same socks I have worn all day, regardless of the temperature. The socks may feel dry, but they will have condensation from your feet that will keep your feet damp. If you want to sleep in socks, put a clean pair on.
Most of us who hunt or hike take our feet for granted. We often ignore them until they start to ache or hurt. But, by then it may be too late. Keep your feet dry, clean, warm, and protected at all times. Remember to use foot powder and do not sleep in your “old” socks, but rather, put on a clean pair. A hiking trip can quickly turn from fun in the sun to a nightmare if we don’t take care of our feet. By following these simple suggestions you will always be able to stand on your own two feet.