I consider foot care supplies to be an important essential for lightweight backpacking. In Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials, I advocate (with great enthusiasm!) the inclusion of Leukotape, compound tincture of benzoin, and Hydropel in a backpacker's kit of essentials. However, when I remove my socks and let my toes breathe through the open structure of a sandal, my foot care strategy changes. The objectives of this article are to discuss the limitations of the supplies I take for shoe-packing in the context of sandal-packing and to offer the reader alternatives that are better suited for sandal-packing.
First, as much as I advocate the use of Leukotape for blister prevention and maintenance, it is not my choice of tapes for sandal-packing. Leukotape is a soft, pliable tape with a wicking surface. Thus, when it becomes exposed to nature's grit and grime (as it will, when unprotected by shoes and socks), it becomes a sticky, gooey, ugly mess. The alternative is a tape that is smooth with a washable surface. The obvious answer? Duct tape!
Duct tape's key limitation is the lack of stickiness of its edges when applied directly to the surface of the skin. As with Leukotape, this limitation is easily resolved by applying compound tincture of benzoin to the skin surface prior to application of the tape, and by rounding the corners of the duct tape patch to minimize peeling.
The final piece of the foot taping puzzle for sandal-packers is the use of a lubricating agent on the outside surface of the tape. While this increases the potential for the tape to get grimy via the absorption of dirt throughout the day, it's a grime that's easily washed off the slippery surface of duct tape at day's end. The advantage to using a lubricant are twofold: it prevents water absorption into and under the tape edges (the primary reason that tape peels) and it reduces friction between sandal straps and the tape surface. Hydropel is a superb lubricant for this application. Its hydrophobicity not only acts as an excellent skin protectant (see below), but also as a useful tape protectant.
Say No to Crack
The most remarkable surprise to the new sandal-packer hiking over long distances is the appearance of cracks in the skin of the feet over longer durations. These cracks are painful, prone to infection, and very slow to heal. They are caused by the repeated cycles of supersaturation and dehydration of the skin surface. The constant cycles of shrinking, swelling, and repetitive stress of the epidermal layers results in cracks.
There are a number of strategies for dealing with cracks. The best strategies involve preventive mechanisms: wearing wool socks (which helps regulate humidity next to the skin but defeats one of the great purposes of wearing sandals - cool feet!) and liberal use of a skin protectant like Hydropel. Hydropel acts as a moisture buffer for your skin surface, and prevents both its supersaturation and its dehydration (see “Maceration Control with Hydropel,” Backpacking Light Magazine, Issue 7, p. 83).
When cracks do form, you must invoke other strategies for keeping them under control. When cracks are small, aggressive treatment is critical, because when cracks grow, their healing time goes up exponentially. It wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to say that a crack causes four times the pain and suffering when its size doubles.
My strategy for dealing with cracks is simple: I glue it back together. After a rigorous soap washing (I favor Dr. Bronner's for its ability to cut grease and oils effectively with precious little soap) and sterilization using alcohol wipes, I will treat the wound with a small bit of double antibiotic ointment, and then use a cyanoacrylate glue (e.g., Super Glue or Dermabond) to bond the edges of the crack together. The beauty of this treatment method is that it minimizes the risk of infection. Its primary disadvantage is that application of the glue results activates pain receptors you never knew you had, inducing writhing, hysteria, and in all but the most exceptional cases, foul language. Consider rounding up a pine stick to bite on if needed. More important, read the paragraph above about prevention.
Over time, sandal-packers become one with their callouses. As with cracks, the sandal-packer must keep callouses under control, so that they do not evolve into grizzled crack havens. Callous cracks heal even slower than “normal” cracks, because of their potential to be very deep. The best prevention is simply to sand them. I use small cosmetic emery boards to keep them in check, and then treat the sanded area with Hydropel to promote healing of the sanded area.
Chaco Tans and Teva Burns
Something I was not aware of on my first sandal-packing trek was the need to apply sunscreen to my feet. I knew, from catalog photography, about tell-tale tan lines from Chaco and Teva customers, and I wanted one too! But after my first day of sandal-packing at 10,000 feet in the Wind River Range, I discovered the folly of not applying sunscreen to the tops of my feet. Now, I use a combination lubricant-sunscreen for the tops, and Hydropel for the bottoms, as part of my morning routine when wearing sandals.
Hiking in sandals is liberating and refreshing. Many supportive models are available on the market today, most have pretty good trail tread, and a few are even light enough for the most weight-conscious hikers among us.
But sandal backpacking is not without its challenges, or consideration of a systems approach to the gear and supplies necessary for a positive sandal-packing experience. For more comprehensive information about backpacking with sandals, be sure to see Chris Townsend's article, Sandals for Summer Backpacking at BackpackingLight.com.