THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO JUNGLE FOOT CARE

from choosing the right boots to techniques for avoiding trench foot

Written by Chris Hunt and Rick Morales Photography by Simon Buxton and Secret Compass expedition team members

Immense isolation, off-the-scale humidity, searing heat and an overload of exotic hazards. In no environment is foot care more paramount than in the jungle.

Expert naturalist and jungle aficionado,  expedition leader Rick Morales is more familiar than most with the challenges of the jungle. In 2011, after mapping out a new hiking trail across the length of his home country of Panama, he became the first person ever to walk it, trekking from the Colombian border to Costa Rica. He’s been a jungle expedition leader for over 12 years and has spent the past four leading Secret Compass teams cross the infamous Darien Gap.

He’s refined his own approach to looking after his feet in the depths of the jungle. So who better to call on for a little helping hand in putting together this guide to jungle foot care? Below, Rick takes us through some of the challenges commonly faced on jungle expeditions and some of the best ways to prevent them.

The only break the in Pan-American Highway, the Darien Gap is an immense, almost impassably dense jungle free from roads, home only to a handful of lost civilisations
No jungle expedition is complete without wading through running water. Rick demonstrates this in the depths of the Darien Gap

Jungle Specific Footwear

Unfortunately, jungle boots are not designed for recreation yet. I guess there’s not a big enough world market for it, so I wear military tactical boots, which are the most reliable. In the jungle, I recommend against regular hiking boots designed for other environments.

The most important features of jungle footwear are:

  • Comfort: To help prevent blisters and not beat up your feet too much.
  • Good Traction: To negotiate slippery and wet rocks while crossing rivers.
  • High Cut: To prevent sand, pebbles and other debris from coming inside the boot while crossing rivers.
  • Drain Grommets: To eliminate the extra weight of the water quickly.

Running Shoes VS Tall Sturdy Boots

Some people perform better in trail running shoes. They are lightweight, comfortable and have great traction. Unfortunately we also have to think about the possibility of snakebites, therefore we don’t recommend this type of footwear because a snake could bite right through it. We suggest boots with thicker outers (leather or otherwise) that won’t be penetrated by snake fangs. Also unlike tall boots, the low-cut design of trail runners does not protect the ankle, and does not prevent sand, debris and insects from coming inside.

Buying New Boots

If you plan on buying new boots, we suggest getting non-GoreTex, tall military tactical boots, with drain grommets on the instep. In the UK, Alt-Berg makes great boots, unfortunately the traction on their Vibram soles does not do well on slippery rocks. I wear mostly Belleville tactical boots that are designed for the desert. They comply with all the great features that I look for in a pair of boots for the jungle. The downside for me is that they don’t last more than four expeditions. Being designed for the desert, they’re not made to withstand the harsh jungle conditions for very long, so I need to keep buying new boots every few months.

Existing Boots

If you have boots you like and trust which you find comfortable, you can take those to the jungle as long as they are used regularly and still have good traction. You want traction that is adequate on wet and slick rocks but also OK on muddy terrain.

Boot Failures

If the boots haven’t been worn for a while the outer sole may have crystalised and in the wet conditions of the jungle it can come unglued. If you suspect that this could be a problem, take your boots to a cobbler before the beginning of the trek and ask them to pass a line of stitching along the edge. Fixing a boot that’s come unglued may not be possible in the jungle and you may be forced to hike in your sandals, which is could be a predicament in and of itself.

This is trench foot. The tell-tell red spots as the fungal infection sets in. Shot on expedition with Secret Compass in the Darien Gap
River Crossings in the Darien Gap, one reason your feet never dry

Trouble In The Jungle

The most common and serious issue for your feet is blisters. The reason is that blisters can appear on the first day of a trek, and usually they get worse as the trip progresses.

Then as a distant second, immersion foot – aka trench foot. It may not appear at all, but if it does, it’s usually in the last day or two of the expedition. We’ve never had to evacuate anyone with trench foot, but a few times we’ve had to evacuate people with blister complications.

Very infrequently people lose their toe nails due to having their feet wet for so long.

What Is Trench Foot?

Trench foot is a generic name given to different kinds of fungal foot infections caused by prolonged exposure to damp or wet conditions in a contained environment, i.e. the shoe. The name was given to this condition after WWI, when thousands of soldiers developed severe foot problems from spending weeks in the trenches, wearing boots in the cold and damp environment.

In the tropical jungle, a similar condition develops from consistently having wet feet (over a period of several days) in water above 20ºC. The foot begins developing small red ulcers that proliferate quickly and can be very painful. This is commonly known as immersion foot or jungle rot, but people from temperate areas in the Northern Hemisphere just call it trench foot.

It is important to keep in mind that in the jungle, getting your feet wet crossing rivers it is unavoidable. Once wet, boots and socks will stay wet for the duration of the trip, they don’t dry overnight because of the high humidity of the jungle.

Avoiding Foot Issues

  • Test Your Boots – Once you have your boots, take them out for a day hike or an overnighter at home. This will help you determine how they feel and if they will give you blisters or not. If they do, identify the spots where you get the blisters and let them heal well before wearing those boots again. At this point, be prepared to practice some blister prevention during the expedition.
  • Vaseline – I recommend slathering Vaseline all over your feet, especially in the area where you got the blister. If the blister is in a tough spot like the back of the heel, then  you can wear a second pair of socks – thin casual socks, not thick hiking socks. The point here is to reduce friction. In the wet environment, your skin will be softened by the water, and therefore more prone to friction. The Vaseline lessens the friction between your skin, the sock and the boot. A second sock then further mitigates the effects of friction. To my knowledge, this is the only preventive method in the jungle that allows you to continue hiking. All other methods (Compeed, Moleskin, etc) work only if you stop hiking and rest for a day or two to keep the feet dry, and in the case of our expeditions this is utterly impractical.
  • Change Your Socks – It’s recommended not to wear the same socks for longer than three consecutive days, because socks begin collecting the fungus that later on can cause the Trench Foot. Thin casual socks will reduce bulk – thick hiking socks are heavier, bulkier, and don’t add any benefits in the jungle environment. They’re designed to wick sweat away from your feet in dry climates, but in the wet jungle, sweat is the least of your concerns. Changing into new socks every day would be ideal, but on a long expedition it is impractical because it’s more weight you have to carry, especially when you accumulate all the wet socks from the previous days.
  • Air Those Feet – To further prevent Trench Foot, at camp take your wet boots off as soon as possible, and wear open sandals around camp.
Trekking through the jungle certainly isn't all hanging out in hammocks. But no jungle expedition is complete with out at least a little.
Wondered what camp looked like in the jungle when the floor is crawling with exotic hazards? Well... this.

Foot Care Routine

  • Before the trek – I trim my toe nails short and inspect the feet for any wounds and sores.
  • Every evening during the trek – When I get to camp I first set up my hammock and campsite. I do this with my boots still on because it usually requires some hacking and cleaning, and you don’t want to step on a snake or a scorpion inadvertently with exposed feet. Once my campsite is set up, I take my boots off and put on sandals to air my feet. I don’t put the boots back on for the rest of the day. After I’ve bathed and am ready to hop into my hammock I clean my feet and dry them with rubbing alcohol. I’ll then apply anti-fungal drops (Clotrimazole 1%) on and under my toe nails. Unlike trench foot, which is fast and painful but cures quickly, toe nail fungus is innocuous and painless, but it’s gross and can take a long time to cure. So it’s better to prevent it.
  • Every morning during the trek – Do all your camp chores with sandals on, and only put on the Vaseline, socks and boots when you’re ready to start hiking again. I apply the anti-fungal drops again on the toe nails, and put Vaseline on my feet and between the toes on any blisters starting to form. Then I put on the wet socks and boots from the day before, changing my socks every three days or so.

Fending Off The First Signs

Again the most important of all is to take your boots off as soon as possible, and to keep your feet well ventilated for the longest period of time possible every day and night.

Once trench foot starts, you need to apply anti-fungal cream containing Miconazole and Zinc Oxide. We do not recommend putting on any medication for prevention as these creams have their own side effects, such as skin redness and inflammation, and to do their job well, the foot needs to be dry. We also do not recommend using talc powders at all in our jungle environment. It’s great in drier regions, but in the wet jungle conditions with all the river crossings the powder becomes a gross and messy paste that does nothing to prevent foot rot.

As soon as the trip is over, take your boots off and wear sandals for the next several days. Take your boots home, wash them, dry them well and store them. At this point you can apply the talc powder inside the boots for storage.

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