Walking in the bush is an integral part of many outdoor recreation experiences, but for some students it can be an experience long remembered for all the wrong reasons. Memories of blisters, foot and ankle pain and muscle soreness could linger long, rather than the feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment that come from completing a challenging walk. 

Outdoor hiking and camping experiences can be highly successful for children and teens across the age spectrum from early childhood right through to the secondary years. Walking outdoors comes with a wealth of positive outcomes, both at a personal and curriculum level. But extended walking can take its toll particularly on the feet, ankles and lower legs.

And with no less than 26 bones and an impressive 33 joints connected by around a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments in the human foot alone, it is little wonder that feet and ankles  can sometimes be the cause of some walking grief for ill-prepared hikers!

Hiking, particularly multi-day experiences, requires a degree of forward planning to ensure that an otherwise stimulating and enriching hike is not brought undone by foot or ankle injuries or a serious case of blisters.

Footwear choices

Selecting a good pair of shoes is perhaps one of the most effective strategies that can be used to avoid injuries and prevent blisters developing during a walk. Shoes that are well fitting will hold the foot snugly and prevent the ankle rolling over uneven surfaces.

They are also helpful in ensuring that sharp objects such as sticks or stones do not cause an injury. Suggest that students check for the quality of the stitching in a boot and that their toes are not touching the end of the boot when they try it on. Ideally boots should be tried on whilst wearing the same socks that will be used when walking.

Test a pair of boots in different walking conditions such as marching up and down stairs, jumping from a small height and walking on flat surfaces before making a final buying decision.

For some families, the cost of high quality footwear can present financial difficulties, however. Good shoes are expensive and particularly in situations where there are multiple children in a single family, the cost of pre-trip purchases can mount up quickly.

In order to mitigate this effect, schools may opt to provide a bulk purchasing option through a supplier, suggest some appropriate mid range choices that might suit the students or ensure there is plenty of notice given so that families can plan their purchasing well in advance.

Some hike providers also offer hire options for students, although this can be problematic sometimes if the shoes are not a good fit for the child or do not cater to particular needs such as orthotics.

Footwear doesn’t just include shoes though – comfortable, well fitting socks that dry quickly if they get wet are also vital. Many is the hike that has been remembered not for the stunning views of mountain ranges and scenery but for the distinctive odour of not quite dry socks worn for several days running!  

Socks can help prevent blisters forming in places where pressure or rubbing occurs during a long walk. It is important that students bring enough pairs of socks to last for their trip and to allow for replacement of socks if they become damaged or affected by such things as prickles or grass seeds and the like during a walk.

Avoiding blisters

Blisters can make the most picturesque of bushwalks a step-by-step nightmare, causing pain and discomfort with every stride. To prevent blisters forming, encourage students to consider their choice of socks carefully and to remember that it is often material type rather than price which makes the difference to sock comfort over a period of days.

Suggest that students try to keep their socks dry or to change them when they do begin to become sweaty and damp, as this can reduce the chance that blisters will develop (and will also hopefully reduce the likelihood of fungal infections and the like developing in the lovely, warm mustiness of sweaty, damp socks and boots). Good fitting socks which are made from a nylon fabric are often considered better than pure cotton or a cotton synthetic blend.

Clothes for the task

High fashion and hiking are not typically comfortable buddies – outfits which are appropriate for a day at the beach or visiting friends are not necessarily ideal for spending time in the bush. In terms of foot and ankle care, a fast drying pair of long pants are an ideal choice as they offer protection as well as comfort.  Some students may fail to see the association between long pants and injury prevention, but a quick discussion about the possibility of snake bites or leeches is usually sufficient to prevent fashionable cuts of denim or board shorts from finding their way into back packs!  
Schools can assist children in making good clothing choices in many ways:

  • Role model clothes that will suit a planned activity so that students can see what appropriate clothing looks like.
  • Talk about why various clothing choices are important so that students understand the reasoning behind particular rules or recommendations.
  • Discuss possible issues and consequences that might arise from poor clothing and footwear, such as cuts and abrasions or sunburnt feet.

Involving students in discussions about how to dress and consider their clothing and footwear needs is an ideal way of getting them on board and ensuring they understand the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ of pre-trip preparations.

Training

If students are embarking on a longer hike and particularly if they are doing a multi-day trip, training before the big event is essential. There is nothing worse than having an otherwise great trip ruined by aching feet and sore calf muscles which can make a second day of walking painful and distressing. 

Training activities for several weeks prior to a hike will build up muscle strength in the feet and ankles and will also have benefits for aerobic fitness and endurance. Encourage students to walk in the clothing and shoes that they will be wearing when they do the real thing as this will help with wearing in new shoes and making sure there are no issues such as poorly fitting shoes or socks which need to be dealt with prior to the event.

Some students may find it motivating to use a competition format for the training, with points being scored and tallied towards a total number of kilometres walked or hours spent training. Another possible motivator is to provide some wearable technology such as a pedometer to record their footsteps as they train – this approach can also support maths and digital technology outcomes for students.

Training which includes a technology component is generally highly appealing and is particularly useful for students who are more reluctant to put in the hard slog needed to get ready for a trip. Technology can also be used to demonstrate stretches and warm ups that will help prevent foot and ankle soreness.

A program of regular strengthening and stretching exercises that students feel confident in implementing for themselves can be useful as both a pre-trip preparation and also as a way of encouraging longer term healthy lifestyle practices. Team up with your friendly PE teacher or sports specialist and run through stretches and strengthening activities that are designed to target the feet, ankles and lower legs.

This might include:

  • Wall sits, calf raises and squats to build leg strength.
  • Gentle stretches of the ankles, calves and hamstrings.
  • Specific exercises to target individual student needs and pre-existing injuries or conditions.

It is important to seek some specialist advice when it comes to preparing a training regime so that you can be sure to provide activities and exercises which are suitable for the specific needs of your class or group.

Good walking practices

Walking well with others in a group situation takes practise and a degree of knowledge and skill; being a good walker should not be something that you assume of all your students. Instruction in how to walk as a part of a group can help everyone to get the most out of their experiences and will help prevent injuries to the feet and ankles which are particularly prone to damage during a walk. 

Students might need to learn about:

  • What to do if they accidentally dislodge a rock or boulder from a steep section of the trail, causing it to travel downwards towards other walkers.
  • How to avoid plants and sticks flicking backwards towards the ankles of another walker following behind them as they move along a path.
  • How to balance the weight of their pack when on various inclines and declines to avoid calf pain at the end of the day.
  • The best way of walking in or through water to avoid slipping or falling.
  • What to do with wet boots and socks after walking in water.
  • How to check the feet and ankles for leeches.
  • How to safely traverse a section of track which involves climbing or rock scrambling.
  • Why they should check their boots carefully each morning before putting them on for the day.
  • How to keep their boots and socks safe from insects, spiders and other creepy crawlies overnight.

How to balance the weight of their pack when on various inclines and declines to avoid calf pain at the end of the day. The best way of walking in or through water to avoid slipping or falling. What to do with wet boots and socks after walking in water. How to check the feet and ankles for leeches. How to safely traverse a section of track which involves climbing or rock scrambling. Why they should check their boots carefully each morning before putting them on for the day. How to keep their boots and socks safe from insects, spiders and other creepy crawlies overnight.

Getting students involved from the beginning of the pre-trip planning stage right through to final departure can help them be more aware of the need for careful preparation of footwear and give them a far better understanding of how and why they should take care of their feet and ankles when walking in the bush.

Before you take your next group of student feet on the march, remember to plan ahead and encourage some deeper learning about the importance of footcare on the trail!