7 Problems Trekkers Face & How to Solve Them

Walking is the most popular recreational physical activity in Australia (ABS 2015). Almost half of Australians regularly walk for fitness (Roy Morgan 2018). And there’s good reason for this too – it has amazing health benefits. If there was a pill that could provide half the benefits a good dose of physical activity can, it would be the hottest seller on the market! According to the Australian Department of Health and Human Services, there’s a mountain of benefits that increasing our walking and physical activity can provide:

  • Reducing the risk of heart attack, type 2 diabetes & some cancers
  • Controlling and reducing the risk of osteoporosis
  • Weight management
  • Lowering blood cholesterol & blood pressure
  • Increasing strength of bones, muscles and soft tissues
  • Decreasing the risk of falls
  • Improving mood, energy and sleep

Trekking is a wilderness walk that traverses rougher terrain over the course of hours, days or weeks. Hikes and trails are graded in difficulty according to how physically demanding they are (steepness gradient of the inclines and declines), duration and difficulty (presence or absence of paths, steps, obstacles and access to amenities). There are treks and hikes to suit most fitness levels.

Anyone who has trekked before will tell you the exhilaration and sense of achievement makes a strong trek worth the effort. Walking holidays are a perfect way to really get amongst the nature and environment of a new land, experiencing the culture and history of the landscape as you go.

It’s a good idea to do some preparation before you go in the form of a graduated walking program to increase your fitness and strength and test your gear. As you start to increase your walking or think about preparing for a walking adventure, here’s some of the most common issues Trekkers face and how to tackle them.

1. Blisters

Over two thirds of trekkers (64% according to Boulware et al 2003) experience blisters. Blisters are the result of friction of the foot sliding in the shoe/sock. Moisture, pressure and repetition are the ingredients that make a blister happen. Once you have the blisters, popping them can become an infection risk. It is much MUCH better to avoid getting them in the first place.

It is essential to have shoes that are comfortable and fit properly. Poorly fitting or inapproapriate footwear is the most common cause of blisters. Make sure the laces secure your foot in place and that there is ample room for your toes to slide forward – especially when going down hill. You don’t want your toes hitting the end of your shoe or you’ll end up with unhappy toes – toenails with bruises under them or even missing toenails!

Hiking shoes can be made from a variety of materials depending on whether you need the following factors

  • Waterproofing
  • Light weight
  • Ankle support

There is no “one size fits all” approach. You should consult your physiotherapist, podiatrist or specialist shoe centre to determine the right fit. Consider giving yourself two months to wear them in.

Secondly but just as importantly, consider which socks you wear. Socks need to be comfortable and fit properly – not too big or small. Thickness comes down to your preference and comfort – choose materials that are natural to help the skin breathe and natural materials may reduce odour. Socks made from materials that wick moisture away from the skin surface also help prevent blisters. Fast drying means you can wash them more easily on the trek to wear again in a day or so which will reduce what you have to carry or mean you can change them more frequently.

Many runners and walkers like “toe socks” to reduce friction and improve comfort, but for others, getting your individual toes into each compartment is annoying. Natural fibres breathe well and help your skin condition.  Keep your skin dry; constantly wet feet are not only uncomfortable, but more likely to suffer skin irritations and blisters. I suggest purchasing a few pairs of socks along with your hiking shoes and see which ones you like best as your do your training walks. Then stock up before you go on your favourite pair.

Top: Brown Trekking boot – high top for more ankle support, durable but heavy. Bottom: Black trail-running shoe – sturdier than a regular sneaker and lighter-weight than the boot (but not as water-proof or supportive as the boot).

Although it may rain on our Nepal Trek, our trekking route won’t be particularly wet. You are likely to be fine with one pair of socks per day and one pair of shoes. Some water-proofing is advisable on all footwear, but we won’t likely be wading through streams and mud.

2. Skin Irritation: Chafing, Cuts and Grazes

Chafing can affect a variety of body areas and become really uncomfortable. Common sites are underarms and between the thighs. “Bodyglide” is a topical application that you apply to the skin to reduce friction and rubbing. It’s often an issue of skin rubbing on skin or clothing, so t-shirts  which protect your inner arm from rubbing against your shirt (as opposed to a singlet) might be a good option.

Ill-fitting underwear and bras need to be addressed – spend the time and money on decent, comfortable garments. They will be worth their weight in gold out on the trails. Wear them during your training to test them out.

Backpack straps – consider if you are wearing T-Shirts or singlets as the straps on a backpack can become a source of irritation if rubbing against bare skin. Having a day-pack that fits comfortably and correctly is essential.

Cuts and bruises from slips and stumbles are unavoidable – a small first aid kit with a little antiseptic wash and bandaids is a helpful addition to your day pack.

3. Lower Limb Injuries: Foot Pain (i.e. plantar fasciitis, arch pain) Achilles Tendinopathy, knee pain, hip pain.

Walking obviously places more demand on the bones, joints, muscles and other tissues of the lower limb. So we need to increase our walking and exercise steadily and use appropriate footwear early on – it’s worth the investment and saves on Physio visits later on!

Our body’s tissues are designed to adapt to the stresses and demands placed on them – providing load is applied at the right intensity and duration: too much, too often = the tissues become sore and inflamed. Too little, and we don’t build our strength and endurance.

It is generally accepted that it takes four to six weeks of consistent load for our tissues to show changes in response to training/loading. There needs to be period of load and adequate rest (i.e. rest days as well as adequate sleep and nutrition). Sudden increases in activity without adequate recovery periods can lead to overuse or overload injuries of the lower limbs – hips, knees and feet are especially at risk. The key is to be patient during this period when you are feeling great and want to do more, and not over-do it.

It is a common scenario to see people with injuries about two months after embarking on a new exercise program after starting enthusiastically, to find growing niggles starting to get in our way. The main reason is that the increased stress has just been applied too fast or too much without enough recovery.

Consider increasing only one of the following at a time, and perhaps only by 10% per week.

  • Distance/time walking
  • Difficulty: incline/decline
  • Pace

4. Shoulder, Neck and Back Pain

Carrying a pack puts more compressive forces through your spine. The simple act of carrying a weight will change how you have to recruit your postural muscles.

You can save a lot of back-ache by ensuring your pack fits comfortably with the straps at the right tension so that you are carrying loads more efficiently. So take your time trying different packs with some weight in them (filled with the stuffing in-store makes them look full, but doesn’t replicate how they feel on your back).

I disagree with the recommendation to do all your walking with a pack. This is why:

Muscles have a range in which they are most efficient – somewhere in their mid-range. So if a muscle is lengthened or contracted toward the ends of its range, it is not able to generate forces as efficiently. Poor posture has the effect of putting some muscles outside of their comfort zones: some are less active and may develop weaknesses through lack of use, while others are constantly ‘switched on’ and become tight, tense & strong. This causes imbalances. Attaching a load to our spine (i.e. a backpack) will simply exacerbate these imbalances.

Good posture means that you have the most efficient balance of muscle effort. Doing some exercises that help identify what great posture is for you, improve your posture and strengthen your ability to maintain it is essential, prior to loading it.

Nothing beats Pilates for this purpose. When training for a marathon, I found that after my one weekly Pilates session, my running effort was much less as I moved more efficiently. Develop great posture as you get stronger and more flexible.

For recovery, strengthening and injury prevention Yoga works great too. Stretching and moving our body in all directions is fantastic for reversing some of the stiffness and tension that creeps in over the days. (Which is why we also are incorporating yoga into our trek for those interested).

So use a pack sparingly at the start. Consider a 10 week Yoga or Pilates (or both) program as an adjunct to your walking training. And in the final two months, start to wear a pack gradually building up to the weight you intend to trek with. You could aim for 5-10kg, or weigh what you will carry and replicate that with books or water bottles.

If you are troubled by back pain, see your physio (remember our Trekking Preparation Early Bird Special) to get it sorted early on.

And if you’ve made it to the start line, here’s the most common issues that can make your journey that bit less enjoyable.

5. Diarrhoea

The last thing you want on the trails is diarrhoea.

My wise Grand Pa Don once remarked on his experience with gastro: “You think you’ll die, but you’re afraid you won’t”. Gastro is terrible anyway you look at it, but you will be more comfortable in a hotel room than walking 6 hours a day. So take all precautions to avoid it!

Here’s some tips:

  • Be careful with your water – drink cooled, boiled water (available at all tea-houses) or filtered water
  • Only ever eat cooked vegies (you can try salads if you trust the location is used to catering to Western bellies). They must be washed in filtered, boiled water
  • Consider acclimitazing to the food/country for a few days before heading out to the Trekking route so your body and belly can adjust.
  • Hand-washing: before every meal and after every bathroom break. Soap and water.
  • Consider packing a hand sanitizer when hand-washing is difficult
  • Discuss mediations with your travel Dr when you have your pre-travel vaccinations – if you are bent over a toilet bowel (or not sure which end to aim into it), the last thing you want to have to do is wander the streets to find a chemist
  • Consider packing Hydralyte Sachets for dehydration which can happen with these episodes

Which leads me to…

6. Dehydration

Drink plenty of water during your training and your trek. You have couple options here: bladders or bottles.

Bladders are flexible rubber reservoirs that many day packs can now accommodate with a long rubber straw and mouth piece that is easily reached during your walk. They are really handy and mean you can easily quench your thirst. However in practice, when on the trek you would have to refill with bottled water as they are not easy to clean and you can’t fill with boiled water due to the materials they are made for. So I suggest to keep these for training at home.

Example of a trail-running backpack, complete with bladder and ‘straw’ (left). Metal drink-bottle ideal for trekking.

Metal drink-bottles are the trick and can be purchased on arrival or before leaving (avoid single use plastic bottles due to their environmental impact). The great thing about Metal Drink bottles is that when you arrive at the tea-house in the afternoon, the kitchen can fill your bottle with boiling water to place in your sleeping bag to warm it up. When you go to bed, simply remove it and it will cool overnight ready for the next day. I wouldn’t recommend plastic bottles for this purpose.

While you want to avoid alcohol and caffeine as they can increase dehydration, a few cups of Chia (Nepali tea) or soft-drinks can also supplement both hydration and calorie needs.

7. Sunburn

Sunscreen all the time even if it’s overcast (in this day and age – enough said?). Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes & a Blistex with SPF for your lips.

If you take precautions for these types of issues in the preparation and duration of your trek, not only will you give yourself the best chance of success, but you will make every step even more enjoyable.

Afterall, it’s about the Journey not just the destination.

Happy Trekking!