How – health

Staying alive

Note: If you’re a health professional, or of a squeamish disposition, I wouldn’t read this page…

Considering my rubbish diet, I reckon I was pretty lucky not to have a heart attack while I was on my walk.   But actually, health-wise, and only had three significant issues on my walk.

The first problem I had was, unsurprisingly, blisters.   Bitter experience has taught me that blisters can make your life absolute misery – to the point that I know of many hikers that have had to give up simply because of the excruciating pain they cause.   I have found that the only way to reduce the risk of getting them in the first place is to keep your feet dry and to get comfortable soft boots which are not too tight and not too big.   The combination of my goretex socks and goretex boots provided both comfort and reasonable protection against the wet, so I didn’t end the day – even on wet days – with my feet squelching through soaking wet boots.

But despite these precautions, I did still get some blisters. And although the skin on my feet got tougher as I walked, I still got blisters later in my walk – including in Scotland – for no obvious reason (although road walking did seem to cause more problems). I discovered that there are two sorts of blisters. The first are those that you get on the back of your heel or the sides of your feet. These are caused by rubbing and are the types of blisters most people get when walking. I found I could treat these by sticking a piece of “Compeed” over the sore patch as soon as it started to hurt. This could generally stop a blister forming and I just left the Compeed on for a week or so until it fell off naturally.

Surgical apparatus - Leatherman multi tool used for removal of thorns and puncturing blisters.   Gruesome
Surgical apparatus – Leatherman multi tool used for removal of thorns and puncturing blisters. Gruesome

The other sort of blisters are caused by repeated pounding of your feet and they normally develop on the bottom of your heel or ball of your foot. I got more of these than the abrasion sort and they can’t be treated with Compeed. They are often quite deep and I discovered that they can only be treated by stabbing them with a pen knife to burst them. I sterilised the knife with alcohol-based Ibulieve gel, and then put the same gel over the wound to keep it clean and relieve the pain. It was essential to burst these sort of blisters because otherwise they just get bigger and bigger and more and more painful.

My knees caused my second health problem. They were already a bit sore before I even set off, as a result of some of the long training walks I’d been doing in preparation. Then after only a few miles on the first day from Lizard they were starting to hurt again. After a couple of days pounding up and down the coast path in Cornwall, they were screaming in pain and I was getting seriously worried. I realised that if they didn’t start to get better, there would be no way I could finish the walk.

Checking out the knees after a particularly hard day on the South West Coast Path
Checking out the knees after a particularly hard day on the South West Coast Path

So I took three steps to deal with the problem. The first was simply to adjust the route to replace some of the steepest up and down sections of coast path with short stretches of road walking. The second was to put “Ibulieve” ibuprofen-based pain relief gel on them before I started walking and then at lunchtime. This seemed to work too, and I made it to the end of the coast path without the pain getting any worse.  And the last thing I did was to take glucosamine pills.  Friends I met with in Woolcacombe gave me some to try and they really did seem to work, so I bought a packet of my own and took one a day for the rest of my walk.   Once I was on easier ground beyond Minehead, the knee problem seemed to go away and didn’t really return until the very end, on some of the long road walks through Scotland. And by then I didn’t care..

The only problem with this alcohol based gel was that I found if I accidentally spilled it on the floor of the tent, it tended to dissolve the plastic. After that, I put it on outside the tent.  And I did find you have to be careful how you ask for the product in shops. I caused great puzzlement to the chemist in Bude, who couldn’t understand why I was buying pain relief gel for my niece..

My final, and probably most serious, health issue was with giant hogweed. I hadn’t anticipated this particular problem and it took me some time to work out what had happened and how to deal with it. I first noticed I had a problem when a burning sensation developed on the back of my hands, a few hours after I tried to take a fateful shortcut along a riverbank near Rhayader, in mid Wales. Initially, I thought this was probably insect bites, and that they would probably just go away with fresh air and sunshine. But they didn’t and by the time I got to Cheshire, the backs of my hands were covered in stinging raw sores which looked to be in danger of getting infected.

Hogweed burns - and hogweed leaf in the background
Hogweed burns – and hogweed leaf in the background

I did a bit of hasty “googling” and realised that probably the “insect bites” weren’t insect bites at all, but were more likely chemical burns caused by a toxic substance in the sap giant hogweed seedlings which were probably growing on the Rhayader riverbank. This substance apparently binds to your skin and renders it sensitive to ultraviolet light, which explains why the burns were getting worse as I walked in the sunshine. I found I could treat the pain by using antihistamine cream and washing my hands in very cold water, but the burns didn’t really start healing until I was well into Scotland and even six months later, I still had the scars.

Giant Hogweed growing in lush profusion on the banks of the river Clyde (it is the plant with the deeply serrated leaves in the foreground). Avoid.


I found out that giant hogweed isn’t a native of the UK – it was introduced from the Black Sea in the 1800s as an ornamental garden plant. It has since escaped from cultivation and become an invasive weed. There were some magnificent specimens growing on the banks of the river Clyde on the way in to Glasgow, which the Council seemed to be making half-hearted (and apparently rather ineffective) attempts to eradicate.

So the lessons were don’t take shortcuts and avoid going anywhere near this pernicious weed!

The health issue that I was most glad to avoid was Lyme Disease. This particularly pestilential parasite is carried by ticks and causes an unpleasant disease that can cause years of suffering if not properly treated. So I definitely didn’t want to get it. This meant keeping a very careful eye open for ticks – especially on my legs when I was walking over moorland in shorts. I didn’t see any ticks until I reached Scotland and the weather warmed up a bit. But then in parts they were very bad and I remember sitting on a grassy boulder near Kinloch Hourn for just a brief rest and being covered in them when I got up.  All had to be painstakingly removed and then in the evenings I would try and have a shower to remove any more that I hadn’t spotted. Luckily I escaped infection – but as it has a long incubation period, you can never be quite sure…

Tick (on my leg, before you ask)
Tick (on my leg, before you ask)

The other general lesson from my walk was definitely to take a “Leatherman” multi-tool with you. Not only was it good for stabbing blisters, the pliers were good for removing splinters from hands and feet, and the scissors were great for trimming errant toenails and cutting off dead bits of skin from my feet.

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