During my first pheasant hunt in South Dakota, I learned two Ringneck Rules: You can bag your limit of birds every day if you don't mind hiking until there are holes in your boots, and pamper your feet like royalty because you'll need them in order to follow rule No. 1.
"Feet are king in South Dakota," my friend and fellow NAHC Member Noah Barnes firmly stated during our initial planning phone conversation. "Taking care of your feet on this trip is crucial. If you get blisters, you're done for."
Noah and his longtime hunting partners Brad Karl and Steve Shade are old pros at this gig, and they often walk 15-20 miles a day on their mission to bag ringnecks. The group plans their trips near bordering states such as Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota so they can hunt all morning in one state and then head to another state for more afternoon action.
Noah's motto is, "Kill 'em with boot leather." He means while you ultimately bag a pheasant with a quick, well-aimed blast from your shotgun, when looking at the big picture, the only way to get shot opportunities is to hike far and long enough to flush as many birds as possible.
"Bring two good sets of broken-in hiking boots, more than a dozen pairs of thin wool socks and a good boot dryer," Noah instructed.
"Well, I have two brand new pairs of boots packed and ready to go. I think I'm set," I responded.
"You broke in your boots, right?" Noah asked with concern in his voice.
"No," I sheepishly replied, "but these boots are pretty expensive and they have a reputation for needing no break-in period."
Silence greeted me on the other end of the phone. Noah wasn't buying my theory, but what could I do? My old hunting boots were trashed, and I didn't have time to break-in a new pair. I just had to bring my new boots and hope for the best. Noah was polite and stopped himself short of chewing me out.
My poor planning only got worse. When we arrived in South Dakota, the weather was hotter than expected. It was nearly 70 degrees, but instead of making a smart move and changing to lighter footwear, I stuck to my original plan of insulated boots with warm socks and headed out to hunt.
The hot weather and warm outfit I was wearing caused me to sweat immediately, but I wanted to bag some birds no matter what the cost so I pushed on. Keeping up to the crew and the pumped-up dogs was my top priority, and with fresh feet, long hikes, good dogs and a great hunting spot, I managed to do pretty well and reached my bag limit that afternoon—all the time ignoring the burning sensation on my heels. At quitting time, I knew I had "roughed up" my heels a little, but I didn't think I had done much damage.
When I got to the truck and took off my boots, however, the air hit my heels and a burning sensation quickly transformed into sharp and constant pain. All the sweat and friction caused by insulated, unfamiliar boots had created blisters the size of half-dollars on my heels. Instantly, I realized I had made the ultimate mistake—I had killed my feet with boot leather on the very first day of the trip!
In the days following the incident, I felt the true definition of pain with every step. Despite tying my boot laces tight enough so that my boots didn't loosely rub the sores, applying mediated salves with gauze pads, taking handfuls of Advil and even duct-taping my heels to further reduce
the friction on my wounds, the pain was excruciating.
I tried my best to muscle through the harsh discomfort, but when hunting becomes painful, it's not fun anymore. Yet, I tried to keep a positive attitude and joke around with the others in order to keep the trip fun and not annoy them with constant complaints. But the sad truth was that my painful feet couldn't keep up with the dogs or the 20 miles a day these maniacs liked to walk.
So I sat out on several hikes because I hated the pain and I wasn't hitting many birds anyway. The blisters had robbed me of my energy, confidence and concentration to make decent shots.
On the third night, throbbing pain woke me up at 2 a.m. I looked down to discover my feet had swelled up and turned red. I filled the bath tub with water and ice to stop the swelling. I decided to sit out on Wednesday and spent the day alone in the farmhouse, reading magazines and working on some Field Test materials for NAH.
The guys certainly teased me a lot, but I knew they felt bad for me and did what they could to help me out. During the hunts, they often set me up on a corner and pushed birds toward me at safe shooting angles. They also tried to slow down their walking pace and the dogs to make it easier for me. Regardless of their efforts, however, I didn't harvest many more birds that week. The other hunters filled their two-state limit almost every day, and I helped the group clean the bounty of birds. In return, Noah, Steve and Brad gave me some to take home, which I much appreciated.
As soon as my blisters healed, I grew eager to go back and redeem myself. I often think back to how I killed my feet with boot leather; instead of pheasants with boot leather. I'll never make that mistake again.
by J.J. Reich
Blisters are caused by friction—usually when the soft skin of your heel or toe joint rub against the stiff leather or tough seams of your boots. Moisture and friction is a recipe for blister disaster as wetness softens and weakens your skin, causing the friction to damage the inner layers and tear the outer layers of your skin.
By following these simple suggestions, you can avoid being blasted by foot pain on your next hunt:
Buy high-quality field boots. Invest in boots that can hold up to the rigors of hiking for miles in rough terrain. Insulation isn't needed, as constant walking will keep your feet warm. You don't want to sweat.
Break in your new boots. Hike for progressively longer sessions before your hunt. Don't go on a marathon your first time out. Rather, go for 5 minutes one day, 10 minutes the next and 15 minutes the next. This is the best way to prevent blisters.
Keep your feet dry. Using a boot dryer after every day in the field will dry out wetness. This way you'll start every day with dry boots. Carry extra pairs of clean socks with you and change them out a couple times during a long day of hunting. Dry socks rejuvenate your feet for greater endurance, and removal of moisture-soaked socks helps prevent blisters.
Stop foot friction. One way to avoid foot-boot friction is by wearing two pairs of socks. Your socked foot then rubs against another sock as it slides, not the harder boot edge or sole. Wear thin socks if you have to. Silk or polypropylene socks next to the skin slide easy and wick away moisture, while a high-quality wool sock adds cushion. Common white cotton gym socks aren't a good choice because they soak up and hold moisture, which contributes to chafing and the formation of blisters.
Here's an alternative to the double-sock technique. Put ENGO Blister Prevention Patches on the trouble areas of your boots. These high-tech patches remain in place for extended period of time and reduce friction in areas where hot spots and blisters commonly form. Learn more at: www.goengo.com.