Trench Foot  The joy of GodZone or a peril for Packrafters?

Not just for adventure racers or soliders any more; packrafters beware! Timothy Hargrave gives us the low down on rotting feet in Fiordland.

Never race with a new pair of shoes, you never know if it might cause blisters. Good advice, but it barely scratches the surface of what was required for GODZone Chapter 7 in Fiordland. This article discusses a major medical problem encountered during GODZone 2018, how it relates to pack rafting, and precautions to prevent it occurring.

The main affliction for most teams at this year’s race was trench foot. Trench foot was named during World War One when soldiers suffered from it due to their feet being constantly submerged in cold, damp mud. I remember being distracted in my year 8 history classes by the gross picture in the book of an affected foot, thinking ‘thank goodness we don’t have to worry about this anymore’.

Only a problem in a war zone? Source/Wikimedia Commons

Trench foot is defined as ‘a painful condition of the feet caused by long immersion in cold water or mud and marked by blackening and death of surface tissue’. Some people lose sensation in their feet. Other people have agonising pain from nerve ending sensitivity. I fell into the latter catergory.

Trench foot was so prolific at GODZone that an emergency foot clinic was set up at the finish line. Affected teams and individuals were removed from the course by jetboat. Competitiors had to be carried by teammates and helpers across the finish line, and even to the podium. It was even rumoured that Te Anau ran out of Betadine and antibiotics.

So what were the causes? The constant wet feet was the first problem. With racing, there was also a lot of time spent on feet, causing increased pressure and strain. Lack of sleep and tiredness certainly weakens the body’s immune response and decreases one’s ability to fight infection and repair damaged tissue. Another potential factor was the frequent detergent baths for didymo cleaning. The detergent stripped feet of natural oils and barrier creams causing a loss of the skin’s protective barrier.

Some teams who did not suffer foot problems felt that those affected didn’t take appropriate foot care precautions. that there was no need for people to suffer trench foot, they just didn’t look after their feet well enough. This is like saying, “smoking isn’t harmful, my grandfather smoked for 50 years and never got lung cancer’. Many teams, mine included, followed every precaution outlined by the race doctors, and still got trench foot. Avoiding trench foot seemed to have a large component of good luck.

Source/Wikimedia Commons

Pack rafting is a sport that combines many risk factors for trench foot: wet feet, cold conditions, and much more walking than other paddling sports. The portability of packrafts means that a lot more time will be spent moving and with pressure on your feet. This is also possible with kayaking. One kayak trip with portages was a Red Bull sponsored trip down the Beriman River in Papua New Guinea by Ben Stookesberry, Ben Marr, Chris Korbulic and Pedro Oliva. They suffered from trench foot too. In packrafting moving between watersheds, requires more cleaning and detergent to gear and feet.

So how can you prevent trench foot on your next pack rafting mission? As always, prevention is better than cure. Keeping feet dry is important, but challenging. Taking time to dry feet out and put clean dry socks is key, but tricky in a race situation like GODZone. Spraying potassium permanganate on feet acts as a drying agent and an antimicrobial to prevent infection. You can use your didymo spray bottle for this! This method is especially useful when setting up camp in the rain, when air drying is unlikely to be effective.

Barrier creams are also effective, and provide an oily layer to protect feet from water damage and chafing. There are lots of options available, I used Gurney Goo. Detergent is the enemy of oily barrier creams! It is super important in New Zealand to Check, Clean and Dry to prevent spreading water pests like didymo. The detergents used are indiscriminate cleaners. While they do a great job of pest control, they also strip barrier creams and soften your feet. After the didymo baths at GODZone your shoes were left foaming for hours. Immediate rinsing would reduce the effectiveness of the cleaning, so it’s a catch 22. If I were to do one thing differently in Fiordland it would be to remove my shoes and socks and rinse them soon after a detergent bath, and reapply barrier cream then.

Rest is also important. The body does some amazing things, most of which we do not see. In order for it to be working its best, it needs rest and recovery. Reports from the medics at Waitutu Lodge during GODZone were that one competitve team took an extended rest to let their feet recover. Had they pushed on, they risked evacuation to hospital with trench foot and potentially serious complications like gangrene.

Pack rafting is opening up a lot if opportunites for discovery and adventure in New Zealand. The possibilities are endless and exciting. These adventures come with a unique set of risks, like getting a condition you thought you would never see outside your school history book. Proper care and attention will ensure safe travels. Remember that no race, first ascent, or adventure is worth long term damage to your feet. If you keep your body intact, there will always be another adventure waiting for you, maybe as soon as next weekend!

Timothy Hargrave was one of 15 FMC members who were awarded a Packrafting Safety Scholarship.  This scholarship of $300 went towards funding a two day Packrafting Safety course, as part of FMC’s Outdoor Community campaign

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