Nearly everyone that has hiked a considerable amount has gotten a blister at some point. I know I have, and I can tell you how (at the very least ) annoying they can be and how difficult and unpleasant they can make walking. Even a small blister can quickly cause every step of a beautiful hike to become a very painful experience that lasts for days after you’ve left the trail. The best way to deal with a blister on a hike is to first avoid them all together, so I am going to share a few tips I have learned the hard way.
One factor that is far more important than most people realize is choosing the right sock. What, a sock? Yes a sock. I know it may be hard to believe that there are socks specifically designed for hiking, let alone multiple options to have to choose from. There are several reasons why you would want to spend $8-15 on a pair of hiking specific socks rather than throwing on a pair of plain white cotton sweat socks. First of all there are hiking specific socks that are designed to be worn in different outdoor temperature ranges. Most manufacturers have a warm weather version which may be lighter weight or thinner sock and a more bulky, thicker cold weather option for being in winter or cold temperatures. Knowing what temperatures or conditions you plan on hiking in is the first step of choosing the correct pair of socks. Secondly, hiking specific socks are made of special yarns that are softer than cotton and wick away moisture or reduce moisture build up inside your boot. Moisture build up can be a huge contributing factor in blister formation. Have you ever taken a really long bath or gone swimming for a long time and get that white skin, pruning effect on your fingers and toes? Too much moisture build up in your boot or shoe can result in the same condition. After your skin is wet for an extended period of time it softens and becomes easier to rip or tear. Add to your wet skin, the friction of your heel rubbing up and down in your boot several hundred or even thousand times, and your sure to get a horrible heel blister. Finally, specialized hiking socks provide much needed padding in very specific locations. The toes and heels are the most abused part of the foot. Human beings naturally walk by striking their heel first, rolling their foot forward and pushing off of their toes. Most people are used to walking on smooth surfaces where the mechanics of walking are pretty easy. Once you go hiking and begin to walk on uneven terrain, the impact forces and the angle that your heel is landing and that your toes are pushing from are constantly changing. On top of that add steep uphill grades and downhills, and it’s not hard to see why padding in the heel and toe regions of socks would be a good thing. The padding is there to help absorb some of the forces of your heel and toes are exposed to when they hit the inside of your boot. There are a bunch of different manufacturers that make hiking specific socks and I have tried several brands and numerous varieties. I have recently been favoring some that are made of Bamboo fibers. If your interested, I did a review of them here. With so many options available, I highly recommend going to a good outdoor sporting goods store and seeing and feeling a bunch of them for yourself.
Now that you’ve selected a good sock, the second way to avoid blisters is making sure your hiking boots or shoes fit properly. I know this is a really simple concept but it is THE most important. Most people prefer not to wear shoes or boots that are too tight, so the main culprit that leads to blisters is footwear that is too large. What you want is a shoe or boot that fits as snugly as comfortable with your hiking specific socks on. Also, when trying on boots, keep in mind that most peoples feet swell when they exercise or even if they are standing in one place for a long time. That’s because gravity is always pulling down on us and since we are made up of primarily fluids, those fluids tend to collect in our lower extremities (ie: calves, ankles toes). If you have a boot or shoe with too much room, your foot is going to slide within it. If your foot slides too much, your likely to get blisters on the bottom of your toes or on the balls of your feet. Another problem you may encounter with over sized footwear is really sore big toes. If your going down hill and your foot is sliding in your boot, it is going to stop sliding at the point where your toe hits the front of your shoe or boot. This is called toe bang. Repeat this motion and it doesn’t take long for you to get a numb and a very sore big toe, especially around the toenail. Remembering our human walking mechanics, heel, roll, toe push, when your toe is all the way forward, there is now a gap between your heel and the rear of your boot. That additional room will allow greater rubbing surface area and expedite the formation of…you guessed it…a heel blister. I hope you now understand the importance of properly fitting footwear, but wait, There is another factor that goes into properly fitted boots and that’s breaking them in before an extended hike and tight laces.
As with almost any footwear, hiking shoes and boots are designed to mold around and fit YOUR foot over time. If you have a pair of leather hiking boots, you will need to do a bunch of short hikes to begin to soften them up. I even will wear them around as I do things out side the house. That way if I feel them forming a hot spot or getting really uncomfortable, I can change into something softer that gives my feet relief . You really want to break your shoes or boots in incrementally, not on a 8 mile trek. Tight laces are important because they help secure your foot and hold it in your shoe or boot. You want to tighten your laces as much as possible to prevent your foot from moving up and down in your footwear. The way I prefer to do my laces is I tighten them almost as tight as I can at first, knowing that in a little while, once my feet swell, I will need to stop and loosen them ever so slightly. Why would I do this rather than just snug them up a little bit and then allow my feet to expand to fit them? Because I know from the very onset that my foot isn’t going to move within my boot so I am less likely to get the early stages of blister formation before my foot swells. Plus some times (especially at different altitudes) your feet don’t swell as much or maybe at a different rate. Also, It’s easier for me to remember to loosen my laces than to remember to tighten them later. Trust me, as soon as your boots feel too tight, you quickly realize it and loosen them. The other way around, you could walk a very long ways before you realize that your shoes should have been tighter and by then it may be too late, blisters may have already formed.
Another way to avoid hiking blisters is by adding what would equate to a second skin. The product is generically called Moleskin. You can get it at any grocery store or pharmacy in precut, different shaped and sized pieces, or in larger single sheets (roughly 3″x4″). Both have their pros and cons. The precut ones are already cut out, so if you need one, choose the shape that best fits your sore spot. Peel off the adhesive and stick it to your skin. My preference though is to just get the small rectangular sheets. That way, I can custom size and shape the piece I need, then peel and stick. Keep in mind though you need to carry a small scissors, or at the very least an extremely sharp knife. As helpful as these things can be, I think of using Moleskin as a last resort, or something you do once you have a blister formed or forming. I find it too difficult to anticipate if or where I’m going to get a blister. Besides, the above tips should help most people in most situations. That being said, I don’t go on even short hikes without taking at least a sheet of Moleskin. I almost never have to use it, but I’d rather have it in case I or someone I’m hiking with does need it. There is one last way to possibly avoid a blister or at the very least, help you be able to walk if you have one…but I think it’s purely an act of desperation. You can cover the affected area with a piece or two of duct tape. I have never done this nor have I personally met anyone that has done this (that I’m aware of) but I have read of people doing it. I guess the premise is the same as the Moleskin so adding a layer or two on top of a blister makes sense, it certainly wouldn’t be my first option though.
My final suggestion is another one that is so obvious but it still needs to be mentioned. Build up callouses. Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon having not trained or run long distances, you cannot expect to be sitting at a computer all day and not getting out on at least multiple short hikes before tackling the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail. Know your limitations and boundaries, then push them…a little bit. Avoid really long hikes without working up to them. I know that is sometimes easier said than done, but the more you get out, the tougher your skin will become, and the more broken in your boots will get.
The easiest thing to remember when avoiding blisters is that your feet, socks and boots all need to work together as a system. Think of the three of them as one in the same. Also, heat, moisture, friction and footwear that hasn’t been properly broke in are your worst enemies when it comes to blister formation. Knowing these things should help you to get the blister free mileage we all desire and deserve. Happy hiking!