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Backpacker Magazine – Backpacker.com Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Leave Blisters in the Dust

Blisters are the most common on-trail injury, but blisters are also easy to prevent.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

PAGE 1 2
If big boots (top) give you blisters, downsize to more flexible light hikers (bottom).
If big boots (top) give you blisters, downsize to more flexible light hikers (bottom).

If Backpacker asked its readers to list the top problems that could ruin an otherwise fine trail day, I bet the first three responses would be rain, mosquitoes, and blisters. Attacks by wild animals might be fourth. But while every grizzly charge makes the CNN news ticker, the risk of getting chomped by a bruin is miniscule compared to being drenched, itchy, or lame. Looking at these top annoyances, it’s clear that storms and bugs are natural acts that can’t be eliminated. But since blisters are entirely manmade, the ability to prevent them is wholly within your power.

That fact might surprise hikers who believe that blisters are as random as a lightning strike. After all, why do we get blisters on some trips, and not others? And why can we walk five miles without a single hot spot during one hike, and two weeks later, our feet turn to mincemeat after going half a mile? The answer is simple: Blisters require the perfect blend of friction, moisture, heat, and pressure inside your boots. Certain conditions—like a hot, muggy trek with lots of elevation changes—can create a blister factory, while a cooler, flatter hike might leave your feet safe. Footwear and sock choices also play a major role in blister formation. But since you can control many of these factors, you can also increase your chances of a blister-free hike. If that sounds appealing, add the following tips to your pre-trip routine.

Think Ahead About Footwear
The night before you leave for a trip isn’t the best time to choose which boots to wear. Not only does this last-minute approach increase the chance you’ll make a rushed decision, but you’ve also lost valuable break-in time. Pick your hiking kicks as far ahead of time as you can, basing the decision on the terrain, your pack weight, and the weather forecast. Once you’ve chosen a pair, wear them as much as you can around the house, up and down stairs, doing errands, and on practice hikes. If you’re worried about blisters, test your footwear while wearing a weighted pack (use flour bags, rope coils, or food cans as ballast). The extra load can change how your foot pivots inside the shoe and alter where your heel or toes might rub. If your tall, clodhopper boots give you frequent blisters, downsize to trail shoes or light hikers. These low- and mid-top hikers look and fit like athletic shoes, but retain boot-like durability and grip to handle rougher trail conditions. As a result, trail shoes are often more comfortable, faster to break in, and less likely to promote blisters. After years of limping along in tall boots, Prof. Hike is now a blister-free convert to light hiking shoes.






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I'm with the Professor on this one. I finally settled on taping all the places I've ever gotten hot spots, and now I hike blister free.
So far, that's 6 pieces of tape on my left foot, and 5 on my right foot. I use Leukotape P Sportstape (find it at Amazon.com), and it lasts for several days of hiking.

Scott
Aug 20, 2011

Prevention, prevention, prevention...I've used the two-layer sock approach for more than 40 years and it works very well. Be a fanatic about keeping them in place and having a clean/washed out pair every day if at all possible and your feet will be much happier.

The best solution these days seems to be a layer of thin polypro running socks next to the skin to wick sweat away and a thicker padded layer next to the boot (I can't do wool so they're typically cotton/synthetic blend).

If things start to rub the wrong way, it seems that the polypro sticks to the skin, the padded layer to the boot and they rub against one another rather than your skin and you can deal with it in plenty of time.

Almost no blisters ever this way (knock wood).

Amy Turner
Aug 19, 2011

Just got back from a backpacking trip in the Alps. By the morning of day 2, I had a hot spot on my heel. A couple from New Zealand gave me some sheep's wool...you just put a thin layer over the hot spot and your sock actually holds it in place. In fact, it kind of adhered itself to the inside of my sock. Used the same piece of wool for a whole week and never had another problem. Of course, the folks from New Zealand can get their wool from a neighbor; I'm going to have to search a little harder.

Sara
Aug 19, 2011

Per Pete's comment, I just had that happen - the blister continued to develop under the duct tape (that stayed put wonderfully & didn't get any adhesive on my socks). Then, I ripped it off, and the top of the blister came with it. OUCH! It worked better for me when I used the tape over the top of Band-Aid brand blister cushions (which are the only kind of blister cushion that works for me).
Unfortunately, Body Glide doesn't work on me.
Cheers!

Zeb
Aug 19, 2011

barefoot

PayDay
Aug 19, 2011

I've seen/read a ton of articles on hiking boots, but very little dedicated to socks. Anyone have any recommendations?

Sara
Aug 19, 2011

Per Pete's comment, I just had that happen - the blister continued to develop under the duct tape (that stayed put wonderfully & didn't get any adhesive on my socks). Then, I ripped it off, and the top of the blister came with it. OUCH! It worked better for me when I used the tape over the top of Band-Aid brand blister cushions (which are the only kind of blister cushion that works for me).
Unfortunately, Body Glide doesn't work on me.
Cheers!

John Brady
Aug 19, 2011

I use athletic tape and gauze

Pete Zies
Aug 19, 2011

The drawback to the duct tape approach is that the continuous friction in the boot eventually rolls the edges of the tape, and trying to get duct tape goo off your expensive hiking socks is frustrating and nearly impossible! Also, if the blister continues to develope despite your best efforts with the duct tape, you then have to (sooner or later) remove the duct tape, which invariably rips the blister open in excruciating fashion! All hope is not lost though. Body Glide Anti-Chafing Sticks, which are a God send at preventing sore spots in sensitive areas while hiking, work just as well at preventing blisters! On a recent rainy hike on the Bartram Trail in North Carolina, I rubbed some on my trouble spots in desperation when I couldn't keep my socks dry and knew blisters would be forming any moment. Four days later, despite hard hiking, hot full leather boots, and an overloaded pack, the one thing I DIDN'T have to complain about was blisters! Body Glide is the hiker's WD-40! Swear by it!

M Burke
Aug 19, 2011

I put Liquid Bandage (sold in single-use packs at Dollar Tree) on open blisters. Then cover it with a blister bandage - those specialty bandages that are gel-filled. Last, cover all of it with a piece of breathable medical tape. The Liquid Bandage works like tincture of benzoin. My bandage will last for 5 days at 10-15 miles per day. I do change my socks mid-day and hang my moist pair of socks on the outside of my pack as I hike.

Cheryl Smyth
Aug 17, 2011

Great article. The condition of my feet makes or breaks any hiking trip for me. If my feet feel miserable then I feel miserable. I mostly suffer from hot sweaty feet. I like the idea of changing over socks and drying the rinsed out ones on the backpack.

Becca Stubbs
Aug 16, 2011

In my experience, blisters are caused due to one area of skin (say, the middle of the heel) moving disproportionately compared to the tissue around it. In many ways, the "tape cast" approach really is serving to dissipate the friction by making a larger area move. Tincture of benzoin makes a cloth bandage stick forever (through multiple days of hiking through watery canyons), and it breathes a little better than duct tape (sometimes, you can get a rash from sweat not being able to escape when using duct tape).
Happy trails!

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