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Prof. Hike: Leave Blisters in the Dust

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