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.
Keep Socks Dry, Clean, and Fresh
Comfortable, broken-in footwear is only one part of the anti-blister equation. Another key ingredient is socks. Not only do socks provide extra padding, but they also remove sweat and moisture to keep your feet dryer. Moisture increases friction, which accelerates the blistering process. That’s why wicking socks made from wool or synthetics are superior to cotton, which stays damp after getting wet. If your feet sweat a lot, bring extra wicking socks so you can change into a clean, dry pair at midday. Wash or rinse dirty socks and hang them on the outside of your backpack so they’ll be dry and ready for your next change-over.
During my Boy Scout days, I often wore two pairs of socks—a thin silk or synthetic liner underneath a thicker wool sock. The rationale for two socks is that they will slide against each other instead of against your skin. While this layered approach no longer works for me, go ahead and give a try. Just make sure the double sock layers don’t cramp your toes—too much pressure can lead to blisters, especially while going downhill.
Be Proactive on the Trail
Blisters give fair warning before they appear. They begin as a red skin irritation called a hot spot before warming themselves to a full-blown blister. The transition from redness to pus-filled sac gives you time—up to 10 minutes—to stop hiking and activate countermeasures. Now Backpacker magazine and many hiking books recommend isolating the irritated skin of a hot spot from further friction by surrounding it with a cushioning donut of moleskin and bandages. Prof. Hike doesn’t agree.
In my experience, even the strongest bandage origami doesn’t stand a chance against the squishy pressure and heat inside a boot. At most, a moleskin donut will last a few hundred yards before it becomes smeared like old chewing gum across your increasingly raw skin. Plus, once you develop a hot spot, the likelihood of preventing it from becoming a blister is very slim. You might as well focus your efforts on reducing the coming pain and risk for infection. So, instead of moleskin donuts, I recommend a more radical approach. At the first sign of a hot spot, wrap the affected skin (usually the heel or toes) in several layers of duct tape. This silvery, low-friction tape creates a slippery barrier between a rough boot and tender skin. (Hint: Wrap several feet of duct tape around a plastic water bottle to keep it accessible). If the skin is already red and tender, cover the wound with one or more adhesive bandages and antibiotic ointment before you apply the duct tape. Some hikers even pre-wrap their feet in duct tape if they tend to develop blisters in certain spots. While removing the tape will be a painful experience, it can be done in the comfort of your home after you return from the trip.
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