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For many people, hiking comes with the pain of blisters. If you develop one during the middle of a hike, it can be so unpleasant and could even take you off your feet.
But there are ways of preventing blisters when hiking. You’ll need to toughen up your feet and gradually increase your distance, but even doing this, there’s still a chance of getting one. Understanding what causes blisters gives you the upper hand when trying to prevent them.
What are the Main Causes of Blisters?
Blisters are one of the most common problems for trekkers, hikers, and anyone else who spends a lot of time walking. Blisters are fluid-filled bubbles on the skin, and they form as a response to an injury. If you’ve ever had a blister, you will know that they can be very painful and itchy, but it’s important not to try to pop them as the fluid inside is protecting the delicate, new skin underneath.
There are three things that combine together to create blisters, although each of these things on its own can be an issue as well.
- Moisture is a huge problem when it comes to blisters, and you will find that if your feet are wet, they are more prone to blisters as the soft skin is more susceptible to damage. This might be because the feet are sweating or because of external factors like rain getting into your shoes or water from a water crossing.
- Heat is another common cause of blisters. When your shoes or socks rub against the skin, this causes heat which can damage the skin. More commonly, heat blisters are caused by exposure to the sun, boiling liquids, and other hot things.
- Finally, you may experience blisters because of friction within your hiking boots. For example, if sand or grit gets into your boot and rubs on the skin for a long period of time, a blister will form. It can also happen when your boots are too tight or too loose and the material chafes on the skin. The blister is your skin’s way of trying to protect itself from further damage.
How to Prevent Blisters When Hiking
Blisters can be incredibly painful, and if you’re not careful, then there is a chance that they can become infected. As they say, prevention is better than cure, so it’s important to find ways to reduce the risk of getting them in the first place.
1. Ensure You Wear Properly Fitting Hiking Boots
When choosing a pair of hiking boots, you must make sure that they fit correctly. If boots are too tight, then the material will rub on the skin. Conversely, if they are too loose, they will move around on your feet causing friction.
To get the best fit, it’s essential that you try the boots on before buying. If you’re in store, take a pair of hiking socks with you so that you can get a true representation of the fit. If you try them with your regular socks, there is a risk that they won’t be right. The last thing you want is to be on the trails only to discover that you’ve developed a blister and have to walk all the way back while in pain.
One of the most common reasons that people get blisters is that the feet are too moist. This can be prevented by choosing hiking boots that feature a breathable mesh. This allows for better airflow through the boots, which will limit how much you sweat.
However, it isn’t only moisture from the inside that could cause problems, external moisture is also an issue. To stop water from getting in from the outside, be sure to choose a pair of waterproof hiking boots. Those with a Gore-Tex lining are very effective. This material is also incredibly breathable, so you get double the benefits.
2. Break in Your Hiking Boots
Almost every pair of hiking boots on the market will require breaking in so that the shoes can adapt to your feet. If you don’t do this, you’ll find that you develop blisters very quickly. A lot of hiking boots are made from leather, and while this is a very durable material, it does typically take longer to break in, so you’ll need to be prepared for this.
Because of the length of time it takes to break in your boots, it’s a good idea to buy them well in advance so you have enough time to do it properly.
When it comes to breaking in your boots, make sure that you set yourself up as if you are going trekking. Choose a pair of hiking socks and lace up the boots properly. You’ll start by just walking around your house for a short length of time.
Once you have done this a few times, you can venture outside and take your new boots for a walk around the block or for running errands.
The next stage is to wear your boots on the trails but don’t go for a full trek just yet. Start with smaller hikes and gradually build up your distance. It takes some time and patience but you’ll thank yourself in the long run.
3. Wear Moisture Wicking Walking Socks
No matter what you do, there’s a good chance that your feet will perspire when trekking, it’s only natural. But that moisture needs to go somewhere to save your feet. Wearing moisture-wicking socks is one of the simplest yet most effective ways of preventing blisters.
Socks are made from all kinds of materials, but not all are suitable for hiking. For example, cotton socks absorb water rather than wicking it, which means that the feet remain damp. The result of this will likely be a blister.
Materials such as merino wool, other types of wool and polyester are excellent choices as they’re breathable and will wick away moisture. Nylon blend socks are also an option worth considering, but whatever you choose, you should make sure to opt for the right thickness.
The socks should not be too thick or too thin, and you should choose according to the weather. If it’s super hot outside, wearing thick socks will only make your feet sweat more. But if you find thin socks don’t provide you with enough friction protection, you could try doubling up. Failing this, there are lots of sock liners on the market that can help to reduce friction.
Some people find that they develop blisters in less obvious places, such as between the toes. If this sounds familiar, then you might think about buying some toe socks that will prevent the toes from rubbing against one another.
Whatever material, type, or thickness you decide on, one of the most important things is to make sure that you choose socks that fit well. If they are loose and move around in your shoe as you walk, this will result in friction and, you guessed it…blisters!
4. Take an Extra Pair of Socks
Since moisture is one of the prime suspects for causing blisters, you need to make sure that you keep it out of your boots as much as possible. By taking an extra pair of socks with you, you will be able to replace your existing ones if they happen to get wet when going over a water crossing or if your feet have become too sweaty.
5. Use Foot Lubricant
One of the biggest causes of blistering is friction, so if you can stop this before it happens, then you stand a good chance of avoiding blisters. Using a foot or skin lubricant is a great way of doing this as it stops the conditions that help blisters from forming in the first place.
You could use something as simple as petroleum jelly, but there are also special products on the market made just for this purpose. Brands like Lanacane and Bodyglide are among some of the most reliable.
6. Use Foot Powder to Help Keep Your Feet Dry
If you don’t like the idea of using something oily or greasy like a lubricant, then you might opt for a powder instead. This will help to prevent blisters but works against moisture as opposed to friction.
You have options here and a lot of people choose to use a regular type of powder that they already have around the home. Talcum powder, baby powder, or even corn starch will do the job, all you need to do is sprinkle some onto the feet and in your socks. You will need to reapply this during the course of your trek.
However, there are also antibacterial foot powders that are ideal if you regularly suffer from fungal infections and the like. But for a lot of people, applying this type of powder at the end of a long hike is an important part of their foot aftercare.
7. Tape Your Heels
Some hikers swear by taping areas on their feet that are prone to blisters. If you regularly suffer from heel blisters, then this is an excellent way of preventing them.
There are some people that will suggest using duct tape or something similar but these products do contain chemicals that could irritate the skin. Instead, it is best to use medical tape or Leukotape as this is designed to be used on the skin.
8. Wear Gaiters
Depending on the type of terrain you will be walking on, you might benefit from using a pair of gaiters. These come in very handy when walking over gritty, sandy, or rocky ground and will prevent any debris from entering your shoes that would otherwise cause friction.
Waterproof and Tear-Resistant Gaiters
These durable polyester gaiters are waterproof. They will keep your feet dry during wet weather, and they will also help prevent any debris from entering your hiking shoes.
It’s also possible to purchase waterproof gaiters, which are ideal in wet weather or where there will be a lot of water crossings.
9. Lace Your Boots the Right Way
It is very important to make sure that your shoes are laced tightly so that they do not slip around and cause friction. However, you should avoid tying your laces too tightly as this can cause problems with blood flow. It is far better to ensure a tight fit around the lower part of the foot than around the ankles.
There are several different lacing techniques you can use, including window lacing and the surgeon’s knot. However, it is widely accepted that the heel lock lacing technique is the most effective. It works well when you are moving downhill and if your shoes are slightly too big.
- Begin by looping each lace through the uppermost eyelet but not pulling it all the way through so that you create a loop.
- Next, feed one lace through the opposite loop and do the same on the other side.
- Pull them tightly to lock them into place.
- You can now tie your lace as you normally would.
10. Keep Your Toenails Short
When cutting your toenails, it is essential to make sure that you don’t cut them too short. Doing this could cause an ingrown toenail which can become infected, and in the worst cases, it could see you off your feet altogether. To further avoid this, don’t cut the nails in an arc but rather keep them straight.
If you don’t cut your toenails regularly and keep them short, then there is a risk of them rubbing on your other toes, which could cause friction. The result? Nasty blisters.
It’s also important to make sure that there are no rough edges on your toenails. This is something else that could result in friction. Use a nail file to ensure smooth, straight edges.
11. Take Action Early On
There is nothing worse than trying to battle through a trek with blisters on your feet. It’s incredibly painful not to mention, the situation can be made a lot worse if you ignore it. That’s why it’s really important to make sure that you tend to potential blisters early on.
If you have any blister hot-spots, then these should be given extra attention before you begin your trek. This can be done using some of the techniques we have already talked about like using tape or applying a foot powder to reduce moisture build up.
If your shoes get wet during the trek, remove them and allow them to dry before moving on. It’s important to take regular breaks, so there’s no better excuse than the need to dry out your shoes in the sun. When you’re taking a break, remove your socks as well to give your feet some fresh air.
As soon as you start to feel that unmistakable sensation of a blister beginning to form, stop and tend to the problem before it gets worse. It’s better to lose a bit of time on your trek than to have to deal with a potential infection or weeks of agony because you ignored the problem. At this point, you can apply a plaster or blister patch, and now is a good time to top up any foot powder or lubricant.
If you’re on a multi-day trek then when you stop for the night, be sure to remove your socks and give them plenty of time to dry out. Pop them on the end of your trekking poles to allow for great air circulation.
12. Look After Your Hiking Boots
It isn’t just looking after your feet that’s important, it’s also a good idea to take care of your hiking boots if you want to get the most out of them.
One of the most important aspects of this is keeping your footwear dry. If your boots are not already waterproof, then you should use a waterproofing product to make them so. Even already waterproof boots can be reinforced with a proofing spray, and it’s essential to apply again from time to time to maintain the waterproof protection.
Depending on the material of the boots, you might use different products. If you have leather hiking boots, then you’ll need to use a conditioning wax which you buff onto the leather when it is dry. However, for suede boots, a water-based spray is the best option. Finally, if you have boots made from a synthetic material, you can use a water-based spray; just remember that in this case, you’ll need to apply it while the boots are slightly damp.
Nikwax Nubuck & Suede Waterproofing Boots Spray
Nikwax spray can be applied to synthetic or leather footwear to re-waterproof them. Not only will it help to keep your feet dry during adverse weather conditions and water crossings, but it will also help to prolong the life of your hiking shoes.
Keeping your hiking boots clean is another vital part of protecting yourself against blisters. Rather than dedicating hours to cleaning the boots every now and then, it’s a better idea to clean as you go. When returning home from a hike, take the time to brush off any mud, grit, or other dirt using a bristle brush.
Once you’ve removed any excess dirt, you’ll need to gently wipe over the boots using a damp cloth and perhaps a boot cleaning product. Try not to use too much water, but if the boots are very wet, you’ll need to stuff them with newspaper. This will absorb any excess moisture without the boots losing their shape.
When drying out your hiking boots, make sure to do this in a cool, dry location. You might think that putting the boots next to a source of heat will help. However, this could cause them to lose moisture too quickly, which will result in the material cracking.
How to Toughen Your Feet to Prevent Blisters
When it comes to skin, we’re all used to being told to keep it soft and supple. However, for hikers, having super soft feet can be a curse as you’ll blister much more easily. Instead, you should toughen your feet which will help in the fight against blisters.
One of the most effective ways to toughen the skin is by using rubbing alcohol. This is a tried and tested method used by athletes and hikers the world over. Applying alcohol to the skin draws water away as it is a drying agent. You’ll need to reapply every couple of days over the course of a couple of weeks. You’ll notice that callouses will begin to form on the skin.
Another good method often used by professional athletes is to give the feet a tea bath. This works in a similar way to rubbing alcohol. Add up to four tea bags to hot water and allow it to steep. This solution can then be applied directly to the skin or you can bathe the feet in the solution.
Walking barefoot is an excellent way to train the feet. This will cause calluses to form as you’re exposing the feet to natural elements. It’s as simple as walking around the home with nothing on your feet to begin with. Then, when you feel ready, venture out into the garden and walk around outside barefoot.
Don’t forget to challenge yourself when hiking as this will put your feet through their paces. You should never start by attempting a huge hike, you’ll need to gradually build up your distance and train your feet. It’s also a great idea to load up your backpack when you’re doing smaller hikes but only carry as much as feels comfortable. Again, starting off small and working your way up to carrying a heavier pack is the best option.
By doing all of these things, you’ll be able to toughen up your feet in as little as two to four weeks.
Foot Care Essentials to Take on Your Hike
If you’re in the middle of a long trek and suddenly feel the burn of a blister beginning to form, it’s crucial that you are able to deal with the problem there and then. If you don’t, things will only worsen.
The easiest way to do this on the go is to take a small bag with some foot care essentials. Leukotape should always be in your kit, as this can be applied to the blister, creating another barrier against friction and moisture. It’s great because it molds to the skin perfectly, whereas something like duct tape is not quite as effective.
That said, it’s important to make sure that you don’t apply the tape directly to the blister as this could rip off the skin when you remove it. Instead, try folding a piece in half and placing this non-sticky pad over the blister before securing that with a further piece of tape. Alternatively, you might choose to take some gauze pads, which can be held in place with the tape. A lot of hikers also layer the tape to create additional protection.
While you could take an entire roll of Leukotape with you, many people prefer to precut strips as this saves having to take scissors on your hike.
Another product that can be used to pad out the blister is moleskin sheets. These can be used inside the shoes and will act as a barrier to reduce friction. With this and Leukotape, it’s best to apply before a blister occurs. If you notice any hot spots, stop your hike and deal with the problem before it gets worse.
Alcohol wipes are a must in your foot care kit as they can be used to clean the affected area and will also remove moisture. You should also have an antiseptic ointment that will further clean the area as well as offer protection against infection.
How to Treat Blisters
While you can do everything in your power to prevent blisters, there are going to be times that you end up suffering with them. In this case, it’s important to know how to properly care for them to reduce pain, prevent infection, and speed up the healing process.
Sometimes, you may feel a blister coming on before it actually forms. This is known as a hotspot and it’s essential to treat this before it gets any worse.
In this case, you’ll need to stop the hike and remove your boots and socks, giving the feet time to air. You should then clean the area and apply tape as discussed in the previous section. You can also use a regular band-aid but regardless of what you choose, make sure that it is applied smoothly without any wrinkles. Otherwise, there is a risk of it rubbing on your boot and causing more problems.
Treating Formed Blisters
If you have a blister that is already formed but is intact, then you have two options. You could start by cleaning the area and then draining the blister by creating a hole using a clean pin. This shouldn’t be your go-to method as there is a higher risk of infection, but we’ll look at that in more detail later on. However, if you still have a long trek ahead of you, then draining may help to reduce the pain.
Once drained, you should apply a medicated ointment and cover the area with moleskin. But if you can avoid popping the blister, you should, and applying ointment with moleskin or a band-aid should offer enough protection for you to finish the hike.
Treating Torn Blisters
If the blister has torn, then you’ll first need to remove any excess skin using nail scissors. If this isn’t possible then you can skip this step for now. If you have time to air the feet, then this is the best option, however, there may be instances where you need to get on with the trek.
In any case, you should clean the blister and use an antiseptic ointment on the area. Now you’ll cover the area as already discussed using either moleskin, Leukotape, or band-aids, whichever you have at your disposal.
During the healing process, you should make sure that you allow the area to air and ensure that you regularly apply medicated ointments and keep the area clean.
Should You Drain a Blister?
It can be very tempting to burst a blister and drain it. While this can be done in emergency situations, you should try to avoid it as much as possible.
The problem is that once you drain the blister, you open it up to infection. Typically speaking, a blister will heal by itself within a few days, so there’s no need to do anything other than keep it clean and give it plenty of air.
However, if the blister is very large or painful, then you may have no other option but to drain it. In this case, be sure to use a sterilized needle. You can do this by heating the needle up in a flame until it is red hot or cleaning it with rubbing alcohol. You can then use this needle to gently pierce the skin and allow the fluid to drain out.
Blister fluid should be clear and free from odors. If you notice an unpleasant smell or if the fluid is yellow or white, then this is likely a sign of infection. For this, you will need to see your doctor, who can offer the most appropriate treatment.