Do you enjoy hiking as much as I do? After walking close to 3000 miles (ca. 4,828 km) over the past year, I reckon I can just about call myself a hiking expert. Blisters are the bane of any hiker’s existence, and I’ve been getting lots of questions from people asking me how to prevent them, and how to treat them if all else fails. Here are my 6 best ways to prevent blisters.
As always, take into account that everyone is different. One hiker walks effortlessly across a country on old shoes and cheap socks, another invests his life savings to buy the latest shoes and socks and is hobbling along on painkillers after ten miles.
So take into account that not all of these tips will work for you, but find your favorite ones and perfect them along the way. With some luck, you’ll be like me and never see another blister again! (All right, I confess, I did have one tiny blister on my toe after switching from Lone Peaks to Olympus shoes and hiking 30 miles (ca. 48 km) in them the next day.)
Why do I get blisters?
Blisters can start in many ways. Friction, moisture, sand, or dirt in your shoe, a seam in your sock or wear and tear in your shoes. There are dozens of possible causes. If temperatures rise, your feet will sweat more, and blisters will start to pop up. Anything that causes friction and rubbing will do it. And once they appear, it will only get worse from there.
Tip 1: trailrunners
I’ll start with the most important ingredient for a blister-free existence: Your shoes! What’s on your feet when you take a hike? I’ll tell you right now: for me, it’s trailrunners. I’m from a country with hardly any mountains, and you’ll be hard-pressed there to find a hiking trail that doesn’t run via paved roads or paths most of the hike. But I would wear my trail runners in all but the wettest or toughest environments. Why? I’ve written a blog about that here (in Dutch for now, but turn on Google Translate to read it). The short version: they’re lighter, and more breathable, which means less friction. And less friction means less blisters. You could also opt for other running shoes, as long as they’re light, breathable, and flexible, with a decent profile underneath.
Tip 2: the right socks
Socks might not seem important in your quest for a pain-free hike, but think again! Especially if you are prone to blisters, picking the right sock makes a world of difference. Material, shape, thickness, make sure to take it all into account. I always opt for natural fibers, as anything polyester-based makes for sweaty feet. Merino wool is my go-to material, as it regulates temperature, doesn’t itch and stays warm even when wet (though not too warm when it’s hot out).
Next up is shape and fit. Not too big, or the excess fabric will bunch up. Not too small, as that will constrict your toes and squish things together that don’t like to be squished. Choose socks that are meant for hiking. These shouldn’t have any seams along the toes, which is likely to start rubbing. A method many swear by, is layering two pairs of socks. If you opt for this method, make sure both pairs are proper hiking socks, ensure your shoes have enough room to accommodate both pairs and that the inner sock is thin, like a liner. If you put on your shoes and can’t freely wiggle and spread out your toes anymore, they’re too tight.
Toe socks are another popular alternative. They take some getting used to, but if you are prone to blisters on or between your toes, they can certainly help. A well-known brand of toe socks is Injinji, they also sell liners and double-layered socks. But my absolute favorite brand of socks is the American Darn Tough. They’re slowly becoming more well-known in Europe, but are not yet available everywhere. The brand is so convinced about the quality of their socks, they offer a lifetime guarantee. If you manage to get a hole into one of their socks, (no, not with scissors!) they’ll replace them for a new pair. That’s not to say they never wear down, but I did indeed receive new socks from them a few times. And they are so comfortable, that I mostly just wear Darn Toughs all the time, not just when hiking.
Tip 3: Avoid friction
Debris, sand, or dust in your shoe, a worn down heel or shoelaces that haven’t been tied down properly. They can all cause friction. If you feel anything rubbing at all, don’t wait for it to start hurting. Stop immediately, and fix the problem. Better to take a few minutes now and prevent a potential problem, than having to walk on sore feet for days in future! If you know you’ll be hiking through an area with a lot of sand, dust, or debris (so basically almost anywhere outdoors), consider wearing gaiters! (What are gaiters? Read about those here)
Tip 4: Airing and drying
Take off your shoes and socks every time you stop for more than a few minutes and let them air out. If you’re really dedicated, wash your feet with a wet cloth, dry them completely and then change your socks at every extended break.
Tip 5: Prevention
If you always get blisters, and always in the same spots, get ahead of the game by taping those spots with a medical tape such as Leukotape or other alternatives. Another product I’ve had good results with is lamb’s wool (Wuru wool or other brand names). It’s just loose wool that still contains lanolin. It comes with me in my First Aid kit wherever I hike. It barely weighs anything and works a treat. Basically, just a patch of wool you apply to sore spots. Take a bit of care to ensure it stays in place when you pull your socks on, and it will stick to the sock, fixing it in place. The lanolin will ease the soreness, and the wool provides a barrier against friction.
Tip 6: Do/don’t pop your blisters
Alas, nothing has helped, and you have fallen victim to the blister-curse again. So now what? Pop them or not? I always follow this rule: done walking? Leave them be. But if you still need to go on, and the blister is filling up, it’s best to pop it and empty it out, or you’ll risk tearing the skin. That will greatly increase the risk of infection. Better to pierce the skin and make a small hole with a (sterilized) needle. Bring a needle, thread, and some gauze and tape along on your trips. Blister plasters will help if the blister is still small and intact, but if it pops, take them off, or they will trap the moisture and worsen the situation.
If you need to empty a blister, sterilize a thin needle with a lighter. Thread the needle and puncture the blister. Pull the thread through the skin, so it sticks out on both ends, and leave it there, so the moisture can escape, and the puncture hole won’t close again. Cover it with a gauze to absorb the moisture and tape it all up before you start walking. As soon as the walking is done for the day, take it all off and let it dry out. Make sure to tape it all up again before you leave the next day!
Have any more tips to prevent or cure blisters? Let me know in the comments below!
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