Blisters, blisters, blisters…
Getting blisters is easy, preventing them is hard, right? And every hiker you meet will have their own methods for treatment and prevention. It’s a topic that hikers can talk about for hours on end.
In this article, I’ve made an overview of all the tips that work for me personally, and I also included some tips from other hikers. But in this blog post, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into one of the most important components of your blister-free strategy: your shoes.
It used to be considered common knowledge that hikers need sturdy shoes. Preferably a pair that also provided plenty of ankle support. High, sturdy shoes, with stiff soles. But be honest: do you really need all that sturdy support on most of your hikes? I’ve been hiking in trailrunners since I started training for the Pacific Crest Trail, and have encountered very few (none, actually) scenarios in which I truly needed traditional hiking boots. I hiked the entire PCT in my trailrunners, including the stretches through the mountains. As did almost all other hikers there.
Now, I’ll grant you: I’m from the Netherlands. A notoriously flat country with no mountains whatsoever. So I certainly won’t need boots here, ever. But how many of your hikes lead you into treacherous, mountainous terrain? And how many are just a stroll through the local woods?
Trailrunners are light, flexible, very breathable, have plenty of tread and feel like slippers on your feet. I often see hikers on paved and flat trails with traditional boots, with a pained look on their faces. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying those boots don’t have their uses, at times. I’m just saying that those times are few and far between for most casual hikers.
It definitely pays to make a trip to a specialist to try them on, if you can. There are only a few trailrun stores in the Netherlands where you can buy Altra’s, but there might be other similar stores in your country. I visited a store to try a pair of Altras, because I wanted shoes from a brand I could easily buy in America as well. As soon as I put them on, I fell in love. It felt like there was hardly anything on my feet. Although it took me a while to get used to their look, they fit like a glove right from the start. I’m not ashamed to admit I had to blink away a tear or two when the time came to say goodbye to that first pair.
“One pound of weight on your feet equals five pounds of weight on your back” is a common saying among long-distance hikers. Roughly speaking, what it means is that every gram on your feet takes five times as much effort to lug around as that same weight on your back. How much do your shoes weigh? Trailrunners are one of the lightest choices you can make. Click here for more info on this theory.
Altras are known for their wide toe box, so your toes will have room to spread out inside the shoe and won’t get squished and start rubbing past each other. But another feature of this brand is that their shoes are all ‘zero drop’. This isn’t always a good thing, though, because if you’ve never hiked in ‘zero drop’ shoes before, it can actually cause problems. You need to build it up slowly.
What is zero drop, you say? Glad you asked!
Most shoes have a slight elevation in the heel. This might be no more than just a few millimeters, or it might be much more, but a completely flat sole, where your heel is at the same height as your forefoot, is called zero drop. It basically mimics the natural position of your foot had you been walking barefoot. If your feet aren’t used to this, going zero drop all day without preparation can cause issues.
An important distinction to make is that a zero drop shoe is not necessarily a barefoot shoe. All barefoot shoes are zero drop, but a zero drop shoe can have cushioning (as do most trailrunners) and if it does, it is not a barefoot shoe.
If you usually wear ‘regular’ shoes (and most shoes do have some drop) your foot will rarely be placed flat on the ground. Your muscles and tendons (especially your Achilles tendon) will rarely be stretched to their full length. A sudden conversion to zero drop will extend your tendons beyond what they’re used to, and it takes time to build up that stretch. Anyone that walks around barefoot or in flip-flops a lot will likely have an easier time transitioning than people who wear shoes all the time.
So if you need a new pair of shoes quickly and don’t have time to build up the transition slowly, you’ll likely be better off with trailrunners that do have some drop. If that’s the case, check how many millimeters of drop your normal shoes have, and then choose a new pair with a slightly lower heel (a few mm. less). If you do have more time, start by walking in zero drop shoes (or just barefoot) for an hour every day, and build it up a bit each time. Allow at least a month or two for this, and preferably longer. If you start to experience pain or discomfort, you’ve overdone it.
Shoes with or without ankle support?
I used to hike in boots that closed tightly around my ankles, because they felt more supportive and also because that was what you were supposed to do when you went hiking. Or so I thought. But during my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, I noticed my ankles became insanely strong from walking on uneven paths all day, in shoes with no ankle support at all. Wherever possible, I now walk on unpaved trails. Not so easy in the Netherlands, where most trails are paved, but there are ways to select your hike based on the terrain. Apps like Komoot will show you what surface you can expect on your chosen route, and even have a feature that allows you to select the kind of terrain.
The vast majority of my hikes are on existing trails. Sometimes I’m climbing or descending, and sometimes the trails are slippery. On such hikes, I like to take my hiking poles with me to take some of the strain off my knees (and to pitch my tent with). My knees are generally fine, and I would like to keep it that way.
Are you going into alpine terrain where there might be major descents, ascents, and lots of snowfields? Trailrunners might not be your best choice there. If you need crampons, they surely won’t be, as they won’t fit your trailrunners.
But if all you’ll encounter is the occasional snowfield in moderate terrain, you can also get a pair of ‘microspikes’ to fit over your trailrunners. This will do the trick just fine most of the time. Combine them with an ice axe if needed. Not sure what conditions you’ll encounter? Do more research and always err on the side of caution. I use Kahtoola Microspikes to fit over my trailrunners.
Back to boots
Okay, where were we? Right. Hiking boots. Another argument I’ve heard people use to justify hiking in boots was the presence of a lot of loose sand and debris (like during my hike on the Fishermen’s Trail in Portugal).
Pull on a pair of gaiters over your trailrunners, and problem solved. Your feet will stay free of debris and sand. You will still be dirty and dusty as hell, but your feet, at least, will be fine.
Gaiters can be pulled on over your shoes. You attach them with a piece of Velcro at the back and hook them onto your laces in front. They fit around your ankles snugly thanks to the stretchy fabric. Make sure you choose a pair suitable for trail running (running gaiters) that covers your laces completely.
Snow gaiters, which are made of waterproof fabric, are less suitable (unless you’re going on a winter hike, of course), as they won’t stretch and won’t be breathable.
And if you’re feeling creative, you can also make a pair yourself, if you know how to handle a sewing machine.
Pros and cons of trailrunners
Okay, so I’ve stated my case in favor of trailrunners. But what about their drawbacks? Let me list all pros and cons for you:
- Easy to put on and take off
- Space to move your toes
- Less friction inside the shoe
- Flexible soles
- = No blisters!
- Less durable, they wear out quickly
- Not cheap (unless you can find a good deal somewhere)
- Less safe on real alpine trails covered with snow
- Perhaps less suitable for people with foot problems?
‘I have difficult feet’
Just to be clear, I myself do not have any foot or ankle issues, nor am I a trained podiatrist. If you have issues with your ankles, knees, or anything of that sort, seek advice from a knowledgeable person who can advise you on what is best for you. Just make sure it is someone who is open to unorthodox solutions, has experience with hikers, and can think outside the box. Some people might really need heavy boots and orthotics, but don’t give up on your body too soon and give it a chance to slowly adjust to a completely new situation.
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