A few weeks ago I went on my first backpacking trip of the year. I wore the same boots and socks as I usually do… but I got a few blisters anyway! WTF?!? It made me realize that even if you think you’ve out-smarted blisters, you’re not in the clear. I know all the tips and tricks to prevent blisters, but I still got them since I didn’t follow my own advice. Doh!
Thankfully, I did know how to treat blisters on the trail, so I was able to get bandaged up and finish my hike without any further problems. Since I’m usually blister-free, (and I need a reminder to implement my own recommendations), here’s how to prevent blisters when hiking… and how to treat blisters when you do get them.
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Why Do Hikers Get Blisters?
So first things first: Why blisters? Blisters form when skin gets irritated or damaged by pressure or friction. This could be from tight spots in your hiking boots or wrinkles in your socks. You’ll also be more prone to blisters if your feet are wet, either from sweat or from getting rained on or dunked in a stream. My main problem on my recent backpacking trip was that I let my feet get waaaay too sweaty 🙁
How to Prevent Blisters When Hiking
Wear Hiking Boots That Fit Well
If your boots don’t fit or aren’t broken in, you’re likely to get blisters. Take your time when buying hiking boots and try on lots of pairs. Make sure your toes have enough room to spread out – if they are scrunched together you can get blisters. Getting the right size is also important. Check the sizing by walking on an inclined ramp – most good outdoor stores will have one. When walking uphill your heels should stay in the same place – the boots are too big if your heel slips. Going downhill make sure that your toes don’t bump the front of the shoe. If they do, they’re too small.
Choose the Right Footwear
To avoid blisters you want to keep your feet dry. That means that your hiking boots shouldn’t let your feet get too sweaty, but they also should keep water out when you hike in the rain or splash through puddles. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to get boots that do both well. Waterproof boots are good at keeping water out, but even if they use a waterproof breathable membrane like Gore Tex, they still make your feet pretty sweaty. And mesh ventilated hiking boots are great at keeping your feet cool… but terrible at keeping them dry. My solution is to wear waterproof breathable hiking boots for colder and wetter weather and ventilated mesh trail runners for warmer weather.
I Recommend: In wet and cold weather I wear Salomon X Ultra Mid GTX Light Trail Shoes. They are lightweight but have a Gore Tex waterproof breathable lining. Shop: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com, For hot summer hikes I wear Salomon XA Pro Trail Running Shoes that have breathable mesh uppers. Shop: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com
Learn How to Lace Your Boots
Lacing your boots isn’t as simple as just tying a knot at the top. There are actually different lacing techniques that you can use to alleviate different kinds of boot fit issues and prevent blisters when hiking. There are some great instructions on REI’s website that can teach you how.
Wear Wool or Synthetic Socks
Hiking socks are designed to move moisture, dry quickly, cushion your feet and avoid chafing. If you want to avoid blisters, you need to get some. Good hiking socks are made of merino wool or synthetic. I like socks that blend the two together as I find pure wool socks aren’t as durable and pure synthetic socks get stinky. Whatever you do, never wear cotton socks! Cotton soaks up moisture so wearing cotton is a recipe for blisters.
I Recommend: For regular hiking socks I like Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew. They have flat seams and they’re super durable. Shop: MEC | REI | Darn Tough Socks. In the summer I like really thin socks so I wear Defeet Wooleator Socks. Shop: MEC | Backcountry.com | Amazon.
Make Sure Your Socks Fit Well
You don’t want them to bunch up or slip inside your boots, causing skin irritations and then blisters. Check the packaging to make sure you get the right size. And if you’re in between sizes, try on both sizes to see which one fits better. And it should go without saying, but if you’re wearing higher cut boots, you should also wear higher cut socks to avoid direct skin to boot contact.
Pick Socks That are the Right Thickness
Choose thinner socks for hot weather and thicker ones for cold weather. Remember, you want to avoid sweaty feet. My recent blister fail was probably due to sock choice. It was really cold in the morning (close to freezing) so I put on my thick and warm socks for the day’s hike. Throughout the day my feet got sweaty in thick socks as the temperature warmed up. And I got blisters. 🙁
Wear Liner Socks
Liner socks are thin socks that you wear under your regular hiking socks. Liner socks do two main things: wick sweat away from your feet and prevent friction. Hikers who wear stiff leather hiking or mountaineering boots should consider wearing liner socks. If you wear softer low-cut fabric boots or trail runners, liner socks often aren’t necessary. Nevertheless, if you’ve got recurring blister problems, give liner socks a try.
You can also get socks with built in liners. I’ve been wearing Wrightsock double layer socks for years and I love them. They have a thin liner sock inside sewn to an outer regular sock. The idea is that the two layers of the sock rub against each other rather than your foot rubbing against your sock. For me they really work! (And I didn’t have them on my most recent trip. Fail. )
Consider Toe Socks
If you’re prone to getting blisters between your toes, wearing toe socks can help. They take a bit of getting used to but I think they work. You can get stand-alone toe socks or thin toe socks you can wear as liner socks.
Upgrade Your Insoles
The factory insoles that came with your hiking boots are probably pretty flimsy and might not be the best shape for your feet. I add aftermarket insoles to all of my hiking footwear since I find they give me a better fit, more support and make my feet less sore after long days of walking. Try swapping out the insoles that came with your boots for ones that fit your foot better.
Cut Your Toenails
One of the easiest ways to get blisters or irritated feet is to neglect your toenails. Give yourself a home pedicure the night before a hike. On longer trips I bring a tiny pair of nail clippers to trim on the trail.
Air Everything Out
If you stop for a break, take your hiking boots and socks off to let your feet air out and dry off. Make sure to spread your socks out in the sun and remove your insoles from your shoes so any accumulated sweat has a chance to evaporate. If you get really sweaty feet consider packing an extra pair of socks so you can swap out gross wet ones for dry ones. When backpacking, bring a pair of lightweight sandals to wear in camp while your boots air. I tried to save weigh on my last backpacking trip and didn’t bring campshoes so my boots didn’t get a chance to air out. Result: blisters.
Plan For Stream Crossings
Stream crossings can soak your feet, and wet feet are prone to blisters. Bring dedicated water shoes or sandals to cross streams so you don’t get your hiking boots and socks wet. I like to bring a small travel sized quick dry towel to dry my feet with after stream crossings before I put my shoes and socks pack on. If you do need to cross in your boots, bring a back up pair of dry socks to change into afterwards.
I Recommend: I bring a small Pack Towl quick-dry towel on pretty much every hike. I use it for washing my face on backpacking trips, wiping sweat off my brow and drying off my feet. Buy: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com
Use Anti-Chafing Products
There are tons of anti-chafing products out there that lubricate your feet so there isn’t as much friction. If you know you are prone to blisters, applying an anti-chafe balm before your hike can help. The cheapest (and messiest) option is good old Vaseline. Body Glide Foot Glide and Hike Goo are also popular. Keep in mind that as you hike and sweat it will wear off so you might need to bring it with you and reapply.
Pre-Tape Problem Areas
Lots of hikers have known problem areas where they usually get blisters. Common areas are the backs of your heels, toes and the balls of your feet. To prevent blisters when hiking you can pre-apply blister prevention tape before your hike.
Moleskin tape is the classic solution. It’s a thin strip of cotton padding with adhesive on the back. It pads the foot to take the pressure off the area. Cut it into a shape that covers your problem area, and be sure to round off the corners. It sticks pretty well on it’s own, but I like to add a bit of medical tape on top to ensure it stays in place.
Some people also like to use duct tape as they say it stays on a long time but I’ve found that the edges of it often lift up and get stuck to my socks so I’m not a fan. Plus it doesn’t provide any padding.
I recently read an article on Philip Werner’s Section Hiker blog about using Leukotape to prevent blisters. It’s commonly used by physiotherapists, but since it is very sticky it stays on for days, making it great for blister prevention. I asked my blog readers on my Facebook page if anyone had tried it and several of them raved about how effective it is… and how long it stays on. Buy it on Amazon or at some pharmacies. You can also try asking your physio clinic if they will sell you a roll.
Keep Your Feet and Boots Clean
Hikers splash through puddles and kick sand and dirt up as they walk. Getting dirty and muddy feet is a regular part of hiking. But those little dirt particles can rub your feet and cause blisters. Make sure you clean the dirt out of your shoes and off your feet periodically. Be sure to check in between your toes! On dusty backpacking trips I usually wipe down my feet with baby wipes each day when I get to camp.
If you’re going to be hiking on a beach or in the desert, pick up some lightweight gaiters to keep the sand and dirt out of your shoes. And if you expect to encounter rain or wet trails, wearing waterproof breathable gaiters can help keep your feet dry.
I recommend: For wet weather I like MEC’s Kokanee gaiters since they use a Gore Tex waterproof breathable membrane. REI’s Alpine gaiters are pretty similar. I don’t actually have any warm weather gaiters right now, but I’ve been meaning to pick up some low profile trail running gaiters to use for beach hiking.
Treat Hot Spots Right Away
If you start to feel any foot irritation while hiking, it’s probably a hot spot that will soon turn into a blister. Stop right away, take off your shoes and treat it. If it’s just a hot spot and not a blister yet, the best thing to do is pad the area with some moleskin or leukotape. If you don’t have moleskin or leukotape you can also use bandaids (I prefer the waterproof kind since they stay on longer) or even duct tape. That’s also a great time to clean dirt out of your shoes, change your socks, or tighten your shoelaces. I felt myself getting hot spots on my last trip and decided to wait until lunch (over an hour later) to look at them. By then they had turned into blisters.
How to Treat Blisters
Decide If You Should Pop It
Everyone has their own opinion about whether you should pop your blister or not. Some people think you should always pop them, and some think you never should. Well I think… they’re both right. (Way to sit on the fence, Taryn!) But seriously, I recommend examining the blister and deciding if you should pop it or not.
If it looks like it will burst when you’re walking or it’s so painful to walk on that you can’t keep going, I think it’s time to pop it. If it’s small and adding a bit of padding will let me walk on it, I tape it up and keep going. That’s what I did when I got blisters recently, and I was able to hike pain free with the padding. Once I got home into a cleaner environment, I popped the biggest blister and let the rest heal on their own.
Pop With Care
If you do decide to pop it, it’s best to do it in a clean environment (like your house) to avoid infection. That’s why I often choose to try to walk out with an intact blister, rather than popping it on the trail. But sometimes you have no choice and you need to pop your blister in the backcountry.
Start by cleaning the area with an alcohol wipe. Sterilize a a needle or the point of your knife with the flame from your lighter or stove. Make the smallest hole possible and massage the blister to drain out all the liquid. Clean the blister with antibiotic ointment like polysporin, then dress it with gauze or a bandaid. If it’s still really painful you can add some moleskin for extra padding. To make sure your dressing really sticks, back it up with a few strips of medical tape. Never apply leukotape or duct tape to a popped blister as the adhesive will prevent the damaged skin from healing and can actually rip it open again when you remove the tape. Ouch!
Pad the Blister
If you decide not to pop your blister, you’ll need to add some padding to keep the blister from growing and ease the pain in your feet so you can finish your hike. There are tons of options at drug stores for blister care, but really they fall into two main categories: padded bandages and gel bandages.
Moleskin is the classic padded bandage. You can cut moleskin to protect blisters of pretty much any size. A popular method is to cut the moleskin into a donut shape and place it over the blister so that the blister is in the donut hole. Cover the moleskin with another sheet of moleskin or some medical tape and you’re good to go.
There are also tons of blister treatment bandages with gels in them that both pad the blister and claim to promote healing. You can find a whole assortment of them at drug stores and online, including ones from BandAid brand and Second Skin. They come in a few different sizes but they can’t be cut to fit so you have to hope you brought the right size with you. Recently a couple different people (including a ski tourer I met at a backcountry hut) have recommended Compeed blister cushions to me. Apparently they stay on for days, even if you shower. I haven’t tried them yet but I’ll be adding some to my first aid kit (even though they’re pretty expensive!).
Foot Care First Aid Checklist
The majority of the items that I carry in my first aid kit are actually for foot care and blisters, since that’s by far the most common ailment for hikers. Here’s a list of essential and optional blister prevention and treatment items I recommend you carry in your hiking first aid kit:
- Moleskin sheets
- Medical tape
- Bandaids in a variety of sizes (preferably waterproof ones)
- Small folding scissors
- Alcohol wipes
- Sewing needle
- Blister treatment bandages
So there’s my tips for preventing blisters when hiking and treating them both on and off the trail. What’s the worst blister you’ve ever gotten? How do you think you could have prevented it? Tell me in the comments.