Many of us have had one, and they hurt bad. Getting a blister on your foot while hiking can ruin your hike, or worse, lead to infection. The best way to stop foot blistering is not to get one. Prevention is key!
Prevention of blisters on the feet
There are several reasons why you may get a foot blister. The most common is a mixture of pressure and friction at the blister site, although burns and freezing can also cause blistering. Pressure and friction are what we will address in this post.
Some conditions, however, may make a person more prone to getting a blister. They include burns, frostbite, contact dermatitis, diabetic neuropathy, overweight, antibiotic treatment, and taking blood-thinning medication.
When pressure and friction (shear stress) are applied to the skin area by a shoe or sock, tenderness and inflammation may result. The inflammation causes fluid to build up beneath the damaged skin (stratum spinosum) to protect the sensitive inner skin layers. A blister has been born!
The blister’s liquid is clear and taken from blood or plasma and helps form new connective tissue. The skin laying over the top of the fluid is known as the roof. If the roof remains intact, pain is limited. However, if the roof ruptures, blisters can be excruciating. Keeping the roof intact helps to heal the blister site. If the roof ruptures, keeping the skin on will also help the healing process.
There are many ways to prevent foot blisters, all of which aim to reduce friction.
Get the right footwear
Buying the boot with the best fit and the kind you need for your intended activity is essential. Getting the lightest boot for your conditions is a good preventive measure. Waterproof boots will also help prevent blisters as wet skin will blister faster. A poor-fitting boot will increase the risk of developing a blister. Take your time looking for the right boot. Price should be considered, but you should ponder splurging a bit when it comes to your piggies.
Take your boots for a test drive
Put the boots on and walk around the store. Slam your foot down and forward or use an incline board to feel how stable the boot feels. Did your toes hit the front of the boot? Check if there is any heal lift or slip when walking. How does the upper section of the boot feel at the ankle? Does the boot tie well? When properly laced up, do you notice any hollow spaces? If so, the volume of your foot is not a match for the boot.
Try on boots toward the end of the day when your feet have swelled. Also, bring the socks you’ll wear while hiking, and if you don’t have them buy a pair at the store. Bring your orthotics if you use them. If you’re at a store that sells backpacks, ask for a loaded pack to walk around in, as this will change your walking mechanics.
Break your boots in
Today, most boots have a fast break-in time, but you would be well served to use them in the front-country for a few days before hitting the trail. Also, know different ways to lace your boots, some of which may help prevent blister formation.
Know your shoe size
Knowing your size includes your foot’s length, width, and arch length. Another good measure is foot volume. If you don’t know this, it is worth having it measured. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, here’s a page on how to measure your foot accurately.
One last thing, remember not all boots fit the same way; some boots size large or small, so you may end up going up or down a size.
Buying the right socks can be as important as your boots. Use a thickness that you’ll need for the trail and season. These should match the socks you used when test drove the shoes. Use synthetic wicking socks rather than cotton socks, which tend to retain moisture and create friction. It has been demonstrated that wet or moist skin is a risk factor for skin blistering (Kirkham et al., 2014). Synthetic wicking socks help keep your skin dry.
Using a two-layer sock system with a liner and insulating layer may help prevent blisters. The use of a sock liner has been shown to reduce blisters (Knapik et al., 1996). Socks should fit snugly and not fold over anywhere. The socks should not fit too tight as to cut off circulation. If you’re backpacking, always have clean socks for each day or at least rinse them out at camp to remove any dirt in them.
Gaiters can help keep water, dirt, sand, and small rock granules out of your boot. The debris from the trail is mostly unnoticeable but can, over time, lead to a blister.
Other preventative stuff
Keep your toenails cut to prevent abrasion between toes. Try using a tape made for blister prevention on known hot spots. A tape such as KT PERFORMANCE+ ® BLISTER PREVENTION TAPE may help. Never apply tape to a formed blister.
Rest your feet
After a long day on the trail, make sure you rest your feet. If there is a stream nearby, you can wash your feet and relax in the cold mountain water. The cold water may help reduce swelling. Dry your feet and put on a clean pair of socks for the night.
Give your boots a break
Wet, dirty, and excessively worn or damaged boots can lead to blisters (and other problems).
If you’re backpacking, brush off any dirt or mud on the boot when at camp each night. Open the boot as wide as you can. Maybe even remove the laces. Take the insole out to let the boot completely dry out overnight. Check the inside of the boot for dirt. If you can, pack a few pages of a newspaper to crumple up and put in the boot. You want to start your next day with boots as dry as you can get them.
After a day hike or returning from a backpacking trip, give your boots some TLC. Wash the outside of your boots with water and scrub with a toothbrush to remove all the dirt. Unlace and remove the insole. After the boot is washed and has dried, inspect it for undue wearing or damage.
Check the seams, in and out. How’s the gusset and tongue? Are any of the eyelets or part of the speed lacing system damaged? What is the condition of the sole and tread? Do you see any damage to the uppers? If you find any damage or excessive wear, it’s time to retire the boots.
Kirkham, S., Lam, S., Nester, C. and Hashmi, F. (2014), The effect of hydration on the risk of friction blister formation on the heel of the foot. Skin Res Technol, 20: 246-253. https://doi.org/10.1111/srt.12136
Knapik JJ1, Hamlet MP, Thompson KJ, Jones BH. Influence of boot-sock systems on frequency and severity of foot blisters. Mil Med. 1996 Oct;161(10):594-8.
Backwoods wanderer with a passion for backpacking, hiking, and exploring the wilds of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York. A Catskill 3500 Club Member and Adirondack Forty-Sixer. Climbed Mount Rainier. Professionally an Exercise Physiologist.