How to Prevent Blisters on Hikes
On my High Sierra Trail thru-hike, I got really bad blisters about halfway through the hike. Daily, I’d struggle through the 10 to 12 mile hike through the foot pain, I’d stroll into camp at sundown crying from the foot pain. Then I again made the same mistake when I went to Havasupai, I was in paradise but I couldn’t enjoy the place as much as I wanted to because of my horrible blisters.
I have a couple of pain points that consistently get them, around my heel and on my big toe. Looking back, I wish I knew more about how to prevent them when I went, it would have made the whole experience more enjoyable overall.
As I prepare for the John Muir Trail this summer, I’ve been focusing on how to prevent blisters and having comfortable feet. Especially since I’ll be covering over 200 miles in just 16 days. So I’ve partnered with Injinji Socks to share how to prevent blisters and how to care for them if you do get any on a backpacking trip.
What are blisters
Blisters are fluid-filled pockets under the upper layer of your skin. Blisters are commonly caused by pressure, direct friction, and moisture. When your skin is wet, it’s softer and more susceptible to damage from friction. On the trail, it’s important to keep your feet dry, especially during the hot summer days.
They can also be caused by burns, allergies, skin conditions, and spider bites.
How to prevent blisters
Having comfortable feet on the trail can make or break a hiking trip. Preventing blisters is all about being aware of what is happening to your feet and what to do to fix it.
1. Make sure your hiking boots or trail runners fit properly.
Preventing blisters start with making sure you have well fitted and comfortable footwear.
Always get hiking shoes in at least half a size bigger. You want to make sure that your toes don’t touch the front of your boot. Otherwise, your toes will push up against the front of your shoes on the steep downhill sections of the trail and you’ll lose a couple of toenails. My second attempt to Mt. Whitney, I day hiked and wore my street shoe size in hiking boots. When I got to the car, I found out that my right big toenail had lifted, then in the weeks after it blackened and eventually fell off. It took a year to grow back, but now my “Whitney toe” reminds me to always get properly fitted shoes. Personally, I wear my hiking shoes 1.5 sizes bigger than my street shoe size. I wear a size 8 women’s and my hiking boots are a size 9.5. Your feet will also swell during a hike, so you’ll want a bigger shoe to allow room for that too! But you also don’t want to choose a shoe that’s too big, it’ll give your foot too much room for your foot to slide around, which can also cause blisters. Choose a shoe in the “Goldilocks zone,” not too big but not too small.
When choosing a hiking boot, make nothing rubs your foot the wrong way. That the back of the shoe doesn’t rub your heel, the insole doesn’t rub your arch, etc. I’ve gotten blisters around the edges of my heel and outsides of my arch because the insole of the shoe sat right on the edge of and over 10+ miles, it rubs creates a blister. If the insoles don’t sit the right way, you can always change out the insoles or even get custom insoles you’d get from your doctor.
2. Wear proper socks
I wear Injinji socks. I like that they’re toe socks!
It prevents my toes from rubbing together. With each toe protected, it prevents skin-on-skin friction and protects your foot from blisters and hot spots. Also since each toe is covered in sweat-wicking fabric, it will keep your feet dryer and less prone to blisters.
Another benefit of toe socks is when your toes are separated, properly aligned and splayed, your weight is distributed evenly which allows your entire foot to be engaged in any activity. It also helps to improve your balance and posture.
Make sure it fits properly (not too big or too small). Too big and it can create wrinkles and cause pressure points, and too small it can also cause pressure points and slippage.
You can also wear a sock liner to add an extra layer between your skin and your primary hiking socks, reducing friction, and can help wick away moisture. Injinji also makes sock liners!
Test different sock thicknesses. Thicker socks can provide some padding to reduce the impact on your foot and it can reduce how much wiggle room you have so your foot won’t slide around as much.
3. Choose socks made from moisture wicking fabrics
When choosing a good sock, avoid cotton, it retains moisture. Choose a sock made from synthetic or wool fabric.
Merino wool - This is a very popular choice for socks among hikers and backpackers. Merino wool is made from merino sheep that live mainly in New Zealand, it’s yarn is very soft, cushiony, itch-free, highly durable, and resists odors and shrinking. It’s a popular choice because of its ability to wick and quickly evaporate moisture. Injinji has designed their own version called NüWool®. It’s made from Australian wool and it’s compact spun to increase durability and prevent itching. It also controls the temperature of your foot in addition to preventing odor and wicking away moisture.
LYCRA® - Also an Injinji created fabric, this is a premium fiber blend that enables flexibility and movement with its bi-directional stretch. The use of this fabric helps all socks retain their shape. Socks with compression have a higher LYCRA® content to aid in the recovery process.
Polyester - It’s a synthetic fabric that’s durable, quick drying, stays strong even when wet, and it’s easy to clean. It’s also more breathable and absorbent than nylon.
Acrylic - Is an all-around versatile fabric. It is comfortable, provides good cushioning and dries reasonably fast.
Nylon - It’s blended in with other fabrics, often comprising 20% to 50% of the sock’s fabric. This adds durability and strength and dries quickly.
4. Change your socks
Since my High Sierra Trail days, I now try to take my shoes off during lunch breaks to let my feet air out and dry out before pushing onward.
Marathon runners recommend changing socks halfway through the race to maintain dry feet. The same can be applied to hikers. It’ll bring your feet back to the same low moisture level you had at the start of your hike. It also comes in handy if your feet get wet during water crossings.
You can hang the first pair of socks on the outside of your pack (assuming it’s not raining) to dry out under the sun.
5. Waterproof vs not waterproof hiking shoes
This is an age-old argument.
Waterproof shoes, although some more breathable than others, reduce the ability for your foot to breathe compared to not waterproof shoes. Because of the waterproof coating, it’s harder for the moisture inside of your shoe to evaporate. Especially during the hot summer months when your foot will sweat more.
In the past, I’ve worn only waterproof shoes because I didn’t want my feet to get wet during stream crossings. But I learned from the gals that joined me on the High Sierra Trail, that if the crossing high, you’re going to get your feet wet regardless if you’re wearing waterproof shoes or not. And if it’s low, you might get your feet wet a tad and it’ll dry quickly. You also have the option of changing into water shoes for stream crossings.
Those waterproof shoes didn’t help my blister situation. During the colder months and winter, I do wear waterproof boots, especially for snowshoeing. But during the summer months when you don’t need the GorTex and the added warmth, consider switching to not waterproof shoes if blisters and wet feet are a problem for you.
6. Toughen your feet
Calluses are your friends! Those of you that get manicures and pedicures know that you’re told calluses are not your friends and those salons are quick to remove them. But when you’re hiking, they’re your friends. Calluses act like a natural pad against the friction that forms blisters. Save the shaving off and pumicing down calluses until the end of the hiking season or after your big hike.
After the High Sierra Trail, I was done with long and big hikes for about 7 months (duration of winter), so I went to a salon and gave my feet the much needed TLC they deserved after 72 miles.
To keep your calluses from drying out and cracking, moisturize your feet after each shower or bath with a good foot or hand cream.
Repeated hot spots and preventing them
I know that I constantly get blisters around my heels, so before I even hike, I apply moleskin to reduce the friction in that area.
You can also apply:
Tape - Studies suggest that “tear-to-size” paper surgeon’s tape is effective and has a gentle adhesive. KT tape also works, cloth and synthetic medical tapes, and duct tape is also an option. But I’d save the duck tape if you’re in a pinch.
Blister bandages with pads and gels - Products like 2nd Skin can be used on both hot spots for prevention and for blister treatment.
Moleskin - The classic cut-to-size blister-coverage product is durable and sticks well. There are precut packages or sheets that you can cut yourself. Bring scissors in your first aid kit if you’re going to use the sheets you cut yourself. I have a lot of trouble cutting them with my knife, scissors help.
How to care for blisters on a multi-day hike
As you’re hiking, if you feel an uncomfortable spot, take your shoes and socks off. If the area is even a little red, apply protection tape, bandages, moleskin, etc. Keep your preferred blister protection in your first aid kit, and keep your first aid kit somewhere that’s easy to reach.
If you already have a blister, here’s how to treat it on the trail.
Molefoam with a doughnut hole: Cut a large enough hole for the blister; then the surrounding foam should keep your socks and shoes from rubbing the area further. For added protection, you can add a layer of Moleskin or tape over everything.
Blister bandages with pads and gels: These add a protective layer to prevent a blister from getting worse. Pads provide cushioning; gels soothe the area by cooling it off.
Drain the blister, if necessary: In general, avoid opening the blister to release the fluid. It creates an opening for an infection, especially in the backcountry. But if you have a large painful blister that hurts too much to leave it undrained, you need to do what you need to do. But make sure you drain it correctly, to reduce the chances of an infection. If it pops on its own, follow steps 4 and 5.
Wash the blister and surrounding area with antibiotic soap.
Sterilize your needle with alcohol or heat.
Insert the needle near the base of the blister.
Dress the blister like you would a wound, using antibiotic ointment and gauze or a Band-Aid.
Cut and place Molefoam with a doughnut hole around the area to prevent further irritation; for added protection, fill the hole with antibiotic ointment or a blister pad, then add a layer of tape over the top.
Keep a close eye on your blister. It’s rare for it to get infected, but it can happen. If you develop redness, pain, pus or red streaks traveling toward the nearest lymph node, seek medical attention.