7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters When Hiking

In Backpacking, Hiking, Skills   |   Tagged , , , ,   |   19 Comments

By Michael Lanza

I deserve to be plagued by blisters. I field test upwards of a dozen models of hiking, backpacking, climbing, mountaineering, and trail-running shoes and boots every year. I’m constantly wearing new footwear right out of the box, often hiking 15 to 30 miles a day—usually without doing anything more than trying them on, almost never allowing for any break-in time. And I almost never get a blister. Here’s how I avoid them.

First of all, remember that blisters require three conditions to occur: heat, moisture, and friction. Eliminate any one of those factors and you prevent blisters. More specifically, here are the strategies I follow. And be sure to read the comments at the bottom of this story, where readers have offered their own excellent suggestions.

 

1. Buy boots that fit

Friction happens when your shoes or boots don’t fit your feet well. Buy them in a store where the staff knows how to measure your foot size. Try on a variety of brands because they all fit slightly differently; find the brand that fits your feet best. If the best boots you find still don’t fit perfectly, try after-market insoles to customize the fit.

 

Get good footwear. See all of my reviews of hiking shoes and backpacking boots.

 

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2. Eliminate heat and moisture: Keep your feet dry

This may be the easiest and most effective strategy I employ: Whenever I stop for a break of five minutes or more, I take off my boots and socks and let them and my feet dry out, eliminating or at least minimizing heat and moisture. As simple as that.

 

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3. Carry extra socks

If your feet get chronically sweaty, change into clean, dry socks midway through a day of hiking. Try to wash and cool your feet in a creek and dry them completely before putting on the clean socks.

 

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4. Wear lightweight, non-waterproof footwear

Any footwear with a waterproof-breathable membrane is not as breathable as shoes or boots with mesh uppers and no membrane—which also dry much faster if they do get wet. If you’re generally dayhiking in dry weather, why do you need waterproof boots? It may seem counterintuitive, but non-waterproof shoes or boots may keep your feet drier because they won’t sweat as much.

 

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5. Tape hot spots

I rarely carry (or need) blister-treatment products like Moleskin—but I always carry athletic tape, which sticks well even on damp skin. If I feel a hot spot developing, I stop immediately and apply two or three strips of athletic tape to the spot, overlapping the strips, and then check it periodically to make sure they’re still in place.

 

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6. Tape pre-emptively

When I’m taking a really long dayhike—where I’m exponentially increasing the amount of friction that can occur—I tape my heels before starting out, because I have developed blisters on them on dayhikes longer than 20 miles in the past. If you routinely get blisters in the same spots, tape them before your hike.

 

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7. Use a skin lubricant

Distance runners have employed this trick for ages: Apply a lubricant to areas that tend to chafe or blister, like heels, toes, or even the inside of thighs, to eliminate the friction that causes that discomfort. Numerous products do the job, from the traditional Vaseline to roll-on sticks like BodyGlide (which I use for long hikes and trail runs).

See also my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Hiking Boots,” all of my reviews of hiking shoes and backpacking boots, a menu of all of my Skills stories at The Big Outside, and “Ask Me: How Do I Stop Getting Battered Toes When Hiking?

 


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19 Responses to 7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters When Hiking

  1. Ioanna   |  May 31, 2017 at 2:13 am

    Good advice! I found that for me the most important is double socks (liner + thicker wool) and tape the known spots before I hit the trail. I use the athletic tape and it works beautifully. I found great fitting boots (prefer them to shoes) and in the recent hikes had no issues whatsoever.
    I would also warn people of using Compeed plasters – they might be great for the wedding night, but not for a hike. After a whole day of walking on them, the goo dissolves into the socks. I had to throw away a pair of liners b/c they were permanently damaged by the goo/glue/whatever that the Compeed is made of. yuck.

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 31, 2017 at 8:18 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Ioanna. I haven’t actually used liner socks in many years; I used to, but switched to light or midweight socks (depending on temperatures) when sock makers started producing socks that simply wick moisture better and fit better. But I’m an advocate of everyone experimenting with different strategies to find what works for their feet. Definitely, getting boots or shoes that fit your feet is critical. Thanks again for commenting.

    • Barry   |  August 10, 2017 at 10:41 am

      As a young boy scout, a long time ago in a galaxy far away, we were taught to wear two pairs of socks to avoid blisters. Nowadays, you can buy thin, breatheable liners to wear under your hiking socks. Many years and many wonderful blister-free miles of hiking later, that lesson has served me well!

      • MichaelALanza   |  August 10, 2017 at 11:28 am

        Thanks for sharing your experience, Barry. See my comment above regarding my experience with liner socks and what I currently do.

  2. Michelle   |  May 31, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    I did all of these except #7 and got blisters on my heels and under my toenails – ouch! We hiked the AT – 34 miles in 4 days. Never got a blister on my practice hikes 9 (around 10 miles each) so I’m guessing the weight of my pack (34 lbs) made the difference.
    As a watch out to others, just because you don’t get blisters when you practice, take heed of these tips for the real thing!

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 31, 2016 at 4:53 pm

      Hi Michelle, yes, the weight of your pack may have made the difference, or maybe your feet were hotter or sweatier when you backpacked. But ultimately, a poor fit in your boots is the number one culprit with blisters. Maybe carrying weight just exacerbated the fit problem, but I would see about checking that fit or finding boots that do fit. Good luck.

  3. Buck Tilton   |  May 31, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Over the past century or so, I have treated, oh, probably half a thousand blisters–all on other people’s feet. As a career wilderness medicine guy, I have put myself purposefully in blister country, and I can say joyfully that your info is excellent! I would only add a quick improvisational technique: stuff a Ziploc or something like it over your heel inside your sock if you have nothing else. The plastic rubs against itself instead of against your skin–and you walk on without a blister or without further damage to your already suffering foot.

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 31, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      Buck, I suspect you may have treated closer to half a hundred thousand blisters. That’s a great suggestion, and it comes as no surprise to me that you have a tip that I did not previously know.

      My advice to other readers is to Google Buck Tilton and get any or all of his books if you want to learn everything you could possibly need to know about wilderness medicine. He’s the original authority on the subject.

  4. Aaron   |  June 15, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    I would have to tend toward good fitting boots; because I broke every other rule. This is more an aside to what you are talking about but very similar. I think the longest overnight trek I pulled while hunting was about 14 miles. I don’t make treks that far anymore as I gave up coon hunting because I had crappy dogs. With temps dropping into the teens and single digits in the winter months in the Tennessee mountains; waterproof insulated boots are the only things you should wear if you like your toes and I never developed a single blister. Even using cotton socks. I suppose the boots I had at that time were “quality” boots (Wolverine with Goretex and 600d Thinsulate; leather and 1000d nylon upper); but now they would pale in comparison.

    I am very partial to the athletic tape tip. That one is a keeper.

    • michaellanza   |  June 15, 2015 at 5:00 pm

      Hi Aaron, point taken, thanks. To clarify, I meant that non-waterproof footwear is more breathable and all you need in warm, dry conditions. I agree that waterproof-breathable boots are the right choice for hiking in cold, wet conditions, but sweaty feet aren’t usually a problem then. And I definitely agree that a good fit is the most important of these tips.

  5. Michael   |  May 18, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Blisters aside, I’ve found using trail runners to be a big blessing. They are lighter and more comfortable than my leather boots, and they keep my feet dryer than waterproof boots. The thing is, I can cross a stream and 20 minutes later have dry feet because the lightweight breathable fabric dries out that fast. I no longer have issues with sweaty feet, and not a single blister since I switched to trail runners. I still have my large heavy leather boots for mountaineering, but the trail runners are they go to shoe for hiking.

    The Injinji socks have definitely been a big help as well, but I think most of the improvement lies with the shoes.

    • michaellanza   |  May 20, 2015 at 7:33 am

      Yes, Michael, I agree, assuming, of course, that you’re hiking in dry, sunny weather and mild to warm temps. In wet conditions, you’d have to wear waterproof socks or accept having wet feet all day. But I wear non-waterproof, low-cut, light shoes when dayhiking on sunny days.

  6. Kat   |  April 10, 2015 at 8:40 am

    As I am an professional archaeologist I’m in the field every day. I wear waterproof hiking boots all the time….just because you are hiking in dry weather such as the desert doesn’t mean it won’t rain or have to cross a stream….all depends on where you are at. If your boots and socks fit properly you’ve won half the battle…..I’ve had one blister and that was because if ill fitting socks and they rubbed. Even if I do a day hike when camping I do not wear light-weight boots/shoes. It is asking for a twisted or broken ankle.

    • michaellanza   |  April 11, 2015 at 5:39 am

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kat. I agree with you about fit and socks. I think the choice of shoes’ and boots’ weight and supportiveness is one of personal preference; not everyone twists an ankle wearing lightweight footwear. I also advocate choosing gear and clothing that’s appropriate for your environment at least most of the time, and it doesn’t rain much in the desert, and you’ll know from the forecast when it’s going to rain. On hot, desert hikes, you’re more likely to get wet feet from perspiration than from rain, and wet feet can contribute to getting blisters. However, if you’re frequently crossing shallow streams (many of which actually dry up between rainstorms in the desert), than waterproof-breathable boots are helpful.

  7. Heather N   |  July 28, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Good tips! I keep my feet extra dry by using spray antiperspirant on them. That not only prevents blisters in warm weather, but keeps the my feet warmer in freezing temperatures because they stay dry.

  8. Cheryl C   |  June 4, 2014 at 10:56 am

    For taping: duct tape or leukotape?

    • michaellanza   |  June 4, 2014 at 11:15 am

      I’ve always used regular athletic tape (same as I use to tape fingers for rock climbing), but I have used duct tape and it works well.

  9. Ethos Adventures (@EthosAdventures)   |  August 12, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Words to live by…thanks for sharing tips of the trade!

  10. The Freelance Adventurer   |  August 12, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Love the article. My only complaint is number four. I usually follow this one, but in the summers I work as a teen backpacking guide in the White Mountains. My guide pack is often over 65 lbs and I am hiking over massive rocks and wedging into granite (see your white mountain hike post). 🙂 I’ve realized that the tougher and bigger the boot the better sometimes for this and actually rock an old school all leather LLBean boot that keeps the water out and my ankles supported. For everyday dayhiking however, I agree and use a lightweight backcountry running shoe.

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