By Michael Lanza
I deserve to be plagued by blisters. I field test numerous models of hiking, backpacking, and trail-running shoes and boots every year. I’m constantly wearing new footwear right out of the box, often hiking 15 to 20 miles or more miles a day—usually without doing anything more than trying them on, virtually never allowing for any break-in time. And I almost never get a blister. Best of all, the tricks I use to avoid them are simple and easy for anyone to follow.
This article shares the methods I’ve learned over more than three decades (and counting) of dayhiking and backpacking, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
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.
Simple, right? Well, not always. But blisters are a problem you can control. I’ve listed below the strategies I follow to dramatically reduce the occurrence of blisters.
Be sure to read the comments at the bottom of this story, where readers have offered their own excellent suggestions. Please share your suggestions or questions. I try to respond to all comments.
1. Buy Boots That Fit
Friction happens when your shoes or boots don’t fit your feet well. Eliminate friction through perfect fit, and you eliminate blisters. Buy footwear 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. Until you’ve tried on several models, it’s difficult to even recognize the subtle differences between a pretty good fit and an ideal fit.
If the best boots you find still don’t fit perfectly, try after-market insoles to customize the fit. But in reality, almost anyone should be able to find shoes or boots that fit well; you just have to look hard enough. If your feet are unusually large or wide or narrow or have a high or low arch, find the brands that offer a size range and fit that matches your feet. Don’t settle for less than very good fit.
Find the best hiking footwear. See all of my reviews of hiking shoes and backpacking boots.
2. Keep Your Feet Dry
This may be the easiest and most effective strategy I employ: Whenever I stop for a break of 10 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. Bonus benefit: It feels good, especially if I have an opportunity to cool my feet in a stream or lake (and then thoroughly dry them before putting my socks and shoes back on).
Another strategy for keeping feet cooler and drier is employing what pros in the footwear industry call the “chimney effect:” Roll the tops of your socks down over the collar of your boots, which channels air down into your boot and helps release heat and moisture from your feet.
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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. Wear wool or wool-blend socks that wick moisture and dry quickly. (Cottons socks hold moisture and virtually guarantee you blisters.) Try to wash any dirt and sweat from your feet in a creek and dry them completely before putting on the clean socks.
Tuck the damp socks under a pack strap or inside a mesh exterior pocket on your pack to dry them out (not balled up, or they won’t dry), in case you need to swap to them again.
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 by not causing them to sweat as much.
That’s especially important when dayhiking or backpacking longer days: Double or triple the distance and you also double or triple the number of steps you take and the amount of friction on your feet, and greatly increase the number of hours your feet are potentially getting hot and sweaty inside footwear. Keeping them dry becomes critical on big days—and may be your last line of defense against blisters.
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5. Adjust Laces on the Trail
Shoe and boot laces often loosen up while hiking. Your feet and ankles move differently and endure different pressure points depending on the terrain, steepness, and whether you’re walking uphill or downhill. Feet can also swell slightly during a hike. Lacing footwear properly at the outset of a hike and retying during the day can alleviate the slippage and pressure points that cause friction.
First of all, shoes or boots should always be laced up snugly enough for comfort and to prevent slippage: For example, your ankle and toes should not rub, and your foot should not slip forward or backward (potentially jamming your toes). If you feel any rubbing or hot spot, adjust the lacing to achieve a closer fit.
Before starting a long descent, lace up snugly to prevent your toes banging against the front of the boots. With mid-cut or high boots, it can sometimes increase comfort (and help cool your feet) to loosen upper laces for a long uphill climb; but if you do that, make sure the laces are snug below your ankle, to avoid rubbing and slippage.
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6. 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, or Leukotape, which sticks even better than athletic tape (see comments section, below).
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 I check it periodically to make sure they’re still in place.
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7. Tape Preemptively
When I’m taking a really long dayhike or trail run—where I’m exponentially increasing the number of steps I’m taking, and thus the amount of friction that occurs—I tape my heels before starting out, because I have developed blisters on them on dayhikes longer than 20 miles in the past.
The slightest imperfect fit in footwear may go unnoticed on hikes of short to middle distances—and the definition of “short,” “middle,” and “long” is however you define them, because the point is simply that you’re going farther than you usually do—but any imperfect fit in footwear gets greatly magnified on long hikes and runs.
If you routinely get blisters in the same spots, tape those spots before your hike.
I’ve been experimenting with a new product that functions the same as tape by covering a patch of skin to eliminate friction: Wuru Wool. You simply place a clump of wool over a potential hot spot—I’ve used it on my heels—and the wool fibers adhere to the sock to stay in place, reducing friction and absorbing moisture. I’ve used it with positive results on dayhikes and trail runs of up to 18 miles.
Get the right pack for you. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
8. 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 easy-to-apply (and less messy) roll-on sticks like BodyGlide, which I use for long hikes and trail runs.
See my five-level hike difficulty rating system in “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
Bonus Tip: Use That Blister to Your Advantage
If you develop a blister on the trail, use Moleskin or a similar product to cover and protect it while hiking, so that it doesn’t expand and worsen; even athletic tape, while it could be a bit painful to remove later, will shield it from additional friction.
But once in camp or at home, when you don’t need to be on your feet much or to wear shoes (change to sandals or flip flops that won’t rub on the blister), uncover it. Clean it, use a sterile needle or blade to drain the blister (if it hasn’t already popped on its own), and then leave it uncovered (but be careful to keep it clean); covering it will just help trap moisture, keeping the skin soft and vulnerable.
Once you have a blister, the best strategy is to leave it exposed to the air as much as possible, to accelerate the healing and regrowth of calloused skin—which is your body’s best protection against blisters.
NOTE: As I mentioned at the top of this story, be sure to read the comments below, where readers have offered their own excellent suggestions. Offer your own comment on this story, or your best tip, and thanks to everyone who’s contributed to my tips on preventing blisters.
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