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.
See “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”
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.
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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.
See also my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Hiking Boots,” all of my reviews of hiking shoes and backpacking boots at The Big Outside.
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51 thoughts on “8 Pro Tips For Preventing Blisters When Hiking”
The best in class waterproof yet breathable socks that provide the most reliable performance in all weather and terrain conditions.
Those socks look interesting, thanks for sharing that suggestion.
My wife and I will train for three to four months before some of our backpacking trips. Even though we spent hours each week doing weighted hikes she still develops blisters during our trip. We think it’s because the first leg of our trip includes a steep three-mile downhill area — it’s difficult to replicate a constant downhill hike for that length of time.
I think we are going to take your recommendation to preemptively tape some areas of her feet this time.
Preemptive taping may be a necessary strategy for your wife. Nonetheless, you can’t train skin to not blister. And I think developing blisters routinely is most often attributable to having footwear that just doesn’t fit properly; if the shoes or boots fit well, even if your feet get hot and sweaty, you should not get blisters. Finding a brand that fits your own feet can be challenging for some people, but may solve her problem.
Good luck. Thanks for the comment.
My heels looked like the lead photo after replacing a pair of beloved hiking shoes with the same size/ same model but 2 years newer — lesson, never assume. Plus quick training hike 3 weeks before C2C without addressing what felt like minor hot spots, more lessons well detailed in this article.
– Hydrocolloid pads (multiple brands now OTC from Band-aid, compared, store brands), my favorite for open sores, can stay in for a week, provide perfect wound healing environment. I haven’t had problems with sticking to socks but could cover with Leukotape or duct tape if needed. Allowed me to successfully continue to train and hike the C2C.
– Prevention. My favorites are TrailToes or the wool products (mentioned in article or other comments). And sock brand makes a difference, my most successful is Balega brand, but my hiking buddies each have their own favorites.
Great post and comments, far more detailed than many I’ve seen.
Thanks for sharing your personal experiences with those products, very useful info. Much appreciated.
I really appreciate the wisdom in this article. Anyone who hasn’t had a blister should seriously pay attention to what Michael is preaching. Like forgetting insect repellant in the Wind Rivers can make or break your trip, so can bad blisters.
I recently finished a 6 day trip into the Weminuche Wilderness near Durango, CO. I made the mistake of wearing brand new boots that I thought fit me really well. Unfortunately, day two of my trip I started developing hotspots that I didn’t immediately take care of (common mistake…one of the biggest reasons blisters develop into much bigger problems). After finally pulling off the trail and taking my boots off, I discovered that I had already developed some mean blisters. This meant treatment. I reached for my Adventure Medical Blister Kit which contains pre-cut moleskin.
The one thing I would recommend for people who do use moleskin with wet feet (and especially waterproof (GTX) footwear) is Tincture of Benzoin. This is a disinfectant, but is also one of the best adhesives for keeping moleskin from peeling off. I apply a thin layer over the blister, let it dry a bit, and then stick on the moleskin. I did this several times throughout this trip and never had any of the moleskin peel off no matter how wet my feet got. It is something I absolutely swear by. Because it’s also a disinfectant, it will kill any germs around the blister as well (it does sting a bit).
eNZees Foot Soother is another wool treatment that has been super successful in reducing and eliminating blisters for me. I have no idea why I didn’t think about including it on my last trip, especially with brand new footwear. Sometimes the most impactful lessons we learn are when we experience a bit of pain through forgetfulness or lack of knowledge. Backpacking has a way of teaching me these lessons in spades…
Thanks for sharing those tips, Jason. I’ve been aware of the benefits of Tincture of Benzoin for years and used it was success, too, although I tend to tape over hot spots before blisters develop.
I didn’t read all the comments, but you left out perhaps the most important thing: conditioning your feet by frequent hiking before the big backpacking trip.
Right on, Doug, you got me there. That goes hand-in-hand with training your legs for the hikes you aspire to do.
Two of your three blister causes are all but eliminated by wearing an ArmaSkin liner sock. They have an inner surface treated with silicone which, being hydrophobic, pushes moisture away from the skin and an outer surface that is very smooth, meaning that movement of an outer sock slides across the outer surface and thus doesn’t cause the friction, i.e., drag or shear of skin layers.
Thanks for that suggestion, Ian. I haven’t tried ArmaSkin socks but I see your email address indicates you work for them, so one question I have is how thin these liners are—as in how much warmer they would make your feet if one purpose of their design is to wear them with a second pair of socks. Also, I’ll email you separately about getting a pair to field test.
Thanks for the heuristic (heat, moisture, and friction) based approach to blisters Michael, I am a regular sufferer of blood blisters that make my toe nails look pretty nasty (subungual hematoma). I will try the tips on my long runs with the pups. 🙂
Good luck, Adam. While it’s hard to diagnose your problem without seeing how your shoes fit your feet, that does sound like a fit problem.
Great tips, thank you! I’m having trouble finding a good pair of women’s non-waterproof shoes that are also suitable for multi-day backpacking trips carrying a pack. Does anyone have any suggestions?
Thanks for the question. Fit is so critical to finding shoes that work well for you, and fit varies noticeably between brands, making it difficult to get recommendations on shoes from another person when what works well for someone else may not be best for you. Personal preferences and needs for support, cushioning, weight, and other aspects of footwear also vary between different people.
Check out my “Expert Tips for Buying the Right Hiking Boots” and this menu of all of my reviews of lightweight hiking shoes.
I don’t see the double sock method mentioned here. It’s something that’s helped me tremendously. I run a super-thin darn tough sock as a liner with thicker outer sock. Both are merino wool. I find this helps tremendously, Even when wearing heavy-duty waterproof mountaineering boots like Lowa Tibets. I do occasionally develop hot spots after about 10 miles with 40 lbs. on my back, but I typically pre-tape if I’m going that far and am fine.
Hi Vido, thanks for the comment. I employed the two-sock method years back (when it was more popular), but I honestly gave it up a long time ago because it seemed like overkill and would often make my feet hotter and sweatier, which defeats the purpose. Probably the biggest explanation for that method’s drop-off in popularity is the proliferation of lighter hiking shoes and boots, which help keep feet cooler and negate the need for, or benefits of wearing two pairs of socks. But if it works for it, by all means, keep on doing it! Keep in touch.
Thanks for the article! Do you have advice for ways to test or describe the perfect fit? I have spent so much time in REI trying to select the best fit, which feels great in store and on day hikes, but 2-3 days into a backpacking trip I’m blister-toast. On my toes, under my toes, and on my heels. My hands always swell pretty substantially on trips/distance running and I imagine my feet do too and I wonder if that has anything to do with it? Any advice is appreciated!
Thanks, Rebecca. Finding boots that fit your feet well can be really challenging. As I write in my story “Pro Tips for Buying the Right Hiking Boots,” find brands that fit your feet really; that does sometimes require trying on a lot of different boots, and the more you try on, the easier you find a good fit. Also, get your foot size measured accurately, and try on boots later in the day, when your feet are typically slightly swollen from a normal day’s activity.
Your feet should not slip inside the boot at all, heel or midfoot, and your toes should not hit the front of the boot. The store should let you walk around in them for a while, and go up and down stairs if possible.
Try to figure out why exactly your feet don’t fit certain boots, such as whether you have narrow or wide feet, narrow heels, etc. Getting a custom insole or different socks can help, too.
Good luck! Thanks for the question.
I’ve enjoyed reading these blog posts, most recently the one about blisters and hiking. I’m going to try body glide and the Wuru wool on our next outing. What I was wondering is if anyone had any information on sleeping bags. I’m headed into the Wyoming back country at the end of May and although it seems like the season is right, I’ve been in Wyoming in May and been hit with snow multiple times Now I don’t expect it to be sub zero But I do expect the nights to be anywhere form 15-30 degrees F at night. I don’t have yet great outdoor camping gear so If I’m going to spend the money on a good bag what brands would you reccomend for those kinds of condition? Please no Mummy bags. too tight for me.! weight is no issue as well. I’m Not limited to just what I can pack in. Thanks in advance for your time!
Hi Aric, weather will vary in late May depending on your elevation, of course. You can look at this menu of all of my sleeping bag reviews at The Big Outside, but since I primarily review gear for the backcountry, most of those bags are mummy bags. Good luck.
thanks, I will use some of these tips next week while in Colorado for awhile.
Thanks Michael, great article – and thanks for the useful comments everyone.
I’ve never used Leukotape but there seems to be a few different versions (“P”, “K”…)?
Which one do most of you use? Thanks!
Hi Benoit, thanks for the question. I use Leukotape P, which works fine alone but can be combined with Hypafix tape for more reliable and comfortable coverage. I recently combined them pre-taping my heels for a 27-mile, 16-hour dayhike the length of Maine’s Mahoosuc Range on a hot, humid day and the tape held throughout the day. Never had to retape.
I saw the Leukotape in action last November walking across the Lut Desert in temperatures that consistently reached 105-110 F. Some of my colleagues were using duct tape and athletic tape. Within a couple days our group leader, who is also an advanced paramedic, was using Leukotape on all of those with blisters or hot spots, etc. Unfortunately (not) I did not get to try it as I could not muster up a blister or hot spots. Something about the proper, good fitting boots and good socks (a serious nod here to Darn Tough socks).
Another product for treating blisters, hot spots or for preventative care is Compeed. Compeed is a British product that really works well and stays in place. Polysporin sells it in NA but about the only place I can find it is Amazon. Compeed outperforms all similar blister pads and treatments. Once applied just leave it on until it comes off on its own. This is often 3-5 days, and that includes hiking or backpacking days.
Thanks, John. I’m convinced on the Leukotape.
Great advice. The plastic bag trick is a new one.
Leukatape is far superior to duct tape and athletic tape for preventing or treating blisters.
Thanks, John. I’m experimenting with Leukotape, too.
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.
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.
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!
Thanks for sharing your experience, Barry. See my comment above regarding my experience with liner socks and what I currently do.
I did all of these except #8 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For taping: duct tape or leukotape?
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.
Words to live by…thanks for sharing tips of the trade!
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.