8 Pro Tips For Preventing Blisters When Hiking

In Backpacking, Hiking, Skills   |   Tagged , , , ,   |   23 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. Best of all, the tricks I use to avoid them are simple enough for anyone to practice.

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, I’ve listed below the strategies I follow. Be sure to read the comments at the bottom of this story, where readers have offered their own excellent suggestions. Please comment on what you think of this article or add your own suggestions, too.

 

A hiker on a dayhike of the 32-mile Pemi Loop, White Mountains, N.H.

Mark Fenton on a dayhike of the 32-mile Pemi Loop, White Mountains, N.H.

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, you may not 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. Don’t settle for less than that.

 

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An ultralight backpacker approaching Silver Pass on the John Muir Trail in California's John Muir Wilderness.

Click the photo to see my 10-day, ultralight plan for thru-hiking the John Muir Trail.

2. 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. Bonus benefit: It feels good.

 

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A hiker on the West Rim Trail, Zion National Park.

David Ports on a 50-mile dayhike across Zion National Park.

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 and cool 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 out (not balled up, or they won’t dry), in case you need to swap to them again.

 

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Hiker's shoes on the Easy Pass Trail in North Cascades National Park.

Click on this photo to read my “Pro Tips for Buying the Right Hiking Boots.”

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. Keeping them dry becomes critical on big days, and may be your last line of defense against blisters.

 

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Young teenage boy hiking in the Northern Presidential Range, N.H.

My son, Nate, at 14, on a 17-mile dayhike in the Presidential Range, N.H.

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 and whether you’re walking uphill or downhill. 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.

 

Hike stronger and smarter. See my stories “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb
and “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”

 

My 25 favorite backcountry campsites include Sahale Glacier Camp in North Cascades National Park.

My 25 favorite backcountry campsites include Sahale Glacier Camp in North Cascades National Park.

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 stick seven 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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A hiker on a 44-mile, rim-to-rim-to-rim dayhike in the Grand Canyon.

Mark Fenton on a 44-mile, rim-to-rim-to-rim dayhike in the Grand Canyon.

7. Tape Preemptively

When I’m taking a really long dayhike or trail run—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. 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 you’re going farther—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.

 

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A hiker standing on The Visor on the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite.

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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).

 

Get the right pack for you. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
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A hiker in the Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range.

Todd Arndt in the Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range.

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.

 

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

 

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 my blog post “Ask Me: How Do I Stop Getting Battered Toes When Hiking?

 

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23 Responses to 8 Pro Tips For Preventing Blisters When Hiking

  1. John Kelly   |  May 14, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    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.

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 15, 2018 at 6:41 am

      Thanks, John. I’m convinced on the Leukotape.

  2. John Kelly   |  May 10, 2018 at 7:40 am

    Michael,

    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.

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 14, 2018 at 11:12 am

      Thanks, John. I’m experimenting with Leukotape, too.

  3. 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.

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

    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!

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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

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

  12. 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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