How to Prevent Blisters

Avoiding them in the first place is every hiker’s aim. It is your feet that will get you through whatever torturous hike you set your sights on. Doing your hike with or without blisters will determine your level of enjoyment and how you remember the experience. Too often an enjoyable outing into the wild is marred by ill-prepared feet. Here are my suggestions.

Wear in your shoes

Hiking boots and shoes have come a long way in the last 10 years. You no longer need to lug a kilo on your feet for adequate grip and support on challenging terrain. Unless you need ankle support, there has been a recent movement towards light-weight trail runners. Many use flexible Vibram soles or sticky rubber grips with graphene-enhanced studs for great traction in a variety of terrain conditions. Unless you really want waterproofing, many hikers are now requesting non-waterproof shoes because they dry quicker. And if breathability compromises durability because light mesh uppers often tear early in their lifespan, then recent reduction in footwear prices may encourage you to try them anyway. No hiking boot or shoe lasts a lifetime. Find the best shoe for your feet, preferably a popular brand, and reorder when needed.

Because what we are really talking about here is which shoe or boot is the most comfortable? In my opinion, comfort trumps performance. If your chosen footwear performs adequately for an acceptable period and is comfortable, you have a winner.

Nowadays, most footwear can be worn straight out of the box. They are so cushioned and soft you feel you are walking on clouds. Still, there may be pressure points unique to you that will only appear after you have tested them out. If minor issues, try adjusting the laces for a roomier toe box or test again with preventative blister plasters to see if a little padding can ease any problem pressure points. If major, return them and continue the search.

Finally, if you are hiking over the summer in extreme heat, like on the Pacific Crest Trail, always order a full size or even 1 and ½ sizes larger than your normal shoe size. This is to allow sufficient room, primarily in the toe box, for expanding feet. If you can avoid your toes touching the toe box extremities, you may avoid rub points where blisters will form.

A new lacing method to widen toe box on Merrell MOAB Ventilator Shoes with waterproof socks

Use Customised or off-the-shelf Orthotics

A larger shoe is also recommended if you need to wear orthotics. It gives you more space to work with to insert socked feet and orthotics without comprising fit and creating cramped conditions.

As we age foot ailments become more common. Osteoarthritis, corns and calluses, nail disorders and toe deformities are just a few of the problems that can arise. As for diabetics, numbness in the toes, lack of feeling in the feet and burning or tingling sensations can all add up to a litany of woes. It may be easier to stop walking, but I pity the person telling a determined walker to give up what makes their life worth living.

Enter the Orthotic or custom orthoses made by podiatrists. They are indispensable to an older, long-distance walker. They attempt to correct problem areas, align the feet better and prolong walking activities.

Orthotics are even of benefit for younger hikers suffering from high arches, flat feet, plantar fasciitis or over/under pronation. You can purchase good quality orthotics from reputable hiking stores or your local chemists or drug store. There are plenty of recommendations on the web or ask a podiatrist.

If you intend to use them, remove the standard innersole from your hiking boot/shoe and replace with the orthotic innersole. Make sure they fit well in the shoe cavity and do not elevate the heel out of the shoe. If they do elevate the heel be on the lookout for heel blisters. Treat the blister appropriately or get the orthotic trimmed.  

Wear quality socks

This is not a gear area to skimp on. Cheap socks are not durable. They pill, form holes, and either shrink or stretch. They won’t last the distance.  Choose material with good temperature regulation like merino wool that is also good at wicking moisture away. Or seek Coolmax® socks, a polyester fabric developed by American company Invista, engineered to move moisture from your skin, dry fast in warm conditions and ultimately reduce blisters.

Other features you might wish to consider are:

  • cushioning

If you find that your feet are always sore or are full of blisters, it might be time to consider wearing cushioned socks. Thorlos, Darn Tough, Smartwool, Bridgedale and the Wigwam brands produce a wide range of socks with strategically cushioned zones in places where your feet receive the most impact during strenuous physical activity, such as the pads and heels of your feet. Socks are the only barrier between your foot and shoe, so why not consider a cushioned sock to combat the constant friction and motion during long-distance hiking? Cushioned socks will reduce the wear and tear on your feet, and prevent blisters and calluses.

Remember cushioned socks will be thicker so make sure your shoe choice takes this into consideration. A thinner, good quality sock may be the better choice for avoiding blisters if the toe box is narrower, but I prefer cushioned socks.

  • waterproofness

The Pacific Crest Trail has frequent bridgeless river crossings. While non-waterproof shoes dry quickly often the socks stay wet. Wet socks are a breeding ground for blisters. To avoid this, I purchased DexShell’s Waterproof Longlite Bamboo Socks in black and hot pink stripes.

A lightweight, knee-length socks made with bamboo rayon inners the in-cuff seal construction makes these socks excellent for river crossings where there was a need to keep me completely waterproof, but not too hot, from my feet to my knees. I loved these socks so much I ended up wearing them every day, receiving many compliments along the way.

Kit Kat doing her Pippy Longstocking impersonation with candy-striped waterproof socks
  • compression

While I didn’t use compression socks on the trail, they have their uses. Cushioned varieties can provide some blister relief as well as shin splint support and calf muscle pain relief.

  • layers

That is if you can remember to put both of them on. I forgot on one occasion and slipped all over the place. What I have on here is a thin pair of Injinji toe liner socks and a single Darn Tough Black Bear design Micro Light Merino Wool Cushion Crew Sock. That’s one way to reduce potential black bear encounters.

Injinji sock liners are worn as the first line of defense against excess moisture and blisters, keeping your feet dry, comfortable, and cool. They are true toe socks in every way, snuggly covering each toe. Injinji liners are light and breathable for excellent versatility. They come in two weights. The darker grey colour shown above is made of Australian merino wool and the lighterweight soft grey colour is made from a new fibre – Coolmax XtraLife, a blend of CoolmaxCordura, and Lycra. Wear a good quality hiking sock over the top of the liner for enhanced cushioning and protection. The hiking sock, such as the Darn Tough Crew sock shown above, mirrors the shape of your toes, providing anatomical fit for more room and reduced bunching. This approach worked well for me when I remembered to wear both types of socks.

  • height

The traditional micro crew height, like the bear sock above, peeks just above a hiking boot. It rests a little higher if you are wearing a shoe and I feel is the perfect choice for shoes. You need to allow for sock retraction, more so after several washes when shrinkage may occur. For this reason, I recommend no smaller than a crew for hiking boots and knee length only if you want to protect your legs and do not mind getting warm legs in hot weather. If the ankle is not protected by a sock blisters may form where the ankle meets the shoe’s back heel support area.

Foot cleanliness

I should emphasise that no quality socks or hiking footwear will prevent blisters if you get debris in them. It is hard to avoid tiny pebbles and grass seeds entering your shoes when you are walking on dusty, rock-strewn trails. Short gaiters from Gaiter Girls, Salomon or even tradespeople’s varieties can help reduce their buildup, but it is important to empty your shoes each night. A small pebble squished into the toe box is guaranteed to cause a blister.

After cleaning your shoes, the feet need a thorough inspection. Clean the dirt from between the toes, check bandaging and reapply if necessary.

Keep nails trimmed

This is an activity we know we must do, but who does it correctly? Don’t cut your toe nails right before your hike starts in case they are too short and sharp. Cut bluntly across the nail, not rounding too much to prevent ingrown toenails and wait a few days. Sharp toenails can cut the adjoining toe when squashed into the shoe cavity. An infection or blister may form.

Apply blister plasters

Well, after we have dealt with shoe and sock choice and cleaned our feet, the last task remaining is the preventative or treatment phase. If you have toes or parts of your feet susceptible to blisters I recommend using preventative blister plasters or Band-aids at once to prevent blisters forming. Compeed, spongy waterproof tape, Fixomull tape, and fabric Band-aids are my go-to remedies. They adhere securely and often stay on for days. Wet feet may loosen them, but these products generally perform well.

Fixomull and Bandaids

Many Americans use Leuko tape or even duct tape for quick fixes, but they can cause allergy and irritation at the point of contact. Fixomull® Stretch is a wide area adhesive tape, especially suitable for use on mobile and highly contoured parts of the body like feet. It is made from a white, stretchable, non-woven polyester dressing sheet coated with skin-friendly polyacrylate adhesive on quick-release backing paper. If you want to use Leuko Tape apply Fixomull first.

Consider aids

Finally, if you have corns and bunions, flat feet or collapsed toes consider the use of corn pads, metatarsal lifts or toe splints to protect these areas from potential blisters and further discomfort.

Suffice it to say, I have tried all these methods with varying degrees of success. I continue to search for the perfect hiking shoe as my feet continue to change with age. I have odd feet. Blisters love me, so I have learnt to live with them. If you can avoid them in the first place hiking will become one of your most enjoyable activities. Happy hiking!

Meticulous foot preparation keeping me on the Pacific Crest Trail 2019
The Flip – Heading Southbound (SoBo) from Hart’s Pass Washington PCT 2019

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