How to prevent blisters while hiking?
Blisters are among the most common problems experienced by hikers. This is one of the key factors for ruining a hike. Are you one of those people who think it’s normal to have blisters on your feet when hiking? Not me, because it’s not a matter of luck.
To prevent blisters when hiking, you first need to know why and how they appear. The three main factors are the heat that comes from repeated rubbing between the skin and the sock, moisture that relaxes the skin and promotes blisters, and dirt such as sand, gravel, twigs, and other things that amplify rubbing.
Don’t think you can just ignore the pain. This may be possible in the short term, but very unpleasant and painful in the long term. It is absolutely essential to prevent blisters if you want to enjoy your hikes. They can be treated but it is better to avoid them.
And it’s easy if you will follow these few techniques and tips that many people neglect.
Correctly choose and use your gear
As is often the case, well-prepared trekking can avoid most problems. And yes, even to prevent blisters.
- Choose the right hiking shoes. This is the most important thing. You need to have shoes that fit your feet, without pressure points and friction – which cause blisters. They also need to be adapted to your use so that your feet always stay dry – thus wicking away your perspiration and limiting the amount of water coming in from the outside. If you aren’t sure how to make the right choice, have a look at this article “How to choose the right hiking boots“.
- Lace your shoes properly – neither too much nor not enough. If they are too loose, your foot moves in the shoe and heats up. Conversely, if they are too tight, it can encourage the appearance of blisters by concentrating friction at certain points. Also, your feet will tend to swell more easily in tight shoes. Don’t hesitate to readjust the lacing during the hike to find what’s best for your feet.
- Break in your shoes before going on a long hike if they are new. Even when choosing your shoes carefully, it is best to wear them for short distances first to reduce their stiffness and help them conform to the shape of your foot and your walking style.
You are more likely to get blisters with new shoes than with shoes already worn (by you, not by someone else). This is all the more important for hiking boots as they are more rigid. For example, trail shoes are easier to break in than leather trekking shoes. You can take advantage of this “breaking in” period to test the pairs of socks that fit best with these shoes and to find the right lacing for them to be comfortable.
- Choose your socks correctly. Yes, you have to wear them – some people have tried without socks and it was a total failure. Socks will protect your feet from rubbing and sweat. Do not use cotton socks, as they absorb moisture and do not remove moisture. With cotton socks, your feet are always wet. In addition, cotton dries slowly. Use specialized, reinforced hiking socks with flat seams. Also, choose socks that are suitable for the outside temperature. All this will be the subject of a future article.
Do not wear socks that have holes or are too damaged. In these cases, the sock won’t protect well, and it is your foot that will suffer.
Some people combine two pairs of socks. A pair of under socks or sock liners (e. g. polypropylene or silk) in contact with the skin to remove perspiration and transfer it to the outer pair of socks. These must be specialized for hiking. This way, your feet are dry, the friction is confined to the outer sock and the inner sock stays in contact with the foot.
- Choose your insoles carefully. They should allow your foot to breathe, should dry quickly, and be well adapted to the shape of your foot to limit the risk of blisters.
Take care of your feet while hiking
How many of us have waited until lunchtime to take off our shoes while it’s been some time that our feet have been hurting – only to realize it is too late? That’s why, once you’re walking, you have to be attentive and take care of your feet.
- Take advantage of breaks to take off your shoes and socks to ventilate, cool, and dry your feet. By doing this your feet will not swell, and your skin will tighten. Even if your teammates try to dissuade you from doing this during the lunch break because of odor, do it anyway to minimize the risk of blisters.
Inspect your feet for areas of overheating, irritation, or redness that are the first signs of blister appearance. You can also immerse them in cold water – as long as you can dry them properly before you put your shoes back on. The cold hardens the skin, relieves overheating, and reduces swelling of the feet.
- Act as soon as you sense the beginning of a blister. Blisters develop because of repeated rubbing. Stop if you feel friction or irritation on your feet. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Sometimes the problem is very easy to solve, such as loosening the laces slightly or switching socks from left to right foot.
Always try to determine the cause of these sensations. Check that you have no debris in your shoes or socks (sand, gravel, twigs, etc.). If your socks are wet, change them. Also, make sure your socks don’t wrinkle. If you notice any redness, irritation, or heating, you can use a plaster bandage, blister bandage, or something similar to protect the area. Don’t forget to remove it as soon as you stop walking, so the skin can heal.
- Keep your feet dry. This is sometimes difficult, as in the case of bad weather or river crossings. But, for example, it is better to take off your shoes to cross a river than to walk for several hours with wet feet. Don’t say to yourself: “It’s just water.” Yes, it may not be uncomfortable at first to walk in wet shoes, but the feet always end up wrinkling and forming blisters.
If your socks are wet, change them to a dry pair. Always take one or more extra pairs of socks. You can dry the wet pair on your backpack if weather permits or slip it under your jacket on your shoulders if it rains. For multi-day hikes, dry your shoes and socks as well as possible during the night – even if you must put them in your sleeping bag.
- Keep your feet, socks, and shoes clean. All dirt increases friction and therefore the risk of blisters. Moreover, the socks in which you sweat are rough once dry. Rinse them if you are sure you can dry them completely. Dry and dirty socks are better than wet and clean.
Try some of these preventive tips to help you avoid blisters
Here are some prevention methods, some of which work well and others less so, depending on the person. It’s up to you to test if you need them and what works for you:
- Use talcum powder or other lubricants in powder on your feet before you leave. These dry out the feet and reduce friction.
- Apply an anti-chafing cream (like NOK by Sports Akileïne) on your feet. Some people even apply it for a few days before a long hike. Vaseline type lubricants can also be used. These creams and lubricants protect the skin from rubbing.
- Use adhesive plaster for prevention. If you know that you regularly have blisters in some areas, you may want to cover them with tape, adhesive plaster, or blister bandages, or “second skin” (like Compeed) before you leave. Blister bandages, on the other hand, do not always hold as well as adhesive plaster and will rather be used if a blister appears. On the other hand, by using adhesive tape as a preventive measure, the skin remains fragile in these areas and does not harden.
- Strengthen the skin of your feet. This delays the appearance of blisters. The easiest way to do this is to walk. The more you walk, the thicker and harder your feet become. If you don’t walk often, walk with your hiking boots from time to time in everyday life or walk barefoot. Some even use lemon juice, or alum stone to harden the skin of the feet.
In short, to prevent blisters when hiking, keep your feet dry, cool, and clean. For that, it’s simple: follow the advice I just gave you.
Keep in mind that the longer the hike, the more difficult the terrain, the higher the elevation, and the heavier your backpack, the more stress and friction your feet will experience. You are therefore more likely to have blisters under these conditions.
Remember also that all feet are different and have their own requirements. It’s up to you to test and find out what’s best for them.
If you ever have one or more blisters, it is essential to take good care of them to avoid suffering too much and keeping the situation from getting worse. To learn how to care for a foot blister while hiking, read below.
How do I treat a blister on my foot?
Foot blisters are an inevitable topic of discussion at bivouacs and shelters. There are always people who take care of their blisters and each one of them makes a commitment to the best way to achieve that.
As we discussed all the ways to prevent blisters when hiking, sometimes, even with a lot of caution, blisters can appear.
We will therefore look at some practical tips for treating a blister. I want to make it clear that I am not a doctor and that the techniques presented here are the subject of considerable discussion because some of them are contradictory.
There is no single solution, it depends on each individual, the type of blister, and its condition. This chapter is divided into two main parts depending on whether or not your blister has already burst when you start the treatment.
If the blister has not burst
In this case, there are two opposing solutions:
- Burst the blister: this is the preferred method of people who think that the liquid contained in the blisters (lymph) is filled with dirt (toxins) and that it must be eliminated as soon as possible.
- Do not puncture the blister: this is the preferred method for people who think that the liquid contained in the blisters is produced by the body as protection. Moreover, by not piercing a blister it is less likely for it to become infected.
As far as I’m concerned, I do one or the other depending on the type of blister – surface or deep.
If the blister is on the surface of the skin and full of liquid
These blisters, if not treated quickly, have a chance of popping or tearing themselves while you continue to walk.
I prefer to burst these types of blisters because they are very annoying and cause friction because of their volume. Sometimes they even force you to walk in an unnatural way which can lead to further injuries.
For example, it is not uncommon for a person to develop tendinitis in the knee because they have a blister on their foot. Because the blister is bothersome and painful, the person walks with the foot across the knee and damages the tendons in his or her knees.
Use a sterilized needle to puncture it. The easiest way to sterilize a needle when hiking is to make it turn red with a flame (wait until it cools down first). Then let the liquid flow out of the blister and squeeze it, without damaging it, to try to remove all the liquid. Further care depends on the condition of the skin of the blister:
- If the skin is intact, or almost, leave it alone.
- If you must continue to walk, cover it with a bandage, adhesive plaster, or blister bandage (second skin) Compeed type. Do not forget to remove the bandage or tape at night to dry and harden the blister. If you have opted for a blister bandage, leave it on.
- If you are done with your hiking for the day, ventilate your foot. This way, the blister will dry, and the skin will harden. Check that the blister does not fill up again and drill a second time if it does.
- If the skin is damaged, treat the blister in the same way as for an unintentionally burst blister (see below).
Some tips for this type of blisters:
- My favorite technique if I have this type of blister and my hiking day is over, is to puncture the blister on both sides with a sterilized needle and leave a sterilized thread (dipped in alcohol) inside the blister during the night. Simply remove the string gently when the blister is dry the next morning. In this way, it will empty completely and will not fill up again.
- Another common technique is to inject modified alcohol or aqueous eosin into the blister to dry out and harden the skin.
If the blister is deep and contains little liquid
- If you need to keep walking, simply apply a bandage, adhesive plaster, or blister bandage on it to limit friction. You can also apply Sports Akileïne NOK anti-friction cream. As soon as possible, air out your feet and remove the bandage or tape (except for Compeed-type blister bandages).
- If you are done with your hiking day, leave your foot in the open air and do not cover the blister. You may need to cover it as soon as you resume walking.
If the blister is unintentionally burst
At least, in this case, there is no need for a long debate on whether to pop it or not.
If the blister is burst, torn, or opened, cut off excess skin near the edges of the blister with sterilized scissors and disinfect the new skin with alcohol or antiseptic. You have to be careful that it doesn’t get infected. Then it all depends on if you have to keep walking:
- If you can air out your foot without getting the wound dirty, do it. This can be the case if you take a lunch break, for example, or if you have arrived at the refuge or bivouac.
- If you have to leave, keep your shoes and socks on, cover the blister with a blister bandage (second skin).
I have presented here different techniques for treating a foot blister while hiking by also adding my point of view. I know that many people have a different approach. Some people puncture all the blisters and others don’t. I, therefore, advise you to experiment and see what suits you best.
Always keep in mind that prevention is better than cure and that it is better to treat a blister as quickly as possible. Second, it is absolutely necessary to take care of it regularly to prevent it from getting worse. Don’t wait for the pain to make you act – it’s often too late and is a very good way to spoil a hike.
Good comprehensive article! Although fluid dynamics engineers might dispute the use of this technical term, another view on wet socks is that wet material has a higher drag coefficient, Dragging on the skin repetitively is what ultimately causes shearing between the two skin layers (epidermis and dermis) and the repair response of fluid being poured into that zone ie the blister is formed.
Also, so pleased that you included mention of two pairs of socks for blister prevention. Liner socks continuously come up as a key part of the blister prevention solution for hikers. ArmaSkin are the most effective liner socks on the market. Please let us know if you’d like to try them. : )
Lara Sein says
Thanks Ian for your input.
Your liner socks look very effective based on all the testimonials I’ve read on your site.
Even though I never had any serious problem with blisters, I’ll be willing to try them sometimes in some long and hot trails.