I love going backpacking, especially long backpacking trips that last a week or so. Even before the actual adventure begins, there’s a lot of challenging aspects of trip prep that can at times be frustrating as well as rewarding when solutions are worked out. Making sure essentials are packed without taking any more than is necessary can be a real challenge.
There have been times when I though I only packed the essentials and ended up with a backpack that weighed 70 lbs. Hiking up to 20 miles a day with a backpack that heavy truly takes the fun out of the adventure and one learns very quickly that there are certain items that were once thought of as essential that indeed can be left behind.
I’ve learned by sad experience that there’s one specific category that one cannot afford to skimp on, ever! That’s the topic of foot gear and proper attention paid to avoiding blisters. There is not a “one size fits all” approach to this critical aspect of proper foot care – there are many conditions and factors to consider based on the type of terrain one is covering.
There have been several trips I’ve been on where my feet were constantly wet. Crossing river after river often times up to my waist, made it virtually impossible to keep my feet dry. There are other times when I’ve hiked through narrow canyons for many miles where the only route is hiking in the water running down the canyon. One such trip was hiking 16 miles down Zion’s Narrows where the entire stretch was like walking on greased bowling balls.
So based on the specific conditions of your planned hike, having proper foot wear is absolutely essential unless you want to be held up with major blisters and open sores that are so painful you may not be able to walk for a period of time. If one ever needs to bug out on foot, the last thing one would wants to deal with during such a difficult time is painful, blistering and possibly infected feet.
Here are a few tips that should help you properly prepare and avoid the debilitating pain of blistered, infected feet.
Tip 1. Find the Right Shoes to Prevent Blisters
Your shoes are often the source of your blisters. You get a blister due to friction where your toes, heels, and the sole of your foot rub against the shoe. Everybody has feet of different shapes and sizes, and there is no single shoe will be right for everyone. Getting the right size and shape of shoe can help prevent blisters.
New Shoes: If you take new shoes out for a long walk, you may get a blister as it rubs different areas than the last pair of shoes. Any shoes can give you a blister in its first few wearings before your feet have grown accustomed to them. So take it slow and only go on short walks with new pairs of shoes, even if they are same brand and model you have been wearing. Build up your mileage and speed in each pair of shoes.
Cramped Shoes: With a cramped toe box, your toes rub against sides or end of shoes. This can even lead to blackened toenails or losing the toenails after a long walk. Your walking shoes should have a finger’s width of length between the end of your toe and the end of your shoes to allow your feet to expand while walking. Select shoes of the proper width for your foot so that toes have enough room. Do you need bigger shoes?
Feet Sliding Around in Shoes: If your shoes have a sloppy fit and your feet slide forward and back within the shoe with each step, you are adding extra blister-causing friction. You may also get a black toenail. You want your feet to have enough room to expand when you walk, but not enough to slide around. Wear a thicker sock to take up some of the extra space. Learn how to lace your shoes to keep your heel in the heel cup with each step rather than sliding forward. If you still seem to have too much space, buy shoes that fit better.
Rough Edges in Your Shoes: The seams and the edge of the insole can rub against your foot or toes. You can change styles of shoes or insoles. Some shoes are designed to be seamless inside. But, generally, the solution will be to lubricate or cover the area that is getting rubbed.
Tip 2. Prevent Blisters by Toughening Your Feet
They don’t call a newbie a tenderfoot for nothing! Your soft, pink feet will have fewer problems with blisters if your skin gets a little tougher.
Calluses are your friends: As your feet get more of a workout, they build up calluses. These are your friends. You want calluses, which act as a natural pad against the friction that forms blisters. Do not give in to beauty and shave off or pumice down the calluses—at least until after the long walk.
Tannic acid to toughen: Marathoners and long distance walkers may want to toughen the feet with 10 percent tannic acid or a tea soak (tea contains tannins). Apply the tannic acid to your feet, or soak in strong tea, twice daily for two to three weeks.
Moisturize Away Heel Cracks: To keep your calluses from drying out too much and developing painful cracks, moisturize your feet after each bath or shower with a good foot cream or hand cream.
Tip 3. Prevent Blisters by Wearing the Right Socks
Forget the cotton socks, stick with synthetics. That’s what the experts say when it comes to preventing blisters. Cotton retains your foot sweat, which then softens the skin and leaves it more prone to breaking with friction, and blisters form.
Wick it Away: Synthetic socks made of acrylic, polypropylene, or CoolMax fabric wick moisture away from the foot, keeping it dry. These are available at sports stores.
Double layers: Double-layer socks may be the answer to preventing blisters. The inner layer should be of a wicking fabric. The two layers work to prevent friction on the foot itself. Some double layer socks, such as WrightSocks, even come with a no-blister guarantee. You can also wear two pairs of socks.
Padded Socks vs. Thin Socks: From a blister standpoint, experiment with the thickness of your socks. If your socks are so thick that your toes have no room, you need bigger shoes or thinner socks. When having shoes fitted, bring along the thickness of sock you plan to wear to ensure a correct fit.
Change Your Socks En Route: Many marathoners recommend changing your socks whenever your feet get wet due to rain, or at the halfway point of a marathon.
There’s the Rub: Check where the sock seams are hitting your toes. Is that where you are getting blisters? Some running socks are specially designed to keep the seams away from the feet. Tube socks are not recommended as your feet are not tube shaped, and they simply won’t fit right.
Socks as an Investment: With some athletic socks running from $7 to $20 a pair, it can be painful to stock up. But good socks can last much longer than the cheap ones and save you money in the long run.
Tip 4. Prevent Blisters by Lubricating Your Feet
Friction—the rubbing motion between foot, sock, and shoe—creates heat and tearing forces, which make the skin prone to blisters. Reduce the friction, reduce the blisters. One way to reduce friction is by lubricating your feet so they slide rather than rub.
Petroleum Jelly: Vaseline or generic petroleum jelly is an inexpensive lubricant. It’s one that has been recommended for marathon runners and walkers and it is even offered on the course of some races. The cautions are that it won’t easily wash out of your socks, and it makes the dirt cling to your socks. That can mean there is more grit in your shoe to irritate your foot, which could, in turn, cause more blisters.
AD Ointment: This preparation is thicker than petroleum jelly, yet still available wherever baby diapers are sold. It’s another inexpensive way to lubricate your feet.
Body Glide, Run Goo, Sports Slick, Sport Shield: These products can be found at running stores and go on like a stick of deodorant, or come in a handy tube. They vary in their formulations, with some of them being petroleum-free. Most of them are less likely to gunk up your socks permanently compared with petroleum jelly. It would be a good idea to re-apply them during the walk. But keep these around to use to prevent chafing of other body parts.
Teflon: Some socks are incorporating Teflon to prevent friction.
Tip 5. Prevent Blisters by Keeping Your Feet Dry
Keeping your feet dry starts with wicking socks, but you can also use other strategies.
Corn Starch and Talcum Powder: First, plain old corn starch (yep, just like you use in cooking) in your socks and shoes can keep your feet dry. Reapply it at least once in a long distance event. Baby powder or talcum powder both smells nice and also acts to keep the feet dry.
Antiperspirant: A military study showed that using a special heavy-duty antiperspirant on the feet reduced the incidence of blisters. While regular antiperspirant is less concentrated, it might be worth trying.
But Drink Up: Keep your feet dry, but don’t let the rest of you get dehydrated. Keep drinking water for the first hour, then a sports drink with electrolytes (salts) to keep your body fluids in balance. Getting dehydrated can contribute to blisters.
Tip 6. Cover the Problem Spots on Your Feet
If you have a spot that is prone to blistering, or have developed a hot spot while you are out walking and running, covering it can help protect it. There are several options, including sports tape, moleskin, gel bandages, and special patches. In a pinch, you might even put duct tape to work. See a variety of solutions for blister bandages and cover-ups.
The drawbacks of covering the area is that often these bandages and pads don’t stay where you’ve put them, especially as you continue walking or running. You may have to try various kinds to find the one that sticks best for you. As always, prevention is the best solution for a blister.
Tip 7. Stop and Readjust When You Feel a Hot Spot
You will often feel a hot spot developing that can turn into a blister. While you may want to keep going, the best thing to do is stop immediately.
If you are carrying a blister kit, place a blister bandage or other cover over the spot. Readjust your socks and shoes to try to eliminate places where your socks may have become bunched up. If your socks are damp, change to a dry pair if you can.
While it’s best to just end your walk or run when you get a hot spot, these tactics might keep a blister from developing if you have to keep going.
American Academy of Dermatology. How to Prevent and Treat Blisters. https://www.aad.org/public/skin-hair-nails/injured-skin/blisters
Hoffman MD. Etiological Foundation for Practical Strategies to Prevent Exercise-Related Foot Blisters.
Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2016;15(5):330-335. doi:10.1249/jsr.0000000000000297.
Knapik JJ. Prevention of Foot Blisters. J Spec Oper Med. 2014 Summer;14(2):95-7.