Blisters are the Achilles’ heel of backcountry hikers, sometimes literally depending on where they form. The best hiking is done on winding, changing trails and that kind of trek causes blisters even on shorter day hikes. May hikers know how painful and inconvenient blisters are but aren’t fully aware of methods for preventing blisters. Like most other know-how in hiking, blister prevention can be accomplished with the proper gear, but there is also several behavioral fixes for blister prevention while you’re out on the trail.
Hiking socks that keep your feet dry and hiking boots that are broken in properly, not ill-fitting boots and don’t cause any hot spots, or pressure points, on your feet will help prevent blisters from forming in the first place. Additional gear like a blister kit, foot powder, or insoles will also help toward that aim. But hikers should also know how to treat blisters and how rest stops and foot care are often the easiest forms of blister prevention possible.
The best time to treat blisters is before they form. There are many blister prevention tips and tricks in addition to well-fitting boots and a pair of socks that will keep your feet dry. Some additional gear for blister care can be found in a blister kit or first aid kit, such as a band-aid, a piece of moleskin, vaseline, and antibiotic ointment. If prevention doesn’t work, and there will be times when conditions make blister prevention impossible, then hikers should know how to treat a blister to make sure it goes away and doesn’t get worse. An infected blister is obviously not good for hikers’ health, but it can also prevent a hiker from continuing on their journey or disable the sufficiently enough to trap them somewhere deep in the backcountry waiting for a blister to heal.
We’ve written out this guide on preventing blisters while hiking because blisters are generally super easy to avoid with a small amount of effort and can save hikers much vexation on treks in the backcountry. Read on to discover everything you need to know about blister prevention and, in the worst-case scenario where a blister has already formed, blister care.
What causes blisters while hiking?
Blisters can be caused by insect bites, allergic reactions, temperature, or chemical agents. The most common cause of blisters for hikers in the backcountry is friction caused by an ill-fitting boot or wet feet. The number one rule for blister prevention while hiking is to keep your feet dry at all times. Hikers facing likely river crossings or inclement weather will want to be especially careful to take regular breaks and keep at least one extra pair of hiking socks on hand. While skin moisture is key to avoiding cracking and breaking, especially on sensitive areas like the lips, the skin on wet feet is actually softened by external liquid from rain, snow, or sweat. Since wet feet are softer, they are much more susceptible to blisters.
Of course, the most significant factor is not simply the wetness but rather the friction between hikers’ feet and their hiking boots or hiking shoes. Wet feet and sweaty feet are weakened and thus more vulnerable to blisters that form from chafing and friction. Temperature can also be a factor, as both hot and cold conditions weaken the skin or cause tears and breaks. Extreme heat that burns the skin will cause the immediate formation of blisters and extreme cold will cause frostbite blisters, although those two conditions are things to avoid in their own right. Knowing how to treat a blister in the unfortunate event that either freezing or burning occurs is still wise, but in terms of blister prevention not burning oneself or exposing oneself to frostbite probably go without saying.
Before a blister forms, something called “shearing” happens. Shearing is the medical name for small tears in the skin that are caused by inflammation from friction. The body sends fluid to protect the inflammation and this is what causes blisters to form. Hikers should always be aware of the condition of their feet. If you feel a hot spot forming where hiking boots or hiking shoes are rubbing uncomfortably against your foot, make sure to take a rest and let your feet breathe. Similarly, if you have sweaty feet or otherwise wet feet and water in your hiking socks, it is essential to stop, remove your hiking boots, and let your hiking socks dry out. That’s why it’s always advisable to carry a few extra pairs of socks with you out on the trail. That’s just one of a few smart gear tips you should follow to make sure you’re preventing blisters as much as possible.
Hiking boots and hiking socks for blister prevention
Hiking boots are the most obvious gear required for backcountry hiking. Trail runners might prefer to use running shoes, while fashionable backpackers might want some leather boots. Whatever the chosen style, properly-fitting boots are perhaps the single most important step in blister prevention. The hiking boot or running shoe should be snug around the foot and toe box but not so tight that they cause friction against the foot. Lacing is a key element in hiking boots. Lacing is typically the surest method of making sure the hiking boot is not loose enough to let water in a cause wet feet. The hiking boot should also be as watertight as possible around the tongue and toe box but still be breathable so you don’t get sweaty feet, which are equally as dangerous as wet feet from precipitation.
An otherwise solid pair of hiking boots with everything you need for blister prevention can be ruined by the wrong pair of hiking socks. There are many types of hiking socks built of different materials on the market for hikers. The right pair of socks might be cotton socks or they could be wool socks constructed of darn tough merino wool. Synthetic socks may dry faster than either cotton socks or wool socks, but synthetic sock manufacturers are always trying to mimic the comfort and warmth of cotton socks and wool socks. Good socks for preventing blisters will dry fast and keep moisture away from your feet. Brands like Smartwool, REI, and Injinji all have good liner socks available for hikers who are interested in preventing blisters before they form.
Footcare and blister prevention
Whenever you start to feel a hot spot or pressure point causing discomfort in your hiking boot or running shoe, stopping for a rest is really important. There are some handy care tools that you’ll want to have in case you find some inflammation starting during one of these rest stops. Commonly available first aid kits and blister kits will have vaseline, Leuko tape, antibiotic ointments, band-aids, and moleskins inside for preventing blisters when you notice redness at hot spots or pressure points. While you’re relaxing and washing your sweaty feet off in a river or stream if there’s one nearby, you can apply moleskin or a band-aid over the inflamed area where you think a blister may be forming. To apply moleskin, follow these simple steps:
1. Clean the surface of your skin with an alcohol wipe if you have one. If not, just make sure it’s clear of debris and dirt. Dry them off or let them dry very thoroughly.
2. Cut out a piece of moleskin that’s slightly larger than the inflamed area.
3. Remove the backing from the adhesive and cover the inflamed area. There shouldn’t be any redness visible. Make sure when you put your hiking boot back on that the moleskin isn’t getting wet and correct any friction-causing contact between your feet and your hiking boots.
If you have a band-aid or Leuko tape, then the process is even easier because you won’t have to worry about cutting moleskin to size. But you will still want to have moleskin along with you in your first aid kit or blister kit because it’s arguably the best way to treat blisters that have already formed, which we’ll talk more about a little bit further on in the guide.
It’s also a wise idea to make sure your feet are healthy before and after a day hike. Keep your toenails well-trimmed and clean and don’t shy away from using insoles in your hiking boot if it gives you additional comfort. Always make sure your feet are completely dry before putting on a pair of sock to make sure blisters don’t form. Liner socks are an easy way to keep your feet dry on a day hike, but even off the trail you should be selective about the pairs of socks you wear. Merino wool is always one of the most comfortable options. If you’re a regular hiker, then preventing blisters before they form can help your feet develop calluses, which will help keep blisters from forming out on the trail.
How to treat blisters once they’ve formed
Sometimes preventing blisters isn’t possible or the hot spots and pressure points that cause discomfort and give hikers an indication that a blister is forming don’t appear in time for the hiker to notice inflammation. In that case, knowing how to treat a blister is important because a blister that has formed needs to be properly treated to avoid infection or the development of more blisters.
Applying a piece of moleskin is almost the same to treat blisters as it is for blister prevention before the fact. All you need to do is fold the piece of moleskin in half and cut a semi-circle out of it. When you apply it, the blister should be in the center of the piece of moleskin in the circle you’ve cut out. Additional moleskin or taping such as Leuko tape or a band-aid can then be applied over the blister to provide additional cushioning between the blister and hiking socks and the side or toe box of the hiking boot.
If you do see that a blister has formed and there is pus or fluid inside of it, it’s always best to leave the fluid inside and not pop the blister. The body sends fluid to a formed blister to protect the skin underneath that has become sensitive from the friction. Sometimes the blister is so large that you’ll need to pop it to treat it and other times it pops of its own accord while you’re out on a day hike. If you really cannot avoid popping the blister, make sure not to remove the skin because your body will need it there to heal the wound made by the blister.
To pop a blister yourself, you’ll need a safety pin and some kind of sterilizer. A first aid kit or a blister kit will almost always have a safety pin and some kind of alcohol wipe you can use to sterilize it. This process is not for the squeamish, so make sure you have a fellow-hiker along on the day hike with you if you’re not able to perform it on yourself and a blister forms.
Insert the sterilized safety pin in the bottom of the blister until you’ve punctured the skin. Drain the blister with a paper towel or some other fabric. When it’s fairly flat, you can dry it completely and apply antibiotic ointment and cover it with a piece of moleskin. The antibiotic ointment is really important because the fluid inside the unpopped, undrained blister would normally prevent the blister from becoming infected.
Drying out hiking boots to prevent blisters
Your hiking boots and hiking socks are probably going to get wet from either precipitation or soaking in moisture from sweaty feet. In addition to rinsing and thoroughly drying your feet, you should also make sure to completely dry your hiking boots and hiking socks whenever possible. It’s advisable to carry more than one pair of socks with you so that you can swap a pair.
Leave the wet pair in an external pocket or hanging off your rucksack to let it dry so you always have a pair of fresh, dry hiking socks available to change into. If you have a hiking towel or paper towels along and you plan to camp on a longer backpacking trip, you can put the towel(s) inside your hiking boots to help them dry overnight. The drier your hiking socks and hiking boots are when you start your day hike, the better the blister prevention will be.
Hikers who find that they are regularly having to treat blisters might consider using foot powder in their hiking boots. Foot powder will help your feet stay dry during a day hike and its application is fairly simple. All you need to do it spread the foot powder over your feet, which should have been thoroughly cleaned and dried before applying the foot powder. Then you can put on your hiking boots and hiking socks on as you normally would, with the newly added moisture resistance afforded by foot powder.
Leuko tape can also be used pre-emptively as a cushioning barrier on and around your ankle to prevent chafing and irritation on your foot from rubbing against your hiking boot or hiking socks. Normal hot spots where a Leuko tape will work most effectively at preventing blisters are on the back of the ankle and on the inner side.
Blister prevention is fairly easy but unfortunately not a universally considered aspect for backcountry hikers. Choosing well-fitting boots and hiking socks that will draw moisture away from wet feet are both important things to do, but there are also some pieces of blister prevention gear and personal behavioral changes that will go further at preventing blisters than just finding the right hiking boots and good socks.
Applying a piece of moleskin or Leuko tape as a precaution before a day hike can save time and frustration once you’re out in the backcountry. A first aid kit and a blister kit are essential to treat blisters that have already formed.
The chafing that causes blisters usually registers some discomfort before a blister has formed, so hikers will want to pay attention to the condition of their feet all along the hiking trail. Regular pit stops to rinse your feet and let them breathe is a nice and relaxing method of blister prevention.
Blister treatment is always much easier when the blister is small than when it is bloated, inflamed, and possibly infected. All in all, a blister can certainly put a damper on a hiking trip or long backpacking trip and potentially even lead to a serious medical condition. But now that you know how to prevent blisters when hiking, you can head out into the backcountry with that particular Achilles’ heel well protected.
Bonus tip: Check out this instructional video for a complete rundown on how to treat blisters!