A fraction too much friction: How to prevent foot blisters on your next hike

hiking-blister-prevention-1

 


Rebecca Rushton

This post was contributed by Rebecca, a podiatrist from Esperance in Western Australia. She received her BSc (Pod) in 1993 and is a member of Sports Medicine Australia (SMA) and the Australian Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine (AAPSM). She blogs at her website, Blister Prevention. Rebecca is lucky enough to enjoy the wonderful coastal walking trails of the Esperance region.

 

Every hiker knows the perils of foot blisters. Something so seemingly insignificant can turn your trek into a very painful and difficult situation. Although hikers are some of the most organised people I know, I’ve seen quite a few who have neglected blister prevention and paid the price.

A blister kit is essential hiking gear; it’s on everyone’s pack list. But rather than focus on needles, dressings and blister treatments, let’s focus on blister prevention. It’s better to prevent blisters in the first place because once you’ve got them, it’s going to be painful and need ongoing attention and all-round slow you down.

So what causes blisters? The answer is shear. Shear is the excessive stretching and tearing under the surface of the skin that leads to blisters. It is influenced by 3 things: the nature of your skin; your foot function; and the level of friction.

Here’s a rundown of your blister prevention options:

Optimise Shoe Fit: It all starts here. If your shoes / boots don’t fit well to start with, you’re fighting an uphill blister prevention battle. Too loose is every bit as bad as too tight; both increase the likelihood of blisters just in different ways. When it comes to your shoes, laces are your friend. Slight inadequacies in fit, increases in swelling, temperature changes, different terrains, these can all be addressed by altering the lacing. So take the 30 seconds and adjust your laces so your shoes fit just right.

Condition Your Skin: Build up to it. Just like building up your fitness and strength, condition your feet to new shoes, to the rigours of new terrain or to the effects of an activity you’re unaccustomed to. I don’t mean build up calluses; they will only give you deeper blisters and possibly blood blisters. Conditioning helps your skin build up a slight resistance to the shear forces that cause blisters. This won’t guarantee you a blister-free experience but many hikers find it makes all the difference.

Biomechanics: The way your feet work can predispose you to blisters. Tight muscles, bony prominences and factors in your walking gait can increase shear forces. If you suspect there is something amiss about the way you walk, it’s a good idea to get your foot function analysed. You might need to do specific stretches or get insoles or orthotics. If you’re lucky, there might be something there that can be permanently fixed so you never have to worry about blisters again.

 
hiking-blister-prevention-2  

Cushioning: Pressure is a factor that makes it easier for shear to reach blister-causing levels. Therefore, cushioning in the form of thicker socks, cushioned insoles or gel toe covers might be all you need to keep your feet blister-free. Just be careful you don’t put so much in that you make your shoes too tight. If cushioning isn’t helping enough, try something else.

Managing Skin Moisture: You can prevent blisters if you keep your skin either very wet or very dry. That’s because friction is low in these conditions. But when moisture levels are anywhere in between, that is moist, friction rises and blisters are more likely.

The problem is, when you’re exercising in the great outdoors, it’s almost impossible to maintain very dry or very wet skin. The in-shoe environment is kept perpetually moist thanks to the result of perspiration (but also dew, rain, creek crossings etc).

Hikers use moisture-wicking socks, antiperspirants and powders to try to keep their skin dry; and BodyGlide or Vaseline for skin lubrication. But a word of warning, because these products absorb and disperse, you’ll need to regularly reapply as your hike progresses.

Taping: Some tapes and dressings reduce friction, some don’t. More than anything, they protect blisters from de-roofing (that’s when the top of the blister rubs off and you’re left with a red raw sore). But it can be a challenge keeping adhesive products stuck to the skin. As the skin sweats and we continue to walk, forces tend to loosen the product. And it’s not uncommon to get blisters in spite of taping. But for some people, tapes and dressings do just enough to keep them out of blister trouble.

ENGO Patches: Different to other methods of blister prevention, ENGO Patches are applied to the shoe/insole rather than the skin, so it takes sweaty skin out of the equation. They are basically self-adhesive high-tech stickers that have a very low-friction surface that is able to virtually eliminate blister-causing shear and therefore blisters. Rather than a single-use item, they last day after day; in fact they won’t wear out short of 500km. As a podiatrist, ENGO ticks a lot of boxes: it doesn’t change your shoe fit; it doesn’t make your foot slide around excessively in the shoe; and importantly, friction does not increase even in moist conditions.

Double Sock Systems: Literally wearing two pairs of socks can reduce friction levels. But not just any old socks. The combination that tends to work best is a thin synthetic inner sock and a thicker outer sock. Toesocks can be considered a double sock system for the area between your toes.

Conclusion

Wouldn’t you rather focus on the beauty of your environment than your stinging painful feet? All you need is a bit of proactivity and a good blister prevention strategy. Different things work for different people and you need something that is effective for you.

 

Have foot blisters ever brought you unstuck? What works for you? If you have anything to say, please let us know by commenting below.

Are you interested in more from Bushwalking Blog? You can either sign-up for the e-mail newsletter, or get updates via the RSS feed, Facebook or Twitter.

 

PLB Hire

AussieHikingTours.com: Find, compare and book hiking tours all over Australia

 

More from Bushwalking Blog

Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends










Submit

Tags: , , ,

16 Responses to “A fraction too much friction: How to prevent foot blisters on your next hike”

  1. Bill Tomalin
    July 14, 2016 at 6:08 pm #

    The pros are probably to do with personal taste…feels good etc. The cons are multiple…main one being that you only have two feet and any serious damage (commonly crossing a river without boots on) can mean trouble. How’s your hopping?

    • Neil Fahey
      July 14, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

      Cheers for the comment, Bill. I’m still hopping along haha 🙂 My knee is mostly better, if that’s what you mean. So thankful. I thought it might knock me out for good.

      Cheers
      Neil

      • Bill Tomalin
        July 14, 2016 at 11:14 pm #

        Hi Neil
        That response was meant for the “bare foot” walking brigade. No idea how it got into the blisters discussion. I had one foot out of action on a winter-snow trip to the Walls of Jerusalem one year (Stupid creek crossing).The next two days will not be forgotten. Cheers Bill

  2. Donald
    March 16, 2016 at 7:34 pm #

    Hey Neil came across your blog and it sure did provide me with a lot of insights! I am a basketball player so blisters happen often, and here are two things I really appreciate if you can shed some light on:
    1) Will TOO MUCH cushioning cause blisters even the shoe is half a size larger? My shoe already has superb cushioning (nike zoom in Lebron 12), how much more cushioning do I need for the insoles? Example would be, do I need a thick pair of insoles to make me feel like walking on padded mats, when I have the base of the zoom air + internal thick cushioning insoles?
    2) I am a diabetic and I purchased a pair of Vasyli Red and Blue, will they offer less cushioning (they seem very rock hard for arch support) compared to the default thick Nike ones if replaced in my basketball shoes?

    • Neil Fahey
      March 16, 2016 at 8:17 pm #

      Hi Donald,

      Thanks for the comment. Glad to hear you like Bushwalking Blog.

      I have to be completely honest and say I have absolutely no idea haha… This is why I chose Rebecca to write this post for me (since she’s a podiatrist).

      I will try and get in touch with her and maybe she’ll be able to come and answer your questions for you. Stay tuned.

      Cheers
      Neil

    • Rebecca Rushton
      March 16, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

      Hi Donald,

      Sometimes it’s not all about cushioning, even though intuitively, more cushioning makes sense. But I understand the Vasyli’s can feel a bit hard. Here’s some more information on how cushioning prevents blisters: http://www.blisterprevention.com.au/blister-blog/cushioning-your-bones-to-stop-blisters

      And it depends where your blisters are Donald (ball of the foot, your arch, big toe, little toe, between the toes??). See here for specific advice: http://www.blisterprevention.com.au/blister-blog?category=Blisters%20by%20location

      Best of luck,
      Rebecca

  3. Bill Tomalin
    December 15, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    Tasmania winter walking usually means wet feet unless you happen to like walking in waders. Wet feet commonly leads to blisters as skin softens. Thin sock + plastic bag + thick sock = warm dry’ish feet all day. Feels a bit weird for the first ten minutes’ walking but then sheer joy. Inner sock gets damp as you’d expect but two minutes over the Trangia after evening meal sorts that out.
    (PS Perfect for young children playing in snow in runners)

    • Neil Fahey
      December 15, 2015 at 11:51 am #

      Thanks for the tips, Bill. I’ve tried this before and can confirm it works very well indeed. I don’t do a lot of walking that requires it, though.

      Cheers for stopping by!

      Neil

  4. Bob Eisele
    March 12, 2015 at 1:51 am #

    I spend a week at a time backpacking the Sierra every hear.
    I used to get a blister on the bottom side of my forth toe next to my third toe. Nothing i read seemed to work, so I finally asked my Dr. He said the third toe was trying to go under the forth so pad the bottom of the toe. Never had a problem since.

    • Neil Fahey
      March 12, 2015 at 9:48 am #

      I used to get that with my old hiking shoes. Changing shoes fixed the issue for me. Thanks for your tip, Bob! Appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      Cheers
      Neil

  5. John
    February 13, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    Ok not the cheapest but found and use this Anti Blister socks. Not a single blister. At first appearance its like a silicon sock. some odd type of material. I stumbled across this as the Army and other military groups use them.

    Finally a product that lives up to its word. Mil -Spec grade socks.

    • Neil Fahey
      February 13, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

      Hi John,

      The Armaskins are pretty great, hey? I actually reviewed them a few months back. You can find it here – http://www.bushwalkingblog.com.au/anti-blister-sock-review/

      Cheers
      Neil

  6. Beth C.
    September 27, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    I used to get blisters between my big toes and the corresponding toe. So weird. I brought it up at my local outdoor store, and they suggested Iniji toe socks, where the toes are individually separated and socked. No more blisters! Love them. I still use bandages or Moleskin on back of ankles to prevent blisters from rubbing on back of hiking boots, and that works pretty well too.

    • Neil Fahey
      September 27, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

      Hi Beth,

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve heard of those toe socks and I can imagine they would solve a lot of the rubbing issues. Good tip!

      Cheers
      Neil

  7. Ozuim
    September 27, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    What are the pros/cons to hiking barefoot?

    • Neil Fahey
      September 27, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      Hi Ozuim,

      Thanks for commenting. While I can think of a few obvious pros and cons right now, I think that subject might be worthy of an article of its own. Let me see what I can do about that. Stay tuned (sign up for the e-mail newsletter or follow on Twitter/like on Facebook).

      Cheers
      Neil

Leave a Reply