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.
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.
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.