A few nasty blisters can really ruin an adventure. But there’s plenty you can do to prevent blisters before you even hit the trail. Ruby’s speaking from experience here, and she’s adament that she’ll never feel the nasty burn of a blister while hiking ever again.
The other day, after accidentally leaving my hiking boots outside in a torrential downpour, I hiked 40km through Kosciuszko National Park. By the end, my blisters were the size of planets, and I couldn’t wear enclosed shoes for a week.
I’m a month away from hiking the Larapinta trail in the Northern Territory, a 14-day, 223km hike on rugged terrain and sandy plains. I know that if I get blisters as bad as I did the other day, I won’t make it beyond the first 50km. All the blogs are telling me I need new boots for the trail, so new boots I embarked on finding.
Not sure what to look for in new hiking boots? Read this.
I strolled into my local Paddy Pallin in Miranda, Sydney and had a chat with Paul from the Management team. Turns out, there’s a lot to know about hiking boots, and not a lot of digestible and accessible information out there for the average hiker.
So here are some of the learnings from my time chatting with the ever-knowledgeable Paul. I was primarily concerned about making sure blisters were not on the cards, and thankfully, he divulged his wisdom.
TLDR; the best prevention is to start with a correctly fitting hiking boot, everything else becomes a process of mitigation. If your boots are tight, tie your laces a different way, if they’re loose, and your skin is rubbing, get yourself a liner sock. Avoid cotton socks at all costs.
When you’re buying your hiking boots:
1. Don’t Buy Your Boots Online
Every single foot is different, and every hiking boot is made to a different last (which is like a model bust, but for your foot). This means the boot is made to a particular bridge or arch.
For those with bunions, flat feet, wide feet or skinny ankles, it can be difficult to find the perfect hiking boot. But you can get close. Don’t just pick a boot off the rack and be on your way. Definitely don’t pick a hiking boot off a computer screen either.
You have to forget aesthetics and talk to the salesperson about your activity and foot type. Paul took one look at my feet and knew exactly what boot to pull off the shelf, one I wouldn’t have taken a second look at if I’d seen it on a screen (or in the store on my own for that matter).
2. Consider What Terrain You’ll be Spending Most of Your Time On
The Larapinta trail is full of loose, hard, and very sharp rock. There’s not a lot of terrain on the coast that’s like this, so I needed to get an especially hard hiking boot.
You want the boot to be doing the work, rather than you. The harder the terrain and the softer the boot, the more you engage your leg muscles and the more prone to injury you become.
Buying hiking boots is like buying a car tire: you need the right one for the right activity, or you’ll get bogged and you won’t be able to move. When you speak to the person at the store, make sure you clarify what terrain you’ll be spending most of your time on.
3. Your Foot Size Influences What Socks You Should Wear
Paul told me about two different brands of socks: Smartwool and Icebreaker. Icebreaker is more voluminous in diameter and has a looser, more relaxed feel. Smartwool is tighter on your skin, and has a Phd range (Performance in the highest degree) perfect for those in need of arch support (look out for the socks with the criss-cross pattern over the bridge).
These design cues are subtle, but they make a big difference if you’re trekking a long way.
The added benefit of wool socks of any brand is their ability to still keep you warm, (and continue preventing blisters) even when they’re wet.
Avoid cotton socks at all costs, even if you want to bless them. You want to go merino or a high-end synthetic, which are the more breathable socks that won’t hold moisture. Cotton likes absorbing sweat, but doesn’t like getting rid of it. This is incredibly problematic when you’re hiking.
If you have a tendency to get blisters between your toes, get yourself a pair of Injinji liner socks as well. They’re a merino toe sock, so instead of toes rubbing against toes, it’s fabric on fabric. Don’t pull them on all the way, have them fairly loose. Then, when you wear them, there’s enough room for your toes to wiggle into them just the way they like it.
Not sure whether your toes get blisters? When you stand, are your toes sitting tightly next to each other, or is there a little bit of room? If they’re next to each other, you probably want to Injinji them up.
4. Test Your Boots at Home And Break Them In
Ever try something on in store, get home and have mad regrets? Wear your hiking boots around the house for a day to make sure they still feel comfortable. Your feet expand in the heat, and pending the time you went into the store, things could change.
Once you’ve decided they’re the hiking boots for you, wear them down the street, take a few laps of the backyard, and even lace them up for a few short and easy trails. You don’t want to be setting out on a three-day hike with a shiny new pair of boots that you only removed from the box that morning.
Break them in for a few days before hitting the trail and let your feet get used to the new feel of a perfect pair of boots.
On the hike:
5. If Blisters Are Forming, Tie Your Shoes Differently
While speaking to Paul, this was the biggest surprise for me. If you’ve got blisters forming, tie your shoes in a different way! If your feet are rubbing around the back, then wrap your laces around the back of your boot before you tie your knot to keep your ankle nice and secure.
Adjust the lace pressure to minimise pressure spots and burn spots, which lead to blisters. You can find three really great boot lacing patterns online. For those who had their converse shoes with fluro laces phase, you may be well acquainted already.
6. Avoid Moisture at all Costs!
Moisture makes your skin soft, and skin rubbing on boot for hours and hours, kilometres and kilometres is not a good time. If you know you’re going to be hiking through rivers, make sure you waterproof your boots (if they’re leather, give them a fresh coat of wax!). I find wearing the ever-fashionable gaiters help too. Your hiking boots may be able to keep out water, but sometimes it seeps in from the top.
And keep your boots on the inside of your fly. Nothing worse than waking up from a rainy night in your tent and finding you left your boots out by the fire, covered in morning dew.
7. Don’t Bandaid Before You Start
Bandaiding before you start may add more tension to an area that doesn’t need it. That tension is a breeding ground for blisters. Start your hike, and then once you discover your hot spots (you’ll feel the heat), then throw on your bandaids.
Paul recommends pulling on a liner sock first (like the Injinji). There’s no padding, but it does mean that your sock is rubbing against fabric, rather than your skin, which reduces temperature burn.
Bandaids aren’t the only solution, too. Blister Wool Prevention is lanolin-rich wool (lanolin is wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals, sorry vegans). It looks a little like cotton wool. The fibres blend into your sock and create a buffer between your skin and your shoe.
For those who get chaffing, you’ll find that Body Glide (which is kind of like a roll-on deodorant) is made up of lanolin too.
8. Don’t Pop Your Blisters!
All that liquid in there is nice healing juice. You’re far more prone to infection if you pop it. It’s there to keep that fresh, sensitive skin beneath it nice and clean. Blisters are evolution at work. I know it’s tempting, but for your own sake, don’t pop them.