Blisters are every hiker’s worst nightmare, and not just because they can be very painful. If you roll your ankle or your back gives out, it feels like a proper injury, and you’re more than justified in packing up and going home. Blisters on the other hand always feel like something that you can walk just one more mile with.
The problem with this way of thinking is that all it does is make the issue worse. by never addressing the root causes, and ploughing on regardless. If you want to be able to get the most out of your walking holiday, you’re going to need to give some serious thought to how you plan to protect your feet. A little time and effort now could save you miles of walking in pain. Certainly worth it when you think about it, isn’t it?
What are Blisters?
Blisters are the contact points between your feet and the ground, or your feet and your hiking boots, in which the friction is too great for the strength of your skin. Over time, your body will push liquid under the surface of the skin to try and provide additional padding and cushioning.
The problem with this is that if it goes untreated (most notably by lack of rest), the swelling will dramatically increase in size and pinch a lot of nerves on the surface of your skin. The result? A painful swelling that can make even the most seasoned hiker’s eyes water every time they put one foot in front of the other. Certainly not ideal if you want to be able to enjoy your time away from it all.
One of the other issues with blisters is that they’re an overuse injury, which means you’ll be unlikely to tell one is in the post in the first 30 minutes of your walk. As with many things, it’s better to be proactive rather than reactive. That way you can stay ahead of the curve and not have to worry about whether or not a blister will pop up halfway through the day. Take a look at the following wise words and you’ll be ready for everything your feet can throw at you! (It is also worth considering 1,000 mile socks or the best sock liners)
Will They Get Better by Themselves?
No, they won’t. It can be tempting to believe hiking myths about how your feet will suddenly harden if you just push through the pain for long enough, but the problem with this approach is that it just doesn’t work. All that will happen is your blisters will eventually burst, leaving a superficial wound that’s large enough to become infected if it’s allowed to go untreated.
You’ll also find that a blister will modify your gait. This not only puts you at risk of more blisters on other parts of your feet, it also means that you’re stressing your muscles, ligaments and tendons in ways they’re not used to. This is no big deal if you’re walking 100 yards to the shop and back. But if you’re planning to tackle 10 peaks in a day, it’s going to cause chaos with your lower body.
Breaking in Your Walking Boots
One of the simplest ways to get your feet primed for a walking holiday is to break in your new walking boots. The point of this is that you want to customize the fit by softening up the insoles and internal padding so that everything molds nicely to your feet. Pick something like housework, gardening, or a couple of short 15 minute walks with the dog. Little and often is always the way to go, because it will give your feet plenty of time to adapt.
Avoid the temptation of racing through the breaking in the process by wearing them all day Saturday when you’re in town shopping. All this will mean is you get blisters on the High Street instead. Certainly not the best way to prepare for a week of hill walking!
If you plan on wearing hiking sandals instead, check out my post on how to break in Chacos fast.
Keep Your Boots Dry
Have you ever noticed that your boots seem to slip when they’re wet? It’s not much of a surprise when you consider that wet boots are basically lubricated by rainwater to slide on and off your feet that little bit easier. Take 10,000 steps in them before lunch and you’ll find that what started off as gentle harmless rubbing, soon becomes half a dozen blisters that make your eyes water continuously. Drying off your boots is the best way to ensure you don’t fall victim to blisters, so take a little roll of newspaper with you to stuff into them in the evenings. It’s absorbent, lightweight, and as good as free.
Get the Right Fit by Trying Them on With Your Walking Socks
So many people make the mistake of trying on walking boots with the thin little cotton socks they’d wear in the office. By the time you’ve found the ideal fit in the shop, you’ve already set yourself up for dozens of blisters. When you get home and put your thick walking socks on a couple of weeks later, you’ll probably be able to persuade yourself that the fit will improve once the boots are broken in. The problem with this is it’s not true. Take a pair of walking socks with you to your nearest store and you can easily avoid this common mistake.
Pack a Spare Pair of Tight Walking Socks
Spending money on the best hiking socks is one of the best investments you can make if you want to be able to ward off the pain and discomfort of blisters. When you dry your boots off with the old newspaper trick above, you still have to do something about your socks. If there’s a fire or a radiator, that will do the trick, but that’s still more work than just picking a fresh pair out of your bag.
The other thing that often happens is the heel will wear midway through your walking holiday. This might be funny to your mates, but it will greatly increase the chances of a heel blister. Chuck them out, pop a new pair on, and you’ll have nothing to worry about. Read: best waterproof hiking socks
Getting informed about the differences between different sock fabrics is also a good idea. I recommend reading my Coolmax vs Merino Wool comparison.
Change Your Socks When They Get Soaked with Sweat
Much like you need to change your socks when the heavens open, you’re going to want to change them regularly if it’s a hot and humid hike. They’ll be wet, crusted with salt that will just dry your skin out, and generally just uncomfortable. If you have the chance to wash your feet quickly in some cold water, do that too. Just make sure they have ample time to dry before you put your new socks on.
Let Your Feet Breathe When You Stop for the Day
Letting your feet breathe is one of the most important things to do when you want to tackle blisters head-on. Your skin is actually your biggest organ, and it’s evolved to be exposed to the air. This means that if you keep a portion of it (your feet) under wraps and sweating day and night, it’s not going to perform at its optimum. Take your shoes off and switch to open-toed sandals when you get to your destination. It’ll give them time to breathe and get some air, and it’ll also make you feel a little bit energized because you won’t have to lug around those big clumpy walking boots on your feet!
Soak Your Feet in Warm Water to Avoid Cracked Skin
Your feet will dry out the further you walk, and not even the best pair of hiking boots are going to be able to do all that much about it. If you want to be able to give them the TLC they need to be at their best, you’re going to want to treat them to a soak in some warm water at the end of each day. 15 minutes will be more than enough, but make sure you dry them thoroughly before putting your socks back on.
Don’t Pick at Calluses
There are a few hikers who seem to relish their calluses and see them as a badge of honor. Whilst they can be a useful way to prevent blisters (provided they don’t crack), you’re going to want to leave them alone. Every seasoned hiker will know someone who delighted in picked at their rough skin only to develop half a dozen blisters the next day. Avoid this common mistake and you’ll be able to get a lot more out of your holiday than you otherwise would.
Remove Stones at the Earliest Opportunity
Stones are annoying, and no matter how well your boots fit, there’s always one or two that seem to sneak in by hook or by crook. The only thing you can really do about this is to remember that they will cause blisters if you leave them in there, rattling around all day. Pick a place to take a 5-minute break, empty your boots, take on some water, and then get back to it. It’ll make all the difference in the long run, and it’s such an easy thing to do.
Wear Your Boots Tight, but not too Tight
Loose boots are a recipe for disaster, but over-tightening can cause all sorts of issues too. Even if they don’t tend to cause blisters, they can change your gait and restrict the blood flow to your feet. Both of these things will cause overuse injuries that you can only recover from by resting. And when you’re on a weeklong walking holiday, it will mean you have to cut it short and come home more often than not. If that’s not what you want to have to do, take some time to find the perfect tension for your laces, and then be consistent from one day to the next.
Avoid Boots that Crunch up the Front of Your Toes
If you love your boots but have grown out of them, just change them. Crunching your toes right into the ends of your boots is a great way to create blisters and cause painful joint inflammation that can take months to clear up. As with everything in the wonderful world of hiking, take your time to get it right and it will always pay dividends in the long run.
If There’s Sand in Your Boots, Get Every Grain Out
Sand is the archetypal nightmare that will cause blisters in no time at all. If you want to be able to enjoy a coastal walking holiday, be prepared to make stops to empty out your boots. Sand is just thousands of tiny rocks that will rub and grind away at your skin every time you take a step.
The problem with it is because it’s so fine, it can be really tricky to completely remove. We recommend catching it early when it’s not had a chance to become damp by mixing with your sweat. You should be able to clear most of it out by holding your boot upside down and banging on it, before scraping the remnants out with your fingertips. It may break the flow of your day, but it won’t be anything compared to the frustration of having to go home early when you have a blister outbreak.
If a Blister Pops, You Will Need to Stop and Bandage it
There are always going to be times when you have a blister and there’s no option to stop right away. Blisters on the bottoms of toes have a particular habit of bursting when they become pinched between neighboring toes, but don’t worry, it’s not all that painful. You’ll feel a sharp prick followed by a small blob of water soaking your feet. Stop, clean the wound with an antiseptic wipe, and then apply a lightweight breathable bandage. This will prevent infection from taking hold, whilst allowing your skin to gently contract and begin to harden over. It’ll only take a couple of minutes, and it should allow you to get to your planned rest stop.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.