Blister Prevention 101

Blisters hurt.

And they can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone. We’ve got a few tips for keeping your feet happy and blister free.

Blisters are caused by friction between your shoes, socks and feet. Just because you’ve worn a pair of shoes or boots before isn’t insurance that you’ll remain blister-free each time you go out.  Sometimes, it is just a combination of hot weather, a different stride (lots of uphill or downhill walking), an unfortunate sock combination, broken-in shoes or boots that no longer fit your feet correctly, or all of the above. You can hike for a dozen years with no blisters and then wham bam—one afternoon, you’ll be on that 5-mile loop (or worse yet, the fifth day of a week-long backpacking trip) a sore spot will get sorer, then sorer still. And finally, you’ve an apricot-sized blister on your foot.

Your sock needs to work in harmony with your shoe.

If the Shoe Fits

Pick a shoe or boot that fits well and doesn’t have hot spots. Modern materials and manufacturing techniques such as super-soft yet durable leather, light, breathable synthetics, welding in spots where seams might rub, and footbeds that form to the shape of your foot have all but banished the traditional break-in period that used to be mandatory with new footwear. And don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

This means that when you are trying on a new shoe or boot, there should be no hotspots. Period. If a shoe is uncomfortable out of the box, try on something else.

Sock it to me

Your sock needs to work in harmony with your shoe. Your socks need to fit snuggly over your feet with no bagging or slipping. Look for socks with sport-specific padding; for hiking this means extra threads under the heel and ball of your foot, and a tighter, snugger-fitting weave under the arch and over the top of your foot.

And always pick a pair of socks with ankles that extend higher than the top of your shoes.

Beware of socks with a loose weave (that will move inside the shoe while you are walking), and those without some Lycra content (this lets the socks cling to your feet without pinching). We like socks that are a combination of synthetic and wool fibers. Some cotton is OK, but generally cotton socks get too baggy, and they soak up sweat quicker than wool or synthetic, which leads to blisters. And always pick a pair of socks with ankles that extend higher than the top of your shoes. Low-cut footies that disappear below the tops of your shoes may look stylish, but if they are too low, they’ll rub, and won’t help keep dirt and rocks out of your shoes.

Toughen Up

Are your feet in shape? Just like callouses on your hands when you are climbing or playing ball, the skin on your feet thickens when you walk. Ever wonder how the Tarahumara Tribe runs barefoot—one step at a time, building up protective layers of skin from days, months and years of training.

Going from a beach vacation to a hike up Mt. Hood can be devastating on your feet.

Going from a beach vacation to a hike up Mt. Hood can be devastating on your feet. If you spend most of your time in flip-flops and in the water, keep in mind that your feet will be soft and vulnerable. If you’re planning on going from water to trail, make sure you wear your shoes (and socks) occasionally the week before to toughen up your skin.

Be Vigilant

If you’re on the trail and you feel a hot spot developing (a hot spot is where your skin is getting rubbed or irritated by your shoe/sock combo, or a foreign object that’s worked its way into the shoe), don’t hesitate to investigate. Find a nice, shady spot and take off your shoe and sock. Check for foreign objects and let your feet dry out-if your socks are wet. Packing an extra pair of emergency socks is a great idea for a day hike; and a fresh pair for each trail day is mandatory for multi-day treks.

Columbia Sportswear Directors of Toughness Mark James and Faith Briggs

Invest in Good First Aid

Bandages aren’t your best defense against developing blisters. Bring moleskin (a synthetic soft material) or even gauze. Cover it with a strip of stretchy athletic tape. The moleskin or gauze will protect the delicate area while the stretchy tape will keep everything tight and in place. If you’ll be in the backcountry for multiple days, bring some antibiotic salve, just in case.

Let it Breathe

Don’t pop blisters, and don’t peel back broken skin. The blister protects the injury, as does the bubble on top of the blister. Your feet will quickly grow new skin under the blister—the top of the blister provides some protection while it is healing.

Most blisters will pop on their own (or the fluid will be reabsorbed). Only pop a blister if it is so full and tight that the discomfort is too much to handle. If popping the blister is the only way to proceed, use a sterile needle (use a lighter, match or rubbing alcohol to sterilize it), and use gentle pressure to remove the fluid. Leave the deflated skin intact.