I finished an 800 km / 500-mile thru-hike and I didn’t get a single blister. Really, not a single one.
I’ve been dealing with blisters while hiking for most of my life. So before departing on this big thru-hike, I decided to read up on how to avoid getting them. I learned all kinds of preventive steps and how to treat blisters most effectively, and it actually worked. And it can work for you too.
In this article, I’ll be sharing everything that I learned – how to tape your feet, what shoes and socks to choose, how to lace your shoes, and all kinds of other preventative techniques. After reading this article, hopefully, you won’t ever have to deal with blisters again.
Taping Techniques To Prevent (Or Treat) Blisters
If you’re starting your hike with a brand new pair of shoes or you know from experience that you usually develop blisters, one thing that you can do is preventively tape your feet before blisters begin to form.
But it isn’t as easy as it sounds because if you just put a single piece of Leukotape, most likely, it will rub off within 15 minutes, so it won’t do any good. Down below, I’ll share three taping techniques that I use to keep Leukotape from slipping off during the hike.
1. Taping Your Heel
For taping your heel, preferably use wide tape (5 cm / 2 inches), but if not, you can also use several strips of more narrow tape.
First, start by taping your heel horizontally, and cutting the tape a few inches longer than the affected area to keep it from slipping off. When putting on the tape, put it on somewhat tightly around the heel and release the pressure once you get closer to either side, so that the pressure of the tape doesn’t start peeling off by itself.
After that, tape your heel vertically. Cut the tape to be a few inches longer on the bottom of your foot, and much longer on the back of your heel, to ideally have the end just an inch over your hiking shoe, to keep it from slipping off.
2. Taping The Ball Section Of Your Foot
The main difference between taping your heel and ball section of the foot is to start by taping it vertically (along the length of your foot), and only then go over it horizontally. That’s because your feet move from the front to back within the shoe, and taping it in this order, will reduce the chances of the tape peeling off.
Similar to the heel, also preferably use wide tape if you have it. Cut the tape so that it starts just where your toes begin and goes an inch or two over the area where you’re likely to get blisters and apply it to your feet in the direction of the length of the feet.
Next, you need to put some tape on top of it around the narrow part of your feet to keep it from peeling off. Cover the area where you’re likely to get blisters, but make sure to cut the tape quite a bit longer on each side, so that it ends on the top of your feet. This will keep it from peeling off.
3. Taping Your Toes
For most people, blisters develop between your pinky and the second smallest toe. Instead of taping just one finger, you need to tape both of them, because otherwise, the other one will be brushing against the tape.
Again, to tape your toes, you need to do it in two parts. First, cut the tape to be 2x the length of your toe, then wrap it around your toe length-wise, and press down on the sides. Next, tape around the diameter of the toe to keep the tape from slipping off. Let the tape overlap slightly and keep the connecting point on top of the toe.
How To Take Care Of Your Feet When Thru-hiking To Avoid Blisters
The best way to avoid having blisters on a thru-hike is not to tape your feet, but to do several other things that prevent blisters from forming in the first place.
In fact, during my 36-day thru-hike, I used my blister tape just 3 times, and only within the first days of the hike. Applying tape preventively is not the right way to deal with blisters. Instead, blister formation needs to be fixed at the root cause. Down below, I’ll share some important things that you need to follow to avoid getting blisters.
Choose Shoes That Fit You Perfectly
The most important thing to avoid having blisters is to get a shoe that fits you perfectly. When shopping for new shoes, ideally, you have to try them on locally in the store. If you’re shopping online, be prepared to return them if they don’t fit (or try a pair locally before ordering them online).
They shouldn’t be too tight or hard around the toes or the heel, they should have plenty of padding, you should have a bit of wiggle room around your toes, and they shouldn’t feel loose. When you put them on and walk around, you should feel pretty much amazed at how well they fit. If something doesn’t feel right, I recommend you to try on another pair of shoes because the fit will improve over time only marginally. Having improper shoes is the #1 reason why people get blisters.
And unfortunately, each of us has differently-shaped feet, so I can’t recommend a single pair of shoes that will work for everyone. Personally, I did my thru-hike with the Decathlon Evadict MT2 Trail runners, which worked really nicely for me.
Get Merino Wool Socks
Unfortunately, the other important thing in preventing blisters (almost as important as getting perfectly-fitting shoes) also requires you to spend money. Although merino wool socks cost quite a lot compared to normal socks, they’re totally worth it.
Before, I hiked with a good pair of shoes and cheap hiking socks, and I still got blisters. When I switched to a good pair of hiking socks I pretty much stopped having blisters altogether. So in my opinion, it’s a very worthwhile investment, because having blisters can completely ruin your thru-hiking experience.
I personally use the Silverlight hiking socks, which work amazing for me, but Darn Tough, Smartwool, or other well-made merino wool socks will work. I’ve also tried using cheap merino wool socks from Amazon, but unfortunately, I still got blisters with them, so the only real option is to go with socks that are well-made and have good reviews from other thru-hikers.
Break In New Footwear Before You Start Hiking
Before you depart on your long hike, break in your hiking shoes (or boots; especially boots). This just means starting hiking with them shorter distances first, and gradually increasing over time. But then again, you don’t want to walk too much because otherwise, they might not last your whole thru-hike. For me, this technique worked – start by doing a 5 km hike, then a 10 km one, and finally, a 15-20 km one. It’s enough to break in most modern hiking shoes and boots, but for especially stiff and rigid ones, you might need to do more.
When Resting, Take Off Your Shoes And Socks To Dry Your Feet
One factor that greatly attributes to blister forming is moisture. And whenever you’re walking for extended periods, your feet start to sweat, which in turn makes your socks and shoes get wet. Keeping them on for the whole day might result in blisters, so whenever you pause for more than several minutes, take off your shoes and socks, and lay them out in the sun to dry.
Choose Breathable Shoes Over Waterproof Ones
My experience is that waterproof and water-resistant shoes always get wet anyway when hiking for longer periods. And because they aren’t breathable, they take much more time to dry.
For example, breathable trail runners will usually dry within 1-2 hours of walking after crossing a stream, whereas bulkier waterproof boots might stay wet for the whole day, and even the following night. And hiking with wet feet for extended periods will surely result in blisters. So always choose breathable shoes over waterproof ones.
If Your Feet Get Wet, Dry Your Shoe (If Possible) And Change To A Dry Pair Of Socks
If you’re hiking in the rain, then unfortunately, changing to a new pair of socks won’t do anything. But if you’re crossing a stream or you got caught in a quick rainstorm, then you should take off your shoes, squeeze as much liquid out of them as possible, and switch to a new pair of socks. Of course, your feet will still become wet, but much less so, and they’ll dry much quicker. To dry your other pair of socks, just tie them to the outside of your backpack and leave them hanging in the wind.
Wash Your Merino Wool Socks Every 2 Days
Keeping your merino wool socks clean greatly reduces the chances of any blisters forming. That’s because when they become dirty from sweat buildup, they get much stiffer and lose elasticity, which means that they’ll start rubbing against your feet.
Dirty socks also have much more bacteria in them, in the presence of which, blister formation is increased. So try to wash your socks every 2 days with eco-friendly soap in any river, lake, or bathroom that you’re passing by.
Stop As Soon As You Feel A Blister Forming, While It’s Not Too Late
Personally, I don’t preventively tape my feet – only if I’m not wearing a good pair of merino wool socks and good hiking shoes. Instead, I start taping them as soon as I start to feel any hot spots on my feet. But the trick is to stop as soon as you start to feel any irritation because this irritation can become a blister very quickly. On my 800 km / 500 mile thru-hike, I felt a tiny blister forming near my pinky on the second day, so I taped my pinky and the second smallest toe, and it was enough to stop it from becoming a blister.
Use This Lacing Technique
Blisters usually form because:
- Your feet are sliding forwards and backward in your shoes
- The shoe is moving up and down around your heel
- Your toes are too cramped within your toebox
But luckily, you can avoid all of these issues with a properly laced shoe. Even a good hiking shoe will require a proper lacing technique to avoid getting blisters. Here’s how you should be lacing your shoes on your thru-hike:
- Skip the bottom loop to leave more room in your toebox
- Lace the bottom 2-3 loops of your shoe somewhat loosely, and then do a surgeon’s knot to isolate the bottom part of your laces
- Tie the rest of your shoe somewhat tightly to keep your heel from moving up and down
- Finally, do another surgeon’s knot to keep the laces from untying
Read Next: How To Lace Hiking Boots For Wide Feet
If Your Feet Tend To Swell, Re-adjust Your Laces Mid-hike
Some people’s feet swell more than others. And if yours do, then you should stop after hiking for an hour or two and loosen some parts of the shoe that feel too tight. Otherwise, you might start to form blisters there.
Cut Your Nails To Leave More Room In The Toebox
To avoid “hiker’s nail” (your toenail getting blue, black, or even falling off), you have to cut your toenails every few days while thru-hiking. Otherwise, the nails might start pushing into the toebox of the shoe when walking downhill. Long nails can also cause blisters on your pinky because your toes get too cramped together when the nails are too long. That’s why I always have scissors with me on my thru-hikes in my Swiss Army Knife.
Before Setting Off On A Thru-hike, Gradually Increase Your Hiking Distance
Just like your shoes need breaking in, so do your feet. You need to toughen them to encourage the buildup of calluses, or in simple words – thicker skin. Several weeks before starting my long-distance hike, I slowly incorporated more and more hiking and running into my routine, starting with just 5-10 km and ending with 20+ km hikes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I pop my blisters when thru-hiking?
Most health sources say that you shouldn’t pop your blisters unless necessary. That’s because this allows bacteria to get inside the affected area and that can cause an infection.
I’ve also found that once you pop them, the area starts hurting much more. The fluid inside a blister is your body’s way of greasing the outer layers of your skin, which accidentally came loose and now are rubbing against each other. So I only pop my blisters if they’re too big and uncomfortable, and I only do it in the evening, to allow my foot to heal a bit overnight.
What is the best tape to use for taping your feet when hiking long distances?
The most popular tape that works really well for preventing and treating blisters when hiking is Leukotape. However, you can use other brands as well, as long as the tape isn’t made from cotton, and has good adhesive properties.
Using duct tape isn’t advised, even though it has good adhesive properties. That’s because it isn’t breathable and it isn’t elastic, which both increase the chances of forming blisters.
Why am I still getting blisters even with merino wool socks?
Most likely, your shoes don’t fit your feet well, or you haven’t laced them properly. Your ideal shoes should feel comfortable to wear from day one, with no tight or rough spots anywhere. Your shoes should be wide around the toebox, tight around the heel, and have plenty of padding all around. With a proper lacing technique, you can loosen and tighten specific parts of the shoe.
Other reasons could be that your footwear isn’t broken in, you’re hiking with wet or damp feet for long periods, your socks are too tight or too loose for your feet, you’re wearing bad quality merino wool socks, or you haven’t washed your socks in a while.
What’s better for preventing blisters: trail runners, hiking shoes, or hiking boots?
In my opinion, the best shoes for preventing blisters are trail runners, followed by hiking shoes, and finally hiking boots. From my experience, comfortable, breathable, flexible, and well-padded shoes usually result in the fewest amount of blisters.
However, I’d say that getting the right footwear for your feet specifically is more important. For example, well-fitting hiking boots will perform much better than poorly-fitting trail runners.
Why do blisters form when hiking long distances?
In simple words, a blister is just the outer layers of your skin separating from each other. This happens mainly because of friction, from your shoe or sock rubbing against your feet because either of them doesn’t fit you perfectly.
However, blister formation is accelerated by dampness, which makes your sock, shoe, and skin to become worse at dealing with friction. Bacterial buildup and heat can also increase the chances of blister formation, so having well-ventilated shoes and clean socks is also important.