Blisters are the worst thing that can happen during a hiking trip with the exception of being attacked by a couple hundred pounds of pure muscle and claws. So, short of Wolverine jumping you in the middle of a forest the thing you should fear the most is… friction. Blisters are caused by friction and a good way to frame the problem is to understand that you're not trying to prevent blisters, you're trying to reduce friction.
Things That Cause Friction
While hiking what causes friction, and by extension blisters, is your foot rubbing against anything. This could be your sock, your shoe, toes coming in contact with each other or even debris that finds its way into your shoe. We're going to highlight a few of those things and suggest ways to reduce friction without having to hike barefoot. Hiking barefoot is actually worse in terms of things that could hurt your feet.
Let's Start with Your Nails
While technically uncut nails won't cause blisters they may cause you to lose toenails. That is also super painful and it warrants a friendly mention at the start of this article. Trim your nails pre-hike and you will be a happier hiker for it. That is all.
Socks… Wear the Right Ones
The primary thing touching your feet while you are trekking through the whatever mountains of wherever are your socks. So it stands to reason that socks matter and that you should pay attention to what you're wearing. Socks are one of those things that people ignore because they think it'll be ok and then after their first 7+ mile hike they realize that they were wrong. It's actually quite easy to make good choices, though. Don't wear cotton socks, wear wool or synthetic, and make sure they aren't too tight because you don't want your toes to rub each other any more than they normally would. If you want to read more see our post on socks for hiking.
Shoes… Don't Wear the Wrong Ones
The wrong shoes will figuratively make your feet fall off. It's not so much that you need the right ones as much as you really want to avoid the wrong ones. Too tight and you have problems with rubbing, too big and you have different problems with rubbing. Pay attention, don't go cheap on shoes (splurge) and try them on at the store, period.
Moleskin and Lubricants
The right shoes and socks will not prevent 100% of blisters. That being said God, in His infinite wisdom, has seen fit to bestow upon mankind a few products that should help. Two of these are moleskin and lubricants.
Moleskin is a bit like a heavy duty band-aid intended to reduce friction. You don't use it on blisters, you use it to prevent blisters. For me the side of my big toe is blister prone so for long hikes I'll place one there before I get started. They can be found everywhere (Amazon, Walgreens) and either come pre-cut or cuttable to suit your needs. If you have developed one already then place the moleskin on the area that is rubbing against the blister and not on the blister itself.
Lubricants like Body Glide, Vaseline and Hydrogel are great at blister prevention for long distance hikes. Not all surfaces of your feet are well suited to being covered up by glorified band-aids. Apply lubricants to either high friction areas or your entire foot. If you're doing your whole foot I would recommend Vaseline as it can get expensive to buy something like Hydrogel.
Use both if you're going to be doing significant hiking because they serve slightly different purposes. Think of moleskin as reinforcing known problem areas and lubricants as a more broad solution that helps a little everywhere.
Treating a Blister
If you have already developed a blister and solved for the cause then treating a blister while hiking can be a good idea. While popping a blister is normally a last resort, when you're hiking and it's in a particularly bad spot it's probably best to just do it.
Make sure you have the following in your first aid kit:
- Alcohol wipes
- Antibiotic ointment
Ideally you will sterilize the needle with fire (get it red hot) but wipes will do if you don't have that option. Make sure everything is clean and there isn't any dirt to be found before bandaging.
Take your time to make sure that you've solved the root problem as best you can before proceeding. The blister is the symptom, not the cause. The nice thing is that if you already have the blister it's a lot easier to figure out where the problem spot is going to be.