Blisters are the worst. We all hate them and we all know what they can do to a hiking, backpacking, or hunting trip, and it isn't pretty.
Many people think that blisters are caused by a problem or defect in their hiking boots. While a convenient culprit, this simply isn't the case and hasn't been the case for many years. The design and manufacturing of modern hiking boots have advanced to the point where they are built to avoid blisters. Even handmade boots are not subject to the types of defects that can cause a blister. These days, most boots, like those made by Zamberlan, are designed to be comfortable out of the box and require little break-in. After 90 years, we at Zamberlan know quite a bit about designing a comfortable boot that will leave you in awe of nature and with happy feet.
So what does cause a blister? What can we do to avoid them and what can we do if we do get one? Glad you asked.
To answer the first question, it helps to understand the common causes of blisters, which can lead to their prevention.
- Incorrectly Sized Boots: Yep, the most common cause of blisters are boots that are not properly fit onto your foot. This is usually caused by too big of a size boot and is characterized by a nasty heel blister. Customers wearing structured boots, in particular, are prone to this type of blister if a good fit is not achieved. Unfortunately, many shoe retailers do not know how to achieve a good fit and do not understand the nuance of fit between different types of boots. A heel blister can occur if the boot is too large on your foot, which results in heel slippage and persistent rubbing of the skin leading to a blister. This problem is particularly harsh if you have a stiff boot for high mountain applications. Sometimes this problem can be fixed with a second pair of socks and/or continual breaking in of the boot. However, the best manner to remedy this type of problem is to get the correct fit in the first place. Use our fit guide to help you achieve the proper fit and avoid this problem.
- Using the Wrong Boot for the Activity: If you are going to hike 15 miles in a pair of alpine climbing boots, chances are you are going to be at an elevated risk of a blister. Why? First off, different types of boots are built differently for a reason. For example, a backpacking boot is great for backpacking because (i) it is stiff and helps alleviate the weight of your pack and saves your foot muscles, (ii) has enough flex to be comfortable for walking long distances, and (iii) is typically waterproof. However, a backpacking boot isn't acceptable for mountaineering. Similarly, a mountaineering boot is a terrible choice for backpacking. Why? First off, a mountaineering boot doesn't typically have enough flex to walk comfortably. The stiff lasting board used in mountaineering boots is great for climbing, edging, toeing in, and performing all sorts of alpine maneuvers, but wreaks havoc on your foot and can cause major blisters if you attempt to hike more than a short distance.
- Moisture: Water on the skin over a prolonged time period makes it very soft and susceptible to blistering. If your feet become wet, for whatever reason, be sure to stop if at all possible to change socks or dry your boots before proceeding. Dry feet are happy feet!
- Poor Sock Choice: Quality hiking socks go a long way towards preventing blisters. What is a quality hiking sock? First off, choose a sock that is made by a hiking sock company, which you can find at your local specialty outdoor retailer. Quality hiking socks are made using either wool or synthetic materials and are never made out of cotton. Cotton tends to trap moisture, leading to wet feet (see point 3 above). There are a lot of great socks out there, we recommend pretty much anything from Darn Tough, Fits, Smartwool, Lorpen, Fox River, Farm to Feet, Icebreaker and other quality manufacturers. Socks shouldn't be too thick that they throw off your boot fit, nor should they be too thin that they don't protect from blisters.
- Not Lacing Properly: Not lacing your boots properly is akin to not achieving a good fit. What is the point of a good fit if the boots are not laced tightly? Loose lacing can lead to heel slippage which leads to blisters.
- Debris: This may sound obvious, but if you hike through extreme terrain and debris enters your boot, or if your socks aren't clean before putting your boots onto your feet then you can be susceptible to a blister. Unlike a grain of sand in an oyster, don't expect a pearl if you have debris in your boot while hiking.
- Poorly Managed Toenails: Have your toenails properly and cleanly trimmed and your toes will be happy and blister free.
So what do you do if you feel a blister coming while on the trail? Here are some ideas to help:
- Tape it: As previously stated, prevention is the best medicine for a blister. Likewise, if you feel a blister starting (known as a "hot spot") then stop hiking if it is safe to do so. We recommend bringing medical tape or moleskins which can cover a hotspot and prevent a blister while providing relief.
- Dry it Out: If moisture is causing a hot spot or blister, stop and dry your feet, change your socks, and give your boots some time to dry out on the inside. Please remember, don't ever put your boots next to a heat source...ever.
- Power Through: If you are almost done, you may choose to power through. We don't recommend this action, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
Finally, if you ultimately have a blister you are going to need treatment. We aren't doctors so don't listen to us. Instead, consult an expert. Here's a great article from Backpacker Magazine on blister prevention and treatment.