As I’ve been training for my Mt. Whitney hike, which will take place later this month, I’ve been doing a lot of hiking. One of the questions I get most often both from runners and hikers is how to prevent blisters.
I have bony, narrow feet. In particular, one of the things that I need to be aware of are the bone spurs on my heels and the top of my right foot. I spend a lot of time hiking in running shoes, but recently I’ve been wearing a pair of Vasque Breeze boots for the majority of my training miles.
A Bone Spur?
Bone spurs are growths of extra bony material that develop in response to stress. In my case, 25 years of competitive running led to the development of this excess bony tissue. Most of the time, the bony protruberances don’t bug me. However, when I’m lacing into racing flats or in hiking boots for hours on end, these bony areas can either become bruised and extremely tender, or rapidly develop blisters.
When hiking, I am very proactive on prevening both bruising and blistering. First, I use a padded sticky donut (often called a corn cushion) to put a ring around the bony spur. I often use moleskine, but since my areas of concern require a donut shape, I find this is a pretty easy solution.
Despite their advertising, these cushions slide off my feet as soon as I start moving and sweating. Enter the tape! I use long segments of tape to anchor the cusion around my foot. I tape around my foot, rather than lengthwise because I have found the tape stays on better in that direction.
Secondly, I tape my heels. I have been experimenting with just using tape, not additional donuts, on the heels. To do this, I simply place 2-3 lengths of tape around the entire heel, layered to cover the entire heel. I’ve had mixed success with this, having gotten blisters on one heel, but not the other. I am still experimenting with using different tapes.
Keep them clean
The start to preventing blisters for any foot (or any body part: underarms, thighs, bra straps!) is to keep the area clean. Dirt and debris stick to your skin, especially when the foot sweats. This causes extra friction, which leads to hot spots and blisters.
For feet, that means dumping out any dirt, gravel, twigs, etc. that gets knocked down into your socks and shoes. Some people like to wear gaiters to keep debris out of their footwear; I tend to prefer longer pants and then just dump out my shoes when needed. However, a gaiter can be invaluable if you are in an area of consistent loose debris.
Don’t neglect your socks. Your feet will take tens of thousands of steps during your hike, so a sock that is wicking, snug-fitting, shaped, and quick-drying will protect your foot from the outer boot and will help prevent blisters. Well-designed hiking boots have several “sections” of sock and have extra cushion in the heels and toes, both hot spot/blister-prone areas. Most hiking socks rise a few inches up onto the calf.
A cotton gym sock or an “invisible” ankle sock is not going to cut it for any type of serious hike. These socks do not hold their shape, retain moisture (hello, blisters!), and even can go so far as to be “eaten” by your shoe as the weak elastic around the sock mouth fails and the sock creeps down into the shoe.
Many hikers love the “toe socks.” These liner socks can help prevent blisters by isolating the toes so they do not rub against each other. These can be paired with a more heavy-duty structured hiking sock as needed.
My preference is a Smartwool hiking sock that extends a few inches above the ankle. This keeps grit out from around my ankle and foot. I generally bring a spare pair of socks to swap out in case they get wet or overly sweaty.
After-hike Foot Care
After the hike, take your shoes or boots off! Check your feet: any hot spots? Blisters? Areas of chafing or cuts you may not have noticed? A quick foot rinse if they’re dirty feels great, and a field-medic check to relieve any irritated areas is important.
I tend to let my feet air out and generally wear sandals on the drive home. Or sandals and fluffy socks if it’s cold.
It’s important to let your feet recover after you hike. Bruises, blisters, chafed areas, general foot soreness all happen naturally when you ask your feet to carry you over hill and dale. Take time to let your feet (and the rest of your body) recover and to ready for your next adventure!