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How to Prevent Blisters When Hiking and Backpacking

After a lifetime of hiking without ever getting blisters, it finally happened. By lunchtime on the second day of a 5-day backpacking trip I was in excruciating pain. Blisters had formed on my toes on both feet. How did it all go so wrong?

I was determined to figure out how to prevent blisters when hiking and backpacking so this would never happen again. After researching and adjusting my gear, I came back the following year ready for another 5-days on the trail. And, despite my best efforts, it happened again though this time I was better prepared.

Well, they say the third time’s the charm, right? More research, more adjustments. Surely, this would be my year. Finally, 5-days and over 50 miles later, I finished with zero blisters!

Here are my real-life lessons learned about how to prevent blisters on the trail.

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What causes blisters when hiking?

Lookout Mountain on the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota
Enjoying the view from Lookout Mountain on the Superior Hiking Trail with properly fitted backpacking boots.

Before diving into how to prevent blisters when hiking, it’s important to understand what causes them. When hiking and backpacking, the most common cause for blisters is friction. Friction is essentially when one surface rubs on another surface.

There are several common sources of friction that cause blisters on your feet while hiking. First, any point of pressure you feel from your boot or sock can cause blisters. Even something like a wrinkle or seam on your socks can cause issues. Also, keep in mind that the added weight from your pack increases the weight distribution on your feet and can create different pressure points. 

Second, shear force is created when your foot or ankle slide around in your boot. Finally, moisture softens your skin and makes it even more likely to be damaged by friction or shear force.

Tips to Avoid Blisters when Hiking and Backpacking

It’s likely that no single solution will completely prevent blisters when hiking or backpacking for you. Experiment with several solutions to figure out the best combination for your body.

1 | Ensure hiking boots or shoes fit properly.

Blisters on several toes after 55 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Blisters from my first year backpacking on the Superior Hiking Trail with poorly fitting hiking boots.

I cannot stress this enough – have your hiking boots or shoes fitted by a professional if at all possible. What works for one person, won’t for another. 

When going to get fitted, be prepared to describe the conditions you will be hiking in and the weight you will be carrying. It may make sense to buy backpacking-specific shoes vs hiking shoes. Bring similar socks to those you plan to wear on the trail and any insoles or orthotics you use. Finally, try to go for a fitting towards the end of the day.

As you try shoes on, there should be no rubbing or pressure points on your toes, heels, ankles or otherwise. They also should not be so loose that your feet have room to slide or move around inside. 

2 | Break in your hiking boots or shoes.

Once you find a pair of hiking boots or shoes that fit well, be sure to break them in before you hit the trail. I’m not talking about a short walk around your neighborhood, put them to work! If possible, do this while carrying weight so you can simulate the conditions on the trail.

3 | Experiment with different lacing techniques. 

If after breaking your shoes in, you find that there are minor points of discomfort, it is worth experimenting with different lacing techniques. This article from REI has helpful tips based on what issue you are experiencing. 

Personally, I was getting blisters on my two outsides toes but my boots didn’t feel like they were rubbing or creating pressure anywhere. I found that using a double surgeon’s knot at the base of my ankle helped hold my foot in place and improve my blisters. 

4 | Choose your socks carefully.

Removing my toe socks and hiking boots to rest near a river on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Taking off my Injinji toe socks and hiking boots to rest on the Superior Hiking Trail. KT tape is being used to prevent blisters on my right foot.

For some, regular wool hiking socks work well. For day hikes and shorter distances with minimal pack weight, they work well for me too. But, when I add a 25-35 lb backpack, everything changes.

After two years of horrible blisters while backpacking, I tried Injinji toe socks. Yes, they look a bit weird but if they helped with blisters I didn’t care. The first year, I wore these as sock liners under another pair of lightweight hiking socks. This turned out to be too hot, making my feet sweaty and not helping my blister situation.

The second year, I wore just the Ininji socks with no additional pair and they worked! I had no blisters at the end of the 5-day backpacking trip. What a relief!

5 | Manage moisture.

Dry socks in the sun at camp each night to prevent blisters while backpacking.
Drying socks in the sun on top of the tent while backpacking on the Superior Hiking Trail.

Moisture is your enemy if you are trying to prevent blisters while backpacking. Keep your feet as dry as possible at all costs, this includes sweat, rain, river crossings, and puddles.

During a light rain on the first day of backpacking this year, water dripped onto my legs through the grassy sections and created a literal pool of water in my boots. I knew this was dangerous territory if I wanted to avoid blisters. Mid-morning when the rain lifted, I stopped and rotated into a dry pair of socks, emptied the water out and checked for any hot spots on my feet. 

Pro Tip: Hang wet socks on the outside of your pack during the day to let them dry, just be sure to secure them so they don’t fall off. When you reach camp, lay them in the sun (if possible) or on top of your tent until bedtime to help them dry. Alternatively, lay them on stones near a campfire at night!

6 | Be proactive.

Each of our bodies is unique. If you know you have issues with your feet when backpacking, be proactive. Tape your feet in the places where you anticipate hot spots before they even appear. And, as soon as you feel hot spots, pause on the trail and address them. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Part of being proactive is being prepared. Be sure to have a first aid kit with you that includes antiseptic, a safety pin, ibuprofen, bandaids, moleskin and medical tape at minimum. If needed, add these items to an off-the-shelf first aid kit.

Pro Tip: While moleskin is included in most outdoor first aid kits, I have found that KT tape is the best blister tape for hiking. It stays on for longer in tough conditions. If pre-cut strips of KT Tape are not readily available, bring a small set of scissors or a knife to cut it on the trail. I also strongly recommend bringing a few Bandaid brand gel blister pads. This brand stays on better than others for hiking. Be sure to get the variety pack with different sizes for different areas on your feet.

Also, if your feet are hurting and you have safe access to a body of water during the day, take a break and soak your feet. Just be sure to dry them thoroughly before putting your socks back on.

7 | Bring a pair of camp shoes (when backpacking or camping).

Xero brand sandals make great camp shoes for backpacking.
Soaking my feet in a creek while wearing Xero brand sandals after a long day of backpacking on the Superior Hiking Trail.

For some reason, I didn’t bring camp shoes my first year backpacking and had so many regrets. After a long day on the trail, taking my socks off and wearing sandals around camp feels so good. This also gives you feet a chance to breathe and take a break from your hiking boots or shoes.

My favorite sandals to bring backpacking are Xero brand. They weigh under 9 ounces and take up almost no room in your pack!

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8 | Clean and dress hot spots or blisters at camp every day.

Inspect your feet when you get to camp each day, looking for early signs of blisters and to monitor any existing blisters you have. Whenever possible, do not open or drain the blister. This increases the risk of an infection.

However, if the blister is large or creating significant pressure on your foot, it could be worthwhile to drain it. The excess pressure could cause you to adjust your gait which could lead to other injuries. In this case, I recommend using a safety pin to make a tiny hole in the edge (not the middle) of the blister. Use your hand to gently drain the liquid. Clean the blister with antiseptic wipe and be sure to bandage or tape it immediately to avoid an infection.

Ibuprofen can help with both inflammation and pain.

Pro Tip: When taping your feet, wrap the tape all the way around your toe or foot so that both ends are overlapping if possible. From my experience, tape and bandages stay more secure when you do this.

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    Essential Tips to Prevent Blisters When Hiking

    Don’t learn the hard way like I did. Follow these essential tips to prevent blisters when hiking so you can have an awesome adventure!

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    Photo of feet stretched out from inside a tent, a woman with backpacking gear standing on an overlook, and hiking boots and socks on a rock.

    6 thoughts on “How to Prevent Blisters When Hiking and Backpacking

    1. This Big Wild World says:

      Blisters are the worst! Hope these tips are helpful for you. I agree, swelling can be so challenging in warmer temperatures. On longer hikes or backpacking trips, I take ibuprofen at night and sometimes midday if I notice swelling. I also try to soak my feet in a stream or lake (if possible) over lunch or in the evening. As much as I try to reduce the weight of my pack, I’ve found that carrying lightweight sandals to wear at camp can make a ton of difference with swelling on backpacking trips.

    2. Jenni / Out in the Nature says:

      Blisters are so painful! It’s really important to prevent them, and take care of them in proper way when they occur. Thank you for sharing these tips! My biggest issue causing blisters has been swollen feet in extremely warm weather. Then it doesn’t matter which shoes I wear. Managing swelling is not easy when you have to be on the move.

    3. This Big Wild World says:

      Ouch, that sounds painful! Yes, camp shoes are truly the best after a long day on the trail. I was honestly surprised how much the lacing technique helped, I was initially pretty skeptical. Worth experimenting with if you’ve got hotspots on your feet when hiking.

    4. Farrah says:

      Ooo, this is so important! The well-fitting shoes especially. (I’m still regrowing a toenail from an ill-fitting pair of shoes from May…) + camp shoes feel like a luxury but they’re the bestttt.

      I need to try out the different lacing techniques — I’ve never tried that before!

    5. This Big Wild World says:

      I understand! Our feet can really get beaten up on the trail – wishing you blister-free miles ahead 🙂

    6. Tranquil Trekker says:

      I still have not mastered this, I think my pinky toes are permanently blistered. 🙂 Great advice though!

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