Of all the things to destroy a perfect walk, over and above damp and leaky clothing, losing your bearings in the wilderness, worse even than midges, ticks and mosquitoes, blisters stand alone as a hiker’s most vehement enemy.
The odd thing is that this needn’t be the case. With a little bit of preparation you can eliminate blisters from your hikes completely.
This article, a nice mix of science and folk-wisdom, contains all the information you need to make sure you’re never marred by those little aching balloons of fluid again.
The Science: How Blisters Form
Human skin, the entirety of which constitutes the largest organ of the body, is made up of two distinct layers: the epidermis and the dermis. These themselves are further composed of numerous layers, usually about four or five for the epidermis. Blisters from hiking usually form in the upper layer, the epidermis, and sometimes the upper dermis.
The friction between the skin on your feet and the material of your boots results, over a period of time, in two things. First, “hot spots” begin to form in the affected area. This is essentially a warm, stretched patch of skin. Over time, as the rubbing continues and the skin is put under more and more stress, the tissue will tear and possibly separate from the layers beneath it. Sweat around the skin further speeds up this process by softening the epidermis.
You can easily replicate this process by rubbing your hands together quickly. You will experience a build-up of heat and your skin will soften and stretch. If you carry on doing this for more than a few minutes, blisters will begin to form. Eventually the skin of the blister itself will rupture. Imagine, now, if you let your hands become wrinkly by soaking them in water for a few hours before trying this experiment…I take it you get the picture!
It’s the various fluids released from surrounding broken tissue, and fractured capillaries in the case of the dermis being affected, that form the globule on the surface of your skin. The epidermis itself contains no blood vessels so in the case of this area being affected it’s usually from a mixture of the fluids contained in and around the surrounding cells that comprise the skin-tissue.
How to Prevent Blisters
With the above knowledge in mind, preventing blisters is a matter of minimizing both friction and sweat buildup around your feet. Essentially, you want three things: broken in boots, a pair of socks that will wick moisture away from your skin (or an inner liner worn underneath your normal socks) and, optionally, a lubricant to cover your feet in.
From my own experience I recommend a “1000 Mile” pair of liner socks and Vaseline. If you just want to wear the one pair, double layered socks are reported to work very well (1000 Mile also make a sock in this style).
Use the resources on this site to identify a good boot for your needs or, always the better option, get a professional fitting. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of breaking them in once you’ve chosen a pair. Two things happen when you break in a pair of boots. First, the inner lining is smoothed down, having a similar effect to sandpaper on a rough surface.
Secondly, the boot upper (the leather above the sole) flexes in the places that you’re most prone to rubbing. This in itself is often enough to solve the problem of excess friction and a good liner is all that’s needed at this point. I usually only lather my feet in lubricant for extended treks (i.e. more than 5 or 6 hours of walking per day over multiple days).
If you’re going to be hiking over long distances it’s also worth changing your socks every so often. Sprinkling some talcum powder on sweaty feet and replacing wet socks with a dry pair can work wonders. Using an atomizer to spray your feet with surgical spirits a few days before your hike can toughen the skin up slightly too.
A big thanks to everyone who offered their help and suggestions over at Walkingforum.co.uk. If you live in the UK and are into your walking (as I assume you must be) then it’s a place well worth checking out!