Tips for preventing and treating blisters - a guide for walkers, hikers and backpackers

By: Andrew Forrest - December 2022

Blister prevention and treatments

Most of us have experienced blisters whilst walking or hiking - but do we have to? If you are out on a hike and that sore spot starts to form on your foot, what can you do to prevent it from getting worse, or better still, stop blisters from forming in the first place?

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I've suffered from many myself, but most were due to wet feet from wading through streams partaking in mountain marathons. Blisters can make your walk or hike very uncomfortable, slow you down and then cause you pain for the next few days.

Before we look at tips for preventing and treating blisters, we need to understand why blisters occur in the first place.

Why do we get blisters and how do blisters occur?

There are several causes why blisters form on feet whilst walking or hiking - friction, pressure, heat and moisture.

Walking and hiking, especially over long distances or over uneven ground, creates constant friction and pressure on your feet as your boots and socks rub against the outer layer of skin on your feet. This can then lead to a separation of the outer layer of skin from the lower layers, creating what are known as 'hot spots'.

This is your body's own internal defences working - it is believed that the body forms the blister containing fluid to cushion the wound from further pressure.

Blisters usually develop in areas where heat or moisture aggravates the skin by causing pressure or friction. There are lots of sweat glands on your feet, so it can get quite warm and humid in your shoe/boot.

The most common areas for blisters on feet are:

  • On your heel
  • Under your big toe on the ball of your foot
  • On top of your toes
  • Outside edge of the sole of your foot

These are commonly caused by:

  • Hiking boots that don't fit
  • Hiking boots that haven't been worn in
  • Ill-fitting socks
  • Wrinkles in socks
  • Stones or other debris inside the hiking boot
  • Sweat
  • Wet feet from other sources (rain, river crossings etc.)
  • Repetitive walking action over long distances or uneven ground

Blisters are often preventable and to do that we need to reduce or eliminate the causes.

How to prevent blisters whilst walking or hiking

To prevent blisters whilst hiking or walking, you need to reduce or eliminate the factors that cause blisters, so reduce or eliminate friction, pressure, heat and moisture.

We've set out below our top tips for preventing blisters:

  • Wear boots that fit

    Whilst an obvious one, this is key for any walk and one that a surprising number of people get wrong, or simply realise too late. Boots that are too tight will rub. If boots are too big, your feet will slide around in them creating friction and walking downhill could also cause black toenails as your toes repeatedly slide and hit the front of your boot.

    The common consensus is that there should be a finger width of space between the end of your shoe and your toe, as your feet expand whilst exercising.

    Many outdoor and walking shops do offer boot fitting services and fitting advice.

    If you want to know what to look for when choosing new hiking boots, check out our guide to the best hiking boots of 2024. It includes details on what to consider when buying them, the types of boots available, and their many features.
  • Customise the fit of the boot

    There are many different brands of hiking boots, which are designed and built differently, with slightly differing widths, shapes and cushioning - try to find that ideal fit.

    If you have foot 'issues' - wide, narrow, high arch, low arch, overpronator etc. ensure you find the boot to suit your feet.

    Consider adding insoles built to alleviate any underlying issues with your feet. Some insoles also provide more cushioning in certain areas, which can also reduce pressure and friction.
  • Break in your walking boots

    Depending upon the type of hiking/walking boots, you may need to break them in before you try them out on any longer hikes. I wear quite a lot of fell running shoes for walking, which I find don't really need breaking in. If you have new leather or fabric boots I would highly recommend breaking them in.

    To do this, just wander around the house in them, increasing the time spent in them each day for a week or so. Then, try a short 1-3 mile walk a few times to break them in further outside. This provides some heat and moisture in the boot that starts to mould them to your feet.
  • Lace up your hiking boots appropriately

    You need to ensure your boots are laced correctly - not too loosely fastened nor fastened too tight. Pull your foot back in your walking boot so that it is tight against the heel of the boot before tying your lace.

    Don't just pull the laces tight from the top, ensure the laces further down the boot over your midfoot are pulled tight first.

    If you experience any hot spots or sore points on your feet or feel your feet are sliding about in your boots, or you have issues with wide feet, high arches etc., then learn how to lace your hiking boots to alleviate most of these issues.

    Your feet can swell on longer walks or hotter days - take time to adjust your laces as you walk to ensure they are still correctly positioned and tightened.
  • Take care of your walking boots after every hike

    Not only does looking after your footwear helps extend its longevity, but it also can help prevent blisters. Cleaning and waterproofing your boots will help keep your feet dry, thus potentially eliminating one of the causes of blisters. Read the care instructions that come with your boots.
  • Choose the correct walking socks

    There are many walking and hiking socks to choose from that are specifically designed to fit anatomically to your foot, cushioned, have no seams and wick away moisture. So after spending money on your boots, don't skimp on the socks and definitely don't just use a pair of everyday cotton socks out of your sock drawer!

    You need to consider the thickness of the sock, as that effectively changes the volume of your foot in the boot or shoe. If you have preferred walking socks, then when buying new boots, ensure you try them on with the socks that you are going to wear with them.

    Look for walking socks that are reinforced and cushioned around the heel and toes where there is higher wear and are made of wicking materials so moisture is pulled away from your foot.

    Some people prefer wearing two pairs of socks, so in theory, some of the friction is created between the socks themselves. This method used to be used quite a lot, but I don't really know anyone using this method today - hiking socks have improved a lot over the years and a good-fitting pair should be all you need. But if you do suffer from a lot of blisters give it a try, just don't use thick socks though.

    Read our article How to choose walking socks: What to look for before buying hiking socks for an in-depth review of the choices available for walking and hiking socks.
  • Take a spare pair of walking socks

    You need to keep your feet dry, so if your socks do get wet from sweat or water ingress, then stop mid-walk, dry your feet, let your feet air and put on a new dry pair of hiking socks. They are very lightweight and can be easily packed into your rucksack.

    If you are out on a long walk or multi-day walk, attach the wet pair to the outside of your rucksack if it's not raining, so they can dry and be used again later in the day if you need to swap socks again.
  • Keep debris out of your hiking boots

    If you feel any object in your boot (dirt, stones etc.), stop and remove it immediately before it starts creating an issue. Some people like to wear gaiters that attach to the top of boots to keep out stones etc. but personally, I've always found these to make the bottom of the legs and feet hotter, potentially creating more moisture.

    I walk with people who often wear them and they don't suffer in the main from blisters. The main advantage I could see is maybe wearing them in the snow, to stop snow from entering the boot, melting around your foot and creating additional moisture.
  • Build up your mileage gradually

    If you are new to hiking, or you have long hikes planned, it pays to build up slowly to toughen your feet and get them used to the additional friction and pressure that walking brings. No hard and fast rules here, but many marathon coaches recommend not increasing mileage by more than 10-15% per week, so that is probably a good rule of thumb to follow.
  • Treat hot spots as soon as you notice them

    If you notice or feel a hot spot appearing on your foot, then stop and deal with it. Remove your boot and sock and locate the area - generally will feel warm to the touch and look red in colour.

    Clean and dry thoroughly your foot around the affected area. Then, depending on what you have with you on the walk, there are various ways of treating it to try to prevent it from becoming a full-blown blister.

    Lubricate the area to reduce friction - either with age-old Vaseline, or specific anti-chafe lubricants, such as Compeed anti-blister stick, Gold Bond Friction Defense or Pee Safe Anti-chaffing stick. I used Vaseline for many years, but now find the specific anti-chaf/blister lubricants better.

    Compeed Anti-Blister Stick
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    Pee Safe Anti Chafing Stick
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    Gold Bond Friction Defense
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    If you have a long way left to walk and you've already got a hot spot, the lubricant will reduce friction but there will be a good chance you still may form a blister before the end of the walk. If you are prone to blisters, try applying the lubricant to your problem areas before setting off.

    My preference during the walk, once a hot spot is there is to use blister-specific plasters that I carry in my first aid kit. Normal plasters just fall off too quickly. Many shops (Boots, Tesco etc.) sell their own brand versions of the blister plasters, but the ones I have used for many years now are Compeed blister plasters that are available in various sizes and for various parts of the feet.

    Blister plasters

    Blister plasters

    Applied to a dry foot, I've found these Compeed blister plasters always stick and instantly relieve most of the blister pain. Read the instructions as to how to apply and then you basically just leave it in place for a few days until the blister plaster falls off naturally. Elastoplast and the other brands may be just as good, but I found one that works for me, so I haven't moved away from it.

    The hydrocolloid technology within these plasters also promotes faster healing.

    Compeed Extreme Blister Plasters, 6 Hydrocolloid Plasters
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    Compeed Mixed Size Blister Plasters, 12 Hydrocolloid Plasters
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    Compeed On Toes Blister Plasters, 8 Hydrocolloid Plasters
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  • Pre-hike foot treatment

    As with many things in life, not all feet are created equal. Some people never appear to get blisters, and some people are prone to them on almost every walk. For those people, you could try:
    • Putting talcum (or similar) powder on your feet and in your socks pre-walk. The talc acts to soak up sweat and also acts as a lubricant between the sock and skin to reduce friction.
    • One I've not tried, but a few fellow walkers use regularly, is using an antiperspirant on your foot the night before the walk, so less moisture on the walk.
    • Similar to talcum, use a lubricant such as Vaseline, Compeed anti-blister stick, Gold Bond Friction Defense or Pee Safe Anti-chaffing stick etc., again all with the aim to reduce friction. This can be helpful if you are susceptible to blisters between your toes. The specially formulated lubricants have worked better for me over longer hikes than Vaseline.

    Potential foot lubricants

    Potential foot lubricants

    • Keep your toenails short - if your nails protrude past your toes, this can create pressure and friction at the front of the boot... as well as creating holes in your socks!
    • Tape the areas, especially heels. Many people use zinc oxide tape or kinesiology tape to create a barrier to prevent blisters. I've used KT Tape successfully in the past on my heels for some longer events.

    Foot and Kinesiology Tape

    Foot and Kinesiology Tape

    • All the above has been about your feet - one other alternative is to try ENGO blister patches, which are stuck to your shoes rather than your feet to reduce friction levels.

    KT Tape+ Blister Prevention Tape
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    Engo Oval Blister Prevention Patches (6 Patches)
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  • During a hike foot treatment

    During the hike itself, you can try various things that may ward off getting that hot spot or blister:
    • If you stop to take a break on your walk or hike and it's not cold, then consider taking off your socks and boots to get air to your feet and the inside of your boots. Even better... if you are by a stream, give your feet a quick soak to clean and cool them and then dry them completely before putting your socks back on.
    • Not one that I practise as I generally wear shorter socks, but a few friends roll down their socks on hotter days over the tops of their boots, which allows more heat and moisture release from the foot area. I can't comment on whether it stretches their socks though!
    • If it's a dry day and route, why not try some lighter-weight walking shoes (or fell/trail shoes) that aren't waterproof? Leather and Gore-Tex are great, but a waterproof membrane, even if breathable, is not as breathable as no membrane or mesh uppers on the shoes. That way your feet keep cooler.
    • As above, take a spare pair of socks and change them if your starting pair gets wet, or halfway on longer routes.
  • Post-hike foot treatment

    Not so much treatment, but give your feet some TLC.
    • Take off your boots and socks as soon as possible, clean them and put them to dry. Wash and dry your feet - if no water is available, take some wipes with you.
    • Wearing anything open-toed allows air to the feet - crocs, sandals, flip flops or maybe going barefoot for a while.
    • Give your feet a quick self-massage - this can help relieve aches but also gives you a chance to inspect your feet for further hot spots. A simple roller foot massage such as H&S Foot massage roller can really help foot issues and tired feet, but if you wanted to try something a little more high-tech, then have a look at the Renpho Foot massager.
    • Apply foot balm - many different ones available. Maybe try Flexitol, O'Keeffe’s Healthy Feet or for a little more luxury L'Occitane's Shea Butter foot cream for dry feet.

    RENPHO Foot Massager
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    H&S Foot Massage Muscle Roller Stick
    Buy Now
    O'Keeffe's Healthy Feet 80ml
    Buy Now
    L'OCCITANE Shea Butter Foot Cream 150ml
    Buy Now

How to treat a blister whilst walking or hiking

Despite the best prevention intentions, sometimes you still just get that blister. If that's the case then you need to treat it.

Blister First Aid Essentials

Blister First Aid Essentials

To pop or not to pop, that is the question:

  • Do not pop or drain a small blister, simply wipe with an alcohol wipe. It shouldn't cause too much of an inconvenience and the fluid within it will protect the new skin being formed under it.
  • If the blister is large and painful and you still have a way to walk, then you should pop the blister in a controlled manner yourself, rather than it popping on its own. To do this you should:
    • Wash or sterilise your hands. I always carry a few alcohol wipes in my first aid kit.
    • Wipe the surface of the blister with another alcohol wipe.
    • Sterilize a needle (again another first aid staple) - again using an alcohol wipe. If available, this could also be done with boiling water or over a flame.
    • Very carefully, make a small hole at the edge of the blister and gently squeeze out the fluid.
    • Once emptied, wipe carefully with another alcohol wipe and pat dry or let dry, making sure you don't tear the blistered skin. This skin will protect the raw skin underneath it, as new skin forms.

Clinell 100 Alcohol Wipes
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Then for popped or un-popped, apply a blister plaster over the blister ensuring that the plaster is bigger than the blister.

Compeed Extreme Blister Plasters, 6 Hydrocolloid Plasters
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Compeed Mixed Size Blister Plasters, 12 Hydrocolloid Plasters
Buy Now
Compeed On Toes Blister Plasters, 8 Hydrocolloid Plasters
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If the skin has torn off the blister so raw skin is showing, before applying the blister plaster, it is advisable to apply something such as Elastoplast's wound spray and wound healing ointment.

Elastoplast Antiseptic Pain-Free Wound Spray
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Elastoplast Wound Healing Ointment, 50g
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If you've arrived back home and treatment is required, there is another way for treating blisters, but having tried this mid-walk, I did find it uncomfortable for the rest of the walk - in my mind better left for post-walk, but give it a try - they may work for you.

These mainly involve the use of 'doughnuts'... but not the eating kind. You use blister padding felt, quite a bit bigger than the blister itself and then cut a hole out in the middle where the blister will sit. Some of these are self-adhesive, and some pads you will need to stick down with tape on unaffected skin.

The idea is to raise the blister, so much reduced contact with the ground, thus relieving pressure and friction on it whilst it heals. Studies have found that a 7mm pad reduced pressure by 25% and a thicker pad will reduce pressure further - but the thickness needed of these pads is why I think they are more of an 'at home' treatment rather than one for the hike.

Most blisters heal naturally in about a week, or are well on their way to being healed... generally a little longer if they have burst or have been popped - ideally though refrain from hikes whilst it's healing.

According to the NHS, you should see your doctor if you have blisters that you think are infected, are very painful or keep coming back. An infected blister will be filled with yellow or green pus and may be painful, red and hot. It is very important not to ignore an infected blister.

The Compeed and other items mentioned above, should all form part of your hiking first aid kit.

Here's to happy blister-free walking!

December 2022