The Endless Quest
by Chad Wade
Hikers, runners, snow shoers. For whatever reason, blisters are their Kryptonite.
We wish we had better news. We wish we could recommend this-or-that shoe or this-or-that sock or foot powder. Alas, there is no anti-Kryponite here. There’s lots of stuff that sometimes helps.
The regrettable truth is: if you hike, run or snow shoe far enough, hard enough, you will eventually get blisters. And, those blisters are going to negatively effect your mobility.
Holding off blisters is an art more than a science, so here are some basic guidelines to preventing blisters.
- Break in your boots. Yeah, we know that most of us were taught this by our Scoutmaster at age twelve, but we’ll mention it anyway. Don’t be that guy that shows up to the apocalypse wearing new boots that haven’t been broken in. Even if you have to wear your new boots to work and to mow the lawn, put a few dozen miles on them before trekking into the wilderness.
- Wear the lightest boots you can wear. For some overland movements, like bear hunting across the muskeg in Alaska, you need full calf, leather and Gore-tex boots. But, if you can get away with light Merrells, definitely do that. Lighter, lower boots have fewer friction points and breath better.
- Try a thin “poly” layer, such as polypropylene socks, if you’re going to be moving a long ways. Put the poly-propylene layer up against your skin and your SmartWool (or other main sock) on the outside. The thin, synthetic layer wicks away moisture and creates a friction layer that will help reduce direct friction on your skin. I tested this on a long hike and here are the results.
4. Catch “hot spots” early. If you think that maybe you’re getting a hot spot, it’s probably too late already. Stop. Put on some form of friction barrier like moleskin or duct tape. You’re probably too late already, but don’t wait. Don’t walk another step. Get your feet handled (or they’re going to school you.)
After hiking, running and snow shoeing a combined ONE ZILLION miles, the boys at ReadyMan have these suggestions.
Evan Hafer (20 year Green Beret, CIA)
First, I try to keep my feet “battle ready.” If you wear flip-flops all summer, your feet are going to be far more prone to blisters than if you wear boots. That sounds a little over-the-top, but it’s true. (That’s probably why I’m not a “shorts guy.”) You need to break in BOTH your boots AND your feet. Your feet need to be tough if you’re going to subject them to overland movement. And, hiking with a ruck is way harder on your feet than walking. The terrain and the interaction between the footwear, terrain, load and user is enough to beat your feet up even with boots you use every day. So, everyone will find the inevitable blister or hot spot. I like to use quality wool socks, (with a back up pair on quickdraw.) I always carry a tube of crazy glue to glue my blisters down if they appear. You can actually glue that skin back to yourself to continue to use it as a protective layer. It’s an old GB trick.
Jeff Kirkham (28 year Green Beret)
Like Evan, I carry crazy glue for quick first aid — this goes in all of my E&E (Escape and Evasion) packs, it will repair damaged feet and keep you going.
Injinji brand Liner socks are one of the single best things to help prevent blisters, especially with Darn Tough brand socks on the outside. This is my ultimate combo to fight blisters, in my experience.
[Editor’s note: Jeff has probably logged more overland movement than Louis and Clark combined, and he did it in rougher circumstances, so take heed.]
Chad Wade (7 year SEAL)
Be mentally prepared for blisters. After everything you can do, you may still get nailed, and you will still need to get the job done regardless. My primary prevention method is to wear my light Merrells or my light Asolos, with as much mesh on them as possible. This means that I may well get we boots from stepping through bogs or wet paths. If so, I keep multiple pairs of wool socks on-hand to change them out, but mostly I’m just really careful where I step. Hiking with wet feet will trigger blisters every time. I can do a serious overland movement, with a pack, and not get blisters if I’m wearing a light-enough and breathable-enough boot.
Logan Stark (U.S. Marine Scout/Sniper Vet)
Fresh socks are key. Take a zip lock bag sprinkle some Dr Scholls foot powder in it and throw your extra pair of socks in there, inside out. You're going to stop for a break anyway so switch out to a clean pair, powder already applied.
Jason Ross (Just Some Guy — 46 years)
I’ve cycled through probably a dozen leather hiking boots and I’ve yet to find one that doesn't result in blisters. Reading what Evan says here, it might be because I wear sandals a lot during the summer — when I hike the most. In any case, the Asolos are too narrow for my foot, and even after I had a cobbler widen them, I still get blisters every hike. In the trash they go. I also do a lot of winter snow shoeing. I’ve found that the polypropylene inner liner helps a lot. In addition, I put a big square of duct tape on my normal hot spot before I set out on the trail. This actually works remarkably well. Snow shoeing causes a tremendous amount of friction on the back of the heel as the snow shoe cycles through its exaggerated motion. The same duct-taping trick works for hiking too, but not quite as well. Maybe me feet are more sweaty during the hiking season than they are during the snow shoeing season. I’m going to test Jeff’s Injinji Liners and Darn Tough brand sock combo this snow shoeing season to see how they fair against polypropylene.
At the end of the day, you’re going to have to fight blisters with a combination of good gear, pre-emptive action and trailside resolve. There’s no silver bullet that’ll erase blisters forever. And, as you may know, blisters can stop an overland movement cold, especially if its the wife and kids suffering.
As with most things, blister management requires practice. So, get off your aging butt, strap on a forty-pound pack and begin to experiment with boots, liners, socks, duct-tape and crazy glue. It’s not sexy, but earning a black belt in blisters means you’re a true bad ass.
LEVELS OF BOOT
High mesh -- Very light -- NOT water-proof
Blister probability: low
Leather + Gore-text -- medium weight -- Water-proof
Blister probability: medium
Leather + Gore-text -- heavy weight -- Water-proof
Blister probability: high