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We’ve all had that sinking moment when you realize you have a blister on your foot. Whether it’s because you are breaking in new hiking shoes or are going out for your first hike of the season, you are prone to blisters. But is there a way to prepare your feet to avoid blisters? Read on to find out!
To make your feet tougher, hikers should develop calluses on their feet. Calluses are created when friction consistently occurs in the same area, so hikers can make their feet tougher by walking barefoot and forming calluses in the spots that cause friction in their hiking shoes.
However, not everyone can develop calluses due to their foot structure and how their body weight is distributed across their foot. So, there are some different techniques for preventing blisters that those individuals should follow.
Further, there are other things that you can do to help prevent blisters from forming. For example, did you know that the type of sock you use might have an impact on blisters? If you want learn every trick in the book when it comes to blister prevention, read on!
How To Toughen Feet For Hiking?
There seem to be two separate camps when it comes to toughening up your feet for hiking. The first is to go barefoot and work on building up calluses on your feet. But others prefer to take the approach of making your feet more flexible.
Focus on Flexibility
For those who have a harder time building up calluses, it may be because of your foot structure and how the pressure is distributed throughout your foot. According to this study, those who have feet that have subtalar joint pronation (aka, the weight tends to be on the inside of your foot when you walk) are more likely to form calluses.
However, others may form calluses in some areas of the foot but not others depending on where your foot hits the ground the hardest. So if you have problems forming calluses on your feet regardless of the hours you spend walking barefoot and trying to build calluses, you should consider a different approach to toughening your feet.
To focus on supporting your feet and finding ways to combat blisters, many hikers have found that wearing appropriate shoes for hiking, wearing toe socks, and using some form of lubricants such as Vaseline, baby rash ointment, or runners lube have been helpful in reducing the friction that causes blisters. Additionally, you may also try wearing socks that are made from PTFE or nylon because these fabrics don’t cause as much friction according to Podiatrist Ryan Rushton, DPM.
Yet, wearing shoes may cause your feet to become weak and inflexible. Because modern shoes have much more stability, support, and cushion than our bare feet, we may have gotten used to shoes, and our feet are not as strong as ancient ancestors.
While this topic is still up for debate, there is speculation that walking barefoot will still be beneficial to improving foot strength despite your ability to grow calluses or not.
How to Toughen Up Your Feet
When it comes to toughening up your feet, you can’t beat barefoot walking. Many hikers do agree that hiking barefoot is one of the best ways to toughen up your feet. However, you don’t need to become a solely barefoot hiker to reap these benefits. Plus, most people agree that it’s best to start slow and work up to more advanced barefoot walking.
Once you do toughen up your feet and start to grow calluses, you won’t get as many blisters (if any at all), you will become more familiar with the ground you walk on, and may even feel more stable, according to some testimonies. If you do want to start barefoot walking (or running), start with mild terrains, such as your backyard, a grassy field, or a sandy beach.
Once the less extreme terrain doesn’t impact your feet (typically a few weeks of practicing), then you can start walking barefoot in more varied trails that have rocks and tree roots. Just make sure to walk slowly and watch out for things that could stub your toes.
When you have to break into new shoes, you can almost guarantee blisters. This usually happens because your feet have to adjust to the shape, stability, and cushion of the shoe. However, if you just put your shoes on and go for a hike, you’ll probably get a blister.
However, the good news is that your feet will eventually adjust to the new shoes. According to REI, the best ways to break in your new hiking boots are simply to walk around your house, take a stroll through town, or go for a short hike. Even if you do end up with a blister, your feet will have already begun to toughen up in the right spots for your hiking boots.
How Do You Get Calluses on Your Feet?
Did you know that humans have only used shoes for the past 40,000 years of our nearly 200,000 years of existence? Before shoes were invented, humans simply walked around barefoot. So before shoes were made to protect our feet from the elements, calluses would naturally form to protect us from heat, uneven ground, and the cold. But now that we have shoes to do that job for us, many of us do not have protective calluses that prevent us from getting blisters.
It’s All About Friction
To build up a callus on your feet, you need friction. In the most basic terms, when your skin is subject to more friction than normal, the dead skin cells create a thick layer. Typically, the dead skin cells will fall off as new skin cells replace them. But when you introduce more friction, the new skin cells grow faster than the dead ones can fall off. Thus, a callus is born!
Typically, you can feel a callus on your feet. If you rub your fingers along your foot and run into tough skin, you’ve found a callus. Calluses are places where the skin has built up over time. Because you have extra layers of skin–anywhere from an extra 25 to 100 layers–that part of your skin is more protected than others.
This is why runners, hikers, musicians, and anyone who frequently works with their hands or works on their feet have calluses, they need the extra protection.
The more friction you introduce to your feet, the faster your callus will build up, sounds simple, right? That’s because it’s a natural process that humans have been perfecting for thousands of years, so building up calluses is not hard. It just takes time. But how much time? Read on to find out!
Are Calluses Bad?
First though, let’s get this out of the way: Calluses are one of the best ways to protect your feet. So instead of doing everything in your power to prevent calluses, you should embrace your calluses. While some people think that calluses make your feet less sensitive and can change the way you walk, that is not the case.
When you form calluses from walking barefoot, for example, your feet form an extra layer of protection against the uneven ground, abrasion, heat, and cold. One study found that calluses, although thicker than other parts of the skin, still have the same level of sensitivity to touch as the rest of your foot. So, calluses do not affect your ability to feel.
A callus is basically a stiffer layer of skin that will protect your foot, so work toward calluses and not away from them.
Many people try to avoid callouses due to aesthetic purposes. There are pros and cons, but the callouses will help you during hiking so it might be worth sacrificing the soft skin.
How Long Does It Take to Toughen Skin?
There is no set term for how long it takes for a callus to form. However, most hikers have noticed callus growth to appear after about 2 to 4 weeks of doing an activity. Yet, the time it takes for someone to develop tougher skin really depends on how often they do an activity.
Because calluses form when there is excess pressure and friction on a certain spot of the foot over an extended period of time, those who are more active, walk more, and stand more will be more likely to develop calluses quickly. Then again, your foot structure also impacts your ability to grow calluses, so there may be some spots on your foot that do not consistently hit the ground in a way that will cause a callus to form.
Alternative Ways To Prevent Blisters
If you don’t have the time required to build up your calluses, there are other ways to prevent blisters on your hike. Check out these tips below for the best ways to protect your feet.
Break in Shoes
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that you won’t get blisters with this method. You might just have to bite the bullet and wear the shoes. At least after your planned hike, your shoes will be more broken in.
Hiking boots are much more important to break in than hiking shoes, but any shoe has some amount of break-in period. Hiking boots in particular are stiffer and thus require more time and effort to break in.
Wear Quality Shoes Made For The Job
While cheap shoes may be alright for a short, non-strenuous hike, they will not hold up on a more advanced, longer hike. Instead of wearing inexpensive tennis shoes, invest in a pair of trail running shoes or hiking shoes to make the hike more bearable.
Hiking shoes have additional support and are more functionally designed for long distance walking.
If you want to learn more about whether you really need to invest in hiking shoes or not, check out my article here.
Get The Right Fit Or Hate Yourself
Just grabbing any pair of hiking shoes is not the solution either. I’ve made this mistake several times. I went to Walmart and got the cheapest pair of hiking shoes that roughly fit and went for it.
This strategy could turn out great, but it’s incredibly important to make sure your hiking shoes REALLY fit. I’m not talking about the fit where you can’t feel the toe of the shoe. Your toes must not have any crowding. If you feel your toes bunched up at all then you are asking for an incredibly uncomfortable hike.
I strangely have really wide feet. All the “wide” fits for several hiking shoes I’ve tried still crowd my toes, except for Keen. That’s why I use the Keen Voyageur (Amazon). They’ve taken me many miles and have been my most comfortable shoe.
Strengthen Your Feet (Literally)
You can actually strengthen your feet by doing simple exercises, such as heel raises, to make your ankles stronger for walking on uneven ground. Additionally, you can simply walk barefoot around your yard to help build up calluses and get used to walking on the ground without the support of shoes.
Wear Thin Socks
While most people think that wearing thick socks is the best way to prevent blisters, it actually does the opposite. Thick socks will retain more moisture and make your feet sweat. When you have more moisture in your socks, you’re actually more likely to get blisters.
There are other reasons to have thick socks, (such as if it’s cold), so some hikers wear a sock liner (basically a thin pair of socks underneath their regular pair). This is a disputed method, but some swear by it.
Drain Blister Fluid
To drain, or not to drain, that is the question!
There are different schools of thought on this subject. WebMD says to not pop a blister unless there is a good chance that the area is still going to be irritated. If you are hiking in the wilderness, this is definitely the case! You still have many miles to go.
However, the great outdoors is not a sterile environment. It’s much more difficult to keep the area clean from infection. If possible, leave the blisters be if it won’t make you miserable and if they won’t pop on their own. The skin and fluid protect the area from infection.
From experience, while hiking, it’s difficult for blisters that have formed to not pop on their own from the constant friction. Perhaps the safest thing to do is to pop the blister in a semi-controlled fashion rather than letting them pop in your shoes. It’s a tough call but must be made on a blister by blister basis.
Sometimes referred to as “lancing,” this could actually help your blister start to heal and will make it less painful in some cases. Once the fluid is drained, put a Moleskin or gauze bandage over the area to prevent further friction. Antibacterial ointment is a great idea since you now have a new hole in your skin. For more tips on how to prevent infection, make sure and check out that WebMD article I linked above.
Tape and Blister Pads
From duct tape to Band-Aid brand blister pads, hikers have become very creative with the ways they protect their feet from blisters. For the most part, you can proactively place pads or tape in the spots that you most commonly get blisters, or you could use the tape after you feel the blister.
Air Out Your Feet
The moister your feet are, the better chance you have of getting a blister. So if you are on a grand backpacking excursion and stop to make camp, take off your have shoes and go barefoot so that you can air out your feet. In fact, this might even help keep the smell of stinky foot out of your tent.
I know it’s a pain, but make great efforts to keep your feet dry. If you have to, take off your shoes for water crossings. If you want to have shoes just for water crossing, check out our post here for some ideas of different shoes that work.
Lubricate Your Feet
So, there are many things you can put on to lubricate your feet, but it’s probably not a good idea to use a powder.
While there are some powders that claim they will prevent blisters from forming or at least lessen the discomfort from shoe friction, don’t bother buying them unless you plan on hiking in the desert. When the commercial powders, and even baby powder, get wet, they may actually increase the friction between your foot and the sock. This action will cause more blisters.
Instead, there are many cream foot lubricants (NOK being a popular one. Check it out on Amazon.) that can accomplish the same task of reducing friction but won’t be compromised from wet conditions.
When evaluating some of the tricks used by the hiking community, toe socks continued to pop up as an alternative to toughening up your feet with calluses. While I have not tried these myself, some hikers claim that they helped keep the blisters at bay. Some people said that toe socks even helped with blisters when the socks got wet, so toe socks may be worth a try.
Why Do Hiking Boots Hurt My Feet?
While your hiking boots could hurt your feet because your foot is slipping around inside the boot due to loose laces or failure to lock your heel in place, one of the most common reasons why hiking boots hurt your feet is because you didn’t spend the time breaking in your boots or the boots are just not the right size.
When we say, “breaking in” we mean that you need to wear your shoes so that your body can get used to the level of stability and cushion that the shoes provide. Additionally, your feet will need to build up calluses to counteract the friction the shoe causes in certain areas. If you don’t break in new shoes, you’ll likely end up with blisters or even knee, shin, or hip pain.
You could simply walk around the house in your new shoes to start breaking them in, but there are other ways to help toughen up your feet for hiking. For starters, you could harden your skin and build up calluses.
The internet agrees that by far the best way to avoid blisters is to break in your shoes. While this does take some time, you could at least begin the break-in process as soon as you know you’re going for a weekend hike. Try wearing your hiking shoes around the house, going for short walks, or attempting a short hike to start breaking in your shoes.