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Tips on blisters

I often read reports or commentaries on long distance walks which talk about ‘the inevitable blisters’. In my experience, there is nothing at all ‘inevitable’ about them, and the long distance walker should not be troubled by them. So, here are some tips to help you avoid them. This is adapted from an article that first appeared in Strider, the journal of the Long Distance Walkers Association.

Firstly, it’s undoubtedly true that walking a lot hardens the bottom of the foot, which itself will no doubt go quite a way to make blisters less likely. Linked to this is the fact that some people think they can go from being a couch potato to walking long distances just like that. So Tip no 1: train before a long walk to get your body, including your feet, accustomed. Start with an hour or two and gradually build up to a day or two before tackling multi-day walks.

The experts tell us that blisters are caused by friction. Not just any old friction of course, as every step we take involves friction of some sort, but by bits of adjacent skin being rubbed (’fricted’?) in different ways. One obvious source of this is those annoying little stones and bits of gravel that get into our shoes just when we least want to stop and remove them. Unfortunately, if we try and ignore them they do not go away, so Tip no 2: stop and take them out immediately.

Anthropologists will no doubt tell us that the foot evolved when mankind walked barefoot, blisters are a result of using unnatural foot-coverings, and so if we walked barefoot we would avoid them. This may be correct in theory, but I’ve never been able to work up much enthusiasm for walking barefoot myself. So for such softies as me, the other obvious source of blisters is the footwear itself: boots/shoes and socks. Whether you prefer boots or trainers, the most important thing is to buy and wear what you feel most comfortable in. This is likely to be those that fit best. If they are too small, your feet will be constricted, which may well lead to other problems besides blisters; if too large, your feet will lurch about in them. I would add something that is often omitted in discussions of this: that fitting is not simply a matter of length but also of width; it would be a mistake for someone like me with a narrow foot to buy broad footwear. So Tip no 3: forget what the boots/shoes look like - concentrate on what they feel like; ignore the gear reviews recommending this or that boot and the glossy photos of the latest trendy products; go to a shop that stocks a wide range, try them all on, and buy those that feel best. Unfortunately, I tend to find these are also the most expensive - ah well!

As for socks, I would guess that these are the single greatest source of blisters. Many walking socks in the shops are wool-based yet, though wool is nice and soft when new, it soon mats from dirt or sweat after use, thereby creating precisely those unevennesses that lead to differential friction on the skin, i.e. blisters. Of course you could throw out the socks every few days and buy a new pair, but this is rather impractical. Washing them regularly would no doubt cure the problem, but regular washing on a long distance walk is also impractical as wool takes forever and a day to dry. We are always told (Tip no 4) that we should wear a pair of thick socks with a thinner pair underneath, and thinner socks are easier to dry. For this reason, I went over many years ago to wearing polypropylene inner socks on my long walks. Polypropylene’s claimed property of wicking sweat away from the skin may not be 100%, but I am certain that it dries a damn sight faster than wool; I wash these inner socks every evening and generally find they are dry by morning.

Which brings us on to the last blister factor, the one that causes the socks to mat in the first place: moisture, in the form of sweat and (who would have thought?) water. Although it’s easy to say that you should avoid getting your feet wet, there is an obvious payoff between waterproofness (or whatever the word is) and comfort. Fans of trainers will say they find them so comfortable they don’t mind a wet foot every so often; wellington boots may be waterproof, but they’re hardly comfortable for long walks. So just a couple of common-sense tips to avoid unnecessary wettings: (1) fit the footwear to the conditions (no need for wellies if the ground is bone-dry; bedroom slippers not recommended for crossing water-meadows in winter); (2) wear gaiters in snow to prevent bits of snow falling inside the boot; (3) if you absolutely have to ford a deep stream, take your socks off first, put your boots back on, and on the other side dry your feet thoroughly before putting your socks back on; (4) I have always found overtrousers more valuable for walking through wet grass/arable crops than in rain; it has to be pretty heavy rain before you get as drenched as you do wading through a short stretch of tall wet grass, and there is nothing I hate more than feeling the water gradually sinking down into the boots.

One other thought on this subject is that I read somewhere many years ago that you should wash feet in the evening after a walk and not in the morning before it, as washing softens the skin which, if walked on immediately afterwards, can easily lead to blisters. I have always followed this advice and, though I have no evidence to back it up, I can only say I have found no reason to regret it.

There is still one joker in the pack not yet discussed: efforts to keep water away from the feet will be set at nought if your feet are wet from sweat. Although thick woollen socks are very nice in cold weather, they are far from ideal in hot weather. My polypropylene inners probably do wick sweat away from the feet to some extent, but like breathable fabrics they are not 100% and can be overwhelmed in hot weather/countries. Nowadays, there are increasing numbers of wicking socks made of materials such as Coolmax. These are probably better at removing moisture, particularly with fabric boots, but in my experience are thinner than traditional wool ones, so I get sore feet sooner with them. So, if I wear thin socks, I get sore feet; if thick, sweaty. Hmm.

Finally, if you do get blisters, the best cure is time. Don’t mess about lancing them or whatever; just take a day or two’s rest and they will go away.

May 16, 2005