When on a backpacking trip blisters can knock the shine off things a bit, but what can be done to prevent them? Without doubt, preventing them in the first place is by far the best option; dealing with them afterwards is at best a ‘damage limitation’ exercise. Let’s take a look at the cause and what we can do to prevent blisters.
The cause of this kind of blister is friction brought about by the foot rubbing against the boot. In everyday life the problem is reduced because generally we are only moving around on our feet for relatively short periods carrying little weight; however, the weight carried when hiking, the distance covered and the extended time are all increased along with the terrain being much rougher. The softer the skin the more prone to a blister it is, but have you ever thought what makes your skin go soft? Water! I can almost hear the cries of ‘I’ve got waterproof boots!’ It is with some trepidation and a heavy heart that I must tell you that most of the time the water comes from the inside in the form of sweat; this cannot get out through the Gore-Tex liner at the rate at which it is being produced. This warm, wet environment softens the skin quickly (just as it does when you spend too long in the bath) and in this condition it is very susceptible to damage.
Is Your Footwear Suitable?
Many people assume that because they are embarking on a wilderness trip they must buy a big pair of boots; this is far from the case and a number of things should be taken into account when choosing a pair of boots.
- The Conditions.
- The Distances.
- The Weight Being Carried.
- The Terrain.
If you will be mainly in a temperate zone a boot with a Gore-Tex or similar lining will be required to cope with the mud and water but if you are predominantly in a more arid area go for a boot that has no Gore-Tex liner and reduced thermal insulation. The weight carried and distance covered are important in as much as your feet will get tired as the day progresses and will need support from the upper part of the boot. All your weight is transferred through your feet to the ground; this is referred to as stress and can be calculated, it is the LOAD/AREA. Your feet are accustomed to supporting your bodyweight only, now you have to add your rucksack to that; on a serious trip it may weigh 30Kg! All this extra weight is trying to spread your feet; your boots will need to keep this in check. The terrain will also play its part in trying to destroy your feet, the rougher and harder it is the stiffer the boot will need to be. So, as a general rule if you are covering long distances with heavy loads on hard rough terrain you will need a stiff 4 season boot even in the summer; unfortunately these are likely to be insulated and Gore-Tex lined.
The Correct Fitting
It is extremely important that the boot is fitted correctly, don’t rush this. Remember, if you get this wrong you will suffer more than a hippopotamus with chapped lips later on. Some manufacturers have a choice of width fittings but unless you have excessively wide or narrow feet a standard fit will be fine. Don’t go for two pairs of socks or any gimmicks, put on a pair of good quality, heavy loop stitch hiking socks.
Firstly, undo the laces completely and slide your foot in, push your foot as far forward as it will go; now you need to be able to slide your middle finger down between the back of the boot and the back of your heel, this should be a nice sliding fit… Not slack and not tight. Do the same with the other foot. If they are both O.K. you can lace them up. To do this you need to bang the heel of the boot on the floor hard a few times, making sure that your heel is hard against the rear of the boot; now lace the boot tight. Do the same with the other boot. When you walk around you should not feel any pinching or discomfort and there should not be any lifting of the heel. Walk around the shop for 10 minutes or so and if they are good make the purchase on the understanding that you will wear them around the house for while and if you are unsure you will return them. This will be unlikely if you have fitted them as described. Try them out going up the stairs if you have any, placing only the front 25% of the boot on the stair; this will make the heel lift if it’s going to.
Many people say that you should use two pairs of thick socks with hiking boots; my personal experience has found this to be incorrect. The more socks that you wear, the more slack there is in the boot when they bed down; in addition to this your feet get hotter and sweat more, making the skin soft.
If you have a good pair of boots that fit well and a quality pair of socks you are 95% there. The last 5% comes down to preparation and maintenance. Make sure that your feet are clean, dry and lightly dusted with talcum powder (scented is O.K. but don’t tell your mates) before you put your boots on. Lace them up properly as above and make sure they are comfortable before setting off. If you have any discomfort whatsoever, stop and sort it out straight away; if you feel any movement, stop and re-lace, again straight away. At the end of the day wash, dry and talc your feet before sleeping… No exceptions.
There is no point in me trying to dress it up, if you do get a blister you will just have to put up with it. Many people will tell you about all sorts of treatments but at the end of the day you just have to switch off and get on with it. The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better; the reason for this is that you will put less pressure on your blistered foot and that means more pressure on your good foot, causing that foot to develop problems. In addition to that, your knees will become stressed due to the change in your gate and unbalanced foot pressures. Next is neck and shoulder pain due to your spine trying to compensate. It just goes from bad to worse.
The Good News
Get everything right and you don’t need to worry about treating blisters… You won’t get any!