Blister Prevention For The Feet

Feb 17, 2020

Nobody wants blisters, least of all on holiday. But if you’re relying on your feet to get you from A to B, you’re really going to want to avoid them. So today, I’m going to break it down and give you the facts and practical advice you need to prepare your feet for your big walking adventure.

Blister Prevention for Walkers. Person with heel blisters stands with painful feet.

Skin Toughening

Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing you can apply to your feet to toughen your skin to prevent blisters. Everything you apply to your skin tends to dry it out or lubricate it, like talcum powder or Vaseline. Certainly, these products can help protect against blisters, but neither of them make your skin structurally tougher.

Thankfully, it is possible to make your skin tougher and more resistant to blisters. You achieve this by subjecting them to the forces that are likely to cause blisters. As you do, the structure of the skin changes in positive ways – it adapts. Skin cell turnover is faster, the skin becomes thicker and skin cells are more resistant to frictional forces.

Here’s how you can toughen your skin:

  • Gradually increase the time you spend in your shoes (and socks, insoles and any other foot-gear)
  • Gradually increase your distances
  • If you’re carrying a backpack, wear this during your training so your feet to get used to this extra weight and what it might mean for alterations in your gait
  • Make any changes small and incremental to benefit from this gradually increasing skin resilience to blisters.
  • No last-minute changes!

The adaption strategy can only go so far. For many people, this strategy alone will keep them blister-free. For others, it will help, but only to a certain point. One thing’s for sure though… nobody can afford to neglect the blister prevention strategy of adaption.

A Word About Callouses

Taking the “adaption” strategy too far is to build thick chunky callouses on your feet where you get blisters. The rationale is it will take longer to wear through the thicker skin. But blisters aren’t a superficial-to-deep wear injury. They’re mechanical fatigue of the skin layers to too much stretching.

You can watch this video to understand how and why blisters form:

A callous doesn’t prevent this mechanical fatigue. Blisters form in exactly the same way whether there’s a callous there or not. And they certainly make blisters more difficult to deal with!

Here’s how you can deal with callouses so they don’t make your blister situation worse:

  • Rub them with a pumice stone or emery board (a little bit, often, that’s the best way to go).
  • Get a pedicure – make sure they use sterile or disposable equipment.
  • See a podiatrist for professional assistance.

How much callous is the right amount of callous? Like most things, the answer lies somewhere between chunky callous and smooth as a baby’s bottom. The right amount of skin thickening is barely noticeable. Err on the side of less thickness rather than more.

A Word About Moisturisers

Moisturisers won’t make callouses any less blister-causing. That’s because they don’t change the thickness of the callous. Plus, the moisturiser will increase friction levels, which causes blisters. The aim is not to keep a callous soft; the aim is to reduce its thickness.

How to stay blister-free on your next walking holiday.

Staying Dry

Very dry skin has a low friction level. This is ideal to prevent blisters. However, when your feet are wrapped up in shoes and socks, and you’re active, nothing can keep them anything close to “very dry”. They’re going to be clammy. Unfortunately, clammy means the skin exhibits the high friction level we’re trying to avoid. While this is unavoidable, we can (and should) take steps to promote drier skin and there are several ways to achieve this.

Here’s how you can keep your feet as dry as possible:

  • Take your shoes and socks off if you have the opportunity to allow your feet to air dry.
  • A quick change into dry socks can make all the difference if they’re particularly wet from excess perspiration on a hot, humid day.
  • Take your shoes and socks off for river crossings
  • Wear moisture-wicking socks to move moisture away from the skin. You can learn more about moisture-wicking socks here.
  • You could try an antiperspirant if you have very sweaty feet. However, they tend not to work very well on the feet. The ones that have been found to work cause skin irritation and are not commercially available.
  • You could try a powder to absorb a little bit of moisture. However, a powder can only absorb about 13% of its volume.
  • You can dry your skin out with astringent preparations like strong salty water, cold black tea soaks, Condy’s crystals, alcohol wipes or Akileine Tano, among others. Astringents are purported to “toughen” the skin. It’s more likely they dry the skin – at least in the short term at the start of your walk.

While drying your skin with any of these methods is worthwhile, the effect is probably only short term.

Other Blister Must-Do’s

Blister Prevention Footwear:

It should go without saying that you need footwear that fits well and is fit-for-purpose. Whether you decide to walk in athletic shoes or hiking boots or something in between, be sure to consider the climate and terrain. And visit your local specialist outdoor or hiking store and benefit from their expertise and advice.

Blister Prevention Socks:

We’ve touched on moisture-wicking socks already. I consider them the very least you should be wearing. There are also double-sock systems you can consider, such as Wrightsocks or Armaskin socks.

Insoles:

At the very least, make sure the insoles in your shoes/boots are not thin or compressed so as not to be offering any cushioning. The little bit of cushioning a nice padded insole can provide can go some way to reducing pressure under the heel and ball of your foot and absorb a little bit of blister-causing skin shear, especially on downhill sections.

Gel toe protectors:

There are two blisters you’re most likely to get while you’re walking long distances. The first one is little toe blisters. While a simple piece of tape, moleskin or wool might do the trick, I recommend having a couple of gel toe protectors in your pack, just in case. The cushion bony toe joints and absorb blister-causing shear better than any foam or other cushioning material. And if you know you’re susceptible to little toe blisters, have these in place for your training and right from the start of your hike.

Low friction shoe patches:

The next most likely blister you’ll get is the one at the back of your heel. I favour Engo blister patches for this blister location. They work better than lubricants or powders. And they even give more relief than “donut” pads. They stick to your shoe rather than your skin and will last the duration of your holiday without needing to be changed. You can learn more about how they work here.

A quick word on friction: When you reduce friction, most people think you’re trying to stop rubbing. In reality, you’re trying to make things more slippery. This slippery surface (either on your skin, between sock layers or on your shoe) will reduce the skin from stretching too much. Remember, blisters are caused by the skin stretching too much (we call it skin shear).

Still getting foot blisters?

If you’re getting blisters in your training and you can’t figure out why there are two things I recommend. Either:

  • Grab your footwear and any prevention strategy you’ve tried and visit your podiatrist. Some blisters are caused by the way your foot is structured and functions and your podiatrist can help with that.
  • Visit the blisterprevention.com.au website and search for your blister location eg: blister between toes. I’ll go into more detail about what can cause blisters in this anatomical location and help you choose the right strategy for that blister

Your feet deserve the best preparation for your upcoming adventure. Be sure to nail blister prevention and keep blisters out of your walking holiday equation. Otherwise, you’ll be relying on your blister treatment skills to keep you on your feet.

By Rebecca Rushton BSc(Pod)

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