Avoiding bottom-of-foot blisters in light hiking

How does one best avoid getting blisters on the bottoms of the feet while hiking?

I like mild hiking, mostly trails during pleasant weather, perhaps 5 or 10 miles, perhaps a few hundred feet of ascent and descent, sometimes with up to 20 lbs of equipment (often combining hiking and amateur surveying), usually nothing wet or perhaps a bit damp from dew or little puddles. I’m in my 50s, overweight but not enough to tire me badly, with fairly ordinary feet.

My limit is always by getting blisters, only on the bottoms of my feet. I wear old sneakers or work boots, and white cotton tube socks. Perhaps this is the problem.

I’d like to get some shoes or light boots and some socks especially for hiking, to see if I can improve this. What are the things to do or not do? Should the fit be tight or loose? What about foot care, like treating calluses? Which shoe manufacturers have done research on blisters, published about it, or patented designs for reducing blisters?


It’s probably your shoes/socks.

Look for some good socks, and a light hiking boot.

If I may recommend

  • Smartwool socks. About as comfy as they come.

  • Merrell boots. Lots to choose from. I love them but it may be that they just fit me right. I have a long narrow foot.

Also, when you are just lounging at home, keep your shoes off to toughen your feet up.

Some of your gear is a clear red-flag.

First, get a good pair or two of wool socks. I love my Smart-Wools. They are magnitudes more comfortable and dry out super quick. Foot sweat alone can contribute to blisters.

Get Moleskin. Put it on before you hit the trail, in areas you expect friction to occur. You can find it in most drugstores.

Your work-boots/sneakers may or may not be ok. I go hiking in the soggy northwest, so wouldn’t dream of going without waterproof gortex layered boots. However, for some people the weight of heavy boots alone can contribute to blisters. It may be worthwhile to get a decent pair of light-hiking shoes, but you can probably be safe trying new socks/moleskin before shelling out the $$.

I third the Smart Wool socks. My husband doesn’t hike, but he’s on his feet all day and he swears by them.

They’re expensive, but you can go on line and save a bundle. We go here: http://www.sockcompany.com/

Also, get some good shoes. Worn and comfy is ok around the house, but if your feet are really working, you need support and cushion.

Good socks, good hiking boots. Regular hiking to build up calluses on feet and for cardio-vascular health. Check with your M.D. first. Bring plenty of water to drink on the way.

That’s why I put anti-perspirant (not deodorant) on my feet before I do any serious hiking. I’ve never had a blister on my feet since I came across that hint several years ago.

Just curious, what would you suggest wearing in 100 degree weather? I can’t imagine wearing wool socks in 115 degree weather.

Yes, it is. Never ever ever wear cotton socks while hiking. Even if you’re in the middle of the Sahara, you don’t want cotton socks. When your feet sweat, which they will, cotton will absorb and just sort of hold the moisture there against your feet. Soggy feet get more blisters.

You want (IMO) two layers of socks. First, you want a pair of either CoolMax or Polypro liner socks. These should be fairly thin and clingy. They do two things: wick moisture away from your skin, and also reduce the friction from your skin rubbing against the outer sock. This alone will go a long way towards reducing blisters.

For your outer socks, you want something nice and thick, with lots of cushioning. Look for SmartWool or a wool/silk blend. These should have a fairly snug fit, but should fit comfortably over a liner.

As for boots, I’d say you absolutely want some form of boots, not sneakers. A solid pair of boots will run you probably $150-$200, but will probably be a dozen times more comfortable than what you’ve been wearing, and will last you a very long time (my dad has a pair of boots that’s in it’s fourth decade). So, I’d suggest first get some proper socks, wear them with your workboots, and see how that goes. If you find it comfortable and the blistering stops, you’re golden.

Thanks, everybody.

I am definitely going to start with SmartWool socks, and maybe CoolMax or Polypro liner socks too. Do these come in different weights? I guess I should find out what combination of these I like before I buy boots, because layers of socks will change the fit - anything else I should know about sizing, and how to plan it with socks? I’ll also try some moleskin.

What’s the role of friction in creating blisters? I know that if some spot on the side of your foot is rubbing a fold or edge or something, you’ll get a blister there, like you do on your hands from too much shoveling or raking when you’re not used to it. But, is that what happens on the bottoms of the feet? Does it mean I’m skidding around inside the shoes, and so they must be too loose? Or can blisters come from repeated impact without rubbing, too?

Thanks for the Merrel boot suggestion. Any other boot suggestions?

I have a nice pair of Caterpillar boots that I’ve been wearing for pushing ten years now, still in great shape. Of course, these are my full on leather winter boots, Sno-Sealed and all so they get fewer actual miles than the light spring/fall boots that usually last 3-4 years. In summer I’m usually wearing leather hiking sandals and I’m lucky if I get more than a year out of those.

Danner boots are made here in Portland and a lot of guys I know absolutely swear by them–my next pair of heavy boots will probably be Danner. Caterpillar has moved away from making hiking boots, which is a shame. Tevamakes some great boots, but their hiking sandals are absolutely the shit. Spendy, but worth it. My longest lasting summer sandals were Tevas and they lasted three years!

Sierra Trading Post has some great deals on socks and boots–check out their silk long johns as well, because those are the best things EVER!

Cotton socks, which first absorb moisture and then stick to the skin, are right out for hiking or any serious athletic activity. Blisters on the bottom of the feet is probably due primarily to the socks not wicking away moisture and sticking to the soles, and once that starts the blisters tend to be self-reinforcing. Not only would I suggest that you get good wool socks like SmartWool (and yes, they come in different weights; you should select sock thickness that correlates to the weather you are hiking in and the fit of the boot), but I would also recommend using polypropylene or silk sock liners. These will help wick away sweat or moisture that may cause the sock to stick to your feet and start abrading to a blister. While wool socks and sock liners may not completely eliminate blisters they go a long way; I can’t remember the last time I had a blister when wearing appropriate socks.

I usually carry a few Moleskin patches but I’ve rarely found a need for it when wearing good boots and socks, so mostly I end up giving it away to other people, or using it to cover abrading seams in clothing or kayaks.

I also generally carry at least one spare pair of socks and sock liners, because they don’t take up much weight, are great to change into if your existing socks are totally saturated, and can be used for other things like mittens in an emergency. I’ve hiked miles in wet socks with liners without a problem, but when your feet are frozen cold it is such a relief to change into warm, dry socks; in fact, this is usually the first thing I do after setting up camp and rolling out the sleeping bag.

Good boots, or at least robust, good fitting shoes with good traction, are also a necessity. If you don’t know what to look for I would recommend going to a good outdoor store and having them help fit you. Boots are definitely not something to skimp on, especially when carrying a backpack. You don’t need to splurge on custom made Danners, but work boots are probably not adequate. I’ve seen people hiking in tennis shoes–some people prefer it–but I find that they don’t provide enough arch support for carrying a load, and traction on normal tennis shoes on trail is inadequate. The boots/shoes should be firm but not tight or constricting, and there shouldn’t be any significant movement of the foot within the boot either ascending or descending, or if there is movement it should be in a way that the foot is free to move without rubbing. For instance, I usually adjust the tension in my laces to hold the ball of the foot stable but intentionally allow a bit of heel slippage on long, steady downhill trails because I find that my foot tends to slide toward the front and trying to put enough tension to keep the foot from moving at all results in heel blistering and squeezing of the front. You have to figure out what works for you by trial and error, though.

I actually have three sets of hiking boots (all Vasque brand, which I find fit me very well and hold up longer than other boots I’ve had), depending on whether I’m doing casual hiking, warm weather backpacking, or cold weather heavy backpacking. When just doing a casual hike with a light daypack or beltpack I often just wear trail running shoes (cross trainers with aggressive tread). If you hike a lot (or would like to hike a lot), good boots are a wise investment in comfort and foot health; getting corns or infections due to blisters is no good for anyone.

I hope this helps. Good luck, and enjoy hiking.

They’re not bad, actually. Wool wicks away moisture (and therefore evaporates and cools) much better than cotton. I would wear thin wool/silk blend or merino wool socks. I personally prefer to wear full leather uppers and steel shanks, but most manufacturers make lighter boots with fabric or even ‘see-thru-em’ uppers that allow ready ventilation. Your feet don’t really produce that much heat, anyway, so when hiking I rarely notice that my feet are hot though taking off the boots at the end of a hike and planting my feet in a cool lake or stream is one of the refreshing joys of hiking.


I’ll add a big “Me too” on the cotton sock mistake. Smartwool is nice but for years I’ve been wearing inexpensive wool socks ($20 for 4 pairs) from Costco, even on long hikes. I also wear similar socks for running long distances. I’m not a big fan of Coolmax fabric myself, I’ve tried various socks & liners made with the stuff and always gotten blisters, plus it never seems to hold up well. I prefer the cheap blue polypro “Gobi” liners. There are also various substances you can put on your feet to help keep comfortable. Someone mentioned anti-perspirant, there’s also BlisterShield which is a fine powder made of wax and teflon (put a bit in each sock, it stays slick all day long), Bodyglide (a long-lasting lubricant that you put on troublespots, marathon runners use it to keep chafing under control), Gold Bond powder and others. In addition to Moleskin there’s some great stuff called Second Skin which are self-adhesive gel patches that you put over a blister (or hopefully, over a hot spot before it turns into a blister).

The unholy trifecta for blisters is heat, moisture and friction (kind of like the “fire triangle” of fuel, oxygen and ignition). If you can keep one (or ideally all three) under control you will be much less likely to get blisters. I’ve mentioned friction reducing substances, those are cheap and worth trying. For moisture, wool and the various synthetics will wick sweat away from your feet and move it to the outside of the sock where it can evaporate, keeping your skin dry. If you hike in areas where your feet will get wet (streams, wet grass in the morning, etc) I’d highly recommend hiking boots with a Goretex liner (which seems to be pretty much all of them these days). That will keep outside moisture from getting into the boot and making you miserable. If you keep friction and moisture under control you’ll have less trouble with heat, but simple things like making sure you don’t have your boots packed too tight with foot+socks will help, as will stopping every so often, taking your boots and socks off and just letting things air out for a few minutes. Or bring a pair of spare socks with you and change if you notice discomfort. Note that your feet can get too cold as well as too hot - cold wet feet is a nice way to get trenchfoot. Again, wool and synthetics will insulate even when wet which is a good thing.

Try boots on with the socks you’ll be hiking in to ensure you get a good fit. Everybody’s feet are different as are the fits of the various boots out there so go to a proper outdoors store and try on a bunch of boots from various manufacturers to see what feels right. Remember that you will be spending hours in them and what feels like a minor irritation in the store can become a major nightmare out on the trail. Don’t settle for a boot which doesn’t make you say “Ahh, that feels perfect”. I’ve had good luck with Vasque amongst other brands. When putting your socks on take a minute to do it right so you don’t have a seam rubbing on the tips of your toes or fabric bunching up. A shoehorn is handy to keep things from shifting around when you put your boots on.

The actual mechanism of blister formation, as I understand it, is that the rubbing starts to shear one layer of skin against the underlying tissue and your body reacts by letting fluid accumulate in there to help cushion against the irritation. Eventually you get a bubble of the stuff under the skin and that’s your blister. I don’t think that I’ve ever had a blister as a result of straight impact - it can certainly hurt but I don’t think you’ll get a blister without rubbing.

Take care of your tootsies and they will take care of you!

Not to be a contrarian, but the hi-techiest socks in the world won’t matter if your shoes don’t fit.
I’m a veteran of 21 years of 8 to 12 miles a day, up and down hills carrying a load in all kinds of weather (retired mailman) and wore cotton socks most of the time, wool in the winter. I currently run 5 miles a day in cotton socks, too. I spent the first three months of my carreer in shoes loaned to me by another carrier who was close to my size and developed big, thick calluses in the balls of my feet. They dissapeared when my uniform allowance came through and I bought real carrier shoes that actually fit me!
Hiking on uneven terrain makes shoe fit even more important.
If sweaty feet are a problem, by all means try the special socks, but only after you get some shoes that fit that are designed for the job!
And don’t give up on walking!

In my Boy Scout days, nylons were my secret weapon. Sounds weird, but a pait of ankle-high nylon under the wool socks provided a ton of protection against blisters.

I do a lo-tech version of what the others here have suggested - thin nylon socks on the inside, and wool ragg socks (yes, even in summer) on the outside. The nylon moves with your foot, and the wool moves with your boot. This directs the inevitable friction to occur between the two pairs of socks. (Like JSexton, I was a Boy Scout too.)

One other thing to throw into the mix regarding calluses. My latest edition of “Fixing Your Feet” (footcare for extreme endurance athletes - ultramarathoners and the like) recommends avoiding calluses. The author is of the opinion that they make problems worse (I can confirm that a blister under a callus is worse than one on “virgin” skin) and he has a bunch of suggestions for keeping feet callus-free (I’m using a plain old pumice stone in the shower). I’m a sample of one but it does seem to make a difference for me.

Another important point is lace adjustment. They need to be tighter when hiking than when resting or lazily strolling. It’s also sometimes helpful to adjust them somewhat differently for going uphill than going downhill.

Smartwool is very good or wool plus a thin wicking liner sock. If you wear two layers of wicking (wool wicks) socks, and decent well-fitting boots, you’ll have to walk for a long time before you get blisters.

You can find some nice slightly used high quality hiking boots on eBay, if you’re on a budget. Remember, you’ll be wearing more thickness of sox, plus allow some room for swelling, so you likely have to get your boots one size larger.

Before you go hiking in new boots, wear them around the house to break them in.

In really hot weather, you can get some thicker Coolmax socks, instead of wool. But yes, as Stranger sez, wool is fine in normal hot weather, since it wicks.

I’m 63, overweight and not in great physical shape. Two years ago I hiked through the national parks of the southwest U.S. for 24 days. In the past I had a huge problem with blisters, but I learned how to prevent them.

Get the best pair of hiking shoes you can find. If you don’t anticipate walking through water, get a pair that breathe, rather than ones that retain heat. Break in your shoes (and socks) before you go hiking, and use Moleskin. When you’re familiar with your shoes, you’ll learn what areas of your feet are the most sensitive. Put Moleskin on those areas the morning of your first hike; and when you cut it, round the corners. This way you’ll be preventing blisters before they start. In real problem areas, you may need two layers. Take lots of Moleskin with you, remove it after each day’s hike, and replace it fresh every morning.

If you are not used to walking/hiking you will get blisters no matter what. Of course good shoes and socks help, but you need to hike regularly to condition your feet.