I go the extra mile to avoid blisters when winter day hiking and backpacking because I don’t want to sit on the bench for 2-3 weeks while they heal. Everyone has a different system for winter blister prevention because everyone has different feet and footwear, but I thought I’d describe my system and how I maintain my feet to give you some insight into the options available.
I always tape my heels before winter hikes with a sticky cloth tape called Leukotape, which I apply the night before a hike because body heat helps to increase the adhesive grip. I sometimes forget to do it at night, so this isn’t a must-do kind of thing, but it does work better than applying it in the morning. I also wear Leukotape on my heels when I wear trail runners the rest of the year. This tape stays on when it gets wet and it will stay on for multiple days at a time when I go backpacking. I also carry pre-cut strips of it in my first aid kit. I typically go through two rolls a year.
I lubricate portions of my feet with vaseline before I put on my socks, namely the ball of my left foot and in between the toes of my right. The ball of my left foot experiences some friction, which is mitigated by the vaseline. I also cover the problem area on my insoles with a piece of slick (low friction) Engo Blister Prevention Tape to make the surface super slippery. This is very slippery tape you apply to your shoes, not your feet. It’s very popular in the Ultra-running community where repetitive friction can lead to real problems on long runs.
I also apply vaseline between the toes of my right foot so they don’t rub against each other when I’m hiking. That friction tends to irritate the nerves of my right foot, a condition called Morton’s Neuroma, which feels like your sock is bunched up around your toes, even when it isn’t. Morton’s Neuroma is an overuse injury and one experienced by many hikers as they get older. I stumbled onto using vaseline this way last summer and haven’t had a recurrence of Morton’s since. It’s that simple. I’m surprised my podiatrist didn’t recommend it.
The heels on my feet and portions of the bottom of my feet are callused and dried out. This can cause blistering, particularly when the outer layer moves, but the inner doesn’t, something called “skin sheer” which is the mechanism that causes blisters. To help prevent this, I rub an ointment called Dr. Scholl’s Severe Cracked Heel Balm on my heels and the balls of my feet at night and cover them with a thin sock. It only takes a few applications to see a marked improvement in skin elasticity. I do this every couple of weeks and it keeps the skin on the bottom of my feet supple.
I keep the toenails on my feet pretty short so they don’t bang up against my boots and shoes, turn black, and fall off. This just involves trimming them periodically with nail clippers. I also file my toenails when they get thick. If you hike a lot, your toes are bound to experience nail trauma which results in thick toes nails that stack up instead of growing longer. It can have the appearance as toenail fungus which is often misdiagnosed by your family physician if they don’t understand what it means to be a serious hiker. It’s a lot like a scab that keeps getting thicker on top. I use a heavy file to sand the nails down so they don’t stick out and get irritated. I have hiking friends who do the same thing.
Things I don’t do
When I started seriously winter hiking, I used to wear thin polyester liner socks under heavy wool socks. I don’t do that anymore because modern 400g insulated winter hiking boots are very warm by themselves, without the need for extra augmentation (at least for me).
While double socking can be used to prevent blisters…it works by wicking moisture away from your skin into the outer sock layer your feet may actually feel colder because it can inhibit blood flow if it makes your boots fit more tightly. Air is also the best insulator, so give your toes plenty of wiggle room and they’ll stay warmer.
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