There are few things that ruin a nice mountain adventure like a blistered foot. The old wisdom for blister prevention focused more on what to do after you get a blister, than what to do to prevent one in the first place. A blister kits contain all kinds of gel, adhesive patches, scissors, and tape, but once you need a kit, your mountain dream trip is already on the way to being miserable. Breaking in shoes or boots before a trip is a good idea in theory, but often hard to execute in practice while living far from the mountains and walking on flat ground doesn’t really do the same thing to your feet or boots as hiking on uneven angles.
So I asked Lyle Grisedale, a summer guide for CMH and lifetime mountaineer who has spent more time in boots than most people spend in pajamas, if he had any better ideas about preventing blisters. I expected the same old don’t-complain-but-blame-yourself-for-not-breaking-in-your-boots spiel, but he came back with an entirely different and preventative three-part solution:
1st - What you are wearing:
Never wear cotton socks, wool is the very best and you can buy specially designed hiking socks from companies such as Thorlo, Icebreaker and Wigwam that are excellent. When buying boots it is very important to get a boot that has an excellent heel counter, the more supported the heel is the less likely that you will get blisters.
2nd - How you walk:
We all spend most of our life walking on engineered surfaces: sidewalks, pavement, etc. All stair risers are the same height: 7 inches. This makes walking very easy and because of this I think people get out of touch with their feet. Then, when they get to the mountains on rough trails, or come with us heli-hiking where we mostly walk off-trail or on game trails, they take big, inconsistent steps and blisters become a problem. So, most importantly people need to change their stride. In rougher terrain a long stride causes us to press onto our toes as we move to the next step, and as soon as you lean onto the toe the heel comes into contact with the back of the boot and causes friction - especially walking up hill.
Also, we can prevent blisters by changing our heel-to-toe, rocking walking style, and instead place the foot down parallel to the slope and picking it up parallel to the slope for the next step without getting up on to the toes. This way the foot comes straight up rather than rocking onto the toe and moving in the shoe causing friction.
Then when going down hill:
- Take small steps, as the foot is placed ahead the toes are pointed down so that the foot lands parallel to the slope.
- Keep your knees slightly flexed.
- Lean slightly forward at the waist to eliminate the heel slipping on loose rocks.
This style not only prevents blisters, but it is also easier on the knees from a stress point of view, and we are more stable. When I teach mountain walking to our guests they are amazed at how much easier it is and how much terrain we can cover with this technique. You don't need long strides to cover big distances; small steps will take you just as far with out stressing the feet.
3rd - Toughen your skin:
If you have been doing all your walking in the city and are going to the mountains it is a good idea to put some Moleskin, or at least a bit of athletic tape, on your heels for the first couple days just to help protect the heels until they are conditioned a bit to walking in rougher terrain.
A thorough examination of blister prevention on About.com and other websites discusses a number of factors, but doesn't metion the way we walk - perhaps the simplest solution of all. For CMH summer adventures, the vast majority of adventurers find the boots provided by CMH work better than their own footwear; and the guide's attention to blister prevention avoids the problem entirely.
Heli-hiking on glacier photo by Topher Donahue.