Gear List: Backpacking Foot Care Kit for blisters & maceration

How many hiking and backpacking trips have been set back, or even ruined, by blisters, maceration, and other podiatric woes? Quite a few — including some of mine, unfortunately.

To eliminate or minimize these issues, I carry a dedicated foot care kit.

This kit is a separate entity than my backpacking first aid kit. While the two share some multi-purpose items, it also contains foot-specific remedies.

Naturally, foot care know-how is as important (probably more so) than a foot care kit. In general, my best recommendation is to be preventative and resourceful. Studying up can help, too, like by reading Fixing your Feet, by John Vonhof.

A fallen-off toenail, due to trauma incurred several weeks earlier during an Ironman. Such an issue is best addressed with a rubber toe cap or with a combination of tape and moleskin. Also, try to keep your feet clean, although that's hard when packrafting glacier-fed rivers in Alaska.
A fallen-off toenail, due to trauma incurred several weeks earlier during an Ironman. Such an issue is best addressed with a rubber toe cap or with a combination of tape and moleskin. Also, try to keep your feet clean, although that’s hard when packrafting glacier-fed rivers in Alaska.

Gear list: Foot care kit for hiking and backpacking

Over the past twenty years, I have backpacked solo over 30,000 miles and have led 100 guided groups with nearly 800 clients, in locations throughout North America, primarily the Rocky Mountains, High Sierra, Appalachians, Desert Southwest, and Pacific Northwest.

My foot care kits are based on what I’ve encountered during these experiences, and what has proven to work (and not work).

  • Critical: A must-have, no exceptions
  • Suggested: A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
  • Optional: Not critical, but worth consideration
  • Contingent: Depends on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
  • Unnecessary: Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised
My group foot care kit for hiking and backpacking. For solo trips, I carry fewer items and less of each item. Note: Due to poor business practices, I recommend substituting Bonnie’s Balm for another brand.

Download & edit this list

To download this list as a PDF or editable spreadsheet, go here.

Prevention & resourcefulness

Even with a proper foot care kit, it may be impossible to entirely cure a foot problem. In many situations, time and rest are the only guaranteed solutions.

So, prevention is the best approach. For example:

  • Test shoes and socks on short, low-risk trips;
  • Stop as soon as a hotspot is noticed;
  • During extended rest stops, remove shoes and socks so that your feet can breathe and dry out.

If prevention fails, and if the issue cannot be managed with the foot care kit, then get resourceful. I have removed and cut insoles, spliced heel cups, cut holes in the sides of shoes (to relieve pressure), and modified lacing systems, among other less conventional tactics. Keep experimenting until something works, or at least until the situation becomes tolerable.

Preventative taping using Leukotape, to manage several developing hot spots. Notice that I rounded the edges to prevent the corners from pulling up. I also applied benzoin to improve its stickiness, since this is a very high-stress area.
Preventative taping using Leukotape, to manage several developing hot spots. Notice that I rounded the edges to prevent the corners from pulling up. I also applied benzoin to improve its stickiness, since this is a very high-stress area.

Solo versus group kit

My solo foot care kit is designed to treat my most common problems. In particular, my feet get macerated when wet, and I am prone to blisters on my heels on routes with extreme vertical relief. Your foot care kit should reflect your unique foot care needs.

My group foot care kit is more robust. I need to be prepared for more and more unexpected foot problems. So my kit contains more items and greater quantities.

Native conditions

The unique particularities of feet can create issues in the field. Examples: high arches or flat feet, bunions, hammer toes, heel spurs, and severe pronation. Fungal outbreaks can become painful, and be exacerbated in wet conditions. And long toenails are vulnerable to getting and causing blisters.

Once in the field, options for treating such conditions are relatively limited. Buy well fitting footwear and test it beforehand. Trim toenails. And treat fungal infections.

Well fitting footwear is critical -- options are relatively limited once in the field. If you have unconventionally shaped feet, such as a very wide forefoot and narrow heel, with a low arch, finding good shoes can be a challenge.
Well fitting footwear is critical — options are relatively limited once in the field. If you have unconventionally shaped feet, such as a very wide forefoot and narrow heel, with a low arch, finding good shoes can be a challenge.

Blisters

A blister is a fluid-filled void left by the separation of dermal layers. To treat them, it’s critical to understand the root cause, which may include:

  • Heat,
  • Moisture, and/or
  • Friction.

Some friction-induced blisters are due to calluses. This thick and hard patch of skin moves as a solitary unit, putting undue pressure on the softer skin around its edges and underneath it.

Two classic heel blisters, resulting from friction between the skin and the stiff heel cup of the hiking boots. Blist-o-bans are ideal for heel blisters, combined with some benzoin or a Leukotape patch for additional adhesive.
Two classic heel blisters, resulting from friction between the skin and the stiff heel cup of the hiking boots. Blist-o-bans are ideal for heel blisters, combined with some benzoin or a Leukotape patch for additional adhesive.

Maceration

When skin is exposed to moisture for extended periods, the skin becomes macerated, or pruned. The skin becomes itchy, soft, and maybe painful. It is prone to blistering and to cracking as it dries out. Learn to minimize the effects and aftermath of wet feet.

Badly macerated feet after the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
Badly macerated feet after the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content

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37 Comments

  1. Russell on October 3, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    May sound girly, but I always try to get a pedicure a few days before a trek. A good one, with callous removal and the whole works. Greatly reduces the chances that my callouses turn into blisters. I could probably do this myself, but I figure if I’m about to “rough it,” a little pampering is okay.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 3, 2016 at 7:01 pm

      I was going to suggest a pre-trip pedicure, but thought I might leave too many readers aghast. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Preston on October 3, 2016 at 8:36 pm

    Any sugjestions for caluses on the side of big toes? Seems like 5 miles in they start hurting. Hiking the AT and not much of a choice for new footwear.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 3, 2016 at 9:26 pm

      Remove them. Might be able to start by cutting with scissors, then shave them off with a blade after a shower. Pumice stone to keep them under control.

      • Becky on February 21, 2020 at 8:39 pm

        Great article, going to save this one and go shopping. Thanks for sharing

    • Shawn K. on October 3, 2016 at 10:26 pm

      Preston, I use a cheap pumice stone that’s glued to a plastic handle, with a cheese grater-ish thing on the opposite side. I found mine in a grocery store beauty section for a few dollars. It works pretty well at the end of a shower, especially after a soak in a hot tub. Take your time when removing the layers; going too far isn’t any more fun than blisters.

      I hope that helps you enjoy the rest of your trip. Where are you on the trail?

  3. Shawn K. on October 3, 2016 at 9:20 pm

    Thanks for mentioning that calluses can lead to blisters. I’d never had a problem with that until I started a grueling job that kept me on my feet for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in extremely hot conditions. After the first week, I had to snip through some toe calluses to relieve the pressure from blisters hiding underneath, and I didn’t enjoy hobbling around over the next several days.

    I now keep a small pumice stone in the shower to tune up those areas. I know it’s not as nice as Russell’s pedi, but it gets the job done.

  4. Connor on October 4, 2016 at 4:10 am

    Andrew, another great post, thank you.

    What do you think the role of your extreme mileage is on your foot challenges?

    I’ve read a couple of your comments on the evils of Goretex footwear, and wondered if your experiences reflect the extreme demands you place on your feet, and footwear, and perhaps are not reflective of how such footwear performs for mere mortals such as myself. 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka on October 4, 2016 at 1:44 pm

      I have fewer foot problems than others. On group trips, I am always nursing their feet, not the other way around. Due to the mileage, my feet are probably tougher and stronger, and I better know how to manage them.

  5. Jeff M on October 4, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Hi Andrew – you’ve mentioned using benzoin tincture a couple of times as helping adhesiveness of bandages and tape. This is the first I’ve heard of this product – could you offer a little detail on what it is/ how it works/ how you apply it? Anything that helps tape stick in moist environments could be very helpful.

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka on October 4, 2016 at 1:48 pm

      It’s a liquid, and very little is needed per application. I bought a bottle of it and decanted it into a 0.25-oz dropper bottle several years ago. That bottle has gone on dozens of personal and guided trips, and I’ve only refilled it once I think.

      It has a tacky quality of its own, which when combined with the tape adhesive makes it set up like concrete. Of course, clean and dry the skin first for best results.

      I use it in wet conditions, when tape struggles to stick well. I also use it on high-pressure areas, because even under the best case scenario (clean, dry skin) the tape may not be able to stick. BSN could probably make Leukotape even stickier, but at some point you’ll start pulling off skin when you try to remove it.

      • JeffM on October 4, 2016 at 6:24 pm

        Do you drip the benzoin on the skin or on the tape before application? Thanks!

        • Andrew Skurka on October 4, 2016 at 6:46 pm

          Directly on the skin. Apply a thin coating where the tape will be. You don’t need much — about equal to the moisture needed to activate the glue on an envelope.

          • MarkL on October 7, 2016 at 1:53 pm

            You can also get benzoine swabs which may be easier to apply, but then you have to pack it out. If it’s something you need often the liquid probably makes more sense, but if it is only for a short trip or a just-in-case it may be less fussy. As usual, tradeoffs.

            I have also used liquid bandage like New Skin with decent results on hot spots if it just needs a little protection (like making an artificial callus). It can be a little messy, and you need a well-ventilated area if you don’t want to get a solvent high. 😉



  6. Michael Agrell on October 4, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Have you tried Compede blister band aids? They treat the blister and have a smooth flow friction outer surface. I swear by them.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 4, 2016 at 1:37 pm

      No, I have not. That’s great that they work for you — keep using them.

      The Blist-o-bans are similar, but really only applicable for the heel. When someone has an actual blister that I don’t want to tape over (which can be problematic because the tape adheres to the dead or new skin, depending on what is still there), I usually put a little bit of gauze over the skin before applying the tape patch.

      • Cheri on October 10, 2016 at 6:15 am

        When treating an actual blister, do you put anything on the gauze such as antibiotic cream?

        • Andrew Skurka on October 10, 2016 at 8:38 am

          No. Just a tiny piece of gauze so that the tape does not stick to it, and then the tape.

  7. Nick on April 24, 2017 at 10:53 am

    How do you carry the bonnie’s balm and how much do you typically carry for a week long trip? The jar it comes in seems a little large/heavy.

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka on April 24, 2017 at 4:31 pm

      I use 0.25-oz balm jars, like these http://amzn.to/2oppxrG.

      If you think you might have multiple balm jars for different items, it is worth finding the clear version. It also works to simple mark the outside to differentiate them. Or, write the contents on a small piece of paper, and then adhere the label to the container with some packaging tape.

  8. Chuck in AZ on May 6, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    I purchased Leukotape based on the recommendation of this article. After applying it to my feet, I have found that the adhesive seems to wick through to the non-adhesive side and gets into my socks, making them sticky and gummy. My expectation was that the tape would provide a slick barrier between my skin and the sock. Instead, it essentially glues the sock to my foot. Is this normal or is my Leukotape defective, perhaps from the AZ heat?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 6, 2017 at 2:46 pm

      Try putting a little bit of balm on the tape after it is secured. This will minimize that without compromising its protection of the skin.

  9. Shawn K. on May 8, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    Speaking of Leukotape, thanks for the recommendation. NB Leadville shoes worked great for me in Big Bend NP, but the ultra fine, powder sand of Canyonlands NP easily entered through the mesh uppers and my feet got chewed up on the first hike. L-tape saved the day, and I transitioned to some other footwear for the rest of my time in the Maze. Bonnie’s Balm & DeFeet Wooleator socks were helpful, too.

    On that note, what do you recommend for keeping extremely fine sand from getting to your feet? Zpacks gators + NB trail runners didn’t do the job. OTOH, my Gore-Tex lined boots kept all of the sand out, but I had to change socks every two hours to keep my feet dry-ish. If there’s some kind of non-waterproof oversock available for those conditions, I think it might do the job. I definitely don’t want to return to “waterproof” shoes to keep the sand out.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 9, 2017 at 5:04 pm

      Southern UT is tough on shoes, for the exact reason you mentioned. The best footwear I’ve found has a tightly woven mesh upper, but not waterproof. Keeps the sand (mostly) out but still allows moisture to pass. Several years ago, I had great success with the original Salomon Synapse, http://images.altrec.com/salomon-synapse-hiking-sh-lght-tttt-papaya-wmns-12.jpg. The second-generation was a bust in this regard.

      • Shawn K. on May 9, 2017 at 8:12 pm

        Thanks for the feedback. I’ll start hunting for something like that before hitting Grand Staircase next month. The NB Leadville v3 is a good shoe for me, but the mesh uppers are fairly coarse – too open for Utah. After enjoying the feel of trail runners, I hated putting boots on. I felt my pace lag, even without factoring in the sock changes.

  10. Dan W. on March 27, 2018 at 1:14 am

    Dental floss is a multipurpose item that is great for oral hygiene, blister relief, and impromptu gear repair. Consider wrapping your Leukotape around a flosscard.

  11. presle on July 13, 2018 at 6:41 am

    I’ve just came back from a week of backpacking and my biggest problem was the underside of one big toe. it was a hot spot, so i covered it with sports tape (not the exact leukotape brand, something no name from the local sports store).
    it worked fine for the first three days, untill the day after a big rain, hiking all day in high, uncut grass that was very wet. my feet and socks were wet but that was fine, the problem was the tape on the toe got soaked and when i removed it in the evening, three big pieces of thick skin went with it. the result was three bleeding cuts, and painful days.

    what should i have done in this scenario to prevent the damage on my toe?
    does the recommended leukotape get soaked as well?

    • Dan W. on July 13, 2018 at 7:20 am

      Clean affected area. Apply Benzoin, e.g. Benzoin ampule. Cover blister with Leukotape P. Dry wet feet whenever possible. Clean and rotate your socks regularly. Treat clean, dry feet with an all natural, non-petroleum-based balm or salve of your choice at night, e.g. Bonnie’s Balm or Joshua Tree Hiking Salve.

  12. Loren on April 1, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    You can get balm sample jars with lids, small at 1” diameter, for free from the Whole Foods non-foods department if you ask nicely…they are specifically for samplers.

  13. Doug on February 21, 2020 at 2:51 pm

    I carry a small block of paraffin wax to rub into the surface of Leukotape or 3M Paper Bandage Tape (my favorite). Creates a slick surface that socks slide over, rather than grabbing, thus reducing the shearing force on the skin that leads to blistering.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 21, 2020 at 3:14 pm

      This is a very smart thing to do. That’s the one issue with Luekotape — the adhesive permeates through the tape to its outside, and then sticks to the sock. This creates the exact opposite situation you want — you want your foot to be sliding a little bit inside your sock, not stuck to it.

      I do the same thing, but use the foot balm that I primarily use for maceration.

  14. Sandy on February 21, 2020 at 4:31 pm

    I love Leukotape! I use it for lots of things! Foot care, tent repair… I have had it on my feet for 2 weeks at times. I have also had a toenail (like in the picture) come right off after a marathon. 😢

  15. Tony Ahn on March 2, 2020 at 12:08 am

    Hi Andrew! I noticed that Joshua Tree makes a Climber’s Salve, Healing Salve, and Hiker’s Salve. Have you tried the others and find Climber’s Salve to meet your particular needs better than Healing or Hiker’s Salve?

    • Kirk on March 15, 2020 at 7:18 pm

      According to the Amazon questions about this, they’re all the same thing with different labeling.

  16. Scott Donovan on March 5, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    Have you ever tried bag balm? I have never used it on my feet but did use it a lot on my hands when I was climbing. You can get an 8oz tin at tractor supply for around $10.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 5, 2020 at 5:28 pm

      I have not tried it, but I know of it. I think it may be a little runnier than optimal, but it’d certainly be better than nothing, and it’s cheap.

  17. Frances on March 12, 2020 at 1:48 am

    I also use leukotape with success; despite the gumminess on the socks. But I have found engo blister patches that are a ‘bandaid’ for the heel of the shoe rather than the foot. It has a slippery surface so there is no friction in the heel. They are about $20 in Australia which is expensive for what they are but I found them worth it when they worked and it save the reapplication of tape, at least on the heel. They are also probably cheaper in the US.
    https://goengo.com/

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