What is Foot Balm?
Foot balm, also known as 'hiking salve', is usually a yellow or off-white cream, paste or stick that can easily be applied to hotpots (or wetspots) on the foot that are prone to chafing and cracking. Foot balm is ideal for thru-hikers, climbers, runners, cyclists, or anybody needing protection against hot spots and chafing. With natural moisturizing components that result in friction reducing-magic, foot balm can be especially handy in humid climates.
Hiking in humid climates can quickly lead to sweat, friction and blisters. In such conditions, making sure your feet stay protected is as important as making sure that backpack of yours is manageable.
Why Use Foot Balm?
1. Reduces the risks of soggy feet: Wet feet are an inevitable condition for long distance hiking. Rain, stream crossing or lots of sweat and humidity can lead to wrinkled up and soggy feet. This is similar to the "trench foot" experienced in WWI, when soldiers’ feet would stay wet too long. Lucky for us today, foot balm is known to act as a barrier to prevent moisture from being absorbed into your feet. Less moisture = less likelihood of tender and tearing feet.
2. Prevents Chafing: One of the main benefits to using foot balm while hiking is its ability to aide in decreasing friction in your shoes. Friction can occur when your socks or sock seams rub against your feet, or if your feet begin sweating and moisture gets trapped. When you apply a coating of foot balm, it acts as an extra layer of protection against chafing.
3. Heals cracked heels & feet: Along with being an added layer of protection in your boots, foot balm also has many beneficial factors that can help the skin and overall well-being of your foot. It’s provides a healthy level of moisture that is commonly loaded with essential oils and vitamins. When a layer of foot balm is applied, these oils and vitamins nourish and condition calluses and repair cracked heels. A side benefit is that they can also make your feet smell heavenly (a luxury on the trail).
How to Use Foot Balm?
Where to Apply
You can apply foot balm to specific hot spot areas or to your entire foot like a lotion. Doing the latter can help reduce odor, stop antibacterial buildup, and moisturize all at the same time.
Apply the salve either directly on your skin or on the bottom of blister prevention tape such as Leukotape. This helps ensure the balm won't stick to or stain your socks.
How to Apply
It's pretty simple. Apply foot balm before you hit the trail. Just like chapstick or lip balm for your lips...
1. Wash and dry your feet. The balm will work better on damp, clean feet, as this will help the moisture of the balm set in better.
2. Take about a quarter-sized glob of balm using your fingers (skip this step if using a stick)
3. Rub the foot balm on the skin (or tape)
If you need a more intense application, some brands suggest applying a generous amount directly to your feet before bed, putting on a pair of socks, and letting the balm soak in overnight.
Foot balms come in a variety of textures, sizes and ingredients. There are balms that are organic, cruelty-free, cream-based, wax-based and scented. You’ll also find foot balm offered in tubes, tins, and glide on sticks. When choosing the form and consistency that’s best for you, there are pros and cons to each to consider.
Sticks: Glide on foot balm sticks are popular because of their easy, mess-free application. You won’t have to worry about your hands getting oily or messy, as applying a foot balm in stick form is just like putting on deodorant. It only takes a few swipes! The downfall of a glide on stick is that the application isn’t as “hands-on” as with balm offered in a tube or tin.
Tins: With foot balm in a tin, your hands can get a bit messier and be left with an oily residue after application. However, this oil is what helps make the product so great, and in this form the foot balm is much easier to apply a heavier layer. It’s also ideal for people with hairy legs as the product will spread more evenly.
Tubes: Foot balms in tube form are popular for their squeeze-ease and less oily base. The texture of a balm in tube form will be more like a lotion, and is very easy to spread evenly without leaving much residue on your hands. However, keep in mind that because of this less-oily base, hikers have reported balm in this form didn’t hold up as well.
Beeswax: Beeswax creates a barrier that traps moisture in the skin, therefore keeping your feet hydrated. It also helps in protecting the skin from any external contaminants or skin irritants.
Urea: Urea is commonly found in most lotions and is a key ingredient when treating dry or rough skin. It’s also known to help with skin conditions like psoriasis, and can remove dead or damaged tissue so wounds can heal faster.
Essential Oils: Foot balms may include essential oils like peppermint, lavender, or rosemary. While peppermint and rosemary are both natural skin coolants and pain relievers, lavender is notorious for being relaxing and soothing.
Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is big in nourishing dried and cracked skin, and it can play a major role in helping get your roughed-up heels back in proper hiking condition. This magic oil helps to keep water right at the skin's surface, while also providing deep tissue moisture. It’s also been known to give a great “tropical and beachy” smell to your feet.
Tea Tree Oil: Tea Tree oil is an essential oil that’s derived from a tree native to Australia. It’s been used for hundreds of years in a variety of different ways, but is best known for its bacteria, skin irritation, and infection preventing traits. It’s also a popular antiseptic and deodorant.
All-natural ingredients used in Squirrel's Nut Butter
Foot Balm Alternatives
Some hikers have had success using mere coconut oil, shea butter, over the counter anti-fungal creams and even lip balm in place of traditional foot balms. If a product is mostly cream, wax or oil based, then it should be a viable substitute. Although, keep in mind these alternatives may not hold up as long as specialized balms.
If you do want to stick with foot balm, and are a big DIY-er, then here are great recipes to make your very own foot balm right at home, like the Thru-Hiker's Balm found on kulinarian.com or the Soothing Foot Balm from annsentitledlife.com.
Best Foot Balms
Volume: 0.5 oz. and 2 oz.
Price: starting at $4.95
Squirrel's Nut Butter came about in 2015, when the founder, a mother to a daughter who suffered from eczema, created a homemade recipe that soothed her daughters’ condition for good.
Athlete tested, this balm is a favorite among runners, cyclists, and even triathletes for its anti-chafing and blister prevention. It comes offered in tub and stick form, and in all-natural or even a vegan version. Squirrels Nut Butter can be applied to the feet, but also underarms, thighs, and more.
See on amazon.comFormat: Tin
Size: 2 oz.
Likely the most popular foot balm on the market, Badger Balm is a small, family-run business out of New Hampshire that’s been producing moisturizing body balm since the mid-90s.
Badger Balm is certified organic and uses no petrolatum or chemicals of any kind. This balm is great for healing even the roughest and driest of heels, and gives customers a healthy dose of peppermint tea tree and rosemary essential oils with each application. These oils illicit a “tingly cooling feeling” and “fresh scent” after use.
See on amazon.comFormat: Tub
Size: 1.76 oz.
Joshua Tree Skin Care is a company that offers a variety of salves including products for hikers, climbers, gymnasts, cyclists, musicians, and even pets, just to name a few.
Made from 100% organic ingredients including essential oils and herbs, Joshua Tree’s hiking salve is unscented, moisturizing, and a powerful healer for scrapes, rashes, chaffing, and even bee stings.
See on amazon.comFormat: Stick
Size: 0.80 oz.
A top brand in the body balm market, this California company has gained a loyal following of athletes and active fans alike since 1996.
Unlike the other balms on our list, Body glide’s formula focuses on being dry and invisible when applied. With Apricot Kernel oil and a high dose of Vitamins A & C, this product not only keeps you blister free, but helps to soften your skin and minimize inflammation while at it. Body glide is also water and sweat resistant, while still keeping pores on the skin clog free.
Be careful not to leave this product in the sun too long, as the stick may melt.
See on amazon.comFormat: Jars and single-use packets
Size: from 0.25 oz. to 4 oz.
Price: starting at $4 (available at Amazon)
Designed with the ultra-marathoner and extreme sports athlete in mind, trail toes is a product designed to protect the feet and body from the A, B, C’s: abrasions, blistering and chaffing.
This anti-friction body and foot cream is popular among extreme athletes, but designed for anyone looking to stay comfortable on their outdoor adventures. No matter the terrain, whether how hot, dry or wet the elements are, Trail Toes guarantee’s it’s got you covered. This product also can also sooth eczema, diabetic skin irritation, and is good for wound care.
Size: 1 oz.
Price: $8 at Mountain Mel's
Focusing largely on sustainability, Mountain Mel’s products are organic, sourced as locally as possible, and all of their shipping materials are 100% recycled, repurposed, or biodegradable.
An ideal first aid treatment, Essential Salve from Mountain Mel’s will heal cuts, help bruises disappear faster, save dry and cracked hands, and soothe any itching from pesky bug bites. With its compact size, this essential salve is a great first aide item to have out on the trail with you.
Format: Tube (also available in single-use-packets)
Size: 3 oz. and 5 oz.
Developed by Rick and Carl, the founders of Foot Kinetics, Hikegoo was created after the duo tried every other blister prevention product they could find, and weren’t impressed.
Unlike the other products on our list, Hikegoo is a thick based cream that comes offered in a tube and is mostly made with friction-reducing wax. The wax helps lubricate the foot, provide an extra thick coating of protection, and claims to last longer than other blister prevention creams available.
See on amazon.comAdditional Foot Care Advice for Hiking
Foot balm can be a huge aide in preventing blisters and chafing both in your hiking boots and other friction-prone hot spots of your body. However, it can only help so much, and you need to make sure you’re properly setting your feet up for success from the beginning.
Here are a few things to keep in mind with foot care while thru-hiking:
#1: Invest in Well-Fitted, Quality Hiking Shoes
This is a biggie. Make sure your boots fit properly and are well tested and broke in before you head out on the trail. To ensure your boots fit properly, you can always head to your local outdoor gear store to get fitted. Just keep in mind you want to have some wiggle room in your toes, and the heel of your boot should sit tightly at the rear of your foot. Also, since feet swell while hiking, allow a little give. (Read: Best Hiking Shoes)
#2: Choose Your Socks Carefully
It’s always a good idea to have a few different pairs of hiking socks with you. For warmer climates, lightweight socks will help keep your feet cool and sweat-free. For colder, tougher terrain a thick crew or knee-high sock may be more suitable. Just be sure to make sure your socks fit properly, are moisture wicking, and are made from quick-dry materials like merino wool, polyester blends, and spandex. Also, if you feel your socks get wet or sweaty during your hike, stop and swap them out! (Read: Best Hiking Socks)
#3: Add Sock Liners
Liners are great to wear underneath thicker socks, as they’re an added barrier defense against moisture and your feet. Also, since liners are thin and made from quick-dry materials, you can give them a good washing at camp, put them out to dry overnight, and pending it doesn’t rain… they’ll be good to go by morning. (Read: Best Sock Liners)
#4: Keep Your Feet Dry and Clean
Taking care of your feet while out on the trail is the best thing you can do to be sure you can keep putting in the miles. Keep your feet clean and dry by changing your socks routinely, cleaning your feet before bed, and giving them some much-needed R&R and fresh air at the end of your day.
#5: Watch for Hot Spots
While it’s good to keep your eyes and mind focused on your hike, be sure to draw your attention to your feet from time to time to ensure there’s no budding hot spots. The second you feel one starting to form, the best thing you can do is stop and take your boots and socks off. Beat the blister before it starts.
Just like our minds and legs do, our feet need rest too. They’re putting in a lot of work down there when they’re hiking hundreds of miles for days on end. Don’t be afraid to stop and the smell the roses while on your hike, and even let your feet out to breathe so they can do so as well. They’ll thank you for it in the long run.