Who hasn’t had at least one blister in their life? Blisters are definitely no fun, especially when you are trying to hike all day every day and you’ve got one on your foot! We get a lot of hikers in the shop that have problems with blisters so we know a little bit about how to treat and prevent them. This blog post is going to talk all about blisters so I hope you stomach isn’t too full because there are going to be some interesting pictures of blisters.
What are blisters?
A blister may form when the skin has been damaged by friction or rubbing, heat, cold or chemical exposure. Fluid collects between the epidermis—the upper layer of the skin—and the layers below. This fluid cushions the tissue underneath, protecting it from further damage and allowing it to heal. Friction is the most common cause for blisters while backpacking and is what we see in the shop. This kind of blister happens after walking long distances or by wearing old or poorly fitting shoes. Blisters form more easily on moist skin than on dry or soaked skin, and are more common in warm conditions.
In the shop, we help people with blisters all the time. There are a number of reasons hikers have blisters. The most common I would say is hikers wearing big stiff boots. Sure they may have “broken them in” a little bit, but to really break in shoes you need to have your full pack and hike in the mountains with them. If you just wear them around your flat neighborhood for a couple of days that won’t do the trick. Even if you’ve had them for a while, just the bulkiness and age of the shoe can cause friction and blisters. Another common reason is poorly fitting shoes. We have a lot of people that come in the shop with shoes that are too small and their toenails are already turning black, and also a good amount of people who buy shoes that are too big to anticipate foot swelling. This causes a lot of foot slippage in the shoe which in turn, causes blisters. Sometimes blisters can be inevitable if you’ve never done any hiking and your feet are just tender. You got to get out and hike more and build up some calluses to prevent blisters!
First off, you need to find shoes that fit you. Having a professional help you and show you how a shoe should fit is important. You need to find that sweet spot between too big and too small to prevent blisters. There are also a lot of different brands of shoes. Depending on what kind of foot you have, some brands will fit you better than others. Trail runners are becoming a more popular type of shoe on the trail. They are light weight and really don’t need much break in compared to boots. Boots will definitely be better though if you are hiking in the winter or have ankle issues. Again, just go try on a few pairs and see what feels right!
Choosing the right socks is the next step to prevent blisters. You want a sock that is going to keep your feet from getting too sweaty and a sock that will dry fast. Wool is the most popular material hiking socks are made from because it regulates temperature to keep your feet from getting sweaty and it provides cushioning. Be sure to get a sock with an appropriate amount of cushioning. A thick sock is not going to be good in the summer because it will make your feet sweat more. Try to keep your socks relatively clean on the trail. Have two pairs of socks to hike in so one can hang on the back of your pack and dry out while you wear the other pair. Try to wash your socks when you get to towns. Even if you just have a sink, rinsing them out and drying them in the sun or in front of a fan will make them so much better.
Even before a “hot” or irritated area on the foot is felt, taping a protective layer of padding or a friction-reducing interface between the affected area and the footwear can prevent the formation of a blister. Bandages, moleskin, and tapes generally must be applied to the foot daily on those hot spots. Other good tapes include Leukotape and KT tape. You can also use a lubricant such as Body Glide or Vaseline on the affected area to prevent more rubbing. Some people use powders suck as Gold Bond before they leave camp for the day and this helps soak up the moisture from your feet and help prevent friction.
If somehow you have failed to prevent a blister and end up getting one, there are a few tips for treating the blister. It can be personal preference on what action to take while on the trail. I prefer to go ahead and pop the blister after I’m done hiking for the day. I make sure to get all the fluid out, then I apply an antibiotic ointment on it and keep it exposed to let it dry out and hopefully scab. If in the morning it is still sore, I’ll put some moleskin over it and duct tape the moleskin to my foot to make sure it stays in place. I remove the bandages that night and repeat the process. I have found that usually the skin reattaches to itself after one or two nights and then forms more of a callus.
Some other advice is to not pop the blister at all. When you do pop a blisters, you ricks infection if it gets dirty, so keeping it in its original form is a safe move. You can put a donut-shaped piece of moleskin on the blister to prevent further friction. If the blister gets worse or irritated, go ahead and pop it. Waiting till you get to a town is best so you can have soap and water and maybe stay off of it for a day or two.
Blisters are no fun! Definitely come see us at Mountain Crossings, or go to your local outfitter to get expert advice on a pair of shoes for your hike. Be sure to go hiking in your new shoes on short day hikes and build your way up to bigger miles while carrying a pack. Have a small first aid kit with some moleskin, antibiotic ointment, and duct tape and that is all you need to treat a blister. And lastly, don’t be afraid to get off trail for a day or two if the blister really hurts. Hiking with really sore blisters puts a huge damper on the hike!