A Hiker’s Guide to Blister Management

blister

Photo courtesy of Mike “The Gambler” Towne

Blisters are to hikers what carpal tunnel syndrome is to court reporters.

The primary cause of these little bubbles of fun is friction. Long hours on your feet combined with ill-fitting footwear and/or excessive moisture is generally enough to do the trick. Throw in a sprinkling of trail grime and the odd fungal infection and voila…………baby balloons of fluid are springing up faster than mushrooms after a rainstorm.

Thankfully, blisters for the most part can be avoided by taking some simple precautionary measures. Listed below are preventative techniques to stop them occurring as well as treatment tips to help facilitate the curative process.

1.  Buy your Hiking Shoes a half to full size too big

Blister prevention starts when purchasing your hiking footwear.

  • Swelling: Over the course of a long hike your feet WILL swell. This is especially true when hiking in hot conditions. Shoes that feel nice and snug in the store, will most probably feel tight and uncomfortable after a week on the trail.
  • Fit: Disregard the sales person who insists that the correct fit for hiking footwear is one finger between your heel and the back of the shoe. Two fingers are more like it. Before purchasing walk up and down stairs, run around the store and wiggle your toes vigorously. If there is any tightness whatsoever, the shoes are too small.

2.  Break-in your shoes & feet

L2H blister

Toe blisters | Lowest to Highest Route | USA, 2014

No matter what your choice in footwear, go for at least a few hikes before embarking on a multi-day trek. This especially holds true if you purchase boots, which may require weeks of regular wear before feeling completely comfortable (i.e. leather models).

This same principle holds true for your feet. Irrespective of how much experience you may have, feet lose some of their outer toughness following a lengthy period of dormancy.

For example, before 2014’s Lowest to Highest Route, I hadn’t hiked for more than two months due to injury. On the second and third days of the trip, my friends and I covered more than 30 miles in what was often rough and rocky terrain. Despite wearing shoes and socks that had been long time mainstays, I developed two sizeable blisters on my toes simply because my feet weren’t “hiking fit.” 

3.  Horses for courses

Your choice of footwear should be environment appropriate. For example, in hotter temperatures and arid terrain, look for the most lightweight and breathable shoes that are suitable for your foot type**.  Heavy boots in hot conditions are generally an invitation for blisters.

Unless hiking in winter temps in which there is a risk of frostbite, I don’t use footwear that has a waterproof liner. The reason? If I’m hiking in trail runners (which I almost always do in three season conditions) I want shoes that are as breathable and quick drying as possible. A waterproof liner impedes both of these qualities.

** Footwear represents the most individual-centric choice of your entire backpacking kit. Whilst initially it may feel great floating along the trail in a gossamer pair of running shoes, your joy could well be short lived if you do not meet certain criteria which will enable you to backpack safely and comfortably in lightweight footwear. Factors such as individual foot type, injury history, pack and body weight and the dictates of the terrain in which you will be hiking, all take precedence over how much your footwear actually weighs when it comes to deciding on what footwear is right for you.

4.  Socks

Always wear socks that fit. Too much loose material will often result in friction and excessive moisture. At the other end of the spectrum, socks that are too tight can restrict circulation and cause swelling.

  • Point6 socks

    Merino wool  lightweight hiking socks emblazoned with the Continental Divide Trail logo | Point6 Socks

    Avoid cotton: It clings to the skin when wet, doesn’t insulate and takes longer to dry.

  • My preference? For three season conditions, my preference is for thin merino wool socks (e.g. Point6 Ultra Light, REI Merino Wool Liner). They breathe well, wick moisture away from the skin and are quick drying. In colder temps, I will upsize to a thicker merino wool models (e.g. Point6 or Darn Tough).

5.  On-trail Preventative Techniques

  • Pre-taping: If you have regular trouble spots (e.g. the back of your heels), consider taping them up before hiking.
  • Hot Spot: If you feel a blister developing, stop and deal with it ASAP. Options include covering it with medical tape, band-aids, new skin liquid or duct tape. My long time preference is for 3M Micropore Paper tape; breathable, lightweight and adheres well.
  • Air your feet regularly.
  • Change and clean socks regularly. Any washing should be done away from water sources. Hang them to dry on the outside of your pack.
  • Wash your feet regularly, either away from water sources or down stream from where people gather water.
  • Toenails: Keep them trimmed.

6.  Treatment

  • Small blisters: Clean, apply antiseptic ointment and cover with a band-aid or medical tape. Alternatively don’t do anything and let nature run its course.
  • Larger blisters:  If they are seriously impeding your ability to hike: 1. Clean with water or antiseptic swab; 2. Pop with a flame sterilized needle; 3. Apply an antiseptic cream/solution; 4. Do not remove the broken skin as it provides protection for the new skin underneath; 5. Cover with a dressing; 6. Continue hiking.

 


Comments

A Hiker’s Guide to Blister Management — 8 Comments

    • Mate, I wish I had photographic evidence…….your Zion blisters were legendary! By all means send me through some images and I’ll add them to the post.

  1. My go to preventative is liner socks. I’ve been blister free for over a decade but I know not everyone is the same.

    Did you know that when I click on your older stuff, Continental Divide for instance it says, PAGE NOT FOUND!

  2. Great tips, thanks Cam.

    I find, when popping any blister, tempting as it might be, it’s best not to pop it in the centre at the top, make a small hole at the very edge of the blister where it meets clear skin. Then ease the water out gently and slowly, taking care not to put on too much pressure which may burst the hole you have made and make it bigger.

    By doing it this way, opening only a tiny hole for the water to drain, you are more likely to keep the skin over the raw flesh in tact. When I do this, the skin eventually hardens and heals without too much pain.

    HTH!

  3. About ten years ago I went from just weekend hikes to a couple of annual two week hikes where my foot size went from a 9 1/2 to 10 1/2. Since then I have worn Brooks Cascadias year round 365 days per year and have never had any more blisters. I have never been fortunate enough to do a thru-hike and hope to in a couple of years when I retire. But I wonder if on a thru-hike my feet will continue to swell/grow or have they likely stopped getting larger? Since I usually buy two to three pairs at a time when they are on sale, I was thinking I may not want to do that before a thru-hike or extended section hike. What do you think?

    • I’m with you on the Brooks Cascadias……..great shoes.

      In regards to your question, the answer is I’m not really sure. If they have already grown a size, I’d be surprised if they got too much bigger…….particularly as they seemed to have plateaued over the past decade.

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