To a certain degree, blisters are to hikers what carpal tunnel syndrome is to court reporters – an occupational hazard.
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 it’s not all doom and gloom. Blisters for the most part can be avoided by taking some simple precautionary measures. Listed below are preventative techniques to stop blisters 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 and feet
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 an invitation for blisters.
Unless hiking in winter-like conditions in which there is a risk of frostnip or frostbite, I don’t use footwear that has a waterproof liner. The reason? If I’m hiking in trail runners – which I 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.
- Correct fit: Always use 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.
- 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 liner socks (e.g. REI merino wool liners). 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, Montbell, Smartwool 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, moleskin, band-aids, new skin liquid or duct tape. My long-time preference is for 3M Micropore Paper tape, which is breathable, lightweight and adheres well. As a bonus, it’s cheap and you can pick it up at pretty much all pharmacies and big grocery stores.
- 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.
- 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.
- Large blisters: If blisters 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.