On your feet: How to prevent, treat blisters

Blisters are easy to make. Just lace your healthy foot into a boot that is too loose or too tight, and then hike a few miles. Before long, you’ll start to feel a hot spot where the boot is chafing.

Ignore that warning and push on. Soon your skin will do something remarkable: Threatened with being rubbed raw, it will form a blister — a pocket of sterile fluid to cushion itself against friction.

Continue walking without treatment and the blister might rupture, tearing the skin and opening a painful wound. Exposed to bacteria in a sweaty sock, it could become infected.

Blisters are the flat tires of hikers and the blowouts of backpackers. They can sideline anyone and take the joy out of the day. Fortunately, preventing blisters and treating those that do pop up can be as easy as creating them.

Begin by choosing footwear that fits well. Shoes need to be comfortable not only for around the block, but also for mile after mile on the trail. Getting good guidance at an outdoor store can help you step in the right direction.

Break in new shoes by wearing them as much as you can before setting off for a long hike. Do they pinch anywhere? Rub against a heel? Find out before you trust them to go very far.

Choose socks with smooth seams. Dry feet are less likely to blister, so look for blends of fibers designed to wick away moisture. Change into dry socks if the pair you are wearing becomes damp. Wet socks tied to the outside of your pack can air out as you continue your trip. You can also tuck damp socks into the bottom of your sleeping bag, where body heat will dry them during the night.

Many hikers pull on thin socks first and heavier socks over them. Snug against your feet, the thin socks can slide a little inside the outer socks, helping prevent friction against the skin.

Carry a patch kit on all your hikes. With the following items in a self-sealing plastic bag, you’ll have a few ounces of blister prevention when you want it and a pound of cure if you need that, too.

Blister Patch Kit

  • Moleskin and molefoam, two sheets
  • 2nd Skin gel pads, two sheets
  • Athletic tape, 1-inch width, one small roll
  • Small pair of scissors for cutting padding and tape
  • Alcohol wipes, a dozen individual packets
  • Antiseptic, small tube
  • Sewing needles, packet of three or four
  • Butane lighter for sterilizing needles

Here’s how not to get a blister: Before a hike begins, be sure everyone is wearing comfortable footwear and socks. Stop a mile or two down the trail to check for hot spots and talk about the importance of dealing with any foot concerns the moment they are noticed.

Got a hot spot? Shield it with a piece of 2nd Skin gel and cover that with moleskin or first-aid tape. The gel will allow removal of the moleskin or tape later on without it sticking to a tender area.

If a blister does form, clean it with an alcohol wipe. Cut gel just big enough to cover the blister itself. Next, cut a donut-shaped pad of molefoam and fit it around the blister to relieve the pressure from your shoe. Depending on the location of the blister, add a second or third donut on top of the first to create more padding. Use moleskin or first-aid tape to hold the donut in place.

Should you drain a blister? Leaving it alone preserves the protective cover of skin and allows the wound to heal naturally. However, if you need to keep hiking and the blister seems about to break anyway, draining it in a controlled manner can help prevent infection.

First cleanse the blister with an alcohol wipe, and then sterilize a needle in a flame. Prick the lower edge of the blister and allow the fluid to drain. Apply antiseptic as you would for any small wound. Cover with a gel pad and build a moleskin donut around the blister to relieve pressure. Replace the bandage once a day.

When you get home, figure out how you can prevent blisters from recurring. You might try socks of a different weight or lacing your shoes more loosely or tightly. Sometimes a change in footwear will do the trick. 


Take care from head to toe

Friction blisters forming around your feet and ankles are the most common type of blisters you might encounter while hiking.

However, blisters can pop up on other areas of your body and can indicate problems requiring immediate attention.

Blisters can materialize because of sunburn and frostbite. Care for your skin in extreme temperatures by applying sunscreen and staying covered.

Certain bug bites and stings lead to blisters as well, including bites from blister beetles, fire ants and some spiders. Blisters that form from other insect bites, such as mosquitoes, could hint that you’re allergic.

Consult a doctor if any blister’s fluid is not clear or if you develop a fever. These could be signs of infection.


ROBERT BIRKBY is author of three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the Fieldbook and the newest edition of the Conservation Handbook. Find him at robertbirkby.com

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