Archive for December, 2009


December 30th, 2009

Blisters can strike at any time on the trail.  Here are a few tips to help you prevent them or,  if needed,  treat one in the field.

Once you have found a pair of boots you like you will have to break them in. A good rule of thumb is to walk at least 50 miles in your boots before wearing them on an extended hike.

Hiking Socks: Many hiking/backpacking socks provide extra cushion at the heal, ball, and toes of your foot for added comfort, and support and can also help with moisture. Your liner sock will also help keep the abrasion between your outer sock and your skin to a minimum, and hopefully keep the blisters away.  I personally like Smart Wool socks – they keep my feet dry and offer a good deal of padding for extended trips.

One of the staple products of any seasoned hiker is mole skin. While this product does not treat a blister, it allows you to protect your blister from your shoe, and hopefully keep it from getting worse. It is important to treat a blister as soon as you can to keep it from getting worse.  If you feel a hot spot, address it right away.

Start by reducing friction:

  • Duct tape: If you know you’re hiking many, many miles, try putting some duct tape on your trouble spots. The smooth outer surface is a natural friction fighter, and the tape provides a foot-protecting barrier.
  • Body Glide: This can be purchased at sporting goods stores and is applied to the feet before hiking.  It reduces friction and hence prevents blisters.
  • Trim your toenails

Cool your heels

  • Get the right shoes: Unless you’re carrying a 30-pound-plus load and/or have weak ankles, you really don’t need heavy-duty hiking boots.  Light, good-fitting shoes with ample ventilation go a long way toward preventing blisters.
  • Get grit out of your shoes now: The tiniest burr, pebble or bit of grit can rub through your skin in minutes — especially in areas like the back of your heel where the skin is not as tough. As soon as you feel something in there, stop and get it out.
  • Rest and rub: On an all-day hike,  just taking off the socks and airing things out cuts heat considerably.
  • Superfeet insoles: Provide more arch support than the typical insoles.  Come in different colors with correspond to different arches and usage expectations.  I use the green color and they work very well for me.

Types of blisters and treatments:

The skin-rubbed-away blister

This has the most obvious treatment: clean it thoroughly with alcohol wipes and antibiotic ointment, put some gauze over the exposed area and tape the whole thing closed to prevent further friction. The exposed flesh will harden a bit when exposed to air, so let it breathe awhile before you apply the dressing and tape over the wound. Be extra careful not to tape over any loose skin, because it’ll just peel back off when you remove the tape.

The fluid-filled blister

On most day hikes of no more than a few hours, you’re probably better off taking it easy and letting the blister heal on its own, but if you’re going to be on your feet for a long time (all day or on a backpacking trip,) draining a larger blister is going to be pretty much mandatory.

Standard advice: Clean your hands and the wound area; using a lighter, burn the tip till it turns red, then let it cool, using matches can cause contamination. Make a tiny puncture at the edge of the blister and let the fluid drain.

Once you’ve done all that, clean the wound with your alcohol wipes and antiseptic ointment and let the remaining skin protect the wound. Cover with gauze and tape it closed, taking care not to tape any loose skin.

A milder fluid-filled blister might best be left alone or taped over to reduce friction. Walk more slowly, take more rest stops and air out your foot to cool it down when you rest.

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Using GPS

December 17th, 2009

There are many different styles, types and sizes of GPS units available.  Here are a few practical things you can do with a good GPS unit while exploring the woods:

  • Pinpoint your exact location in longitude and latitude even when its dark, foggy, or you don’t otherwise have the slightest idea where you are.
  • Determine the distance and direction from your location to another specified point.
  • Mark where you park your car, so you always know which way to get back.
  • Establish your altitude, and track your elevation history as a profile.
  • Mark locations along your route, or intended route, with “waypoints”
  • Show what direction you need to go to get back on track.
  • Offer traditional navigation assistance with a built-in digital compass, if available.

But here are a few other real-trail things that GPS ads won’t always tell you:

  • You must still carry a map and regular compass. GPS units don’t always work the way you might expect, and you don’t always have the coordinates you need for a destination, so you need a paper map for reference and a compass as backup.
  • GPS units don’t work well, if at all, in buildings or under tree heavy cover. So if you’re in a forest, you may need to find a clearing to set your position, which isn’t always easy.  One thing to look for is a high sensitivity receiver when purchasing a unit.   This can help with some of these problems.
  • GPS units go through batteries if you keep them on for extended times – which you need to do for tracing routes, for instance.  Always carry extra batteries.
  • When a GPS unit indicates you are one mile from a designated spot, that is an “as the crow flies” mile, not a trail mile.
  • Don’t take it out for the first time without learning something about it at home first.
  • The first thing a GPS unit does when you turn it on is to start looking for satellite signals, trying to nail down its position. You may get a signal meter like on a cell phone, or it will tell you how many satellites it is communicating with – most need 3-4 out of the 12 to be accurate.

The basic GPS skills:

  • How to set a waypoint of your current location;
  • How to enter the coordinates of a different location from a map or other reference source;
  • How to determine directions from your current location to another waypoint;
  • How to use the built in compass and altimeter;
  • How to replace the batteries.

One of the great things you can do with a GPS unit is record your “track” as you walk.  This is analogous to a digital bread crumb trail and can be set at any interval you choose.  The immediate benefit to this in the field is that you retrace your steps if you wander off the path and don’t have any waypoints marked in the vicinity.  Most websites dealing with this topic suggest setting the interval to .10 miles – meaning every .10 miles it records your position.  All these points are strung together at the end of the trip and can be saved as a .gpx file.  These .gpx files can then be uploaded to popular trail sites such as or   You can also link pictures to your GPX tracks if the clock on your digital camera and your GPS unit are matched. and talk you through this and it’s really easy.  Another huge advantage is that you can search out trips that people have already uploaded and download them to your GPS unit before you go out.  You can also preview the waypoints (marks along the track) and view the track in Google Earth – allowing you to get a 3d view of the trail and elevation profiles.   Very cool stuff.   See the trails section of this website for examples of this in action.

Additional resources:

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