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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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