If there is one thing that can put a quick end to an outdoor adventure, it is a blister.
Unlike the rest of your gear, your feet need a little bit of extra special preparation to make sure that they are ready for the trail. Some people take care of their feet almost daily, others hardly at all, but if you are about to embark on a hiking journey, there are a few specific points you will want to know to give yourself the greatest chance of making it home from the trail blister free.
What Causes Blisters
Blisters are a nuisance, but they are also something that everybody will have to deal with at some point. There is a multitude of ways that a blister may occur but the most common is from friction. In simple terms, as you walk, your foot is essentially traveling in one direction and the interior of boot in the opposite.
Your skin will often start off by reddening in the area but as the skin is pulled by the boot, the cells that bond your tootsie’s tough outer skin layers to the soft sub-epidermal layers begin to physically separate, which produces a void. That newly created space is then filled with blood, pus, or most commonly blood serum, the part of blood left after coagulation. This is when the blister finally rears its ugly head.
Accelerants for this process are heat and moisture, as either physically softens the skin, so it is best to keep your feet both cool and dry to avoid blisters.
The reasons as to why a friction blister may rear it’s ugly head are also many. It can be sock selection, incorrect boot size, and even the climate inside your boot.
When purchasing a new pair of boots, it is always recommended that you never head straight out in them onto the trail. They need working in first by giving them a test run. When doing this, you should also do it with the kind of socks that you intend to wear.
Picking out the perfect pair of boots will have many influencing factors depending on the intended use. All available boots have specific features like waterproof membranes, gusseted tongues, ventilation, or high ankle coverage, which will be important details to consider depending on the conditions you will be adventuring in.
Heavyweight: A mountaineering boot will be rugged and made of materials that provide solid stability and protection. These are the preferred choice for longer distance excursions.
Medium and Lightweight: Alternatively, lightweight boots are usually made of synthetic materials and will be a more flexible option while still producing excellent traction on loose surfaces. These are best for short weekend hikes on established trails.
Once you know the kind of boot that you are going to go for, you need to make sure that the fit of the boot is perfect. This will make sure that they do not rub on your feet which will end up giving you blisters.
When checking for size, there should be about a half-inch, or one finger’s width, from your longest toe to the tip of the shoe. This will ensure there is enough room in the toe box for your foot to swell while hiking, while not being too loose where your foot moves freely from boot.
Choosing the perfect socks to complement your favorite pair of boots can be the difference between a great hike and a horrible day. Thankfully there are plenty of options that help wick moisture and provide adequate cushioning, both features that will help deter blistering.
It is not recommended that you choose cotton socks as these will absorb and retain moisture. Instead, you should opt for socks made of wool or synthetic materials.
Wool: For natural fibers, wool is less hydrophilic than cotton. Specifically Merino wool, which because of its thin fiber diameter and wide knit spacing, makes it more ideal as a performance sock material.
Synthetic: A popular choice for performance hiking socks are made from Synthetic fibers, usually acrylic, polyester, or polypropylene. Coolmax is a popular polyester sock fiber that is intertwined with other materials to quickly pull moisture away from the skin.
The idea is to keep water out of the boot, not let it in. For this, it is important that your choice of boots has some form of water repelling qualities. Many will be billed as waterproof by name, to which most are protected by a waterproof membrane. Boots like these are often covered by a durable water repellent coating too. This coating will however, deteriorate over time and will need to be reapplied. There are products available that make this job easier for the owner.
One often overlooked method for preventing blisters is to keep toenails clipped and to give your feet a general pedicure treatment. Long nails will damage socks or even the inside of your boots. This in turn leads to loose materials which can rub on your skin. Also cleaning up the beds of feet to remove dead skin or callus build up will keep friction down on the skin surface, leading to less heat and blister potential.
It doesn’t matter what precautions you take before a trip, there is always going to be the chance that you could end up with a blister. For this, you must always ensure that you carry a small first aid kit in your main pack. As soon as you start to notice hot spots on the feet, it is time to take action.
Don’t Pop It: if the blister is only small and doesn’t cause you too much pain, you may be better to just walk through it and continue to your destination. These small blisters will often subside on their own without and popping from you. It is recommended that you give your feet a rest if you can at this point and not continue hiking, if possible.
Controlled Drain: if you have a painful blister and are able to stop hiking before it pops, then draining the blister may be your best option. You must understand that once a blister pops, it is vulnerable to infection, so it is best to not let blisters pop while actively hiking.
Removing your foot from the sweaty environment of your sock and boot will give the blister the best chance of not contracting infection. After your foot is freed from the sock, you will need to do all you can to sanitize your hands and the site of the blister to keep the wound area clean. Use a sterile needle to puncture the blister near its edge and let the fluid excrete while retaining the skin that covers the blistered area.
Prevent Infection: once a blister pops it is an open wound that is ripe for infection. Whether the blister popped on its own or you skillfully lanced it, you will need to treat the site with a disinfectant like an alcohol swab or ointment. Cover the location with a bandage or gauze, then refresh the dressing daily or as needed.