Two miles into what would be a 16-mile high country trek, it appeared on my wife’s ankle. Popping up on her Achilles tendon was a sizable blister.
Not a good thing.
She gutted it out for the rest of that day’s hike to our campsite, then the next day summited Wheeler Peak, made it back to camp and then the trailhead to complete the 16-mile odyssey. But that was one war wound that took weeks to heal.
Thankfully for her, the wound was something that came and went. Painful, yes. And annoying. Blisters can inhibit your performance during a run and make a walk of any real length pretty miserable.
In backcountry environments, it can get worse. A ruptured blister can become infected, which in wilderness scenarios can be that one little thing that goes wrong which can lead to much more serious consequences.
What to do? I did some looking around to see what others had to say about this issue.
First, let’s talk prevention. Namely, what you put on your feet. I’ve mentioned several times how cotton is a less-than-ideal fiber for outerwear. This is especially true on your feet. It absorbs and retains moisture, which will in turn moistens your skin. Sweat, water, whatever—it takes cotton forever to dry out. Wet skin is more prone to being injured by friction inside your shoe/boot than dry skin. So wearing moisture-wicking socks is best, whether that be wool or some synthetic fiber that mimics wool.
Some people advocate sock liners. I’ve used them before and didn’t really get any benefit from them. In fact, they just bunched up in my boot. So I don’t wear them. Others, however, swear by them. Try it out and see what you think.
The boot fit is important. I can’t tell you how many times people go hiking in the wrong footwear and end up with big, nasty blisters. This was the case with my wife, wearing boots she had recommended to her from a friend that turned out to be anything but up to the task. (The blister wasn’t the only problem. Arch support, or a lack thereof, also took its toll.) So choose a boot with a good fit and hits you correctly in the potential trouble spots: the back of the heel, sides of the foot, and the arch. Make sure to tie your boots in such a way that give you adequate support—not too tight, not too loose.
If you feel you’re getting “hot spots,” stop and readjust your boot. You might also think about using duct tape to wrap troublesome areas of your foot. Sounds silly, but it works. Duct tape is something you should have with you on any backcountry trip anyway, with strips wrapped around your hiking poles or on the bottom of a water bottle.
What if a blister occurs anyway? Well, you’ll want to treat it. As best you can, clean the area around the blister (alcohol, soap, or some kind of antiseptic cleanser you might have with you). Lance it with a knife or sharp tool and drain it. Then use antibacterial ointment to disinfect the wound. Again, these are things you should have in your pack. It might be good to let it air out for a time before continuing. Once it’s dried out, a small bandage should be applied, then secured with duct tape or medical tape.
A couple other tips:
- Stay hydrated. Dry skin tends to “tent up” more than hydrated skin. Loose skin is more prone to blistering.
- Bring a change of socks. If you tromp through water, sweat a lot or end up plowing through a lot of snow, there’s a good chance your socks or even your boots will soak through (this happened to me on a snow climb I did in June). A dry pair of socks will delay blistering, even if your boots are wet.
- If your feet get wet, stop, take your boots and socks off and let your feet and socks dry out.
So there you go, for what it’s worth. There’s a ton of products out there (Moleskin, for one) designed to treat and prevent blisters, so do your research. Prevention, however, goes a long way.
Got any tips? Pass them along here or e-mail me.