Sometimes the smallest things can ruin even the best-laid hiking plans.
Yes, we’re talking about foot blisters. These nasty little fluid-filled sacs are every hiker’s personal version of hell. Foot blisters may start out small, but they can soon turn painful with every step. Having them on any part of your feet can have a big impact on your hiking trip, especially when they burst— or worse, become infected.
If you want to have a flawless and painless trip outdoors, it’s important to know what causes these buggers and how to prevent them from happening in the first place.
What Causes Foot Blisters?
Believe it or not, blisters are actually your body’s way of protecting itself from further damage. The fluid inside the sac is usually filled with clear plasma or serum, which helps the damaged skin cells to regenerate. When it forms over capillaries or gets infected, the sac can be filled with blood or pus, respectively.
Blisters are basically your body’s coping mechanism against wear and tear. This healing process can take a while and isn’t any less painful, especially when your feet are experiencing a lot of wearing and tearing caused by the following:
The most common and obvious cause of blisters while out on the trail is friction. In fact, friction blisters are often considered as a category on their own. Constant pressure and rubbing on the same area after several hours of walking (especially on tough terrain) can take its toll on your feet. These damaged areas are called hot spots and they can easily develop into full-blown blisters.
Ill-fitting shoes cause a lot of unnecessary friction and contribute to the formation of foot blisters. When your shoes don’t fit well, your feet will either bang around inside your shoes or your toes will get pinched. The wrong type of socks won’t be able to cushion and protect your feet, either.
Moisture— whether caused by sweat or the environment—increases friction levels and makes your skin more susceptible to damage. A moist and warm environment is also perfect for the growth of germs that can cause infections.
Sunburns and Allergic Reactions
Another common cause of foot blisters are sunburns and allergic reactions. When exposed to irritants like excessive UV rays or allergens, your body reacts and tries to protect itself through blisters. Plants like giant hogweed and poison ivy have a reputation for irritating skin this way.
How To Prevent Foot Blisters
Blisters hurt— a lot. Thankfully, there are a lot of simple ways to prevent them from developing. Follow these tips to ensure a nice, blister-free hike:
Get Yourself Shoes That Fit Well
When it comes to hiking, your footwear should not only be durable, they should fit well, too.
As discussed earlier, shoes that are not the right size can cause hot spots to form, which, in turn, develop into blisters. Shoes that are too big could slip, slide and chafe your heels. When they’re too small, they can pinch your toes. Either way, badly fitting shoes promote a lot of friction, so you should pick one that’s just the right fit and size.
The right shoe should be durable enough to withstand the elements and protect your feet, but be comfortable enough to allow your feet to breathe. It should give adequate support to your ankles, heels, and soles, especially in various terrain. At the same time, they should have ample allowance and space.
Planning to buy new hiking shoes? Make sure they’re the right fit by buying them later in the day rather than in the morning. Activity and exercise usually leave your feet slightly enlarged, so it might be helpful to take a nice walk before buying, or to buy the shoes after you’ve had a full day of activity.
Break Your Shoes In
Since we’re talking about new hiking shoes, here’s another thing you don’t wanna forget before going on a hike: a good, thorough breaking-in.
Breaking in is a long and slow process but one that should help you have a blister-free hike. Take your shoes out for a short walk around the block first. Lace them up nice and tight— but not too tight. Watch out for spots that pinch, slip or chafe when you walk. Gradually go on longer walks around town or even a day hike on a nearby trail. There’s no quick and dirty way to properly break your hiking footwear in, so make sure to take your time before going on a long hike to avoid any discomfort.
Lace Up Properly
Not all lacing techniques are created equal. That odd little extra shoelace hole? It’s got a purpose. You can use it to secure a lace lock which can effectively support your heels without tightening the entire shoe. There are other lacing techniques that address issues like pinched toes or say, feet that are too wide. Check out the full list here.
Wear The Right Socks
The right socks should cushion your feet and keep them dry, even after a long day of non-stop walking. Your feet has numerous sweat glands that can produce as much as 200 ml of moisture a day (that’s a lot!) so choosing the right pair of socks is important.
Choose socks that effectively wick sweat away from your skin.
Cotton socks have little to no wicking properties and will remain wet when they come in contact with moisture, so stay away from them. Wool is a much heavier fabric, but has unique properties that allow you to stay cool when it’s hot and keep you warm when it’s cold out. For this reason, merino wool combined with a few synthetic fibers like nylon, spandex or elastane is the go-to material for most hiking socks.
Other things to consider when selecting the right hiking socks include the type of shoes you’ll be wearing, the terrain you’ll be hiking on and, of course, the season. Heavier, well-insulating socks are obviously the preferred choice during the colder months, while lightweight breathable ones are needed during the summer.
Lastly, don’t forget to pack spares!
Moisture increases friction and even facilitates the growth of microorganisms that cause infection and odor. To help prevent blisters (and smelly feet!) change socks whenever they get wet from sweat or from the environment. Air dry your feet whenever you get the chance, or bring a small, handy towel that you can use to wipe your feet with. Using antiperspirants like foot powder or some good old sticks, roll-ons or sprays can also help keep your feet dry.
Patch ‘Em Up, Quick
Using adhesive bandages has been a tried and tested method to prevent blisters. You’d want a bandage or tape that could resist tearing and fraying; something sticky enough to stay in place even after days of use. A waterproof adhesive tape would be even better. Varieties like Leukotape, Moleskin and Kinesio-Tex do their job really well and thus have become household names when it comes to blister prevention. Make sure to tape your problem points up before going on that big hike.
Engo blister patches are also handy. Instead of being applied to your feet, these patches are taped onto your shoes to prevent chafing and abrasions.
Do Lubricants Help?
Too much moisture can no doubt cause blisters, but a bit of lubrication in some problematic areas can actually help prevent them. Products like Vaseline can be used to prevent friction levels on specific areas. This also prevents your skin from cracking and getting irritated. Don’t go overboard, though. Apply too much and you’ll lose some traction. Use only when and where needed.
Keep Things Cool
Soothing skin remedies like aloe vera gel can be used to provide relief to hot spots and pressure points.
How To Treat Blisters
If you’ve done all that you can but still can’t prevent blisters from forming, the next best thing that you could do would be to detect them early on. The sooner you treat them, the better. Early detection allows your skin to heal faster and prevents any infections from festering.
Should You Pop It?
To pop or not to pop, that is the question.
The answer really depends on the scenario. Generally, uninfected blisters will heal on their own. In some cases, all you will need is a donut-shaped moleskin pad to take the pressure off the blister and to prevent it from bursting. Here’s a step-by-step tutorial on how to cut and apply the moleskin pad for this purpose.
But when they’re painfully large and growing on weight-bearing areas like the ball of your feet or on your soles? It could be a totally different scenario. Chances are, they most likely will burst anyway, so popping them safely could be the safest option.
How To Pop and Treat A Blister Safely
The most important thing to remember when popping blisters is cleanliness. Your hands, supplies, materials and work area should be as clean as a whistle. Once you’ve got that crossed off, do the following:
- Gather all your materials: you’ll need a sterilized needle, disinfectants like alcohol and betadine, some gauze or clean cloth and bandages like Primapore for dressing.
- Sterilize your needle. Simply clean it with alcohol and pass it over a flame to sterilize. You can also buy sterile ones from the drugstore
- Disinfect the area around the blister either with alcohol or betadine. If the blister you’re popping is relatively large, keep some clean gauze nearby. You’ll need it.
- It’s popping time! Prick the blister with the needle, sometimes at 2 other points when needed. It should drain on its own. Remember the gauze? Use it to catch or wipe the fluid off. Take special care not to rip out the skin over the blister.
- Note the discharge from the blister. You’re pretty safe when the fluid is clear, with no foul smell. If you see cloudy, yellow and foul-smelling discharges, it is most likely infected and will need medical attention.
- Apply antibacterial ointment and patch it up using some breathable, absorbent dressing. Home remedies like witch hazel, apple cider vinegar, and green tea have astringent and antibacterial properties that facilitate healing
Blisters can make even the most experienced hikers flinch. Many a hike have been made extremely uncomfortable or even cut short just because of a blister. Thankfully, there are easy ways to prevent them. Most of the time it all comes down to how much unnecessary friction your feet are getting, so make sure to take the necessary steps to cushion your feet and make them as comfortable as possible.
Blisters are so common among hikers that they’re oftentimes considered as rites of passage. That shouldn’t be the case. If you want to have a blast, do your best to prevent blisters. You’ll spend less time limping and more time enjoying the great outdoors.