Primer: How To Prevent Blisters While Hiking

Jan 5, 2018

Category: Gear

You’ve planned your route, packed your gear, and made it to the trailhead, but are your really ready for your hike? For anyone bitten by the bug to get down and dirty in the wilderness there is a looming threat ready to stop you in your tracks if you are not prepared. From the weekend adventurers to hardened backcountry survivalists, a foot blister can put a quick end to a good time and send you limping back to the car ahead of schedule.

As with the rest of your equipment, your feet need a special preparation regime to get them trail ready. For some, fancy foot care is simply part of regular life, for others funky feet are the last thing on their mind. But for anyone that is 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 A Blister?

Understanding The Basics

Blisters are a pain, but they are a part of life for every human. There are various types of ways skin can blister but the most common is from friction, the type acquired on feet from time spent on the trail. In this case, the friction is a result of shear forces acting on the skin, whereas your foot is essentially traveling in one direction and the interior of boot in the opposite. This friction will first manifest as heat and irritation that causes the skin to redden, known as a hot spot. 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. It is best to keep your feet both cool and dry to avoid blisters.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 right conditions to fester a blister on the trail can be induced by a number of factors; sock selection, boot sizing and fit, or as as discussed previously the climate inside your boot. To give yourself advantage, any seasoned hiker will tell you first and foremost never set out in brand new, untested equipment. Materials have diverse reactions to each individual person’s skin, so it is always best to give your new gear a test run before committing to an all-dayer. You’ll also want to spend a generous amount of time in any new boots or hikers for a break-in process, and it’s always a good idea to do this with the socks you intend to wear on the trek. It’s best to knock the new off of everything around the house to avoid looking like a kook anyway.

How To Prevent Blisters

Pre-Hike Preparation

We have all learned the hard way that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. It is never fun to go through the trouble of getting ready for an adventure, only to find out that you are not as qualified to trek as you had thought. Success is no accident, so plan in advance and use these tips to give yourself a step ahead while preparing podiatric paraphernalia:

Footwear Selection

Picking out the perfect pair of clodhoppers will have many influencing factors depending on the intended use. All styles of boots or hiking shoes will be available with 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 heavy-duty or mountaineering boot will be rugged and made of materials that provide solid stability and protection from punctures by jagged bits on the trail. This style will be suitable for cross-country travel and longer distance excursions because of their sturdy structure and protection provided. The Fugitive GTX from Asolo are a great heavyweight option that boast thick, structured construction on the uppers and are four season ready for hikes all year round.

Medium and Lightweight: Alternatively, lightweight boots or hikers are usually made of synthetic materials and will be a more flexible option while still producing excellent traction on loose surfaces. A light boot is the best option for short weekend hikes on established trails. Merrell’s Moab 2 Mid is lightweight, breathable lightweight boot that is very comfortable for jaunts on well established trails.

Heavyweight Vs. Midweight Boots

Hikers have a lot of options when it comes to great hiking boots. Two main categories, though, are heavyweight and mid-weight boots. While a heavy pick like the Asolo Fugitive GTX provides a thick, structured construction good for year-round use, the Merrell Moab 2 Mid offers a lighter, more breathable fit for using on well trodden trails.

Footwear Fit

The largest contributing factor to pain or blisters while hiking is ill fitting footwear, and sizing either too large or too small can have disastrous effects on your dogs. The general rule of thumb is to use your finger as a guide in fit; 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, which causes friction that leads to blistering. The fit should not feel too snug or too loose but somewhere in between. It is recommended to try on shoes in the afternoon as your feet will be their most swollen because of blood collecting during the day. This will give you are more true to life fit of what your feet size will be during the hike. Remember that all shoes have a break in period and some materials will relax or settle more than others. The best tip is to visit a speciality store that caters specifically to outdoor footwear and have an expert size your foot for the perfect fit.

Sock Selection

Choosing the perfect socks to complement your favorite pair of trail trouncers 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. Experts caution to steer clear from cotton socks as cotton is a very hydrophilic fiber, meaning it will absorb and retain moisture well. Instead opt for socks made of wool or synthetic materials.

Wool: For natural fibers, wool is less hydrophilic than cotton. Specifically Merino wool, which is from a hearty breed of sheep hearded in the mountains of New Zealand, holds the least amount of water because of its thin fiber diameter and wide knit spacing, making it more ideal as a performance sock material. The Heavy Trekking Crew Sock from Smartwool is 70 percent Merino wool, giving great insulation while not overheating your foot, and is heavily cushioned to support burdensome loads.

Synthetic: A popular choice for performance hiking socks are made from Synthetic fibers, usually acrylic, polyester, or polypropylene. All of which are hydrophobic materials, meaning they repel moisture. There is often a blend of these synthetic fibers to create a sock material as each has different benefits to the user. Coolmax is a popular polyester sock fiber that is intertwined with other materials to quickly pull moisture away from the skin. Darn Tough offers the Coolmax Boot Sock Full cushion as an any season hiking sock that is 41 percent Coolmax blended with other synthetic fibers.

Wool Vs. Synthetic Socks

There are two different options out there for hikers, Wool or Synthetic socks. While both may feel different, synthetic socks like Darn Tough Cool Max Boot Socks and wool socks like these from Smartwool Trekking Heavy Socks both repel water and keep you dry.

Water Repellant treatment

Since keeping moisture away from your foot ranks high on the priority list for blister prevention, it is recommended that your footwear have some form of water repelling qualities. Some models of boots will be billed as waterproof by name, to which most are protected by a waterproof membrane. This membrane is essentially a liner in the upper construction of the boot that keeps water from penetrating, while simultaneously allowing moisture from sweat to escape. These boots are usually also covered by a durable water repellent coating which is applied by the shoe factory. Unfortunately, this coating does deteriorate over time and will need to be reapplied, but many shoe care manufacturers sell products that can repair this damage. Products like Grangers Footwear Care Kit are complete packages to clean, prep, and repair footwear that has lost its water repellent finish.

Water Repellant Restoration

It’s only a matter of time before the durable water repellant coating on your hiking boots degrades, leaving you with little protection against water penetration. Thankfully there are many options for reapplying this coating and the Footwear Care Kit from Grangers is the complete package for reviving outdoor footwear.

Foot therapy

One of often overlooked methods for preparing for a blister free hike is to clip toenails and give your feet a general pedicure treatment. Long toenails can be sharp and lead to damaging socks or the insides of shoes, which can cause those loosened materials to rub on 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.

Maintenance On The Trail

Keep Cool

Now that you have done all you can to put your feet at the forefront of preparation for your hike, the next step is actually getting out on the trail. Once you have committed to setting out on the hike, there are some additional measure you can take during the adventure to keep your hooves barren of blisters:

Take Brakes: Walking is a repetitive motion that puts a lot of stress on your feet, causing them to become inflamed, hot, sore, and sweaty. The average person takes about 2,000 steps to cover a mile. With most ‘weekender’ trails averaging 2-10 miles in length, that is up to 20,000 times your heels contact the ground. As your feet start to feel swollen and irritated that is the sign to take a load off and rest for a bit. If your footwear is hot or wet take the opportunity to remove them and let them air out. A couple minutes of rest can make the difference between continuing to your destination or heading back for home.

Keep Inside Of Boots Clean: Since hiking is an outdoor activity that takes you through various types of terrain, there is always a chance that debris of some kind will enter your boot. As this foreign materials is trapped between your boot and skin it will cause friction that can lead to a blister. If you feel any rocks, sand, or other materials infiltrate the sanctity of your footwear, pull over and remove your boots to clean them out.

Address Hot Spots: One of the early warning signs your body uses to tell you that a blister is developing are hot spots. As the name implies, this is skin that will have a warm or hot sensation at the surface of irritation. Ignoring this telltale indicator is a sure fire way to end up with a blister. Once a hot spot emerges, address the inflammation be covering the site with a bandage, medial tape, or Moleskin to reduce friction on the skin, giving you the best chance of prevention. Don’t wait too long after feeling a hot spot to give attention to the affected area as blisters will soon be forming.

What To Do If You Get A Blister

How To Deal

Though you have done everything you can to prepare yourself before departure, and have been a vigilant watchdog for pain during your trip, there is always a chance you will end up with a blister somewhere on your foot. Be sure to always carry a first aid kit in your hiking gear to tend to blisters or any other emergency that may happen out on the trail, you’ll surely regret it if you don’t. At the time you notice the formation of the blister beginning you have some choices for how to care for the impending doom.

Don’t Pop It: Once you know you have a blister formed on your foot you have the choice to charge through the pain. If the blister is small and does not cause too much pain, it is better to try and hoof it to your destination. If the blister is small, about pea sized, it will likely subside on its own without popping. 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 the formation of a painful blister and are able to stop hiking before it pops, then draining the blister may be your best option. Once the 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: After your blister pops, it is essentially 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 such as Neosporin. Cover the location with a bandage or gauze, then refresh the dressing daily or as needed. If your blister does become infected or is unbearably painful, seek medical attention as serious cases of infection can be deadly.

The Complete Package

Better Safe Then Sorry

There are a lot of measures that can be taken to prevent blisters from forming while hiking, but there is no perfect solution that will work for everyone. Do what you can to prepare your footwear for your adventure and gear up with the best combination of boots and socks that your feet enjoy. Spend time in your equipment before heading out on extended trips so you know where problematic areas may be and how to deal with each spot as they flair up. Prep the toes and soles of your feet with a little pre-hike pampering to get them in top shape for the trail. Remember that moisture plus heat equals blisters. Do your feet a favor by keeping them cool and dry during your trip and they will repay you by delivering you to your ultimate destination.

How To Choose The Perfect Campsite

It’d be a shame if you avoided getting a blister only to end up in an awful campsite. Make the most of your time outdoors and check out our guide on how to choose the perfect campsite.

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