Preventing & Managing Blisters
Plenty of serious things can ruin a backpacking trip—starvation, hypothermia, brain aneurysms, bears—but nothing seemingly small can blow up a backcountry mission quite like blisters.
Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to stop them, but if you start thinking about taking care of your feet the same way you do meal planning and packing, you’ll be way more likely to make it through your next backpacking trip with paws intact and spirits high.
Blisters are caused by warmth, moisture, and friction. When you walk, your feet rub in your boots, and the outermost skin slides over the inner layers. Introduce body heat and sweat and the layers begin to separate, and then fluid rushes in to repair the damage. Magical, but a huge bummer on the trail.
Stay Dry or Die
Not really, but still–keep your feet dry and cool. Friction will happen, but if you wear moisture-wicking hiking socks made of wool or synthetic fibers, your skin is more likely to stay cool, tough, and blister-resistant.
Some people prefer wearing a thin liner sock, too, so the friction takes place between socks rather than between sock and skin. Try different combos and see what suits you.
When you’re hiking, change your socks frequently. Wash dirty ones when you get a chance, and try not to wear a pair for more than a day. Let your feet air-dry when you change.
This Fit’s Serious
Poorly fitting boots mean you’re doomed. Make sure your new boots fit correctly—toes should have room to wiggle, the width should be snug but comfortable, and you shouldn’t feel pinches or constrictions. Your heel shouldn’t slip, and your toes shouldn’t bang into the front of the boot when walking downhill.
Working with a bootfitter can help you dial in the right fit, as can getting custom, or even high-quality non-custom, insoles. Occasionally, boots will even have heat-moldable foams and plastics so they can be shaped just for you.
When you’re trying boots on, wear the socks you plan to wear hiking, and walk around indoors for a few minutes to make sure your boots fit the way they should. Try on multiple pairs, too, so you can be sure you’re making the right choice.
Don’t Rush It
No matter how well your boots fit, they’ll be a disaster if they aren’t broken in properly. I was hiking with a friend recently, and within a mile her new hiking shoes had reduced her to old-man pace, and by mile four both her feet had fallen off. To avoid this fate, wear your new boots around the house for a few hours, then on shorter walks, and work your way up to longer hikes. If you need a quicker break-in, walk through a stream when you’re starting your hikes, and the wet boots will conform to your feet more quickly (be sure to clean and treat leather boots after getting them wet, or the leather will get stiff).
All this prevention business is great, but let’s be real—you’re likely going to get blisters no matter what. Most hikers have weird alien toes, heel spurs that would be useful in a cockfight, and pointy ankle bones that make unpleasant rubbing an inevitability, so learning how to deal with hotspots and blisters once you’ve got ’em is as important as prevention.
Any backpacker worth a dime carries a well-stocked first aid kid. For treating blisters, you should have antibiotic ointment, Vaseline or a similar lubricant, moleskin, athletic tape, a needle/safety pin, pain relievers, scissors, and maybe duct tape and gel blister pads.
Don’t be a Hero
If you feel a hotspot, stop and deal with it. Pushing through is never going to make it better, and will just slow you down in the long run. Some swear that putting Vaseline on a hotspot reduces friction, while others prefer benzocaine lubes, which have numbing properties (only for short hikes; numbing will just make it worse on long trips).
For a simple hotspot fix, cover the affected area in athletic tape (or duct tape if you’d prefer to score some gnar points) or coat it in tincture of benzoin, which forms a hard layer over the skin and has the bonus of being antiseptic. If you’re stuck without a first aid kit, you can improvise but putting two different-length pieces of duct tape together, sticky side to sticky side, to create a smooth bandage. You can also use duct tape to smooth any seams or bumps inside your boots.
Sometimes you’re not able to get to a hotspot before it becomes a blister, which means it’s time for some popping. First, you should sterilize the area, and then sterilize a needle, safety pin, or knife point by holding it in a flame until red-hot, or submerging it in boiling water for two minutes. Gently insert the pointy implement into the bottom of the blister and work the liquid out through the hole.
When the blister’s empty, apply antiseptic ointment and grab the moleskin and a pair of scissors. Cut out a small donut that’ll surround the sensitive area without touching it, and stick it to your foot before covering it with tape to make sure it doesn’t slip. This’ll keep your sock/shoe from rubbing.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to speed up the healing process. Blisters generally start to heal within six hours, stop hurting within 48, and heal completely within five days, but you probably don’t have that kind of time on the trail. Many backpackers bring camp shoes, like flip-flops or Crocs, to give their feet a break at the end of the day, and you can even bring heavy-duty sandals like Chacos to change it up on the trail, if the terrain allows.
While socks and sandals may be a fashion faux pas, giving your feet a little extra freedom will ease the pain from a nagging blister.
As usual, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and a good attitude are the best things you can bring with you. The worst thing that’ll happen is you’ll have to suck it up for a while, but then you’ll just be able to tell everyone about how tough you are.