Happy feet are the secrets to happy trails for fervent hikers. Nothing can sound as bad as a hiking blister that worsens with your every step and holds you from enjoying your outdoor time.
The bright side is, this annoying problem has its remedies, but preventing the disturbing hiking blisters from forming beforehand, is the key to the painless trail.
So, now, let’s have a tour on the way of blister prevention before heading out on the trail and know the detailed tips and tricks of dealing with these while you are on your way to the mountains.
What is a blister?
A blister is a collection of fluid between the superficial layers of skin. The commonest causes are freezing, frictions, burn, chemical burns and infections. Blisters can show up as symptoms of viral diseases.
The blister is like a bubble, which is formed between the top keratinized layer and the epidermis, the topmost superficial layers of skin.
It forms after getting a stimulus as stated above, to cushion and protect the sensitive layers lying below. Blisters usually contain plasma, serum, blood or eventually pus depending on the pathogenesis process and their locations.
The Common Causes of Blister.
Some activities and conditions can induce blistering.
Excessive friction leads to blister formation, resulting from repetitive actions like playing guitar might cause blisters on the finger. Similarly, rubbing between toes in a long walk or hike can cause blisters on toes.
The usual locations are the hands or feet, as these are the areas that most susceptible to encounter abrasion or friction repetitively, whether on climbing on a steep mountain using ropes or having a strenuous hike with a heavy hiking boot.
Skin areas containing a superficial thick keratinized layer attached adherently to epidermis or dermis beneath (like palms of the hands and soles of the feet) are more prone to form blisters.
Blisters are more likely to occur in a warm, greasy environment, such as inside a hiking shoe. They also form more readily in damp conditions, in comparison with cold and dry environments.
If unprotected and untreated, blisters can end up resulting in more severe medical conditions such as pustules, abscess formation, ulceration with infection.
The timing and duration of blister formation help in categorizing the degree of burns. Second- degree burns forms blister very fast, but first-degree burns result in blister formation after a short while like 1-2 days.
On the other hand, frostbite is also a producer of blisters. In both scenarios, the blister formation acts like a defense mechanism initiated to protect lower levels (dermis) of skin from temperature- borne damage.
Certain chemicals can contribute to immediate blister formation, is medically termed as contact dermatitis.
It is mostly genetic that can affect some individuals while in contact with the following chemicals:
- Cosmetics with alcohol and other solvents
- Chemical detergents
- Alcohol solvents: ethanol, methanol
- Electroplating inks: nickel sulfate
- Cooking flavoring: Balsam of Peru
- Poisonous insect bites and bee stings
- Blistering chemical warfare agents, like: mustard gas
Due to minor crashing and pinching of a small site, a small blood vessel close to the surface of the skin might get ruptured; blood can sip into the gap beneath the superficial layers of skin, resulting in a blood-filled blister.
While hiking, your feet rub against your sock and boots, moving the thick external layers of your skin over the fragile and sensitive inner layers, which results at the beginning of epidermal skin layer separation.
It is called a “hot spot”. Unless it is protected and well-rested, there will be a blister in a short while. Moisture locked over the hot spot, whether from sweat or during a river crossing might hasten its pathogenesis.
To understand clearly, visualize rubbing your thumb over the skin of a ripe mango. The overlying skin moves beneath your finger. When pressed harder, that skin gets a wrinkle, then it eventually tears off.
It can explain the formation process of a blister on your skin: the outer layers of the skin of your feet might move faster over the sensitive, vascular inner layers, and aided by sufficient moisture with continuous friction, the result is a hiking blister.
Blister precaution before the hike:
Keep these pro tips on mind, plan and prepare accordingly to enjoy your time on those adventurous trails.
Invest in the right shoes:
Take the time and effort needed for finding shoes that fit you accurately. Your toes should have just right wiggling room while the heel is secure and fits snugly, so it doesn’t lift up when you walk.
If you wear too-big boots and you can’t get better fitting ones, try insoles which provide an extra cushion when you hike.
Consider your feet to be widening or growing on a long hike when buying your shoes. In a long-distance hike, your preferences of the trail might change due to unpredictable weather or uneven terrains and your feet may swell up/widen as you log seriously long miles.
It is not wise to buy all of your shoes at once for a long trail since you may want to upsize your hiking pairs at the end of your mountain voyages.
Try out your new boots before heading out:
If you want to protect your feet even before you get yourself going, this is the way to go. Super stiff new boots will cause discomfort and rub against the soft and sweaty skin of the feet resulting in painful blisters, so take short walks in them to soften the leather material before hitting the trail.
Trail runners are way better than heavy boots for hiking and backpacking for real reasons. They are far more comfortable, breathable, lightweight and usually quick-drying than boots. In some exceptional situations, boots can also come as a savior.
Don’t give away your “fresh-from-the shop” boots in the wastage bin, when a quick makeover can do the trick. If you are having a pressure point discomfort, rather than the fitness issue, work it out with soft insoles.
This two-steps method will also help you with customization of your leather boots for heel spurs other foot problems.
1. Remove the laces and pull back the tongue.
Apply a hint of mink oil (available at most shoe stores and hardware shops) to the inside of the shoe at the troublesome area. Massage into the leather until the oil is absorbed enough to soften the harsh leather. (For non-leather-lined boots, you better skip the mink oil therapy and move towards the next step.)
2. Knead the problematic area with a hard.
A blunt object like a stone or brick or a closed pocketknife can also serve your purpose. Use it in a circular or back and forth motion and with a little force. The resultant space should get rid of the problem.
Get some really good socks:
Quality socks are the game changer on the trail for keeping your feet dry and cool. Synthetic fiber and wool are the way to go for keeping sweat away from your feet skin, and they dry very quickly after water crossings too.
Cotton should be out of the choice list since it absorbs and hold water and can eventually lead to the formation of more blisters. Perfect hiking socks should snuggle around your feet without wrinkles.
You can also consider wearing thin liner socks under another pair of socks is a smart way to create a double-layer protection system for individuals who are exclusively prone to blisters. Toe socks can be especially handy, in preventing blister formation between your toes.
Change your socks at regular interval:
It’s not unwise to have at least 2 pairs of hiking socks so they can be swapped out when needed. Keep another pair rinsed/dried for later. While you are on the move, socks and bandanas can be air-dried, being attached to your backpacks through safety pins.
Keep another warm and soft pair of socks for the nighttime protection of your feet. Thus, changing your socks at regular intervals can come extremely helpful in protecting them from getting blisters.
Dry feet are happy feet.
The normal level of perspiration from a regular hike can make your feet wet and sweaty. So, having good breathable socks is a must to let your feet breathe and dry on their own.
You can also carry some foot powder in your backpack to aid the absorption of moisture. If your trekking trail goes through water or when it rains. It is wise to rapidly change into your extra pair of socks.
Your toes need some attention too.
Paying little extra attention to your toes never hurts! Regularly trim your toenails. Get yourself a relaxing foot massage. Get your boots rid of rocks and debris from the mountain trail, whenever you get the break.
When you are off the trail, soak your feet in lukewarm water with Epsom salts to hasten the healing process. It also helps to relax and soothe tired toes.
Once you take good care of your feet and toes. They will always give you a good payback with a painless, blister-free, enjoyable hike.
Get on board with a blister first aid kit:
If you noticed a full-blown painful blister, a blister kit is your savior on the go. Make your own blister first aid kit according to your requirements and incorporate it into your first-aid box.
Blister first aid kit must-haves:
- Safety pin
- Duct tape
- Pocket knife
- Small scissors
- Alcohol-soaked pads or antiseptic wipes
- Over the counter antibiotic ointment
- Pain Killer Tablets
Optional add-on: Tincture of benzoin, has good aromatic, antiseptic and adhesive properties. It is available as cotton swabs, in small bottles as a liquid over the counter spray at medical stores.
You can use it in aiding the effectiveness of any blister treatment. Just apply it over, let it dry up to 2-3 minutes, and then cover it with your bandage of choice.
It also protects your skin from friction. When applied to the troubled hot spot area, the tincture of benzoin dries to a hardened form. You can even seal an existing blister by this.
While on the trail:
Keep your feet dry:
Use your extra pair of sweat-wicking socks to change at regular intervals. In the break time, the sweaty pair can be hanged outside of your backpack. So they’ll air dry and ready to wear by dinner time.
Rinse your feet whenever possible:
Dirty feet are the home of dirty, infected, painful, ugly blisters. So, rinse them and your dirty pair of socks whenever you get a chance.
Soaking your tired and sore feet in the running stream might feel amazingly relaxing. Just be sure enough to get yourself air-dried properly every time you get back into your boots.
Hydrate Your Feet:
Just like sweaty skin, dry skin is also more prone to friction. Massage hydrating creams and lotions liberally over your feet on a regular basis. It helps to maintain optimum moisture and healthy skin barrier function.
Get Some Air Time:
Taking your sweaty shoes and socks off on every long break is much relieving. It can help immensely for preventing blisters.
Surely, it takes a little more time. In the tail end, it is worth enough letting your skin breathe and give your socks a while to dry itself out.
if a break lasts for 15 minutes or longer, the shoes must come off. Try keeping your legs and feet elevated by keeping them propped up with your backpack.
It helps to reduce swelling and speed up the recovery process of your lower body. This is also an excellent chance to dump out any debris that caused discomfort in your shoes. Watch out for painful hot spots on your feet.
How to Treat Hot Spots on a hike.
Stop: If you notice any discomfort or pain in your feet while you are hiking. Stop right at that moment, look for a place to sit and take off the shoes to look for any hot spot. It usually takes some time every occasion and might be annoying sometimes for others. This one simple step can save you from both the pain and its sufferings.
Tape: With no blister formed yet, consider cleaning and drying the area of a hot spot. Cover it with a thin layer of duct tape as smoothly as you can.
Lube: When skin is red and painfully raw or there is a partially formed blister. Spread antibiotic ointment on it with a band-aid or blister bandage or even better with moleskin; follow through with duct tape.
Leave: If the hot spot isn’t bothering you much. Leave the tape as it is until you are back at home and can carefully remove it avoiding any more damage.
How to Treat a Blister on the Trail.
Using the antiseptic ointment and a waterproof bandage can be a good safety measure for a small blister.
When the blister is larger and is likely to pop on its own as you walk. Get the surface sterilized with an alcohol swab, and pop it with a sterilized needle or safety pin to avoid the risk of infection. Wipe the area clean with another alcohol-soaked wipe and apply ointment.
Cover the overlying area with a large bandage, followed by duct tape. If you have scissors with moleskin, cut doughnut shaped piece of moleskin to cover the blister to create breathing space between the shoe and the affected area.
Remove the bandages and keep the area open at night to let the blister breathe in your sleep time. Remember, prevention of a blister, sounds safer than its cure.
How to protect treat a heel blister with duct tape bandage.
1. Heel blisters can be extremely agonizing. It often making a surprise appearance at the beginning of big trips when your baggage is heavier. So, the first step is to clean and disinfect the area.
2. For helping moleskin, tape and glacier gel stick better, cover any unopened areas over and surrounding the blister with a skin adhesive. (N.B: alcohol should not be used on open wounds).
3. For open blisters, glacier gel is the way to go. Apply it over the popped blister, avoiding wrinkles as much as possible. Your ankle should be flexed forward while you are taping the wound.
4. Use slippery duct tape, to hold moleskin and glacier gel together, which allows wearing socks and boots over the wound. Blister just popped accidentally, paint the wound with antiseptic cream and wrap it up with duct tape.
5. Initiate the process with stretching medium-sized pieces (6 to 8 inches) of duct tape horizontally covering the blister.
6. Keep the edges rounded; it prevents them from rolling over pressure points afterward.
7. Similarly, take a few more pieces stretched in the same direction.
8. When your heel is smoothly and thoroughly covered. Arrange several cut sections of tape in a stirred up manner beneath the heel and your instep, simultaneously connecting them to the horizontal bands of tape.
More tips on treating heel blister.
9. Keep layering tape in both directions until you have a tightly wrapped, smooth pocket like the cover. Which protects the heel pocket entirely. Consider wrapping well ahead of your ankle bone, but not too far above them.
10. Finish off wrapping with one or two straps of tape stepping down the Achilles and sole of your foot. It protects the heel from suffering friction due to peeling and rolling the horizontal straps.
11. Almost done, the repair should seem like this:
12. Hold the entire assembly right in place by wrapping one or two and a half inches of duct tape around your heel. Your shin should be tilted forward during this, to prevent discomfort while walking.
13. For a smooth finish, any uneven edges should be trimmed up a with the help of a pocket knife or scissors. To avoid irritation while hiking, you might need trimming back the shin, Achilles and your forefoot. Avoid crossing waterways, since the whole blister repair might get loose.
14. On multi-day hiking trips, keep the cover open overnight to let some air in.
Is it wise to pop hiking blisters?
The wise answer is no. Your blister should not be popped, at least when it is not bothering you much. Popped up blister exposes the layer of fresh, red and delicate skin beneath the superficial skin layer (sounds painful enough).
Not disturbing your hiking blister is the wisest way, unless it is bothering you too much.
But, a large, painful blister should be drained before it gets opened on its own. During your hiking course, try to avoid unnecessary infection.
For sterile drainage, at first, wash your hands properly; wipe a needle clean with an alcohol swab to sterilize it. Puncture the blistered skin as much close to its bottom as possible.
Once the blister is punctured, cautiously drain the liquid by a gentle push with your fingers. Cover the blister with duct tape and moleskin in the way mentioned above.
Remove the bandage periodically and give your foot an Epsom salt soaked bath to aid the drainage of blister fluid. Ensure it dried after your foot bath and follow through a fresh bandage every time. Keep the bandage covered, until the skin tightens and heals on its own.
Small blisters can be covered with a small piece of moleskin. The blister will eventually dry out and heal naturally.
An under-nail blister needs professional attention. When it’s under the base of the toenail, it is usually done with an electric file by a medical professional.
When to see a doctor?
Whenever a blister is discolored, highly inflamed. If the pain worsens or there is no sign of healing even after a few days, it is time to pay the doctor a visit.
This is a short time surgical procedure, followed by sterile dressing regularly with oral antibiotic courses.
Here, we have cracked all the mystery of hiking blisters and its management on the go. So, your next time on the trails should not be as much pain as it was before. Let us know if you have any more in-house tips and to deal with this annoying roadside bubble.