Blisters are probably the #1 foot problem hikers face. So if you plan on taking a hike, you need to think about how to prevent them. You also need to know how to treat blisters if, and when, they arise. Because if your feet aren’t happy, YOU won’t be happy.
A blister is a pocket of fluid between your skin’s upper layers. The fluid is typically clear. If it’s bloody, you have a blood blister. Both types of blisters are caused by friction and heat. For hikers, developing blisters on your feet usually indicates your socks were rubbing on them, your shoes or boots were too tight, your shoes or boots were slipping as you walked, or your feet were wet.
There’s no one trick to preventing blisters. But it definitely helps to make sure your footwear fits well. The heels should not be slipping, and there should be plenty of room in the toe box. Some pros recommend buying hiking shoes or boots that are a half-size larger than your normal shoes. Whether or not you opt to do this, make sure to shop for your footwear at the end of the day. That’s because your feet swell during the day, so they’re at their largest toward day’s end.
Check out your shoes’ insoles before you set out, too. Worn ones can contribute to blister formation. If your insoles are trashed but your shoes are still in decent shape, try swapping out the insoles with supportive inserts, such ask those made by Superfeet.
During your hike, stop and shake out your shoes if sand, rocks or other debris begin to collect inside of them. If you don’t, that debris may cause friction and result in blisters or abrasions. And speaking of trail debris, wearing gaiters like these will help prevent a lot of stuff from getting into your shoes.
If your toes tend to rub together when you hike, as mine do, weave lambs’ wool in between them. This has been a game-changer for me. The wool separates your toes and absorbs sweat as you hike.
But perhaps most importantly, if you feel a hot spot developing on your foot, check it out immediately. Putting a bandage on a hot spot early in the day can prevent the formation of a painful blister later on.
Sometimes you can develop blisters under your toenails. This may happen if your toenails are too long or you stub your toe. These types of blisters may also form if a toe, or toes, repeatedly hit the front of the shoe.
You can’t always tell the difference between a simple bruised toe and one with a blister underneath. They often present with the same type of pain, yet you typically can’t see the blister. If you’ve got a really bad one, however, fluid may also collect at the base of your nail, where it is visible.
Despite your best precautions, you’ll probably develop a blister or two at some point during your hike, especially if it’s a multi-day trek. The standard recommendation is to leave a blister alone until the fluid dries up and the blister shrinks, which takes about one to two weeks. This is advised because the fluid in a blister protects the damaged skin underneath. Plus, if you pierce a blister to drain it, you may inadvertently cause an infection.
In my experience, however, leaving a blister alone during a hike is almost always impossible. That’s because a blister full of fluid is often exceptionally painful.
If you need to drain a blister for pain relief, make sure you do so after sterilizing the site and the needle used to drain it. Once the fluid has drained out, leave all of the skin in place. This will help protect the wound. Then place some antiseptic over it and top with a bandage.
One hack: If you don’t have a bandage, cover it with duct tape.
In the evening, make sure to air out your feet by wearing camp shoes or sandals. Dry feet will help speed the healing process.
Tips from Experienced Hikers
Here are some blister-prevention tips from seasoned hikers.
- Rub petroleum jelly over problem areas before you start hiking
- Apply a product such as Body Glide to problem areas, or even your entire feet and toes, before hiking
- Sprinkle baby powder on your feet
- Place moleskin on problem areas
- Wear socks with toes, such as these by Injinji
- Put on two pairs of socks: a thin liner pair covered with thicker socks
- Carry an extra pair of socks in case your feet become soaked
- Lighten your pack
- Lace your shoes differently
If the fluid inside your blister is yellow or smelly, it may be infected. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.
And if you do end up losing a toenail due to a blister, be prepared to look at an ugly toe for a long while. It takes up to 18 months for a toenail to fully regrow, with the nail on your big toe taking the most time.
Oh, well. Just cover up your ugly toes with hiking boots and hit the trail again!
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