How to prevent, treat blisters while on the trail
We encountered trouble almost from the start.
Well, some of us anyway.
Backpacks cinched up, we set off, putting the group camping area in our rear-view mirror. Our destination, a set of Adirondack shelters, lay roughly six miles away.
That’s not a great distance by backpacking standards.
But half or more of the hikers in our group — Scouts and their fathers — were newbies. This trek was their first carrying their worlds on their bodies.
Everyone prepped back home. That included getting fitted for packs, planning meals, scouring maps, weighing gear and the like.
Still, a shakedown at the group campsite on the morning of launch proved revealing.
One scout, all 70 pounds of him, stuffed an 8-gallon jug of water in his pack. Another attached a folding chair to the outside of his, to use at dinner. A third strapped a saw as long as his leg to his belt.
We dumped all that in one of the trucks, making a pile to be touched again only when we left for home.
Another problem proved unsolvable, though, at least in the moment.
In making gear lists back home we emphasized the need for proper footwear: hiking boots if at all possible, but proper socks — liner socks under heavier wool ones — at all costs.
Yet, several scouts emerged from their tents that morning in sneakers and cotton ankle socks.
We didn’t have enough spare gear to outfit everyone properly. And the results were predictable.
A few miles into our hike, several scouts developed blisters.
Putting first aid skills to use, we treated those heels and ankles as best we could. And our care proved at least passable. The hobbled scouts each still had enough fun that they went on future backpacking trips.
But make no mistake: blisters hurt. It’s a lot better to prevent them than to treat them, however well you do it.
Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to at least make it less likely you’ll develop one or more.
Start with your boots. Choose boots that are a half to a full size larger than you normally wear. That accounts for the room needed for extra socks and your feet swelling on the trail. Then, wear them around home to break them in long before heading out.
Next, consider wearing two pair of socks. Put a light pair of liners, meant to wick moisture from your feet, on first, then top those with thicker wool socks that provide some shock absorption.
Together, they make sure any blister-inducing friction or rubbing occurs between sock and sock, rather than sock and skin.
One pair or two, though, avoid cotton socks altogether.
When you get to camp, take your socks off and rinse them if possible. At the very least, hang them to dry. They’ll be damp from walking, and that spells trouble in the long run.
This is where taking an extra pair of socks or even light sandals or shoes to wear in camp is a bonus.
Wash your feet, too, and — if you haven’t before leaving home — clip your toenails. Let them get too long and, on an extended hike, they cause problems.
Still, despite doing everything right, there may be times you get a blister, or at least feel one coming on. That demands immediate attention.
If you get a “hot spot,” or area of reddish, tender skin, the beginnings of a blister, stop walking immediately and treat it. Dry the area and cover it with moleskin, blister bandages or gel pads or medical tape. Duct tape can even serve in a pinch.
The key is to get the area covered so it doesn’t continue to rub on your sock, boot or whatever.
If your hot spot turns into a full-blown blister before you treat it, the question is whether to pop it.
As a general rule, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends against popping blisters, as that essentially creates an open wound liable to get infected. Of course, that advice is also followed by a suggestion to refrain from doing the activity that caused the blister until it heals.
Unless you plan to live in the woods for a week or two, that’s not an option when backpacking.
So, popping or more accurately draining the blister is often the best course of action.
There’s a right way to do it, though. Clean the blister and the area around it with soap and water, alcohol or an antibiotic wipe from your first aid kit. Then, sterilize a needle with that same alcohol or even a flame and puncture the blister near one edge.
Working from the opposite side, massage all of the fluid out of the blister. Finally, rub antibiotic ointment on it, then cover it with moleskin — with a doughnut hole a bit larger than the blister cut into it — or a bandage. Place tape over that to hold everything in place.
On multi-day trips you will want to check your blister periodically and change the dressing as needed.
That should get you home in the best shape possible.
That doesn’t mean pain free. Even treated blisters are at a minimum annoying.
But they need not be a part of every trip, so long as you think ahead. And they’re certainly no reason to stay indoors.
So keep an eye on your feet, but get out and start walking
Packing a blister patch kit
So you’re heading out on the trail to do some hiking and/or backpacking. You have, or should have, a first-aid kit in your pack.
What should you include in it specifically for blisters?
Here are some ideas:
• Blister bandages
• Gel pads
• Alcohol wipes
• Antibiotic ointment
• Sewing needles
• Medical or athletic tape
• Lighter for sterilizing needles
• Gel toe sleeves
• Blister plasters (for treating open blisters)