The surge of sun and warmth a couple of weeks ago was not only a nice relief from our extended winter, but it was a reminder that it is time to start thinking about getting outside! Whether your outdoor activity of choice is running, hiking, biking or gardening, it is important take care of ourselves in order to enjoy the good weather all summer long.
Dusting off the old hiking boot reminds us that, in order to bag all our desired peaks, we have to take special care of our feet. Blisters are, far and away, the most prevalent backcountry injury and one which many of us take for granted and underestimates. However, blisters can be extremely painful! Large blisters are not only easily formed, but they can end an outing as quickly as a more “serious” injury and keep us out-of-commission for several days and, sometimes, weeks. That is why blister prevention is so important.
Blisters, particularly those which form on our feet, are caused by friction. Excessive shearing of the outermost layers of the epidermis causes those cells to tear away from the connective tissue of the body. This breaks the cells, releasing the plasma with n the cell forming fluid pockets. The culprit is almost always poorly fitted shoes.
The best way to manage blisters is to prevent them. There are several strategies for this: First, do not go into the backcountry in shoes that you are not familiar with! The classic mistake is purchasing new hiking boots and not properly wearing them in before an outing. I always tell my clients that I prefer that they wear old, comfortable sneakers over new hiking boots for just this reason. I can dry out wet sneakers but i cannot heal blisters. Ideally, however, the best footwear is old, well-worn hiking boots which will provide additional ankle stability, water resistance and are proven blister-free.
Socks are important too. Socks should be clean and of a wicking material. Sweat, moisture and dirt will increase rubbing and the potential for blisters. If you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip, extra socks are a low weighted item that could save you a lot of pain and heartache. So, they are worth carrying. Washing socks at night with camp soap is not a bad idea either as long as you have a reliable method of drying them.
Lastly, if you know you are blister prone, you can proactively pad your heels or toes to reduce the amount of stress in those areas. This is really the purpose of mole skin; it is not a treatment it is prevention. Recently, “blister pads,” low friction, Band-Aid like stick on pads, has appeared on the market. Similar to mole skin, these are prevention aids and not meant as treatment.
If, despite your best efforts, you end up with blisters in the backcountry, proper treatment can make your life easier and get you back on the trail in a shorter amount of time.
There are two types of people in this world: those who pop their blisters and those who do not. Really, it is just a matter of style. Eventually, one way or the other, the plasma will drain on its own. So, popping is not necessary. However, if you get a thrill out of it, there is nothing saying that it will hurt either. The only concern with blister popping is infection. So, as long as you have a sterile knife or needle and a method to disinfect the area once opened, then pop away.
Popped or not, blisters will worsen if not protected from further rubbing. Band-Aids, duct tape, mole skin, blister pads, medical tape or double socks, anything that simply covers over the blister area does not really do the trick. While they create additional barriers between the boot and the skin, they do not decrease the amount of surface area being rubbed. The goal of backcountry blister treatment is to reduce the amount of surface area in the blistered area making contact with the boot by creating separation.
From personal experience, I would say that, in my opinion, the best treatment for back-country blisters is Dr. Scholl’s Wart Pads. This is one of those wonderful American inventions meant for one purpose but actually, accidentally, serves a second purpose even better. Dr. Scholl’s Wart Pads, if you have never seen them, are oval shaped, foam pads meant to hug a wart. Provided that a blister has not grown too large, they do an excellent job of hugging blisters and buffering them from contact with the boot.
If you do not have Dr. Scholl’s Wart Pads, or if your blister is too large for a pad to fit around it, then you can make your own with medical tape. Simply, roll the tape up into a long thin strand and bend it into a loop. You may need to do it a few times to get adequate separation between the foot and boot. To help the tape stay in place, you can put a band aid or more tape over it. Using Dr. Scholl’s is preferable, but tape can work as an okay substitute.
As warmer weather is upon us, it is important to take good care of our bodies. As we eye new peaks and long trails, it is necessary to take care of the feet that take us to the places we want to go. Blisters are painful, come on quickly, can end an outing, but are preventable. Practice good blister prevention and you’ll be set for a long summer of fun. Happy exploring!