Spring is here everyone and with summer just around the corner in the northern hemisphere it’s time to head outside and explore mother nature in the sunshine. And what better way to explore than on foot! Hiking is definitely one of, if not the best, ways of exploring the world around us. However hiking doesn’t always work out how we might plan, it can lead to sprains, strains and more often than not on longer hikes the dreaded blister. Having been on many hikes including 800km across northern Spain I feel I’ve had my fair share of blisters. So here is what you need to know before you go…prevention, treatment and management.
Blisters occur due to three things; friction, moisture and heat. If you can eliminate these three things before they happen you will never have a problem and here is how to do it…
Before doing anything else you need to make sure you have the correct footwear for the type of hiking you will be doing and make sure your boots fit correctly and are worn in. If you are heading for long stretches of uneven ground, a boot type cut will lock up higher on the ankle giving you more ankle support if you were to roll, but also less movement within the boot. Hiking in hot environments, you must ensure your footwear is breathable, Gortex vs leather, and not collecting moisture. Any good hiking store selling boots will be able to give you all the info you need to make the correct decision so don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Socks come in a very close second to shoes in the blister avoidance scale. When choosing a sock you need to make sure you buy a pair made from moisture-wicking materials (a personal favourite is merino), these will draw away any dampness from your feet and help them to breathe better within your shoe. Socks that are cotton based will trap the moisture and make things a lot worse.
These days a lot of technology goes into sock vs athlete performance and there are always new and innovative types of socks coming out including double layered socks, which I highly rate. Some brands now work on having a dual layer system, with a tight under layer staying close and compressed to the foot and the second layer moving more freely. Basically it reduces friction from your boot because as we know friction = rubbing = blisters = not a good time. If you are prone to blisters from overheating feet you might also consider using a foot powder which again will draw away moisture and I know it sounds weird but try spraying your foot with antiperspirant deodorant which is an alternative to buying powder but will help slow down the amount of perspiration..
As mentioned above moisture is a pretty big issue and after shoes and socks keeping your feet dry needs to be a priority. If you are hiking, most of the time you are going to get hot and your feet will sweat, especially if you are hiking in a warm climate. When your feet become moist your socks will absorb the moisture which will lead to increased friction between your foot and the sock/shoe causing rubbing and then blisters to form. So in order to keep your feet as dry as possible you should consider stopping every couple of hours (depending on the length of your hike) and take your boots/shoes off. Give your feet a chance to breathe and air out. Also depending on how damp your socks/feet are either dry your socks or change them to new ones. Having a back up pair of socks is always a great idea, you never know when you are going to step in a puddle, walk through wet grass or simply form a hole in your current pair.
Treatment and Management
If there is a technique for how to deal with blisters I think I’ve heard it all. And inevitably the question that people always end up asking… “should I pop it, or just leave it?” If you can, leaving a blister alone is best however if you are doing a large amount of hiking/running and this is not an option there are a couple of right and wrong ways to go about dealing with blisters.
Popping blisters. Possibly the best method for dealing with extremely irritated blisters. Lucky for me one of my closest friends is an Emergency nurse, so when my blisters were at their worst I called her pleading for some advice on what I should do. She explained that if I wanted to pop them I should cut the dead skin of the blister off and drown it in betadine or any other form of antiseptic (which burns like hell). This is quite a hard method of treatment as you have to expose the red soft flesh underneath the blister leaving it raw. When I had finally had enough of the pain one incredibly large blister was causing me I used some scissors I had cleaned with antiseptic to pop and cut the blister off after which I proceeded to smother it in betadine. Boy did it hurt! Once I had removed and soaked the blisters I let them air dry then covered them with a sterile dressing pad. The biggest risk you run here with popping the blister is infection but as long as you remove the skin of the blister (which is dead skin anyway, it won’t hurt trust me, the antiseptic is the hard part) you remove the warm damp place that bacteria loves to live and as long as you clean the exposed skin every day and dry them out you should have close to zero problems.
Drainage Technique. One suggestion I was given was to create a makeshift drain in the blister using a needle and threat. The idea behind it is that by “sewing” the thread straight through the dead skin of the blister it will create an opening for the fluid to seep out of the thread and effectively “drain” the blister without removing the skin. The trouble with this technique is that because you are creating a hole in the blister you are creating a potential portal for nasty bugs to enter. I tried this technique for a while but was completely paranoid about getting an infection and when one day I notice yellow puss weeping from one of my blisters with the drain I stopped using this technique immediately. It was absolutely revolting, the smell was the worst! Luckily I caught any infection early by you guessed it ripping off the blister and bathing it in betadine. One girl we met was not so lucky. Having performed the drainage technique on both her feet she covered her blisters with bandages and left them for a few days. After a while her feet got progressively worse with increasing pain and difficulty walking. When she finally took off her bandages she had an extremely bad infection. When she finally went to hospital after over 2 weeks the doctor said it was the worst infection caused by blisters he had ever seen! Therefore this method is not worth the risk I would strongly advise against it.
Magnesium sulfate paste. Available in most countries the sulfate paste in theory uses a kind of osmosis to draw out the moisture in the blister. I gave this method a go by covering my blister in the paste and placing a bandage on top leaving it overnight. The results were far from perfect, I think it may have reduced the size of my blister slightly but it didn’t make it resolve completely. This method therefore might be best on smaller blisters and left on longer than overnight.
Compeed Bandages. Compeeds are more used as a preventative measure not a treatment. If you start to feel a “hotspot” rubbing anywhere on your foot stop immediately and check it out, if there is not yet a blister there place a compeed on the affected area and this will hopefully work as a second skin so instead of your skin rubbing the compeed will absorb the brunt of the friction. Never put a compeed on an already formed blister or a popped blister.
In the end something that works for one person may not work for another but as long as you have the right shoes and socks, take regular stops if your feet feel sweaty or treat any hotspots early you should be right. Remember prevention is better than treatment!
As always guys happy trails!