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Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Blisters

Good shoes and socks, frequent foot checks should do the trick

A nasty blister, if I do say so myself. Photo by Attila Horvath.

We’ve all been there before: a blister so painful that one more step seems impossible. “It’s the little things in the backcountry that’ll get you,” says David Ramsey, owner and instructor for Backcountry Rescue Institute in Stanton, KY, “(Blisters) stop many trips.”

Don’t let it happen to you.

What causes blisters? “A blister is just a regular burn that has blistered,” Dave says, pointing out that a sudden burn – say, boiling water spilled on your skin – would also cause blistering. In the case of foot blisters from hiking or running, it’s the heat of friction that causes the burn. Moisture and just plain heat (not caused by friction) also contribute to blisters. For example, rock climbing shoes in full sun sometimes get hot enough to cause blisters.

An ounce of prevention is worth five pounds off of your backpack. Of course, you want to start with buying shoes and boots that fit your feet well. In short, this means not too tight and not too loose. Break in new shoes with shorter trips before tackling long distances. Be sure to wear good socks as well. Dave’s preference is SmartWool, while others like to use synthetic sock liners.

One of the best ways to prevent blisters is to simply stop and check your feet for hot spots every couple of hours or so. A hot spot, where friction of your shoe against your foot occurs, is usually red and feels tender, but does not yet approach the pain of an actual blister. “The hot spot would be that superficial burn; as that progresses you get into the blister,” Dave explains.

Treat the hot spot or blister. If you regularly check your feet, you can look and feel for hot spots, and when you find them put moleskin (or molefoam) on them to stop the friction and prevent the blister. If you already have a small blister, you can use the donut trick – cut the moleskin in the shape of a donut and place it around the blister. This should also prevent further friction and further blistering. Once the blister is big, however, that’s not an option.

To pop or not to pop? Many hearty campfire arguments have been waged over this question. The answer is not a simple yes or no: if possible, do not pop the blister. An unpopped blister, while painful, is sterile, so you want to keep it that way. But that’s not always realistic. “If it’s in a spot where pretty much the blister is gonna pop anyway, it’s much better to pop it and keep it clean,” Dave says.

Make like a surgeon when draining a blister. When it comes time to drain the fluid from a blister, prep the area by cleaning and disinfecting it. You can use a diluted solution of iodine. Take a needle or safety pin (or a pocket knife) and sterilize it by boiling it or using the iodine. Avoid using a flame to sterilize the needle if possible. “Think about what you’re flaming it with – magnesium and phosphorous or an open campfire,” Dave points out, “you’re putting all this dirty carbon material in it.”

Next, puncture the blister at one edge and push out the fluid from the other edge. Clean the area again with soap and water and dress it with gauze or medical tape. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get infected. Look for redness, swelling or pus.