As every hiker's worst nightmare, blisters are one sure way to ruin a hike. That mild discomfort can at first seem innocuos, but it can quickly transform into something rather more sinister that’ll stop you in your tracks. For anyone going on a long hike, blister prevention should be one of the main concerns.
Thankfully with a few simple tricks, you can minimise the risks. From using well broken-in hiking boots, to wearing socks specifically adapted for hiking. And from carrying the necessary supplies to treat hotspots and keeping your feet dry, there’s a lot you can do to prevent blisters from disrupting your hike.
Blisters are commonly caused by excessive friction. In hikers, this usually occurs in the boot. When friction occurs over a period of time in the same place, cell damage results. The body creates a blister in an attempt to heal the damaged cells. It’s the fluid inside the blister that helps protect the damaged tissue.
Excessive friction occurs in hikers when there’s too much pressure inside the boot. Perhaps they are slightly too small, or perhaps they haven't been broken in properly. With ill-fitting boots, even the pressure exerted by a wrinkle in your socks can result in a blister over time.
However, blisters are most commonly experienced on the heel. As a hiker walks, the repeated abrasive force of the boot against the heel can often lead to a blister. Once enough friction occurs, the upper skin layer separates and the fluid begins to swell thus leading to a painful blister.
Another method by which blisters are formed is where moisture is involved. Moist skin is always much more susceptible to damage under friction, and the risk of blisters is therefore much greater.
Blisters can be prevented by taking a few simple precautions. But when out hiking, it all comes down to awareness of the bodily sensations and knowing how to act when discomfort arises. Here are some of the keys to blister prevention.
Boots hold the key to blister prevention. The most common cause of blisters among novice hikers are ill-fitting boots or boots that haven’t been broken in. Never go hiking on a new pair of boots without first breaking them in. Without breaking in your boots, pressure points and friction may result and eventually lead to an inevitable blister. Ensure you do several shorter hikes before venturing on a long multi-day hike in new boots.
With their ability to repel moisture, synthetic or woollen hiking socks are a must for complete foot protection. At Decathlon, many of our socks come with a bouclé heel for added protection where it matters most. Size is also important when it comes to socks. Socks that are too big will tend to wrinkle, and when compressed by the pressure of a tight boot, it can result in blisters.
Never hike in wet socks. Whether through perspiration or water entering your footwear, excess moisture weakens the skin and makes it more vulnerable to blister formation. Always carry a spare pair of dry hiking socks to change into if your feet become wet.
Avoid wearing cotton socks. Cotton tends to soak up moisture making them one of the worst offenders when it comes to foot blisters on a hike.
Liner socks are thin socks that you wear under your main hiking socks. Their main function is to wick sweat from your feet and help prevent friction. The stiffer your boots, the more likely friction becomes, so those wearing stiff mountaineering boots should always wear liner socks.
Some hiking socks come complete with built-in liners. The underlying idea is that the socks rub against each other, rather than your skin rubbing against the sock.
When out on a hike, take the opportunity to air out your boots and socks when you stop for a rest. Doing so will give the sweat a chance to evaporate. If your feet are very sweaty, then consider changing into a dry pair of socks. The original pair can be then hung from your backpack and allowed to dry in the sun. If you’re on a multiday trip, packing a pair of sandals or flip flops for walking around camp is always recommended to give your feet a break from the boots.
One of the keys to blister prevention is to act quickly. As soon as you begin to feel any discomfort you must take action. Failure to do so will almost certainly result in a blister. The first step is to dry off the affected area and cover it. Use either moleskin or leukotape, but failing either, then a simple bandaid will suffice. Failure to take steps immediately can result in blisters surprisingly fast, and by then it’s often too late.
The first course of action should be to pad the blister rather than pop it. To pad the blister, several options exist where padded bandages and gel bandages are the most common.
Moleskin is often used and can be cut into a doughnut shape so as the blister fits within the hole. The moleskin can then be covered with some medical tape enabling you to finish your hike.
Several gel solutions also exist. They can’t be cut, so you’ll have to bring along several different sizes. Gels add a protective layer that both cushions and cools, thus helping prevent the blister from getting worse.
You should only pop a blister as a last resort as doing so in the field will heighten your chances of infection. When the pain and size of the blister becomes too much to bear, you can drain it by first washing the surrounding area with antibiotic soap. Then with a sterilised needle, you can prick the base of the blister before dressing it like you would any other wound. Just ensure you give your heel time to heal before you hit the trails again!