Hiking blisters

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Phoenix hiking season is just around the corner (Woot! Woot!) We have all been waiting so patiently to hit some trails without waking up at the crack of dawn just to squeeze in an hour to feed our hiking addiction.

But hiking season also means that an epidemic of blisters will soon be coming to a trail near you. These preventable foot injuries are common and debilitating. So Debbie Hendricks with Just Roughin' It helps us figure out what these plasma-filled foot bubbles are, how to prevent them, and worse case, how to treat them.


I have seen my share of foot nastiness over 12 years of guiding single and multi-day hikes, from dime-sized blisters to hematomas under toenails – Yuck!

Blisters can be a symptom of several ailments but in the case of this article, a blister is caused by friction when hiking or walking. This results in fluid collecting under the skin in the irritated area – usually water or plasma – as your body attempts protect you from injury and infection.

Let’s first talk about what can cause blisters. You would prevent blisters by doing the exact opposite.

1. Wearing improper hiking shoes or boots: When you purchase your new hiking kicks, don’t go for what looks best, go for what fits and feels best. This means trying on several different pairs so you can compare. You want to be certain there are no areas in the shoe that are too tight or too loose. You also want to be certain you are getting the proper shoes for the terrain and climate for which you are hiking. Shoes with too soft of soles on a rocky trail (like most AZ trails) can create “hot spots”. Shoes that have waterproofing or Goretex can keep your feet from staying dry and cool. Waterproofing may keep moisture from the outside out but it will keep the moisture created from sweat in – helping those blisters develop.

2. Not breaking in your shoes: You bought your perfect shoe/boot, but that doesn’t mean you can just throw them on and hike a 10 miler. You have to break them in. That means first wearing them around the house, then venture outside, then hit the trail – starting with just a few miles and ramp up from there. This does not just apply to new shoes, you need to break in old shoes you have not worn in over a year as feet change and shoes can degrade over time. Borrowing shoes from someone else? Definitely break them in! Why do I mention this? Because I have “seen a thing or two.”

3. Wearing the wrong socks: When hiking, avoid cotton as it retains moisture – making your skin weak and more susceptible to blisters – think about what happens to your hands and feet when you spend a lot of time in the swimming pool. Go with synthetic or wool instead and make sure they fit properly - not too tight and not to loose. And if you wear socks with Merino Wool – less foot stink. Something all your fellow hikers will appreciate. When you do select THE sock, buy several pair of the same thickness and brand. Changing the thickness of your socks will change how your shoe fits and can cause blisters.

Plus, these measures can also help prevent blisters:

1. Add a “friction-less” layer or barrier: There are several products you can use. Salves, Runner’s Glide, liner socks, toe socks, moleskin, blister bandages, powders, WURU wool, etc. Some people, including myself, use duct tape. Whatever you pick, you need to test your barrier, sock and shoe combo before going on long hikes. Keep in mind that not all these measures work for everyone and you may have to test out a few before finding THE one. Additionally, you must be certain you are using any of these items properly.

2. Change to dry or clean socks: If your feet did get wet whether from stream crossings or sweaty feet, you will want to get on some dry socks. I always hike with an extra pair – even if on a day hike. Dirty socks can also cause blisters as fine dirt, sand and rocks will also create friction on the skin. If your feet are dirty, clean them off as well.

3. Deal with hot spots quickly: Pay close attention to how your feet feel as you hike. The minute you sense an uncomfortable spot; or “hot spot”, take your shoes and socks off. Inspect for abnormalities like red or wet/wrinkled skin. Clean them off, get them dry, and apply your preferred and tested barrier.


4. Consider Gaiters: Blisters can also be caused by dirt and rocks collecting in your shoes and socks, thus creating friction. Gaiters will help keep that out of your shoes. However, they can also trap heat, so if you invest in them, be sure to test them out before a long hike.

So you did all this stuff and you still got a blister! This can happen, even when you've never gotten one before. Now you have to treat it. Gross!

To treat a blister, try one of the following options:

Molefoam or Moleskin with a doughnut hole: Cut a large enough hole for the blister; then the surrounding foam should keep your sock from rubbing and further irritating the area. For extra protection, add a layer of athletic tape or duct tape over everything. Be certain whatever you do, it all sticks. If your blister repair concoction peels up, you will have an irritant in your shoe that will aggravate the blister you do have or create more.

Blister bandages with pads and gels: These add a protective layer to prevent a blister from getting worse. Pads provide cushioning; gels soothe the area by cooling it off.

Bandaged blisters

To Pop or Not to Pop! This is a highly debated topic in the world of blister care. In my opinion, and I have seen the result of a lot of blisters that were not “popped”, or better stated – drained. A blister left to its own devices when you do have to hike on, can cause more harm than good. So here is what you do:

1. Wash the blister and surrounding area with antibiotic soap and rinse with drinkable water. If there is no water available (we do live in the desert), clean with an alcohol wipe.

Wash your feet to clean blisters

2. Sterilize a needle or safety pin with alcohol or a flame (lighter).

3. Insert the needle near the base of the blister where the bubble started, puncturing the skin.

4. Drain the blister carefully by pressing gently from the opposite end of the puncture until the raised skin lays back down as normal. This skin is your best barrier from infection.

5. Dress the blister like you would a wound, using antibiotic ointment and gauze, a Band-Aid, Moleskin or any method you may use to prevent blisters.

If you are a blister magnet, hopefully some of these tactics will help. If you never get blisters, keep doing what you are doing. And while there are other anecdotal preventative measures or treatments for blisters, they are not regularly used. But if you have a method that you know works for you, by all means, use it. It just may not work, or be safe, for others. I’m looking at you people that use superglue on blisters.


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