One of the fastest ways to turn a great hike into a miserable one is with hiking blisters. So anything we can do to avoid blisters – and treat them properly when we do get them – will have a significant impact on our hiking. So in this post I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to prevent and treat blisters while hiking.
This post is rather timely, because as I write it I’m waiting to get a prescription filled for a 7-day course of antibiotics to treat an infected blister. No matter what we do to avoid them, sometimes blisters form and sometimes they turn into little infected beasts! So in addition to ways to prevent and treat blisters from hiking, I’ll also go over the signs that your blister is infected and when to seek medical attention.
So read on if you want to learn everything there is to know about blister management – I have ample first hand experience!
What causes blisters
Blisters are caused when the outer layer of skin (the epidermis) is damaged from friction or heat. Moisture contributes to the formation of blisters because moisture weakens the skin and increases the amount of friction. A clear fluid called serum fills the space between the damaged skin and the tissue underneath, acting as a cushion to protect the tissue.
The blisters that form when hiking are usually caused by friction between your feet and your hiking shoes. This is compounded by the fact that your feet are in a state of constant moisture (specifically due to sweat).
So in order to prevent blisters, we need to prevent friction and moisture.
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How to prevent blisters
Here are the strategies I’ve found helpful for preventing blisters. It really comes down to good shoes and socks, and taking care of your feet.
Buy good fitting hiking boots
Everyone’s feet are different, so the best hiking boots for me won’t necessarily be the best hiking boots for you. (Though if you’re interested, these are my current hiking boots and these are the boots I used for the 5 years before).
You’ll want to try on a few different styles and walk around the store with them. Ensure you wear wool socks when you try them on!
Once you’ve found a pair you like (or a few) buy them and take them for a test run around the block. Don’t take them on a muddy trail (in case you need to return them) but walk a few miles to get a sense of how they feel.
Some special considerations to have when buying the right hiking boots is how wide your feet are and if you need arch support. In these cases you’ll want a hiking boot designed for wide feet / arch support.
I’ve found employees at stores like MEC and REI super helpful at directing me to the best hiking shoes for my feet and trips.
Break in your hiking boots
This is one of the most important things to do before a backpacking trip. If you read my post about hiking the Highland Backpacking Trail, you’ll know that I did not properly break in my hiking boots and I had the most disastrous blisters (more on that below).
Why is breaking in your boots important?
Initially, hiking boots are very stiff. The stiff points will run against your feet (especially around your toes and heel) and this friction causes blisters. The more your wear your boots the less stiff they’ll be.
So how should you break in your hiking boots?
Well, you should start breaking in your boots at least a few weeks before a big trip. Start with walking them around the block or to the grocery store. Then wear them on short, flat trails. You want to gradually work up to a long hike before your big trip.
Wear the best hiking socks to prevent blisters
Since blisters are caused by moisture and friction, you want a pair of socks that will keep your feet as dry and cushioned as possible.
The best hiking socks for preventing blisters are made from merino wool Merino wool is the best material because it wicks away moisture and dries very quickly. Wool socks come in different levels of thickness, which provide more cushioning and warmth as the thickness increases.
How thick should your socks be? There is a fine balance to strike. Thick socks will provide more cushioning, but the warmth could cause your feet to sweat more. I go for relatively thin wool socks for hikes in the summer. For longer hikes or in the spring / autumn, I go for medium thick socks.
I don’t wear super thick hiking socks except in the winter, as I find my feet just get way too sweaty.
Change your socks regularly
Depending on the length of your trip, you want to change your hiking socks regularly. Sometimes putting on wet socks in the morning is unavoidable, but as much as you can, start the day with dry socks.
Since moisture is a major contributor to blisters, keeping your socks clean and dry will help prevent blisters when hiking.
I’ve become a bit of a backcountry diva with foot care, but I like to bring a minimum of two pairs of socks for day hikes and a minimum of four pairs of socks on multi-day trips.
Always keep one pair of socks totally dry for sleeping. I call these my “sleep socks” and I never wear them outside the tent.
I’ll start my trip with one pair of socks and wear them everyday until they get wet or super sweaty. Then I move onto my next pair of socks.
If I’m on a long trip I’ll wash my socks part way through (only if it’s super sunny and I can dry them). In this post I explain how to do laundry on a camping trip.
Keep your feet clean and dry
Again, I’m such a diva, but I give myself a foot bath every night before bed. I’ll either swim or just put my feet in the water. Then I’ll scrub off any dirt and grime and let them soak in the water for a bit.
Then I dry them with my micro towel, put on my nighttime socks and head to bed.
Pro Tip: Bring a pair of sandals for when you get to a lunch spot or campsite. It feels so good to give your feet a break from the hiking boots and let them breathe. I clip a pair onto the outside of my backpack with a carabiner.
How to treat Hot Spots
Hot spots are places on your feet that are warm and irritated, but have yet to form an actual blister. Catching hot spots and treating them is one of the best ways to avoid a painful blister.
Here is what I do to treat hot spots:
- Stop hiking and sit down!
- Put a band aid over the area and secure it with sports tape
- If the hot spot is on my heel, I might put on moleskin, but I find sports tape works really well
How to treat blisters
Despite our best intentions, sometimes we just end up getting blisters. When this happens, there are a few things we can do to reduce the pain (and keep hiking) and prevent infection.
Usually you should NOT pop your blister
To pop or not to pop! There is a huge debate on whether or not you should pop a blister.
A blister is actually your body’s defence mechanism against friction. The fluid inside provides a layer of protection between the sensitive skin between the outer layer of skin being irritated. This provides cushions in addition to cooling the area.
I recently did an experiment on myself that has had a terrible outcome. Two days ago I was wearing leather boat shoes for a long walk and got gnarly blisters on both of my feet in the same spot.
So I popped the blisters on the left foot and didn’t pop the blisters on the right foot.
My left foot turned red and tender and hurt when I wore shoes. The right side was totally fine. The blisters drained on their own and there was absolutely no pain.
Now today, the left side is infected! And the right side is totally fine. The doctor was not pleased that I popped the blister.
So as tempting as it may be, resist the urge to pop your blisters!!
(If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, I’ll assume you’re cool with me showing you a photo of my feet.)
When should you pop your blister
Usually, you don’t want to pop a blister, but there are a few cases where you would.
If your hiking shoes cause direct pressure on the blister, you should pop it. This would include blisters on the back of your heel. If the blister is on the arch of your foot or the outside of your heel, you usually don’t need to pop it.
Additionally, sometimes the blister will have a yellow / green tint to it. This is a sign the blister is infected. In this case you should pop the blister and drain the fluid (see below).
When I returned from the Highland Backpacking Trail, I had 10-12 MASSIVE blisters. My feet were incredibly swollen, hot and painful. The only thing that brought relief was placing ice packs on them. Many of the blisters had a slight yellow tint to them. The colour plus how hot my feet felt was a sign they were infected, so I popped the blisters and soon felt much, much better.
How to pop a blister safely
If you do decide to pop your blister, ensure you do the following steps. This will prevent the blister from becoming infected.
- Wash or sanitize your hands.
- Wipe the blister and surrounding area with an alcohol wipe.
- Get a needle or safety pin and sanitize it. You can either do this by putting it in boiling water for two minutes or holding the tip over an open flame for 10 seconds.
- Use the needle or safety pin to poke a small hole in the blister.
- Gently push on the blister so the fluid drains through the hole you made.
- Once the blister is drained and dry, rub some antibiotic ointment over the blister and put an antiseptic bandaid on top.
When to know if your blister is seriously infected
Although uncommon, some blisters become infected and can cause cellulitis. If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have cellulitis.
This evening I noticed a red streak coming out from my blister. The entire pinky toe was red and shiny, and was hot and throbbing. Cellulitis can turn into sepsis (blood infection) if not treated quickly. So I boogied on down to the walk in clinic and the doctor agreed it was infected. She wasn’t able to confirm cellulitis at the moment, but took a swab and prescribed me a course of antibiotics.
How to hike with blisters
Once the blisters have formed, it can be painful to hike. There are a few strategies I’ve found to make it less painful, but hiking with blisters is rarely a comfortable experience.
Before you put on your hiking boots, treat the blisters with a little antibiotic ointment (like polysporin) and place an antiseptic bandaid on top. Then use medical tape to secure the bandaid. Be generous!
At lunch, take stock of your feet. Remove your boots and socks and let your feet breathe. Reapply bandaids and tape if any are coming lose. When you are ready to start hiking, put on a new pair of socks.
Hiking & Blister Best Practices
If you take nothing else from this blog post, please remember these points:
- Keep your feet clean and dry to prevent blisters.
- Avoid popping your blisters
- If you do pop them, sterilize everything!
- If you think it’s infected, see a doctor.
I really hope this post has been helpful. If it was, I’ll consider my blister experiment a success and worth the antibiotics I’ll be taking for the next seven days.
Happy camping my friends!