Spring has finally arrived, and with it comes hiking season. As we prepare for our first hikes of the year, now's a good time to take some proactive steps to help prevent unwanted blisters. The following are a few tips, suggestions and strategies for taking care of your feet before and during a hike to help ensure that it isn’t ruined as a result of blisters:
Toenails: Make sure you take the time to trim your toenails before a big hike, especially one that involves long descents. It’s best to clip your toenails as short as possible so that there’s no extra nail length. If need be, file the nails down until they’re flush with the skin. Sometimes I forget to do this and end up with a long nail digging into the flesh of a neighboring toe!
Socks: One way of preventing blisters is to wear proper socks. This means staying far away from 100% cotton socks which absorb sweat and can lead to blisters. It’s best to wear socks made from synthetics, or a blend of synthetics and cotton, which wicks moisture away and keeps your feet drier and cooler. Also, make sure you wear socks that fit properly. Socks that are too big can bunch together in boots and create friction areas that result in blisters.
Finally, I always keep an extra pair of socks in my backpack just in case the ones I’m wearing get wet.
Boots: Much has already been written on boots and walking shoes, including what type to wear, proper fit, etc. That discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re looking for an informative article on the subject I highly recommend this one. Also, my wife has had problems with blisters, and even lost a toenail while hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon several years ago. She’s since discovered that as a result of her narrow feet, she wasn't wearing boots that fit her properly. This article on Backpacker Mag offers solutions for people who have similar issues.
Boot laces: One way to help prevent blisters from forming on your heels, and toes from hitting the front of your boot, is to make sure your boots are properly laced, especially on descents.
When heading downhill it’s important to make sure that your heel doesn’t slip forward, thus causing friction which leads to blisters. The key is to keep your heel secure within the boot, while still allowing some room for natural swelling that occurs in the fore and mid areas of your foot.
Most good hiking boots have two types of eyelets: closed metal rings along the top of the foot, and quick-release types on the top of the boot above the ankle.
On the lower eyelets along the top of the foot, it’s best to lace your shoes with a little give. In other words, not snug, but not real loose either. This will give your foot room to expand as your foot swells during a hike.
Then, on that last lace before you start lacing through the quick release eyelets, do a single, very snug, overhand loop. Lace through the first pair of quick release eyelets and then do another snug overhand loop. Do the same all the way to the top of the eyelets (don’t strangle your ankle though!). This will anchor your heel area to the boot and keep it from sliding.
Another option for lacing boots, especially if you have narrow feet, is to use the technique outlined by the Hiking Lady in this video:
Gaiters: Most people would agree that wet socks suck. Wet socks are not only uncomfortable, but can also be dangerous if it’s cold out. Moreover, hiking for long periods in wet socks is a prescription for blisters.
One way to combat wet terrain, snow, and even sand and pebbles from jumping into your boots, is to wear gaiters. Basically there are two types: high and low. High gaiters are used for snowshoeing and mountaineering, extend to just below your knees, and are designed to keep your socks and pants dry. Short gaiters generally cover the lower part of your shin and are used in warmer weather to protect against wet terrain, sand and pebbles.
Blisters: The following are a few other suggestions for avoiding blisters:
* Train your feet. Don’t go out on a long hike without taking the time to toughen up your feet by doing walks or short hikes leading up to the big day.
* Don’t try to break in brand new boots on a long hike either. Wear a new pair around town, or on short hikes, before taking them long distance.
* Walking barefoot around the house, especially outside, will toughen the skin of your feet.
* Stop and remove dirt, sand, or any other debris that gets in your boots ASAP.
* Air your feet out during a break in order to cool and dry them off.
* For people with feet that sweat excessively, try using extra-strength antiperspirant creams, roll-ons, or powders to reduce sweating.
* If you have areas on your foot that have caused problems in the past, try putting moleskin or athletic tape on before blisters have a chance to form.
* If you do develop a hot spot, cover them immediately with moleskin, athletic tape, or even duct tape before they become blisters.
Treating Blisters: Well, if all of the above fails, and you still wind up with a blister, here are a few tips for treating them (and another good reason for keeping a small first aid kit in your pack).
* If the blister isn’t torn and is full of liquid, pierce it from the side with a sterile needle at its base and let all the fluid drain out. If the affected skin is still intact, don't remove it. Instead, cover the drained blister with moleskin.
* If the blister is already torn, carefully cut away the loose skin and clean the area with antiseptic. Allow it to dry and harden in the open air for as long possible. Before resuming your hike, put a band-aid or gauze over the torn blister and then put a layer of moleskin over the blister area. It’s best to cut a doughnut shaped piece of moleskin that fits around the blister rather than putting it directly on it.
* If you have a blister that's buried deep in the skin and doesn't hold a lot of liquid, it’s best not to puncture them. Instead, just cover them with a moleskin doughnut to relieve the friction.
If you have any other helpful tips, please feel free to add them in the comments section.