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Backpacker Magazine – April 2001

Blister Prevention: Hiker, Heel Thyself

Think blisters are a sure thing when you hike? Think again: Here's your ticket to preventing and treating the dreaded sores.

by: BACKPACKER Editors


Consider your average ripe peach. Press your thumb against the juicy fruit and gently move it back and forth. What happens? The skin moves under your thumb. Now press harder and rub. The skin rips and wrinkles, and peach juice dribbles down your hand.

The same pressure-and-friction principle comes into play when you hike. The outer layers of your foot's skin can move more than the sensitive inner layers can. Boots and socks apply pressure and friction as you walk, causing these skin layers to separate and fluid to fill the voida blister.

Now, let's get back to that peach. Say you dunk it in hot water. When you rub it, it peels more easily, right? Again, it's the same with your feet: Warm, moist skin blisters quicker than cool, dry skin.

The obvious lesson here is to keep your peaches out of hot water. You might also want to keep your feet dry, cool, and friction-free so you avoid blisters. To that end, we consulted a slew of foot and boot experts and tested a host of blister preventives and remedies. The results follow.

-The Editors

Preventing Ball Blisters

  1. Place a long, wide strip of tape on the floor, adhesive side up, and set the ball of your foot directly atop it.
  2. Press down to make your foot as wide as possible. Pull the ends of the tape up around the sides of your foot to meet on the top of your foot.
  3. Trim the tape to conform to the shape of your foot so the tape doesn't contact your toes.

Recommended by John Vonhof, fastpacker, ultrarunner, and author of Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes (Footwork Publications, 877-421-7323; www.footworkpub.com; $15.95)

SCOREBOARD: BLISTER BEATERS

Who better to test blister products than tenderfoots who develop hot spots just pulling on their hiking boots? For 3 months, five brave testers put their feet at the mercy of blister products we found at drugstores, supermarkets, and medical supply stores. Products are listed in order of overall performance.

ProductPriceEffectivenessDurabilityFinal Grade
Band-Aid Blister Block$4.49 for four 21/8 x 11/4-inch sterile cushions4.544.5
"Like instantly having new skin on my foot.
Generic athletic tapeabout $2 per 360-inch roll333.5
"If you tape it right-covering 1/4 to 1/2 inch beyond the blistered area-it stays put.
Dr. Scholl's Cushlin Blister Treatment (gel-filled dressing)$4.75 for six 2 x 13/4-inch (size large)sterile cushions3.52.53.5
"It worked great, but didn't stay put as well as some other products.
*Body Guard Skin Protection Sheets (flannel-like tape)$3.50 for two 41/2 x 41/2-inch sheets3.533.5
"Because it's stretchy, it's ideal for odd spots-around toes, on arches.
Dr. Scholl's Moleskin Plus (flannel-like tape)$3.29 for two 41/2 x 3-inch sheets3.53.53
"Great for toe blisters because the soft surface doesn't chafe neighboring toes.
Dr. Scholl's Molefoam (padded tape)$3.29 for two 41/2 x 3-inch pads that are 3/8 inch thick333
"A doughnut of Molefoam creates the deepest pocket for a tricky-to-protect spot.
Silver duct tape$1 to $5 per roll2.532.5
"It's better than nothing, but there are more effective remedies out there.
Spenco 2nd Skin Blister Pads$6.99 for five moist, nonsterile pads; one large and six small sheets of flannel-like tape; and 11 pressure pads32.52.5
"It's a challenge to apply all the different parts.
Effectiveness:Did it prevent a hot spot from turning into a blister? If a blister did form, did this material keep it under control? Did it ease the pain?

Durability: How often did you need to replace it? Did it hurt when you removed it?

Final grade: Would you buy and use this product? Note: This rating is not an average of other scores, but a gut-level reaction to overall performance.

* Body Guard has only recently reached grocery and drugstores and may be hard to find. Contact Body Guard at (800) 887-3370; www.cm-tech.com.
Rating Scale
5=Excellent, superior gear
4=Very good, beats most
3=Good, decent gear
2=Fair, okay, but...
1=Poor, miserable

Should You Pop?
To pop or not to pop is the big and hotly debated question. Even the experts disagree about when to drain a blister. Buck Tilton, Backpacker contributing editor and director of the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) of the National Outdoor Leadership School, has treated hundreds of backpackers' backwoods blisters, so we consulted him for the final word.

"At WMI, we open and drain almost all blisters (the exceptions are those caused by burns), including the controversial ones: blisters filled with hazy, cloudy fluid and even blood blisters on the heel or ball of the foot. Our philosophy is that a blister in a high-stress area is going to pop if you keep walking on it. We'd rather drain it in a controlled setting than have it burst inside a sweaty, dirty boot and sock."

To properly drain a blister:

  1. Clean the area with soap and water, alcohol, or an antiseptic towelette. Dry thoroughly.
  2. Sterilize a needle or sharp blade, either by holding it over a flame until it's red-hot or submerging it in boiling water for 2 minutes.
  3. Puncture the bottom end of the blister so gravity can help drain it. The opening should be no bigger than is necessary to get the fluid out. Starting at the top of the blister, massage the fluid toward the opening.
  4. Apply antibiotic ointment to prevent infection, then wrap with the dressing or blister product of your choice.
-Kristin Hostetter



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READERS COMMENTS

Peter
Mar 23, 2012

For friction and moisture prevention I use Tape Relief (http://www.taperelief.com/). I is a lotion but it dries to create a barrier on the skin. I haven't had any blisters for a long time!

Peter
Mar 20, 2012

Most of my blisters come from friction on the upper ankle. I use Tape Relief (http://www.taperelief.com/)to prevent the friction from affecting the skin. It has worked pretty well so far!

Mark
May 28, 2010

I find that it is best to drain blisters immediately (as described above) then wrap the area with athletic tape, putting at lest two wraps on. This way it sticks to itself and doesnt come off when you sweat. I replace it when the tape is worn through or it eventually falls off. For very sensitive ones, I put a small patch of tape sticky side up before wrapping. But, like Brian said, the best treatment is conditioning your feet.

PS I have also tried packing tape, but I feel like my foot "sloshes" in the shoe and I do not have the control I like.

Mark
May 28, 2010

I find that it is best to drain blisters immediately (as described above) then wrap the area with athletic tape, putting at lest two wraps on. This way it sticks to itself and doesnt come off when you sweat. I replace it when the tape is worn through or it eventually falls off. For very sensitive ones, I put a small patch of tape sticky side up before wrapping. But, like Brian said, the best treatment is conditioning your feet.

PS I have also tried packing tape, but I feel like my foot "sloshes" in the shoe and I do not have the control I like.

Bryan
Dec 07, 2009

Just as the article says blisters are a simple equation: friction + moisture = blisters. Two things have worked well for me in the past. First and foremost is proper training of the feet. If you dont start slow your going to get them on your first hikes or rucks. Second, foot prep prior to your hike goes even further. While training your feet you should have identified your problematic areas and will know where to apply moleskin. Before putting your boots on, apply spray antiperspirant then powder to your feet. Also, if allowed a thin sock liner works wonders under your main boot sock. While on your hike or hump, if the situation allows change socks and repowder. These methods have worked for me. Happy hunting!!

IsaacBrooks
Oct 06, 2009

I am in the marine corps infantry, needless to say I do a LOT of hiking. I have found that the best treatment for blister is to just push through it. I have tried duct tape, moleskin, etc. but nothing has truly prevented blisters. I think this is a topic that has no absolute way to stop blisters, best thing you can do is to change your socks and try to keep you feet as dry as possible. Good luck and step it out!

Rich
Oct 11, 2008

I completed the 220 mile John Muir Trail in September and had serious blister issues. I tried duct tape, moleskin, bandaid blister block, Nexcare blister and Spenco 2nd skin. I hiked 15+ miles per day in light trail runner shoes with a 21 pound max pack weight. All of the above treatments would become filthy from trail dust and would be partially hanging off my foot by the end of each day. Good old duct tape and moleskin were the least expensive treatments yet were just effective as expensive Bandaid, Nexcare and Spenco blister treatments. Next time I won't waste my money on the special blister products! Happy hiking.

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