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Prof. Hike: Leave Blisters in the Dust

Blisters are the most common on-trail injury, but blisters are also easy to prevent.
If big boots (top) give you blisters, downsize to more flexible light hikers (bottom).

Keep Socks Dry, Clean, and Fresh
Comfortable, broken-in footwear is only one part of the anti-blister equation. Another key ingredient is socks. Not only do socks provide extra padding, but they also remove sweat and moisture to keep your feet dryer. Moisture increases friction, which accelerates the blistering process. That’s why wicking socks made from wool or synthetics are superior to cotton, which stays damp after getting wet. If your feet sweat a lot, bring extra wicking socks so you can change into a clean, dry pair at midday. Wash or rinse dirty socks and hang them on the outside of your backpack so they’ll be dry and ready for your next change-over.

During my Boy Scout days, I often wore two pairs of socks—a thin silk or synthetic liner underneath a thicker wool sock. The rationale for two socks is that they will slide against each other instead of against your skin. While this layered approach no longer works for me, go ahead and give a try. Just make sure the double sock layers don’t cramp your toes—too much pressure can lead to blisters, especially while going downhill.

Be Proactive on the Trail
Blisters give fair warning before they appear. They begin as a red skin irritation called a hot spot before warming themselves to a full-blown blister. The transition from redness to pus-filled sac gives you time—up to 10 minutes—to stop hiking and activate countermeasures. Now Backpacker magazine and many hiking books recommend isolating the irritated skin of a hot spot from further friction by surrounding it with a cushioning donut of moleskin and bandages. Prof. Hike doesn’t agree.

In my experience, even the strongest bandage origami doesn’t stand a chance against the squishy pressure and heat inside a boot. At most, a moleskin donut will last a few hundred yards before it becomes smeared like old chewing gum across your increasingly raw skin. Plus, once you develop a hot spot, the likelihood of preventing it from becoming a blister is very slim. You might as well focus your efforts on reducing the coming pain and risk for infection. So, instead of moleskin donuts, I recommend a more radical approach. At the first sign of a hot spot, wrap the affected skin (usually the heel or toes) in several layers of duct tape. This silvery, low-friction tape creates a slippery barrier between a rough boot and tender skin. (Hint: Wrap several feet of duct tape around a plastic water bottle to keep it accessible). If the skin is already red and tender, cover the wound with one or more adhesive bandages and antibiotic ointment before you apply the duct tape. Some hikers even pre-wrap their feet in duct tape if they tend to develop blisters in certain spots. While removing the tape will be a painful experience, it can be done in the comfort of your home after you return from the trip.

Did you solve your blister problem? Tell us how. Post a comment below, or send an email to profhike@backpacker.com.



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