Blisters: just hearing the word makes our feet hurt. Getting one of these raw, painful wounds is the quickest way to ruin any hike, and while careful footwear selection and good foot care can go a long way toward eliminating blisters, it pays to know how to deal with them if they do crop up. Keep blisters from ruining your next trip with this advice from our trail experts.
What causes blisters?
As you hike, your boots and socks rub against your feet, moving the thick outer layers of your skin more than the sensitive inner layers, which causes them to begin to separate. This is a “hot spot.” Ten minutes of rubbing later, and fluid has fully filled the void between your skin layers. This is a blister. Moisture (from sweat or a river crossing) accelerates this process.
To illustrate, imagine rubbing your thumb against the skin of a ripe peach. The skin moves under your finger. If you press harder, the skin wrinkles, then tears. The same process is at work on your skin: the outer layers can move more than the sensitive inner layers can, and with enough moisture and friction, they suffer damage—a blister.
How to Prevent Blisters
A few minutes of prep work at home and some easy maintenance on the trail can keep your feet feeling fine for miles:
Before you leave home:
- Buy boots that truly fit, not the first discount pair you see at your favorite outdoor consignment shop or, worse, an internet knockoff you inevitably won’t try on before the trailhead.
- If you’re wearing leather boots, break them in before you hit the trail. Wear them around the house, to the grocery store and when taking your dog out in the morning. Next, wear them on day hikes before putting them to the test on overnights with a heavy pack. Duct tape rough seams to decrease friction against your foot. (Wearing synthetic boots or trail runners? If they irritate your feet out of the box, chances are that won’t change much.)
- Choose your socks wisely. Never wear cotton. It holds moisture close to your skin, accelerating the blistering process. Like your shoes, pick socks that fit snugly without wrinkles or annoying seams. Then find what feels best for you thickness-wise and experiment with wearing a thin, sweat-wicking synthetic sock under a thicker wool layer. You can also try blister-resistant socks.
- Buy supportive insoles to help keep your foot from sliding around inside your boot.
- Clip your toenails to prevent pressure in the front of your boots.
- Preemptively duct tape your feet, if you have done all of the above and still find yourself suffering from hot spots a few miles into a big trip.
While on the trail:
- Keep your feet dry. Bring extra sweat-wicking socks to change into mid-day. Then hang the sweaty pair from the outside of your backpack, so they’ll be dry and ready to change into by dinner.
- Rinse your feet whenever possible. Dirty feet not only blister faster, but they can increase blisters’ likelihood of becoming infected. Even better: dunking your tired, sore feet in running water feels amazing. Just make sure to let them dry thoroughly before stuffing them back inside your boots.
How to Stop Boots From Giving You Blisters
Don't throw big-ticket boots in the bin when a quick makeover will do the trick. If the problem is a pressure point--rather than fit or break-in--you can work it out just like a cobbler would. This two-step trick also lets you customize your leather boots for bunions, heel spurs, and other foot problems.
- Remove the laces and pull back the tongue. Apply a dab of mink oil (found at most hardware and shoe stores) to the inner leather at the troublesome spot. Massage until the oil is absorbed to soften the leather. (For non-leather-lined boots, skip the mink oil and go to the next step.)
- Knead the offending area with a hard, smooth, blunt object like the end of a broomstick or a closed pocketknife. Use a circular or back-and-forth motion and a healthy bit of muscle. The extra space this effort creates should eliminate the problem.
—The Backpacker Editors
Should you pop blisters?
If you grew up in Boy or Girl Scouts, you may have learned not to pop blisters, and that doing so could open you up to infection by creating a break in your skin. That’s technically true, but sometimes the benefits outweigh the risks. If you’re deep into the wilderness and not willing to abandon your trip, carefully draining your blister may be your only option.
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,” he said. “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."
How to Treat Blisters
It’s just a hot spot:
- Immediately stop, find a place to sit, take off your shoe and sock, and access the hot spot.
- If you’ve caught the spot before a blister has fully formed, wrap the affected area in several layers of duct tape, which will reduce the friction between your foot and boot. Tip: Wrap toes separately from the rest of your foot, and don’t tape over them unless they also are rubbing against your boots. If your skin is noticeably red and raw, cover the wound in antibiotic ointment and an adhesive bandage before wrapping the affected area in duct tape.
- Leave the duct tape in place until you return home. Removal can be painful, and further aggravating the area to change out duct tape on the trail is not recommended.
It’s a fully formed blister:
- Clean the blister and surrounding skin with soap and water, alcohol or an antiseptic wipe.
- Sterilize a pin or knife with alcohol, boiling water or a flame.
- Pierce the bottom of the blister. Start at the top of the blister and gently massage the fluid down and out.
- Cover the wound in antibiotic ointment to help prevent infection.
- Cut a piece of moleskin half an inch larger than the blister. Then cut a “donut” hole just larger than your blister in the middle of the moleskin.
- Place the moleskin donut around the blister and cover with a second piece of moleskin.
- Cover the moleskin and surrounding skin with several layers of duct tape.
Pull: Never rip the roof off of a blister. You’ll increase your risk of infection and expose the more sensitive skin below.
How to Treat a Heel Blister With Duct Tape
Blister First Aid Kit
- duct tape
- safety pin or knife
- alcohol or antiseptic wipes
Tincture of benzoin, a balsamic tree resin, has antiseptic, aromatic, and adhesive properties. It can be found in many forms-impregnated in cotton swabs, in small vials as a liquid, and as a spray-at drugstores and medical supply houses. Keep a little benzoin in your first-aid kit and use it to:
- Augment the stickiness of any blister treatment. Just apply it to your foot, let it dry until tacky (a few minutes), then affix your dressing of choice.
- Protect your skin from friction. When applied to unblistered skin, tincture of benzoin dries to a hardened shield, like a second layer of toughened-up skin.
- Seal an existing blister as a last resort.
Tips for Hiking with Blisters
Distract yourself. Chat with your partner, listen to your favorite songs or a podcast, sing, or think happy thoughts to take your mind off the pain.
Don’t give up on minimizing pain and preventing additional blisters. Continue to change your socks regularly and keep your feet clean.
Smile. You’ll instantly feel a little bit better.
Know that it won’t last long. Your skin will begin to recover within six hours, toughen within two days and usually heal completely in under a week.
Putting deodorant on your feet prevents blisters. Antiperspirants reduce sweating, but often increase irritation between your foot and sock, increasing the likelihood of blisters.
Foot powder prevents blisters. Sweaty powder quickly clumps and increases friction between your foot and sock, creating more blisters.