by Gerald Rowan
Blisters are the bane of every hiker’s existence. Painful in themselves, but a really serious problem if they get infected. A common reason that hikers get blisters is the wear and tear from putting a lot of miles on their feet—a problem compounded by ill-fitting boots, damp or wet feet, or simply wearing boots that aren’t suited for the terrain.
Here are some tips to help you avoid blisters while on the trail:
• Choose the right boots. Your choice should be a mix of personal preference and the demands of the terrain you want to conquer. Running shoes are not appropriate for class 3 and 4 terrain. The seasons also put demands on your feet. Winter generally dictates heavier boots than summer. I know, there are barefoot hikers, but you need the protection of good boots against the rigors of the trail, insects (like ticks), snakebites, and skin-irritating plants (like poison ivy and stinging nettle). Your choice of boot height is personal, but over-the-ankle boots offer good protection and help stabilize ankles and feet.
• Make sure your boots fit correctly. This means trying them on wearing the weight of socks you plan to hike in. If you’re in an outdoor gear store, walk around for several minutes in the boots and test them on the inclined plane most of these stores have.
• Make sure you replace your boots when they’ve gotten so much wear that they no longer provide good foot and ankle support. If your boots are wearing out, so are your feet.
• Choose the right socks. Generally, heavy merino wool socks with a small amount of spandex fiber are best. A heavy sock acts as a shock absorber between you and your boots. Many hikers prefer an 18-inch length (knee socks). They can be folded down in warm weather; the sock roll created will keep debris out of your boots. They can be pulled up for winter hiking or when brush and briers are a problem. Spray the top 6 to 8 inches of your hiking socks with tick repellent. This will help repel the critters before they can find a site to burrow.
• If you plan to hike for more than 4 hours, bring along a second pair of socks. When you take a break for lunch, pull off your boots and socks to let your feet breathe. Put on the fresh pair, and hang the damp pair from a short bungee cord from your daypack to dry. Always inspect your feet carefully before putting on your socks and booting up to continue your hike.
• Many hikers like a generous sprinkle of baby powder or foot powder in each sock. This acts like a lubricant between your feet and the socks. The ingredients in foot powder help protect your feet against fungus and bacteria.
Now blisters. Always carry a trail-sized first aid kit. Add to it some moleskin and a pair of small scissors. If you sense a sore spot on a heel, don’t wait until you have a full-blown blister. Take a break to deal with the sore spot. Pull off your boots and sock and let your feet dry; meanwhile, cut an appropriate-sized piece of moleskin to cover the sore area. Place the moleskin over the spot; then put your socks and boots back on. You don’t want your skin to blister. A blister will eventually break, creating an open sore. Given the lax state of personal hygiene on many hikes, this sore can get infected, causing a whole bunch of new problems. Don’t prick a blister; instead, cover it with moleskin, and it well eventually dry out on its own. Hand sanitizer is a good antiseptic if you have a blister that does break. It burns a bit since most hand sanitizers contain alcohol. Small, travel-sized containers of hand sanitizer are ideal for hikers and backpackers. Hand sanitizer is good to treat insect bites, too.
Blisters are not limited to feet. Backpack straps against bare skin can also cause blisters. You can either add padding to those straps or cover the affected skin with moleskin.