Workers in different industries are exposed to different occupational hazards and some are exposed to more hazardous environments than others. For example, medical professionals are exposed to biohazards on a daily basis while regular exposure to dangerous chemicals is a routine matter for factory workers. Blisters can be considered as an occupational hazard for hikers whose feet have to deal with a lot of friction, heat and moisture for extended periods of time.
Almost all hikers have to deal with blisters at some stage. On short hikes and backpacking trips they can be an annoyance, while on longer trips they can even prevent hikers from going any further. That’s why preventing and managing blisters when hiking/backpacking is a skill every hiker must learn.
What Causes Blisters?
Also known as vesicle in the medical world, blisters are often a result of wearing ill-fitting shoes or inappropriate socks for extended periods of time. Blisters can develop when shoes/socks rub against the skin, causing the outer layers of skin to separate and get filled with fluid. In most cases, no medical intervention is required and blisters heal themselves. However, they can cause discomfort and pain if left unattended, and in severe cases can even make a hiker to call it quits early.
The little bubbles of fluid usually form in the skin’s upper layer because of the damage caused by constant friction. Although blisters can form anywhere on the human body, they usually develop on the hands and feet as these two body parts that are exposed the most to external objects.
Blisters develop after fluid forms to cushion the soft tissue underneath the damaged skin, which helps in healing and protecting the tissue from more damage. Blisters are nature’s way of healing and protecting the tissue. But they can become a real issue when you are out in the wild and stopping and waiting for them to heal naturally is not an option. In addition to ill-fitting shoes, here are some other common things that can cause blisters:
- Ill-fitting socks can also cause blisters by bunching up and creating friction points
- Excessive sweating because of wearing socks or shoes that cause overheating
- Failing to properly dry your shoes or not changing socks/inserts after crossing streams/creeks/other bodies of water
- Leaving for hiking without any practice/experience with soft and easily damaged skin
- Foreign bodies getting inside your socks or shoes and causing friction, including sand, seeds and dirt
- Improper nail cutting, resulting in nails digging into edges of the toes and damaging the skin
What are Hotspots?
Hotspots are usually the precursor of blisters and an early warning sign of a blister that’s about to fully develop. Hotspots are accompanied by a feeling of heat, discomfort and irritation that keeps increasing as you move further. Ignoring hotspots and not stopping to address the problem is like a recipe for quickly developing painful blisters.
How to Prevent Blisters?
Although this guide focuses on hikers and backpackers, most of the things they can do to prevent and manage blisters also apply in everyday life. Prevention is always better than cure and in the case of blisters, it can save hikers from a lot of trouble during long hikes and backpacking trips. Minimizing friction on the feet is the most important preventive measure hikers can take, secondly is to avoid moisture and bacteria-filled environments. Depending on the cause, things hikers can do to prevent blisters include:
Buy the Right Size and Fit
The shoes and socks you want to wear when hiking or backpacking has to be the right size and fitting, while it should also be suitable according to the environment. Shoes should neither be too tight nor too loose that it becomes difficult to maintain proper grip. Shoes should be firm enough to restrict movement of the feet without being too tight.
Your feet will swell a bit during long hikes (more on thru-hikes here), so it’s recommended to buy shoes with some extra space to accommodate the swelling (at least +0.5 the number you usually wear). However, wearing shoes with a lot of extra space can result in your feet sliding inside the shoes, so that’s a balance you have to strike after trying out different shoes with un-swollen feet.
Try Out and Walk Around
Shoes that fit correctly at the store might start feeling tight and restrictive on the hike because of the usual swelling, so make sure to buy half a size bigger than usual. Sales people might define the right fit as one finger gap between the back of the footwear and your heel. However, the recommended way to determine the fitting is to walk around the store and up/down the stairs while vigorously wiggling your toes. The footwear is probably small if you experience any tightness.
Choose the Right Type of Shoes
Another thing to consider when buying shoes is the type of shoes. Not all shoes are suitable for every terrain. For example, it’s better to stick with lightweight hiking shoes such as trail runners when hiking in hot and humid areas because of better breathability and their quick-drying characteristics. Heavy-duty leather boots might be suitable for cold and rough terrains, but for almost everything else lightweight hiking shoes are considered a better option.
Hiking Boots vs. Lightweight Shoes
We have already covered the hiking boots vs. trail runners debate in detail in a separate post so you might want to have a look at that to learn more. Wearing hiking boots in hot and humid conditions is like an invitation to blisters. Experienced hikers prefer not to wear waterproof footwear unless they are hiking in winter-like conditions and environments in which frostbite is a real danger. Waterproof shoes are not that breathable and can take a long time to dry, which are the key factors that can turn hotspots into blisters.
Consider the Break-in Period
Choose the appropriate shoes according to your hike and the environment. Boots require some time to break in so wearing lightweight trail runners is a good idea if you want something that just works out of the box. A long hike is not the best way of trying out new shoes so make sure to try them around town and on shorter day-hikes first. Hotspots, discomfort and blisters are less likely to happen with broken-in shoes. You might also want to consider minimalist shoes such as these barefoot trail running shoes when hiking in not-so-challenging terrains.
Pick the Right Type of Socks
It’s not just the shoes that can cause blisters. Ill-fitting socks can not only cause blisters, but can also wear out quickly, which makes the problem even worse. We already have a detailed guide for picking the best hiking socks to prevent blisters, so here we will only focus on socks in the context of blisters. Here are some general tips to consider when picking socks for hiking and backpacking:
- Hiking socks should provide adequate padding, especially in the heel and toe areas
- Pick socks that dry fast and wick moisture away from your feet.
- The socks should not be too tight and fit well inside the shoes
- Avoid buying socks with irritating seams
- Socks should not be too thick otherwise it can cause excessive sweating and overheating
- Some people are prone to overheating even if they wear thick socks in cold/winters so they should buy their socks accordingly
- Light compression can help prevent blisters and unwanted movement of socks
- Ideally socks should have antibacterial properties
- Keep the weight as low as possible (more on ultralight backpacking here)
Size and Height
Choose the sock height according to the shoes you are wearing and the environment. Crew socks are the most popular and work with almost all types of shoes. Height of the socks should at least be a little more than the shoes to make sure no part of the skin is rubbing against the shoes (e.g. ankle socks should be avoided when wearing hiking boots). Over-the-calf socks are a more suitable option for high grass trailing or when you need some extra warmth, while quarter socks are preferred by minimalist hikers or people hiking in hot climate.
Avoid Cotton Socks
Try avoiding cotton socks unless you have a solid reason to wear them. Contrary to the popular belief, cotton is not so good at dealing with moisture as it soaks it up and keeps it trapped. That’s why you don’t usually see workout clothes made of cotton, which is not good at wicking moisture and keeping the skin dry. Instead, materials such as synthetic fibers and merino wool are a better choice because it wicks moisture effectively and dries quickly.
Crossing Streams or other Water Bodies
Wet shoes and socks can take quite some time to dry and it’s not a comfortable feeling to walk with soaked up shoes. It’s better to remove the socks and the inserts before crossing a stream. Properly dry the feet and make sure that the shoes don’t have any foreign objects inside them. It’s a good practice to keep at least three pairs of socks on such journeys so you can cycle between them instead of waiting for old pairs to dry. You can also use enclosed sandals when crossing water streams. No foreign objects should be left inside the shoes and try wearing lightweight gaiters when moving through sandy soil.
Some More Tips
- Don’t cut the toenails too short, cut them straight.
- If you know you are prone to developing blisters even after taking the preventive measures, use preventive taping in such areas to minimize the risk of developing blisters.
- You can also use some powder (applying too much can be counter-productive) to minimize moisture buildup.
- When taking long breaks such as a lunch break, take the shoes/socks off and let them dry and have some air.
- Train well ahead of time and allow your feet to build strength by completing prep hikes, especially before long hikes and multi-day backpacking trips.
- Hang the sweaty/used pair of socks outside the backpack for quicker drying and rinse the feet whenever you get a chance. Dunking sore feet in running water not only feels good, but also reduces the chances of infection and developing blisters.
- Use Foot Glide or Bodyglide if you already have it , especially on high-friction areas such as heels and toes before a long hike, which adds a layer of protection and reduces the chances of blisters developing in the middle of a hike.
How to Treat Blisters?
Despite all the preventive measures, blisters can still develop and that can happen to even experienced hikers. The important thing is to take timely action otherwise these small pockets of fluid can turn into a big problem. The first thing hikers should do when they start feeling hotspots or notice development of blisters is to change the socks. A dry pair of socks reduces friction and keeps the skin dry. You can also keep a pair of hiking sandals, which you can wear during the less challenging sections of hike to give your feet some break.
Most blisters naturally heal within a few days (normally within 3-7 days) and don’t usually require medical attention. However, things are a little different when you are out in the wild. You might need to seek medical care in severe cases such as when you think you are infected or the blisters have become very painful or keep coming back.
Green or yellow puss is an indication of an infected blister, which is usually accompanied with pain. Infected blisters can create further complications such as skin infection, sepsis and cellulitis. Hikers suffering from infected blisters should use the blister first aid and consult a doctor as soon as possible.
Keep a Blister First Aid
This can also be considered a preventive measure, but you need some kind of a blister first aid kit for effectively treating blisters. There a number of items you can include in the kit, including:
Benzoin Tincture, moleskin, skin blister pads or even a regular bandaid, which can at least prevent blisters from growing and protect hotspots. You can cover the dressing with some duct tape, but it should not stick to problematic areas.
Skin lubricants including sprays not only help prevent formation of blisters, but are also useful in treating them. Some hikers even use deodorant sticks (can also increase irritation) to treat blisters and hotspots, but make sure to let the lubricant dry before putting on the socks again. Moleskins should be part of the blister first aid kit and applied as soon as a hotspot is detected. Some hikers apply moleskins before starting the journey on parts of the skin where they suspect hotspots are likely to develop.
Products such as Wool-it also work well for blister treatment and since it is made of merino wool, it has the same moisture-wicking and temperature-regulating properties merino wool socks have. Just fluff and stuff a piece of wool as soon as you start feeling formation of a hotspot. Stuffing the wool around the problematic part wicks the moisture away and provides a protective cushion. Taking action at an early stage (when a hotspot forms) can save you from full-blown blisters, which can make you call it quits early in long trips.
Blister pads can prevent hotspots from becoming blisters and also protect blisters that have fully developed. It is designed to stay in place at least for a few days, allowing you to continue your hike and giving you ample time to recover. You can apply anti-blister balm directly to the affected areas during a hike as well as before a hike to minimize friction and hotspot formation. Some other important items to include in the kit include:
- Alcohol wipes
- Small scissor
- Antibiotic ointment (also effective in treating minor burns, scrapes and cuts)
- Adhesive or duct tape (can be used if you don’t have anything more appropriate)
- Leukotape (protects the skin from rubbing/scratches and can also be used to limit movement)
- Waterproof bandages (especially useful when dealing making frequently crossing water streams)
To Pop or Not to Pop
Leaving a blister alone or popping it up has long been a topic of debate. In everyday life, it’s simply better to leave them alone as popping them up can cause infection and slow down healing. Hikers should consider draining the blister when it starts to prevent you from moving any further. However, if you decide to drain a blister (or it bursts itself), you need to be careful and consider the following:
- Clean and disinfect the surrounding area thoroughly using an alcohol wipe, antiseptic wipe or soap and water.
- Use a sterilized needle or a sharp knife to do the job, but make sure to sterilize it first by boiling or holding it to a flame for some time until it gets red hot.
- Make the incision as small as possible after the needle or knife has cooled down (at the bottom of the blister if it is on the top of the foot or the heel).
- Let the fluid drain for some time and apply a bandage or an antibiotic ointment. Avoid peeling off the skin and let it heal naturally.
- Let the blisters breathe at night. Uncover the affected area before sleeping and remove the bandages.
- Take the shoes and socks off as soon as you are back home, go barefoot or wear flip flops for some time and let the blister heal naturally
- Seek medical attention if blisters don’t recover within 3-7 days or if they keep popping up.
Treating small blisters is not that complicated. In most cases, applying an antiseptic ointment and covering the affected area with a band-aid/tape can solve the issue. After that you just have to let the skin heal itself and allow your feet to breathe whenever possible during the hike.
Silverlight Socks: Designed to Prevent Blisters
Socks might seem like a fairly simple product, but a lot of thinking goes into making quality hiking socks. These specialty socks are designed to survive tough terrains for hundreds of miles while providing comfort and protecting hikers from blisters. Silverlight socks started as a mission to create the best hiking socks to prevent blisters that are superior to anything currently available.
Silver-yarn socks are a rarity, while dual-layer compression socks are even more scarce and something you won’t find anywhere else. Silverlight hiking socks are purpose-built keeping unique requirements of hikers and backpackers in mind. Durability, moisture-wicking properties and comfort are the key elements to consider when buying hiking socks. These factors are also directly related to preventing blisters. Here is why we believe Silverlight socks are the best hiking socks and why they prevent blisters better than any other socks:
Silver Yarn, Dual-layer Construction
Silverlight socks are a 2-in-1 sock that provides light compression as well as excellent moisture wicking in a single package. Dual-layer socks usually mean thick socks, which as mentioned earlier can lead to sweating and overheating issues. Silverlight manages to offer the best of both worlds by striking the right balance between thickness and comfort.
Bacteria grows rapidly in moisture or sweaty socks. The silver-infused threads prevent bacteria from growing, which also helps prevent odor and foot-rot. Dry feet that can breathe easily are a lot less likely to develop hotspots and blisters, thanks to the excellent moisture wicking abilities of nylon and merino wool and bacteria-killing properties of silver yarn.
A Unique Blend of Merino Wool, Spandex and Nylon
Merino wool is famous the world over for its moisture-wicking properties and comfort. Silverlight socks are made with a blend of merino wool, nylon and spandex and stitched seamlessly for maximum comfort. This provides hikers with the cushioning and padding they need in a hiking sock of medium thickness without having to wear very thick socks. The wool helps regulate temperature and dries quickly by bringing moisture to the surface.
The outer layer is made using a blend of spandex and nylon, which not only provides light compression, but also minimizes slippage and unnecessary movement inside the shoes. Silverlight hiking socks are designed to prevent slippage and bunching up so hikers can walk mile after mile without worrying about developing hotspots. Merino wool is used in the inner layer, allowing moisture to quickly move to the outer layer for quicker drying.
Support in All the Right Places
From toes to mid-foot and heels, Silverlight socks provide adequate support to all the key areas. The padding in the heel and toe areas remains soft even after hiking for long periods of time, while the breathable mid-section has a compression around it for maximum comfort.
A Better Fit
A blend of spandex and nylon outer layer provides arch support and also helps to keep the socks from slipping inside the shoes. Light compressions comes in handy on long hiking trips and provides additional comfort and a snug fit, many of our customers describe the feeling of wearing Silverlight socks as “silky smooth”.
Unconditional Lifetime Guarantee
Silverlight socks are backed by a no-questions-asked lifetime guarantee and free returns, which clearly indicates these are made to last for a long time. Shipping and returns are both free, while discounts are available if you buy more than one pair, which hikers should for long journeys.
Ill-fitting shoes and cheap socks are the most common reasons behind hotspots and blisters. Taking these two things into account can minimize the chances of developing blisters. However, regardless of the preventive measures you have taken, you need to be equipped to deal with blisters during long hikes. Recognizing the issue at an early stage and taking timely action can minimize the damage and prevent hotspots from developing into blisters.
A tiny blister can grow into a painful menace, curse the whole hiking trip and make hikers limp home awkwardly. Wearing a pair of expensive hiking shoes with cotton socks or wearing top-of-the-line hiking socks with ill-fitting shoes are not good combinations. Top-notch quality hiking socks such as Silverlight socks not only make the journey more comfortable, but also last much longer than regular socks and should be worn with breathable and well-fitting shoes.
Dedicated hiking socks for preventing blisters provide a much better return on investment than cotton or other regular hiking socks. Some even believe it’s better to wear nothing than wearing cotton socks. Early detection of hot spots is the key in treating blisters and preventing them from growing into a big issue. Preventing and treating blisters is not a one-time thing. Hikers need to take proper care of their feet in their normal lives and keep them prepared for the challenges ahead.