By Mark Rackay
A blister is one of those things everyone gets at some time or another. Most of the time, a blister is a reward for doing something dumb, like grabbing something very hot or getting skin pinched in something. Getting a blister on your foot can be another matter entirely.
Just before I left on a hunt in Canada a few years back, I took an inventory of my footwear and decided I needed a new pair of boots. I ordered a pair of high top hikers from a catalog shop that looked like they would fill the bill perfectly. They were a couple hundred bucks, so I figured “what could go wrong?”
The boots arrived a bit later than expected, so I just tried them on for fit and threw them in my duffel bag. I know all that “break-in” stuff, but this trip was to involve a great deal of hiking so they would be pretty well broken-in on the trip. That later proved to be a “landmark management decision” that nearly ruined my trip.
You see, these boots did not fit really well. There was some slip in the heel. I figured the slip would go away as they wore in. Silly me. We had to pack light for this trip because our last leg of the journey was by floatplane. I only brought the new and unbroken-in boots.
The first day we hiked with packs and rifle a solid 10 to 12 miles. At night, I noticed a heel blister, rubbed raw, already broken and popped on my heel. All I had to put on it was a band-aid, which fell off after 30 minutes of walking. The blister got worse and worse the more I walked in those miserable boots.
By the third day, I was convinced that death could not be far off. I could not keep up with the guide and walked with a horrible limp as I tried to keep all the weight off the afflicted foot. I still had seven more days of this Bataan Death March.
A blister is a small pocket of body fluid such as lymph, serum, plasma or blood, trapped in the upper layers of the skin. The blister is typically caused by rubbing, burning, freezing, chemical exposure or infection. Most blisters an outdoor person will encounter are caused by rubbing (friction) and are filled with clear fluid of either serum or plasma.
You never want to puncture a blister unless it is likely to be further irritated. The fluid in a blister keeps the underlying skin clean and prevents infection and promotes quicker healing. If the blister ever pops, preserve the skin over the blister or you will expose the raw skin underneath.
For a hiker or backpacker, the most common way to get a blister is from your sock or boot rubbing against an area of your foot for an extended period of time. The boot may be too lose, too tight, or your footwear was not broken in. Add to that tired and perspiring feet, and a blister is about to be born. One thing is for certain, those blisters hurt and need to get immediate attention or they will get worse.
A hot spot is a warning sign that a blister is forthcoming. You may feel that heat, discomfort, or irritation on a certain spot on your foot while hiking down the trail. Address the hot spot immediately and you can avoid the blister. Don’t try and walk through the hot spot, rather address it now to prevent the inevitable worsening.
Cover the hot spot with a piece of moleskin, duct tape or cloth tape from the first aid kit. This tape creates a layer of “skin” between your foot and boot. I have found moleskin to be the best. Moleskin does not come off because of perspiration and is very easy to pack a couple pieces with you.
If you discover a blister, best to treat it right away before it worsens. In the event the blister is too big, or in an area where it will likely pop as you walk, you are going to have to perform a little self-surgery on the trail.
Sterilize a safety pin with an alcohol wipe from your kit and wipe down the blister and surrounding area. Use the pin to pop the blister but carefully preserve the skin covering the area. Wipe down the area once more with the alcohol wipe.
Apply some ointment like Neosporin to the blister and cover with your moleskin. I like to cut a little hole in the center of the moleskin to go around the blister. Moleskin is thick enough to create a safe space between the blister and your boot to prevent further friction.
Remove the bandage at night to let the blister breathe and dry while you sleep. A pair of fresh socks and a new piece of moleskin will get you set for a new day.
Blisters are something that can be prevented. Start with boots or shoes that fit right. Your toes should have a finger width in front for movement, and the heel should be slip-free and snug, not tight. Sometimes a pair of insoles can make the difference in a good fit.
Good socks are imperative on a hike. Merino wool is a long-time favorite of outdoor people because they are tough, allow your foot to breathe and stay dry, and provide insulation even when wet. Avoid socks that slip or bunch up, as that is a blister waiting to happen.
Keeping your feet dry is important. Carry extra socks and don’t be afraid to change out if you have been in the water. Wet feet blister much easier than dry feet. The campfire should be used to dry out socks and boots at night so you start the day dry.
I don’t think I need to mention it again, but I will, break in those new boots and shoes at home before you head up on the trip. If the boot does not fit right, best to find out while walking the dog in the neighborhood rather than above the Arctic Circle while on a hunting trip with no spare pair of footwear.
I carry a piece of moleskin and a small packet of Neosporin in my personal first aid kit. I am sure I will get blisters again, but it won’t be because I did not take the time to break-in my new boots. I guess a lot could be said for trying on a new pair of shoes instead of just ordering one in your size. (Note to self.)
Mark Rackay is a columnist for several newspapers and has been a feature writer for numerous sporting magazines. A world-class saltwater angler and an avid hunter promoting ethical and fair chase hunting and fishing, he travels the world in search of adventure. Feel free to contact him on his personal email for questions, comments or story ideas. firstname.lastname@example.org.