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An Ounce of Prevention

Treating Blisters On and Off the Trail
By Doug Gantenbein - August 2nd, 2000

Years ago, three friends of mine and I climbed Mount Olympus, in the heart of Washington State's Olympic National Park. The approach is 17 miles, followed by a long climb to the summit of the 7,900-foot-tall peak. As we hiked in on a busy July 4 weekend, we encountered a disturbing site: Long lines of climbers heading out, many walking barefoot (much of the first 10 miles is on damp, soft trail), their bandaged feet bleeding from blisters. Our own party developed its own share, although we managed to keep our boots on.

The story is amusing, but blisters are not. Blisters can ruin a trip, prevent you from reaching a summit, or send you to the doctor with an infected foot. It's worth the effort to know how to prevent, and if need be, treat this common outdoor affliction.

Prevention is the key. And that starts with fitting your boots properly - not loose (friction from slippage will cause blisters) or too tight (pressure points, ditto). The right sock combination also is important; except for the lightest-weight boots, it's wise to always wear two pairs of socks. The inner layer should be a thin, fast-drying sock made of Coolmax¨ or polypropylene, such as Bridgedale's A.T. Coolmax Liner Sock. The outer sock provides cushioning and additional sweat absorption; among the best are the new generation of wool-based socks such as SmartWool's Light Hiker or Wigwam's Merino Wool Rugged Hiker.

Next, make sure your feet are properly toughened up. Don't make the first hike of the summer a 15-miler; work up to it slowly. Try to get at least 50 miles in of short hikes before tackling something longer.

Before the hike, take preventive measures. If your feet sweat heavily, spray them with an anti-perspirant. A little moleskin or adhesive tape applied to known trouble spots can prevent problems later. And make sure your socks fit smoothly, without bumps or wrinkles. Set your feet into unlaced boots, banging the heel on the ground to make sure your feet are all the way in, then lace the boots snugly.

Getting a hot spot? Don't fool around - treat it at once by cleaning the sore spot, then covering it with moleskin. Make sure your socks aren't contributing to the problem. It also may be possible to use a knife handle or other blunt instrument to re-shape the leather inside the boot to create some space around the hot spot. If a blister is forming, place a non-stick pad immediately over the sore spot, then cover with tape or moleskin. It may also be helpful to build up the area around the blister with Dr. Scholl's Molefoam. The idea is to construct a "doughnut" of material around the forming blister, pushing the boot away from the blister.

Should a large, but unopened blister be lanced? There is debate on that point - some argue that doing so opens you to infection. But I have found that lancing the blister with a sterile needle or scalpel blade reduces the risk of completely tearing the "roof" of the blister and exposing the raw skin beneath. To lance a blister, clean it thoroughly; pierce the blister from the side, and drain. Cover with a generous amount of Neosporin (or similar antibiotic cream), and bandage.

A torn blister can be a serious problem. Clean the area with Betadine or soap and water, and let dry. Spread antibiotic cream over the broken skin, and re-bandage with an adhesive bandage, or non-stick pads and tape or moleskin. Spenco 2nd Skin is another good dressing for broken blisters, cushioning the damaged area with a watery gel.

Better-fitting boots and blister-preventing socks mean that I don't see many barefoot hikers these days. But it still pays to be well prepared to prevent or treat blisters. A successful - or enjoyable - trip may depend on it.


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