How to prevent and treat blisters when hiking

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Don’t let a pesky injury ruin your time in the outdoors. Our guide on how to prevent blisters will keep you on your feet

Whether you’re an experienced trekker or a newcomer to the trails, you will invariably suffer from one of the most common hiking injuries. To help you minimise the risk, we’ve put together a simple guide on how to prevent and treat blisters when hiking.

How to prevent blisters

When it comes to blisters, prevention is always better than a cure. Knowing how to prevent blisters will save you from pain later on.

What causes blisters?

Blisters develop to protect damaged skin and help it recover as part of the body’s natural healing process. They can be caused by allergies, skin conditions, burns or even insect stings and spider bites – but the most common cause by far is friction.

a woman rubs her feet
frantic00/Shutterstock Blisters are commonly caused by friction

When it comes to hiking, blisters usually occur when your boots and/or socks rub against your feet causing friction hotspots. The resistance causes the thick outer layers of your skin to begin to separate from the sensitive inner layers. Fluid then fills the void between skin layers and a blister is formed.

Blisters appear when one of the following occurs:

  • Pressure: a tight area of a boot or a fold in a sock can create a hotspot
  • Direct friction: anywhere where a force repeatedly rubs or slides against the skin can cause a blister
  • Moisture: moist or sweaty skin is softer and is more susceptible to damage when friction takes place

Choose the right footwear

Poorly fitting footwear will cause blisters, so make sure your hiking shoes or boots fit properly. Hiking footwear should fit snugly everywhere, but should not be tight anywhere. Additionally, there should be enough room to wiggle your toes.

A woman ties her hiking boots
Izf/Shutterstock Hiking footwear should fit snugly

When you’re choosing your footwear, try them on at the end of the day (as feet normally swell during the day and will be at their largest) with the socks you plan to wear. This will help you avoid buying footwear that is too small.

Read our guide on how to choose the right hiking boots.

Break footwear in

One of the biggest causes of blisters is poorly broken-in footwear. Even great-fitting footwear needs to be in sync with your feet. Taking the time to break in a new pair of hiking boots or shoes will ensure comfortable miles on the trail in the long term.

Different boots take different break-in times. Lighter shoes are generally quicker while heavier leather boots, for example, will need time to soften up and conform to your foot shape.

A hiker breaking in a new footwear
rangizzz/Shutterstock Gradually break in new footwear

Start off by walking around your house in your new footwear, making sure you have a snug fit and the innersoles, socks, laces and tongues are all in place. Then venture outside around your neighbourhood and check that you’re happy before heading further afield.

Off-pavement is where serious breaking-in takes place. Head out on a day hike with a light backpack on. Try a few more day-hikes, gradually increasing weight and distance, before you’re confident enough for a multiday trek.

Just bear in mind that the break-in process won’t turn a poor fit into a good one, so if the shoes aren’t right to begin with, take them back to the shop and try to find a better fit.

Choose the right socks

When it comes to socks, it’s best to avoid cotton as it tends to hold moisture next to your skin, which combined with friction causes blisters. Instead, opt for moisture-wicking fabric like polyester or wool socks like Smartwool, Bridgedale or 1000 Mile.

A pair of wool socks help prevent blisters
Atlas & Boots We recommend wool socks from Smartwool

Peter usually hikes in two pairs of socks: a thin pair of merino wool or polyester liner socks with a second thicker pair over the top. The two layers help to reduce friction and lift moisture from the skin, keeping it drier. Another good option is to go for double-layered socks such as Wrightsock.

How to treat blisters

Make sure you are carrying a hiking first aid kit that contains the following:

  • Blister plasters as well as general-purpose plasters
  • Bandage or gauze
  • Medical tape
  • Safety pin, needle or small knife
  • Alcohol or hygenic cleansing wipes

If you notice a hotspot developing, it’s better to stop and treat it before it really sets in. Use a specialist cushioned plaster (known as a blister plaster) such as Compeed to treat hotspots.

Compeed blister plasters in a shop
Cineberg/Shutterstock We recommend Compeed blister plasters

Before you apply the blister plaster, warm it up to body temperature as this will make it more adhesive. You can do this by holding it between your hands, placing it inside your clothing or even under your armpit while you take your shoes off.

Make sure your feet are clean, dry and aired before you apply the blister plaster, as the adhesive won’t stick to damp or wrinkled skin. For extra protection, you can add a layer of bandage or tape on the top of the blister plaster.

Should you drain blisters?

The general medical advice is to refrain from opening a blister to release the fluid. It creates an opportunity for infection and you’re essentially removing the protection and healing that the fluid provides.

Man's foot with blister plaster on
SingerGM/Shutterstock A blister plaster in place

However, a large blister can become too painful to leave undrained and will likely burst on its own while you’re hiking. If this is the case, then drain the blister as follows:

  1. Wash the blister and surrounding area with antiseptic
  2. Sterilise a needle, pin or small blade with alcohol, antiseptic or a flame
  3. Gently pierce the blister near its base
  4. Massage the fluid out, leaving the skin that covers the blister intact
  5. Dress the blister as it were a wound, using antiseptic and a bandage
  6. For extra protection, you could add a layer of bandage, tape or a large blister plaster over the area

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Lead image: My Good Images/Shutterstock

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