We’ve all been there. You’re hiking along a beautiful trail, those endorphins are pumping and life is good until suddenly, you feel a familiar hot, painful nagging sensation on the back of your heel and it all comes crashing down. You remove your shoe and sock to investigate and you see the telltale sign of a blister forming on your heel. It’s amazing how something as small as a dime can ruin an otherwise perfect hike.
Blisters are caused by friction, heat, and moisture. And while they can turn any outdoor activity into a painful ordeal, the good news is by following proper care and prevention methods, you can minimize the risk of developing blisters and keep your feet protected and comfortable on trail.
This guide will explore the most effective strategies for blister care and prevention in the outdoors, so you can enjoy a day in nature without having to hobble back to your car.
*This article was reviewed by Victoria Bandera. Vicky has a Master’s degree in Health and Exercise Science from Colorado State University and is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist.
What Causes Blisters?
Blisters are small pockets of fluid that form between the upper layers of skin. The majority of blisters are caused by friction. In an outdoor context, this can manifest when something constantly rubs up against your skin, like a tight hiking boot or trekking pole handles.
It’s also possible to get blisters from loose gear or clothing, like ski boots that are one size too big or hiking socks that bunch up behind your heels. Another cause of blisters is moisture because it increases friction and weakens the skin, so make sure your feet and other blister-prone areas stay dry.
Getting a blister may feel like a form of punishment, but it’s your body’s way of protecting damaged skin and kickstarting the healing process. This is why it’s usually best to leave blisters alone and provide them with the necessary protection so they can heal naturally.
What’s the Difference Between a Blister and a Hot Spot?
Before a blister begins to form, it’ll appear as a red, irritated spot on the skin, also known as a hot spot. Hot spots are your body’s way of signaling something is wrong, so once you feel a hot spot coming on, stop what you’re doing and deal with it.
Your window of opportunity to treat the hot spot will be limited by your activity level and other factors, like moisture, rocks, sand and other debris in your shoes. Don’t wait until you find a flat rock to sit on or get to the top of that ridge – treat it now. The most effective way to treat hotspots is to use a piece of duct tape, Leukotape, Moleskin, 2nd Skin, KT Tape, or a bandaid to act as a friction-reducing layer. Adding vaseline or foot/body glide can reduce friction as well.
Should You Pop a Blister?
So what happens when your hot spot has progressed into a full-blown blister? Is it a good idea to pop it right away? In a nutshell, no. You should avoid popping a blister unless absolutely necessary.
While it may seem masochistic to leave a fluid-filled sack of skin to fend for itself, there’s a good reason for it. When the skin is inflamed and damaged, a fluid-filled cushion encases the area to shield the irritated skin below. Popping your blister will only expose that vulnerable layer of skin beneath. Keeping your blister intact reduces the chances of further injury and infection.
Nevertheless, I should follow my own advice more often as I very much understand the temptation. In my eagerness to stop discomfort at the source, I’ve rushed to pop many blisters that should have been left alone.
So when is it appropriate to drain a blister? It’s usually okay to pop a blister when it’s large, painful, or located in a place that’s likely to be further irritated (ex: on the back of your heel or underneath your toes). As you’re hiking, that tiny blister on the side of your big toe may get bigger with continued rubbing. If the blister starts affecting the way you walk or you’re in too much pain to ignore it, it’s time to pop it! But now that you’ve decided to pop that sucker, your next challenge is draining it properly.
How to Properly Treat a Blister
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where the blister has popped naturally, or you’ll need to pop a blister to keep your comfort and sanity in check on trail. Learning how to safely pop a blister on trail will help you avoid introducing irritants and bacteria into the open wound. These increase the risk of infection and can lead to much bigger problems than blisters.
Follow these steps to safely pop a blister outdoors:
- Wash your hands and blistered area with soap and water, or an alcohol/antiseptic wipe.
- Sterilize a sewing needle, safety pin, or small blade with an alcohol/antiseptic wipe or flame (Pro tip: Be careful when handling heat and small, metal objects. I can’t tell you how many times I sterilized a sewing needle with heat too long and ended up burning my fingertips)
- Poke a few holes at the bottom of the blister
- Drain the fluid from the blister by applying gentle pressure from above until you’re confident the blister is dry and free of fluid
- Apply antibiotic ointment to the blister to minimize infection
- Cover the blister with a bandaid, small gauze pad, or Moleskin
- Wrap the blister and surrounding area with a larger piece of duct tape, Leukotape or KT tape
- Monitor for signs and symptoms of infection
Blister Infection Signs and Symptoms
Ultimately, blisters are just another wound and are susceptible to infection and bacteria. Infected blisters that go untreated will typically require antibiotics to heal. Infection risk increases if the skin over the top of the blister breaks, allowing germs to find their way in.
So if you feel your blister popping while hiking, step off trail, drain the remaining fluid from your blister, and cover the area so sweat, debris, and germs cannot enter the wound.
It’s hard to separate an infected blister from an uninfected one. Blisters are generally painful and tender to the touch, some more than others, but there are some common warning signs to look for in an infected blister.
You should call your doctor if you notice the following:
- The blister fills with yellow or green pus
- The area is red, inflamed, or hot to the touch
- The pain gets worse instead of better
- There is yellowish crusting on the affected area
- Your blister keeps coming back
- You have symptoms of an allergic reaction
Blister Prevention Tips
Let Your Feet Breathe
Removing your shoes and socks during breaks can help prevent blisters and maintain a healthy foot environment. When you wear hiking shoes or boots for an extended period, your feet can become sweaty and moist, making them the ideal breeding ground for blisters and other foot conditions like athlete’s foot.
Wear The Right Socks
High-quality hiking socks keep your feet dry, supported, and protected on the trail. Wool and synthetic socks provide moisture-wicking properties that keep sweat away from your skin.
Avoid cotton because it absorbs moisture and can contribute to blisters. The ideal hiking sock should fit like a glove without bunching to reduce friction. Don’t forget about sock length, either. Different hiking socks match certain hiking shoes and boots better than others. For example, micro-crew socks wouldn’t be an appropriate match for hiking boots because they would expose your skin to friction.
Wearing a pair of liner socks under a thicker pair of hiking socks creates a double layer of protection for those more prone to blisters. However, some hikers argue this contributes to moisture buildup and doesn’t actually help with blister prevention. Toe socks can also be helpful for some hikers, especially in preventing blisters between your digits.
And don’t forget to pack a backup pair of socks in case your first pair gets too dirty or wet. We’ve compiled a list of the best hiking socks here.
Find The Right Footwear
Choose hiking footwear that feels good on your feet and fits properly. Well-fitted hiking boots or shoes are the foundation of any enjoyable outdoor experience. A poorly fitting shoe is often the culprit behind blisters.
Wear a pair of cushioned hiking socks (since you won’t be hiking in your favorite fuzzy house socks) when trying on boots or shoes to make sure they fit correctly. Make sure your toes have plenty of room to wiggle and spread out. You should also be able to place your pointer finger behind your heel, but your heel shouldn’t lift up with each step. That extra room is essential because your feet will swell up as you hike.
For thru-hikers, expect your feet to size up one to two sizes on your hike! For context, it took me almost 800 miles on my PCT thru-hike to size up on shoes, but once I did, I experienced immediate relief from my blisters.
Break In Your Footwear
If you plan to wear brand-new footwear (especially boots) on a hiking trip, spend some time breaking them in before you head out into the wilderness. Take them for a spin around your neighborhood or a couple of short, day hikes. New shoes/boots need time to conform to your foot shape and stride. Eventually, your shoes will mold to your feet.
Keep Your Feet Clean
Keeping your feet clean will help reduce friction caused by dirt and debris that builds up in your shoes throughout the day. Take advantage of opportunities to soak your feet in a cool stream and wipe them down in camp at the end of the day. Sleep with clean, dry feet so your skin can breathe and recover from the beating you’ve put them through all day.
Blister Prevention & Treatment Products
You can prevent and treat blisters in the field by having the right supplies in your hiking first aid kit. Every blister care kit should include:
For Decreasing Friction:
Tape / Pads For Prevention Or Treatment:
- 2nd Skin
- KT Tape
- Blister donuts (donut pads) or toe separators
- Duct tape (Pro tip: Wrap it around an empty pill bottle, which can also store a needle, pins, and thread)
For Blister Treatment:
- Safety pin or sewing needle
- Multitool with scissors, tweezers, or a small knife
- Soap, alcohol wipes, or a small lighter
These are a few of the products that have been effective for our team that are widely available online and in most stores or pharmacies. Other comparable products can be found in stores as well.
One Last Thought
Blisters are just a fact of life on trail, but they don’t have to be your kryptonite. Following these simple steps and being proactive about foot care in the outdoors can stop blisters from turning your hike into a sufferfest. Keep this knowledge in your back pocket and you’ll be good to go!
Ash Czarnota is a freelance writer based in Southern California with over 3,000 trail miles under her feet. She is the founder of Go Galavanting, an online community to celebrate adventurous women and highlight emerging thought leaders in the outdoor industry. A PCT alumni, Joshua Tree enthusiast and burgeoning climber, Ash uses her outdoor experiences to craft content that educates and inspires a rising generation of adventurers to embrace their inner wild. Connect with her on Instagram (@salty_millennial).