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How to Treat Blisters in the Field

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Cover image: Duct tape—saving feet from nasty blisters for millenia!

Blister Woes

I’d been skiing uphill for 8 hours when I felt the beginning of a blister on my left little toe. Racing solo in the 24 Hours of Sunlight randonée ski race at Colorado’s Sunlight Basin resort, I wasn’t surprised. Despite four months of spending between two and ten hours a day in my ski boots training for this race, my left little toe never stopped blistering and had spent that entire time in one stage or another of blisterdom. It was exceedingly painful; some days I was sure an icepick jammed through the toe would have been more bearable.

It was always the same blister that appeared, forming from the base of my little toe to its tip and wholly circumnavigating the digit. Because I had lost that pinky toenail nearly 20 years prior during high school cross-country (and it hadn’t ever grown back) even the nail bed blistered. Two days prior to 24 Hours of Sunlight, the remains of the last blister peeled off, that toe essentially degloving, left naked and ready to blister afresh.

So starting the race, the question wasn’t if the toe would blister but when.

Blister Plan

Because I had spent the months prior experimenting with blister prevention tactics and then, when prevention proved impossible, blister management, there was a Blister Plan for the race. A pinky toe blister, no matter how big and painful, was not going to derail my goal of winning and setting the Guinness world record for the most vertical feet skied uphill by a woman in 24 hours.

The official Blister Plan for the 24 Hours of Sunlight was to be initiated approximately four hours after I first felt the heat of a new blister forming. I’d leave the skiing for a moment, sit down in the lodge, and remove my left ski boot and sock. My husband at the time, a physician assistant himself competing in the race’s two-man team category, would then administer, via a 21-gauge needle, a dose of Marcaine, medication used for a nerve block, just above the problem toe. This whole endeavor took three minutes and was the only time during the 24 hours that I stopped and sat down.

Relief from the pain was immediate. Of course the blister kept growing over the second half of the race and, at some point, it did pop. But I knew of its popping—usually an excruciating experience—only after the race ended and I tried to take my sock off. Blister juices had plastered it to my foot. Thanks to the Marcaine, I had felt nothing.

While locally anesthetizing a blister-affected area works wonderfully, it shouldn’t be your first attempt at treating a blister. (The argument could be made that it shouldn’t even be the tenth thing attempted.)

The Best Tried-and-True Blister Treatment Plan

Here’s a step-by-step guide to a more sane and appropriate way of preventing/treating a blister when out hiking, running, or skiing that requires a “blister kit” with only two items: Duct tape and Betadine. These steps work both for hot spots and actual blisters.

  1. Find a good place to sit. I prefer rocks over flat ground.
  2. Apply Betadine liberally over a 2x2 inch area surrounding the hot spot or blister, but not on the hot spot/blister itself. The Betadine is sticky and will help the Duct tape you’re about to apply better adhere to your skin.
  3. Make a folded-over square out of Duct tape the size of your hot spot/blister. You don’t want to put anything over a blister that will stick to it and later rip off the skin.
  4. Tear lengthwise strips of duct tape in three, so each strip is about 3/4inch wide. The length depends on the area it’s being applied to. For heel blisters, my strips are usually about 6 inches in length.
  5. Place the non-sticky square of Duct tape over the hot spot/blister.
  6. Use the strips to hold the Duct tape patch in place; these strips should align with the area you applied Betadine to.
  7. Put your sock and shoe back on.
  8. Get back to adventuring.

Dina Mishev is a writer and editor based in Jackson, Wyoming. Her book 20 Easy Day Hikes in Jackson Hole is coming out this spring. Read more of her work at dinamishev.com. Follow her on twitter and Instagram at @dinamishev

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