Ambassador Molly Herber is an instructor for National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and knows a lot about keeping feet happy. Video courtesy NOLS.
You fit your boots, you broke them in, wore the liner socks your friend lent you especially for this trip and yet, on mile eight, you feel the tenderness and rubbing on your heel that means you’re getting a blister.
If blisters get bad enough, they can be trip-enders. Keep tabs on your feet and learn to treat blisters early. With a few simple skills, first aid supplies, and self-awareness, you can take care of your blisters and keep on moving.
Here’s how to treat blisters on the trail so they don’t end your trip. (I learned what I know about blister care from NOLS—take a look at some of their blister resources here.)
What to Pack
I usually pack a few basic first-aid supplies that’ll be useful for various situations, including:
- Athletic Tape and/or Kinesiology Tape (K-Tape)
- Mole foam
- Knife or medical scissors
- Nitrile gloves (like rubber gloves, but latex-free in case anyone is allergic to latex)
(Duct tape will work in a pinch, but it’s not nice pulling off your skin later.)
What to Do
Take a look at your foot. If your skin is red and tender but hasn’t developed into a fully-formed blister yet, the best thing you can do is prevent more rubbing.
Wrap athletic tape or K-tape the tender spot. Many folks will cover the spot with a piece of Moleskin before taping, too. I’d recommend wrapping the tape around the area in addition to using strips of tape—the more corners in your tape, the more opportunity for it to peel off.
Keep an eye out for and avoid wrinkles in your tape, too, since wrinkles might cause more rubbing.
Small to Medium Blisters
If you’ve gone beyond the hot spot to a fully-formed blister—a raised bubble filled with fluid—then you’ll need to do a little more work to protect the blister and prevent more rubbing.
“Should I pop it?”
That’s usually the question folks ask at this point. My preference is not to pop a blister unless it’s large (see below) or likely to pop on its own. Popped blisters take a little extra care and are more prone to infection, something you want to avoid when you’re on the trail for a few days at a time.
For a small- to medium-sized blister (around dime-sized), pull out your Molefoam, tape, and scissors. Cut a donut shape out of the Molefoam (start with a circle, then cut out the middle). Make sure the center hole fits around your blister, not covering it and or leaving a lot of extra space. Cover the donut with tape to help it stay put.
If you tape it well, this setup should last you an entire day.
For a larger blister (around the size of a nickel or larger), I’d recommend draining it, since it will be prone to popping on its own anyway. It’s better to do it in a cleaner environment than your boot.
First, wash your hands and put on gloves—no need to get blister fluids on your fingers, especially if you’re helping your friend with their blisters. Then, clean the skin around the blister. You’re essentially creating a wound on your foot, so you need to treat it like one.
Once everything is clean, use a sterile needle or pin (soak it in an antiseptic solution or heat it until it glows red, then let it cool) and poke one hole near the base of the blister. Let all the liquid drain from the blister.
When the blister is completely drained, apply an antibiotic ointment and cover it with gauze (remember, it’s an open wound). Then, put a donut of Molefoam over the blister just like you would with an unpopped blister. This will prevent more rubbing.
Check on your popped blister every day and wash it with soapy water regularly to keep the area clean and free from infection.
And now, you’re ready to get back to the trail!
Molly Herber is a NOLS instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 a.m. Find her work on the NOLS Blog and follow her on Instagram @mgherber and Facebook.