Blisters can be a serious matter in the Backcountry
It was a trip I had been anticipating for months. Deep in Yellowstone National Park, away from bison-watching tourists and far from the nearest boardwalk is an area known as the Mirror Plateau. With limited overnight backcountry access allowed and no trails, it draws few visitors.
We had planned four days of backpacking in the park, including a night on the plateau. But by day two, I would occasionally force my head up, trying to look at the scenery and remember why I had ever wanted to come, before staring down again at the trail, inwardly screaming at each new obstacle that sent searing pain through my feet. Fourteen different blisters were overtaking the bottoms of my feet, and burning with each step.
I thought of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” where the mermaid was granted her human legs under the condition that each step she took would feel like walking on swords. As a kid I had always tried to imagine that kind of pain. As I experienced it I thought the Little Mermaid was crazy. Nothing was worth this amount of pain.
Then I replayed the lecture my dad started giving me in high school as I began to venture on hiking and backpacking trips alone or with friends. “Even a blister can turn into a serious situation in the backcountry,” he’d tell me.
I’d roll my eyes. I’d had blisters. They hurt, but I couldn’t imagine what kind of wimpy friends my dad had if they’d let blisters become a “serious problem.”
Lesson learned, even if it took 10 years.
I’m not new to backpacking and neither were my trusty boots. In fact, I loved the boots I’d worn for about two seasons with no issues.
I wore my normal hiking socks and ignored the first painful heat waves that began to radiate from my foot early the second day. The terrain was tough, moving up a steep hill over dead and downed trees. My focus was on making it to the top.
For years my heels used to blister until I finally changed boot styles. The blisters were uncomfortable but nothing more. I figured whatever was happening on the bottom of my feet on the way to the Mirror Plateau would lead to the same level of moderate discomfort as I’d experienced in the past. I certainly wasn’t about to complain about something as small as a blister.
By the third day of the trip, I was reciting multiplication tables in my head to try to distract from the pain as I hobbled along. I actually started crying when I finally reached the campsite that night. When I took off my boots, I thought at first my entire foot had blistered there were so many and they were so big. I couldn’t wiggle the toes on one of my feet because the foot pads underneath were so swollen. One of my smallest toes had become the biggest due to the blister that seemed to have eaten it.
I was out of the small amount of moleskin I’d brought in the first aid kit so I set to covering my feet in duct tape, beginning to worry about whether I’d be able to walk the next day. I made it out with my own version of a hobble-shuffle and a lot of counting in my head to distract from the pain. I called my dad and admitted that yes, sometimes something as seemingly small as a blister can become serious in the backcountry. Then I set out to find out what I did wrong and to make sure it never happens again.
I figured I’d go straight to the experts. Students and trip leaders at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) spend weeks hiking long distances in the backcountry. In fact, the school didn’t even think it strange when I requested talking to a “blister expert” and they put me in touch with Tod Schimelpfenig, the curriculum director for the Wilderness Medicine Institute.
While I’m still not completely sure what caused my crippling blisters (I think it was a culmination of things, perhaps most importantly, ignoring the early signs that my feet were in distress), I did learn some tips for myself, and for all backcountry users.
In the almost 40 years Schimelpfenig has been with NOLS he’s seen a decrease in blister issues because hiking boots are now more forgiving to feet. Yet blisters are still one of the most common issues for backcountry users. Seemingly insignificant, they can cause huge problems.
“It can hurt so bad you can’t walk and that’s trouble if you can’t walk yourself out of the backcountry,” he said.
Blisters are a soft tissue wound, Schimelpfenig said. The shearing force between layers and skin puts pressure on the skin. With time and repetition the skin can tear. The body responds to the stress by pooling fluid underneath the skin.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure they say:
- Wear socks that have padding and disperse friction. Some people wear a smooth, thin, snug liner sock underneath their hiking socks The liner moves with the foot and also can wick away moisture.
- Keep your feet dry, he said. Wet feet blister easily. If hiking during a hot day, expose feet and dry them as well as your socks whenever you stop for a break. Switch socks if necessary, he said.
- Pay attention to your feet and intervene early. If you feel like your sock isn’t lying flat or something is in your shoe, stop and adjust. If you feel a “hot spot,” an irritated area that hasn’t yet blistered, take care of it immediately, loosen your boot or cover the area with padding like moleskin. “It’s so much easier to prevent a blister than manage it,” Schimelpfenig said.
Sometimes even the best prevention won’t stop a blister. So if your feet succumb, make sure you take care of it.
- If the blister is larger than a nickel, or you know it’s probably going to pop, pop it yourself. Take the cleanest pin-type thing you have and puncture it at the base with a small hole, drain it and dress it with padding. Blisters are wounds in an area that’s hard to keep clean, especially in the backcountry, so they need to be dressed and cleaned daily to avoid infection.
- To dress a blister, there are a variety of padded bandages on the market. The important thing is to create a bandage that keeps the blister from continuing to rub.
- Create a donut effect by making the blister the donut hole and padding around it. That will take pressure off the blister. Add antibiotic cream to the blister then pad the whole thing with tape.
- Then, if possible, let the foot heal and rest. It takes a week to 10 days for a blister to fully heal. “We get very impatient,” Schimelpfenig said. “Or we’re on a trip and its day one of seven days.”
Give blisters the boot
Each year the NOLS’ Rocky Mountain Outfitting checks boot fit on at least 1,000 students ready to embark on lengthy backcountry adventures in an effort to help prevent blisters.
Kevin McGowan, manager of Rocky Mountain Outfitting, shares tips for making sure your boots fit.
- Try on a variety of models and brands of boots.
- Bring the socks you plan to hike in when trying on new boots.
- If it’s not comfortable when you first put it on, it will only get worse on the trail.
- The boot should fit without additional products that go into the boot. If you need to buy additional items, like a different insole, the boot probably isn’t right for you.
- Once laced there should be a small amount of give in the heel to allow for lift when walking. The Achilles naturally moves up and down when walking. The small amount of room allows for a natural foot stride. Allow for about a quarter-inch of lift from the heel. Make sure it doesn’t move too much, however, because that can cause, friction and heat and then blistering.
- Once you’ve found a pair of boots you like, kick a wooden post three times. The foot should move forward and then sit back. Your toes should not hit the front of the boot until the third kick.
- Don’t over-tighten your laces. In preparation for hiking, people tend to cinch up their boots, but feet swell. If the boot is too tight, there’s no room for the foot to expand.
- Don’t wrap extra laces around the back of your boot. It puts pressure on the Achilles.
- Take care of your boots. When you put them away for the season, make sure they are totally dry and then store on a shoe horn or with newspaper inside so they keep their shape.
- At the start of the next season, stretch them if they feel tight.
Banner photo by Rebecca Francis/Flickr.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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