Are the shoes worth the blisters? (and what to do if they are!)

Photo: Daniel MorrisIt is unfortunate that what looks good, doesn’t always feel good. I think this is no more apparent than with a pair of shoes. You have a killer pair of new shoes that you’ve been waiting to wear on your trip and that day is finally here! New shoes on your feet, you head out for a day of sightseeing in your new city. But this is a recipe for blisters — nothing can slow down a day of hiking, shopping or sight seeing quicker than hotspots on your feet.

Understanding how blisters form and some basic treatments just might allow you to ambulate with less pain and save that pair of shoes, as well.

If you remember from the hazy days of high school biology, the skin is made of 2 layers: a thick, inner layer (dermis) and a thin, outer layer (epidermis). As heat, caused by friction and rubbing, forms a “hotspot” on the foot, the two layers of skin begin to separate and fluid fills in this space. Moisture from sweat or water acts as a lubricant between the sock and the foot as well as softening the skin. This increases friction potential and a greater chance for a blister. This concept is key for helping to understand blister prevention.

Blisters commonly occur in areas of softer skin, that are not used to being roughed up by shoes. The shoes you wear everyday have already toughened up your feet in the areas that that specific shoe rubs. However, the new pair of shoes or the shoes you do not commonly wear will rub your feet in new,potentially soft areas. Common sense dictates that you should not wear a pair of shoes new to your feet on a day that you have a lot of walking to do. If you have the time, try wearing your shoes around for a few hours at a time with thick and comfy socks. Even if you are just walking around your house, having the shoes on your feet help decreases the chances of future blisters. That’s in a perfect world, however, and I don’t know about you, but I rarely visit there.

One of my best “tricks of the trade” for blister prevention was taught to me when I was a doing some adventure racing. Remember that refresher on skin anatomy and moisture acting as a lubricant to increase friction? Decreasing moisture on the feet decreases the chance of hotspot formation that will lead to a blister. Roll-on or stick deodorant is the ticket. Not only will it help your feet smell like an alpine meadow, but stick deodorant is an effective anti-perspirant. A good coating on both your feet, getting all surfaces, will reduce “feet sweat” and the friction that a sweaty sock allows. Apply this stick deodorant liberally and then place a sock over the foot. Try not to remove this sock until you know you are done for the day. There are some commercially made products, such as Bodyglide, that are designed to increase lubrication/friction as well, eliminating the chaff associated with unprotected skin. I suggest some personal trials before your trip to find which method works best for you.

Should you find yourself in the very unlucky position of feeling a hotspot forming on your feet, don’t give up hope! You can still finish your walking tour or make it to the end of the shopping area, with minimal pain. Moleskin is a product bought at most stores that sell athletic footwear or hiking stores and is a self-adhesive sheet of padding that works miracles on blisters. This sheet of fabric can be cut to proper size and placed directly over the hotspot at the first sign of irritation. Acting as additional padding and a friction reducer, moleskin will allow you to finish your day with minimal problems. Just make sure to cut a little hole in the center of your piece of moleskin about the size of your blister. A kind of “moleskin dough-nut” is the goal — you’re going to stick that moleskin over the blister allowing it to poke through the little hole you cut. This keeps the blister from popping, hopefully, and takes away some of the pain associated with the raw and inflamed tissue. Some athletic tape also can be applied over the moleskin dough-nut to help it adhere to the foot a little better and prevent it from moving out of position.

“To pop or not to pop” is a common question with blisters. I think that a popped blister is merely a nice route for infection to enter your body and I generally try to avoid popping blisters unless it involves a more extensive treatment process. A popped blister merely has had the fluid removed from it — there is still a space created by heat and friction between the two layers of skin and they will continue to rub together, causing more damage. A blister has been “unroofed” when the top layer of skin has come off or been removed. This is now exposed and raw skin. The area should be cleaned with soap and cool, clean water. A topical antibiotic, such as Neosporin, works great for helping prevent infections.

As with most travel related health issues, some proper prior planning prevents poor performance. Remember to break those shoes in, before your trip. A coating of stick deodorant can go a long way in hotspot and blister prevention and moleskin is a great tool too use when the hotspots and blisters start forming. Also, if you see somebody hobbling around in killer but brand-new shoes, offer them some of your moleskin, you’ll save their day.