Image of the May 2023 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
May 2023 Issue
Home / Articles / Skills

Blisters: to pop or not to pop?

Blisters can turn a walk into a nightmare. So, is it ok to pop them?

I arrived in Paihia with my feet in tatters. Two weeks tramping across Northland had left them bruised and battered, rubbed and raw. I counted 12 blisters. 

That was just my own feet and, miraculously, most had not burst. But there were other walkers who weren’t so lucky. One man had raw skin covering the soles of his feet. There was a woman with an infected blister growing pus, and another where a blister had turned into a red and oozing crater.

We talked foot strapping, blister plasters, and tramper’s wool but the biggest debate was whether to pop or not. Some said you should; others said you shouldn’t.

Steph Booth, from Canada, says she had no choice. “I had a really big blister on the outside of my foot between the heel and ankle bone. I had to pop it to be able to put my shoe back on.”

This is not the best thing to do and it’s not recommended by the experts. However, Bruce Baxter, director of PodiatryMed Physiotherapy in Christchurch, says sometimes it’s ok to pop – namely when the blister is at risk of bursting.

“The best thing is to maintain a barrier against infection so that would be keeping the blister intact. That’s fine for small blisters but if you’re walking and it gets bigger and raised then there is a risk it will burst or rip, which can increase the risk of infection and that could lead to septicaemia. So, when blisters are big like that, it’s ok to pop them.”

Blisters occur not as a result of pressure but from a sheering force where the skin and an object, such as the inside of a shoe, rub in opposite directions. This causes delamination between skin layers and a build-up of fluid.

Baxter says it’s best to have the popping procedure done professionally to reduce the risk of infection but acknowledges that’s not possible when out in the wops. In this case, a sterilised sewing needle can be used, he says.

But of greater importance is preventing blisters, he says. Having a proper boot fitting can help, as well as wearing good socks and addressing any areas of rubbing early on, especially at the first sign of pinkness.

Baxter’s tip is to use tramper’s wool to surround a problem area rather than covering up the area. This redistributes the force across a broader area and reduces friction. 

And what about hardening the skin on your feet first?

“Condition your feet as much as you like,” he says, “but if there is a sheering force, you’re pushing the proverbial uphill. And once you get a blister there’s no turning back.”

How to pop

If you need to pop a blister in the field, here’s how podiatrist Bruce Baxter recommends you do it.

  • Sterilise a small sewing needle in a flame until it’s red hot
  • Puncture the side of the blister at its perimeter
  • Lightly squeeze to drain it of fluid
  • Bind in thin, well-adhered antibacterial gauze to prevent infection and reduce skin movement and further aggravation.