Avoiding blisters and frostbites on high altitude treks
When was the last time you went on a 2 day trekking trip and came back just the way you left? No I am not talking about fatigue, I am talking about how you almost froze in the cold, cut your hand in a wild bush maybe or had sore feet that made life considerably difficult for you. If these were your experience on your last weekend hike, then this guide is a must read! Here we take on two of the biggest enemies of trekkers: blisters and frostbites. We strongly believe prevention is better than cure, so we would give suggestions on how to layer yourself in the freezing cold and other appropriate measures to prevent these freak injuries. We also spoke to some seasoned Mountaineers like Abishai Dmello, Vivek Tomar and Kuntal Joshier to understand how dangerous these are when hiking and what they do to keep themselves safe and active in freezing cold.
But before we move ahead, let’s understand what frostbites and blisters actually are. So,in medical terms, frostbite is a condition that occurs when a person is exposed to low temperatures, which leads to freezing and numbness of the skin and other tissues. The skin might turn white or gray, or become cold and hard to the touch. The areas of the body most vulnerable to frostbite are the fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, and ears. On the other hand, blisters are small bubbles on the skin filled with serum/fluid. This pocket of fluid is caused by factors such as friction, burning, new shoes, damp socks and intense activity, however during long treks blisters are formed mainly due to friction between the skin of the foot and the shoe.
It’s important to protect your feet from the cold in order to avoid frostbites or blisters
Let’s now understand the causes of these conditions and understand how we can prevent them on our next sojourn to the mountains!
Types and Causes of Frostbites
High in the mountains, especially at temperatures around -5°C,our body weakens and immunity decreases, making it more vulnerable to external effects. Inclement weather conditions like strong winds, snowfall, rain can increase chances of frostbite significantly which, in severe cases, leads to hypothermia.
Frostbite is divided into four degrees:
First degree: In this case, your hands and feet turn pale and if warmed, they turn red. They may be slight pain and tingling, as well as scratches on the skin. This condition lasts maximum one week and doesn’t leave any serious consequences.
Second degree: Here damaged parts of the skin form blisters, filled with clear fluid. Skin also turns pale and sensitivity to external impulses disappears. A slight burn is felt generally.
Third degree: At this stage,skin tissues are damaged and necrosis occurs.Blisters filled with blood, with red or blue bottom can form on the damaged part and these wounds can last up to one month.
Fourth degree:Inner layers of tissues die and in extremely severe cases it reaches muscles and bones. Skin turns blue, and then black. A prolonged stay in this state can lead to gangrene, in which damaged parts of the body have to be amputated!
Prevention of Frostbites
The following are some useful tips to prevent frostbites when you are out trekking on snow clad mountains.
Wear light, and comfortable layers of clothing to preserve body heat
While proper clothing is the first thing you should keep in mind as a trekker, it’s equally important to know how to layer yourself by wearing light base and fleece layers which helps trap warm air and keeps you warm and comfortable in winter/extreme cold climates. Also avoid wearing wet clothing at all costs. Layer correctly depending on the temperature and weather as well as nature of your activity.
Accessories are your best friend
Your hands, feet, nose, and ears are most vulnerable since they are usually exposed to the weather more than other parts of your body. Remember to wear the best thermal winter socks along with woollen caps, mufflers and of course the warmest pair of hand gloves for winter you can get hold of in your wardrobe.
Waterproof winter gloves prevent heat from entering through your hands, thus reducing chances of frostbite.
Keeping yourself hydrated can reduce the risk of developing frostbite
At high altitudes, you can get dehydrated quickly because of quick and deep breaths, increasing your risk of frostbites considerably. That is why it is advisable to drink water at regular intervals to keep yourself hydrated. Drinks like alcohol and caffeine are not advised though as this may cause other complications.
Keep checking your skin for symptoms of frostbite
It’s important to check your skin at regular intervals for early symptoms of frostbite such as: prickly cold skin, numbness or skin becoming red, white or light bluish. Early symptoms can be cured by keeping the affected parts warm.
Simple techniques to deal with superficial frostbites
Some simple techniques to deal with the early symptoms include going to a warm place immediately and/or removing the wet clothes from your body, immersing the hot area in lukewarm water for 30-40 minutes and sipping a hot drink like tea/hot chocolate or simply drinking hot water. However, if you start getting fever and feel dizzy, it’s best to get medical attention as you may be suffering from deep frostbite.
Causes of blisters and its prevention
Blisters are predominantly caused by friction to the skin in any part of the body, but are predominantly observed on the hands and feet, especially if you are exposed to subzero temperatures. However other causes of blisters can include, heat or contact with chemicals (like detergents).
Some preventive measures for Blisters are given as follows:
Proper sizes of trekking shoe
Over the course of a long hike your feet are likely to swell. This is especially true if you are hiking in hot conditions. Shoes that feel nice and snug in the store, will most probably feel tight and uncomfortable after a week on the trail, hence it’s always advisable to buy shoes half to a full size too big so that your feet are protected.
Abishai Dmello, an outdoor and adventure sports enthusiast further adds: “You can have the best shoes, but they won’t be able to help you if you have weak muscles in your leg and especially your feet. The six foot drills (reference below) are my favourite way of training and ensure that I am prepared for almost all uneven terrain in the outdoors.
Apart from that having well broken into footwear which means taking your new shoes for a regular walk on the road or walking up a flight of stairs with them much before you wear them for your first hike is something I would definitely recommend”
Use the right pair of socks
It’s always advisable to use socks that fit. This is because too much loose material may often result in friction and excessive moisture while socks that are too tight can restrict circulation and cause swelling. It’s also advisable to avoid cotton socks as it clings to the skin when wet, doesn’t insulate, and takes longer to dry.The best winter socks for trekking are merino wool socks as they breathe well, wick moisture away from the skin,are quick drying and the soft fabric acts as a cushion and keep your feet comfortable and blister free. In addition to these, Kosha’s socks are made from 100% Merino wool and keeps you warm even in subzero temperatures.
Merino wool socks with technical features like cushion, breathable mesh, arch support keep you warm and comfortable in subzero temperatures, thus reducing chances of a frostbite.
On trail preventive techniques
Pre-taping: If you are having regular trouble spots (e.g. the back of your heels), you should consider taping them up before hiking.
Kuntal.A. Joisher, an experienced mountaineer who has conquered the mighty Everest twice, is of the same opinion. He says: “My biggest enemy is blisters! They occur because of many reasons, but once you have them, it becomes painful to walk comfortably on the trail.
– A quick workaround to blisters is binding them securely with medical grade tape. I always have a roll of tape in my backpack to deal with blisters.”
Hot Spot: If you feel a blister developing take immediate actions. Cover it with a medical tape, moleskin, band-aids, new skin liquid, or duct tape.
Moisturize your feet: It’s always advisable to moisturize your feet in order to avoid blisters on long treks. Applying moisture in between your toes helps to prevent friction and protects your skin. Avoid petroleum jelly or other heavy products, though, because they prevent heat or sweat from escaping,which can eventually lead to blisters.
Wash your feet: Make sure you do this regularly on your trek, either away from water sources or downstream from where people gather water. Also make sure you trim your toenails before starting your journey.
Night time: Before turning in, you can try giving your feet a good clean with a damp bandana or cloth – between the toes, back of the heel, balls of your feet, etc.
Treatment of blisters
Small blisters: The first step is to clean the wound. Next,apply an antiseptic ointment and cover it with a band-aid or medical tape.
Large blisters: If blisters are seriously impeding your ability to hike,then first clean it with water or antiseptic swab. Then pop the blister with a flame sterilized needle. Finally,apply an antiseptic cream/solution and take care to not remove the broken skin as it provides protection for the new skin underneath.
Vivek Tomar, a budding mountaineer highlights the importance of proper preventive measures through his personal experience on his Ice & Snow Craft Training at an altitude of 13,500 feet under extreme climatic conditions: “So few things that helped my feet survive the extreme cold and those heavy ICE Boots (approx. 2.5 Kgs):-
Fresh Socks: I actually had more than 10 pairs of socks
Regular use Anti-Fungal powder
Regular feet cleaning (wiping with a wet towel if not washing)
Preventing my shoes and socks to get wet during training and if that happens, making my feet dry and warm asap not to just prevent [some] feet issues like a blister but also to prevent it from making me prone to other medical conditions such as cold and hypothermia.”
Thus we see that it’s not only important to know the preventive measures for medical conditions like frostbites and blisters while hiking, but also to choose the right accessories from the best winter wear brand to protect your body from the extreme climatic conditions.