Sure, climbing at a rock gym might seem easier on the body than climbing outdoors. After all, most gyms have pillowy crash pads, plenty of safety gear and, most of all, big, ergonomic climbing holds. Compared to the jagged crystals of granite or the razor edges of limestone, colorful, plastic gym holds might look downright innocent. These bright little buggers work hard to lull you into a false sense of security. Next thing you know, though, your hands resemble those of a broke farmer before market day. You have blisters everywhere from the tips of your fingers to the palms of your hands. You might even have some on your toes, heels and ankles; they may hurt so bad you can’t climb. There are things you can do, though, to rise above the threat of blisters.
Blisters are caused by the rough surface of the climbing holds abrading your skin. Just like the tires on a car, the skin on your fingers is the sole contact point for delivering all the power you generate to the surface of the hold. And just like tires, friction is the main method of delivering that power. The harder you climb, the more that skin gets pulled around. Eventually, it responds by thickening, and the resulting callous acts like a shield that allows you to climb painlessly. But if you push it too far, too fast, you’ll just end up with what climbers delightfully call a “flapper”: a broken blister with a flap of skin pathetically hanging on like a flag at half-mast.
Holds at the gym come in various shapes and sizes, each bringing a unique kind of skin trauma. Jugs, which are big, deep holds, will cause blisters on your proximal phalynx, the lowest section of your finger. Crimps, which are thin, small holds, will cause blisters on your fingertips. Slopers, which are smooth, round holds, will cause blisters on your finger tips and middle phalanxes, the “middle” section of your fingers. Then there are the holds that combine all of these features to destroy your entire hand indiscriminately.
Your shoes can present another skin torture fest. Tight shoes can cause hotspots on your feet that could make even grown men tiptoe around like 8-year-old ballerinas. The sweat and dirt that tend to accumulate in climbing shoes don’t help either.
Care and Treatment
Blisters and flappers sting a bit, but they’re also battle scars that climbers love to show off. Epic tales of huge moves to tiny holds, with an accompanying display of the injuries incurred, are a popular topic of climber conversations. But in order to keep crushing the rock, healing is probably desirable.
For finger blisters, get a balm designed to accelerate skin repair. There are several climbing-specific balms out on the market. Clean and sanitize the affected area first. Then apply the balm to your blisters after each session, and watch as it magically stitches skin back together overnight.
Avoid using tape to cover your open blisters when climbing. The tape will reduce your grip, and bunches up quickly after a few climbs, leaving an uncomfortable, sticky mess. If you have open sores, just rest up until they’re healed.
To take care of shoe blisters, try wearing thin socks when you climb. These will provide a barrier for your skin and remove moisture, which causes blisters more rapidly. You might also want to invest in some moleskin for shoes too tight to accommodate socks.
Calvin Harris is a certified climbing instructor, licensed attorney, real estate agent and writer based in Texas. He has worked in a variety of fields, including law, construction, energy and government.