© U.S. Air Force (photo by Senior Airman Ridge Shan)
Moleskin has become a blister treatment almost as common as the pesky injury itself. Moleskin is a soft, durable, woven fabric backed with adhesive. When applied properly, it reduces friction to prevent or treat blisters. Where friction is your enemy, moleskin is your hero.
Treating and Relieving Blisters
Too late for prevention? Treat your blister with moleskin. Start by ensuring the affected area is clean and dry. Use warm water (if available) and gentle soap to clean it, but alcohol cleansing pads or hand sanitizer will work too.
STEP 1 (OPTIONAL): Drain the Blister
Unless the blister is particularly large, painful or in an awkward spot to treat, it’s recommended you don’t drain the blister. The risk of infection increases when a blister has popped. Also, if the top layer of skin on the blister is completely or partially peeled away, the exposed skin underneath will be prone to deepening the wound.
If you need to pop and drain your blister:
- Clean and dry the area
- Sterilize your needle with heat or alcohol
- Holding the needle parallel to the surface of your skin, puncture a whole at the base of the blister
- Gravity should naturally drain the fluid out of the hole you just made. You can also apply gentle pressure on the blister with your thumb to help the liquid out.
- Apply ointment to prevent infection
STEP 2: Shape the Moleskin
First, cut a piece of moleskin larger than the blister with enough surface area to stick to the surrounding skin (about ⅛” to ¼” size buffer around the blister works great). Cut the shape with rounded edges as sharp edges increase the chance it will snag and peel off.
Next, fold the moleskin (non-adhesive sides touching) in half and cut a half-circle shaped hole. When you unfold it, you should have a doughnut-shaped dressing that is slightly larger than your blister.
STEP 3: Apply the Moleskin
Remove the adhesive backing and place it around your blister. If the blister is shallow and the single-layer of moleskin keeps friction off the blister, you’re done. If not, you can apply an identical layer on top of the first one. Repeat until the height of the moleskin padding is greater than the blister's. Ultimately, you want the moleskin layers to be built high enough so that they absorb the friction in place of your blister.
“It’s already draining”: If the blister is already draining on its own, it’s best to apply some antiseptic or antibiotic ointment to the blister and cover it up. Follow the steps outlined above and finish by closing up the "doughnut hole" with a full layer of moleskin (no hole in it). This "lid" will help protect the area and prevent infection.
“My blister is too tall”: If the adhesive side of the moleskin might stick to your blister, you can put a small patch of sterile gauze, or toilet paper if necessary, over the blister before applying the lid. That patch of material will prevent the adhesive from sticking to your blister and potentially peeling that thin layer of skin off when you remove the dressing later.
“It’s wet and my moleskin is peeling off”: In a wet environment, your moleskin might rub off or peel off easier. You can cover the entire moleskin treatment with a lid made from either leukotape or duct tape, creating a moisture-resistant dressing. Leukotape and duct tape adhesive are more aggressive than moleskin, so make sure to apply a small patch of gauze or toilet paper over your blister before covering it; they’re great for holding your dressing in place but too aggressive for blistered skin.
Blister Prevention Tips
When it comes to foot care, there’s nothing wrong with preventing issues at every angle possible. In fact, most backpackers use multiple approaches that relieve foot friction and blisters.
1. APPLY MOLESKIN TO TROUBLE ZONES: Moleskin can also be used to prevent blisters from arising in the first place. As soon as you notice a hotspot, apply a single layer of moleskin on it. No need to cut a hole in the center of the moleskin this time. Alternatively, you can apply moleskin directly to a trouble spot on your shoe, pack or clothing, such as a seam that’s coming unstitched.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT HIKING SHOE: Purchase footwear that will stand up to the environment you plan to explore. Is it rugged? Make sure the sole is adequate. Wet and humid? A breathable, fast-draining trail runner might be best. More on choosing a lightweight and comfortable pair hiking shoes here.
3. TRY ON SHOES UNDER REAL CONDITIONS: Try them on at the store near the end of the day after your body is tired and your feet are probably swollen so you’ll get a more realistic fit. Also, bring the socks you plan to use while hiking and wear them for the test fit. Make sure you have plenty of room in the toe box.
4. PAY ATTENTION TO LACING: Once you’re on the trail, stay vigilant and tie them properly. I once developed a blister seemingly out of nowhere until I realized I had rushed to tie my shoes that morning trying to catch a shuttle back to the trail. I paid for it. Lastly, use an alternative shoe lacing technique if you have repeat friction problems related to your shoes like heel slippage or a toe box that’s a little tight on the top of your foot.
5. NO COTTON SOCKS: Wear a wool blend or synthetic sock that won’t bunch up and doesn’t have any annoying seams. Cotton might be comfy but it doesn’t properly manage moisture and friction so leave cotton at home.
6. CONSIDER SOCK LINERS: Some people also wear a second, thin sock referred to as a liner sock. Typically synthetic or silk, the liner sock is designed to closely hug your skin like an extra layer of skin and absorb any friction that occurs when your foot shifts or something rubs your feet repetitively.
7. LET YOUR YOUR FEET BREATHE: Dirt and grime can make a functioning pair of socks into a friction nightmare so stay on your game out there. Wash and dry your hiking socks at the end of the day if possible. Bring a second, dry pair to sleep in at night to give your feet a break from moisture and grime. You can also take midday breaks to air out your feet by removing your socks and wringing them out if necessary. If you can afford the added weight of a pair of camp shoes, you can give your feet an extended break by removing your socks and putting on those camp shoes as soon as you arrive at camp for the day.
8. CONSIDER GAITERS: Rocks and dirt can produce friction and hotspots when they end up in your shoes. A pair of minimalistic gaiters is a simple product that will keep the majority of rocks and dirt out of your shoes reducing the problem.
9. USE SKIN-CARE PRODUCTS: Use these products to augment your chances of remaining friction and blister-free. Both of these are particularly handy for wet conditions including those supposedly dry environments that happen to dump rain or snow for days.
- Gold Bond Body Powder - This powder can prevent or relieve moisture, especially between the toes and relieve itching in the beginning stages of foot fungal issues or minor skin irritation. Fair warning: it contains menthol which is fine for feet but is particularly, eh, refreshing (possibly uncomfortable) for those undergarment areas should you choose to administer some there for anti-chafing issues. (Amazon)
- Body Glide - This is an anti-chafe/blister balm that glides directly onto your skin and creates a zero friction surface. I use this prior to moleskin when possible to pretreat potential hotspot areas. It’s not messy or oily like a petroleum/oil-based product and doesn’t dry out your skin. (Amazon)
I’ve successfully hiked 20+ mile days through ankle-to-knee deep water blister-free for multiple days using a combination of body glide, gold bond powder, liner socks, wool blend hiking socks and moleskin applied to hotspots.
Where to Buy Moleskin
Despite the mass quantities of moleskin available, there’s only a small variety of moleskin products. Some are slightly more padded, some are sold with pre-cut shapes and others are sold as a sheet you cut and shape yourself. You can find it at most general stores (eg. Target) , pharmacies (eg. Walgreens), or online.
For backpacking, I personally recommend avoiding pre-cut shapes. While this recommendation boils down to personal preference, I prefer trimming the solid sheet of moleskin to fit my needs at the time.
Below are three of the best moleskin varieties that might work for you:
Durable Moleskin Roll by PrimeMed - Cut a few rectangles off this lengthy roll of durable moleskin and throw them in your pack. This is a great length of the standard, thin yet durable moleskin. (Amazon)
Plus Padding Moleskin Roll by Dr. Scholl's - This roll of moleskin is slightly more padded. This can be good if your sensitive spot needs a little more buffer from abrasion. If you find something thicker than this, it will probably be difficult to keep on. This one offers a nice balance. (Amazon)
Moleskin Blister Dressing Sheets/Kit by Adventure Medical Kits - Although it’s not my preference, you may prefer the pre-cut shapes. This kit has a few sheets of them plus some alcohol cleansing pads. It’s a great version of the pre-cut shapes complete with bonus cleansing pads. (REI)
Frequently Asked Questions
What is moleskin?
Moleskin is a thin adhesive pad backed with soft fabric. The fabric side of moleskin is heavy, woven cotton with a uniformly cut surface that creates a smooth, soft texture. In fact, the sheared cotton is soft like the fur of a mole which is where the name “moleskin” originated. The breathable material handles friction perfectly. The fabric becomes a moleskin bandage when it’s bonded to the thin adhesive pad allowing it to adhere to your skin and shed friction.
How to remove moleskin?
You can remove the moleskin bandage after leaving it for up to 3 days. You should also remove it if the moleskin edges curl up making it prone to peel off or remove the moleskin if it wrinkles and creates friction. When removing the moleskin, it’s as easy as carefully peeling it off. If any part of your dressing is touching the blistered skin, be particularly careful not to pull it off with the moleskin. If the moleskin is difficult to peel off or is touching the blistered skin and doesn’t want to separate, you can wet the moleskin. Wetting the moleskin will help it peel off more easily.
Disclaimer: This is purely based on our personal outdoor experiences and online research. This is not intended to be medical advice, a diagnosis, or any sort of professional treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any related condition.