One recent Sunday at one of my volunteer hikes, twelve of us were assembling prior to entering the trail, and I overheard two of them recounting a 10.5-mile hike they had done the previous day at Point Reyes National Seashore. I knew I had some serious hikers with me, since we were about to embark on an 11.5-miler at Portola Redwoods State Park. And yet one of them, in pulling her boots on, winced a little, and asked point-blank if anyone had any moleskin.
I said I did and proceeded to set down my pack (I carry a large-capacity Camelbak) and pull out my bright-red Backpacker’s First Aid Kit, its 12″ x 3″ x 4″ dimensions causing an audible buzz among the group.
“Geez, that thing’s huge!” exclaimed one hiker. “How do you fit your lunch in your pack?” inquired another. A third calmly remarked: “I know who I’m getting hurt with from now on.”
I smiled and, having deftly rolled out the contents of the kit to grab the moleskin and a pair of scissors, I cut out a piece of moleskin and handed it to the hapless hiker. She was ready for me by this time, having removed her socks to display a dime-sized blister on her heel. I conferred with her briefly about applying the patch of moleskin, and we were soon ready for the trail.
As I shouldered my pack, I asked her to consider wearing two pairs of socks when hiking – one of them an inner pair made of wicking fabric – and mentioned how the incidence of blisters can be vastly reduced by doing so. I was speaking from experience, having worn wicking socks inside my boots for nearly 20 years. I’ve carried moleskin in my pack even longer, but I’ve found in recent years that I distribute it much more often to others than I’ve used it myself; I’ve only had 3 hot spots (pre-blisters) in all that time.
Made of polypropylene or nylon, wicking socks function as an inner lining to reduce foot friction under a pair of outer hiking socks, which are typically made of wool or a wool/nylon blend. Wicking socks are less abrasive than wool, too, but their main purpose is to move moisture away from your feet. Cotton socks can’t do the same job. In fact, if you hike distances longer than 4 or 5 miles at a time, never wear cotton socks, since cotton absorbs moisture and can practically guarantee that blisters will form.
When it comes to blister prevention, I consider the most important rule to be a pretty easy one, and that is: STOP! The second you feel the slightest hint of a hot spot on your heel or other part of your foot, don’t keep walking, and don’t wait until it becomes a painfully large blister to do something about it – even if your friends don’t want to stop and are egging you on.
If something is chafing in your shoe, stop and remove your shoe, and find the pebble, seed, dirt clod, or wrinkle in your sock. And, if you know you’ve got a vulnerable trouble spot (or a blister already formed, like my fellow hiker), put a piece of moleskin on it before you begin hiking. You don’t have to carry a serious humongosity like my Backpacker’s First Aid Kit, but you should consider always packing a Swiss Army knife that includes a pair of scissors and a patch or two of Dr. Scholl’s. If you’re a serious hiker (or want to be), you might also bring two pairs of socks – an inner pair and an outer pair – along with you to your nearest outfitter so that you fit well into that new pair of hiking boots.