Sunday, October 24, 2010

Getting Your Feet Wet

Soaked to the knees

One of my least favourite things about backpacking is hiking with soaking wet feet. In New Zealand, this is pretty much unavoidable. There are so many unbridged stream crossings that you'd have to pick your tracks very carefully to avoid wetting your boots. And I'm not talking about splashing through to test their "waterproof" qualities. I'm talking about the water gushing in over the top so there's full saturation!

Last weekend we went on our first overnighter in a while and yes, we crossed a stream that was just about up to my knees. Not deep enough to be a scary river crossing, but deep enough to get my boots thoroughly soaked for the weekend. There were also lots of muddy sections in the track, and a bit of bad judgement on one of them had me up to mid-calf in mud and wondering if I'd be able to pull my foot back out - and if I'd still be wearing my boot when I did. However, I digress.

Wet feet are a mere inconvenience most of the time, but on a long trip they can be a real problem if you don't deal with them properly. As we all remember from history class when we talked about WWI (you were paying attention, right?) "trench foot" can be quite crippling. It takes surprising little time with wet feet before the skin simply starts to fall apart. It's disgusting, painful, and sure makes hiking more difficult!

It's also easily avoided, by simply making sure your feet get dry for long enough to let the skin recover. To make sure this is possible, I always bring one pair of walking socks (which will probably get wet) and one pair of evening socks which I keep dry. As much as I hate putting those cold, wet socks back on in the morning, I know that I can't risk wearing my dry ones and letting them get wet too. Being left with no dry socks is not a good option.

Usually I also bring along a very stylish pair of fake crocs to wear in the evening. (I know, I know, but they're so light to carry!!) So my dry socks go into dry shoes at camp. If you don't carry a second pair of footwear and your boots are soaked, you can keep your dry socks dry by sticking your feet (with your dry socks on) into plastic bags before you put your wet boots back on. It's an even more fashionable look than my crocs!

I also try to head off foot damage before it happens by putting first aid tape over the parts of my foot (back of my heel, and a couple of my toes) where I most often get rubbing/blisters. I now change the tape daily after giving myself a nasty rash on one trip by leaving the same tape on for 3 or 4 days. It turns out my skin doesn't like that very much. It itched for weeks!

Getting your boots dry between trips can also be a challenge. Putting them too close to heaters can cause damage. Leaving them out in the sun is good, if you happen to get the right weather for it. One thing we do which seems to really help is to stuff old newspaper inside the boots. It absorbs the water out of the boots much faster than just leaving them. Swapping the old, saturated newspaper for fresh paper once or twice a day speeds up the process.

Also, most boots have removable insoles. Taking these out and leaving them to dry separately will allow more air to get to the bottom of your wet boots.

I'd love to hear your tips on dealing with wet feet and boots - so if you've got some ideas to share please post them as comments!


Tom Cook said...

Boot driers work pretty well. We have them for ski boots. Ours are basically sticks that get warm, but they also make them with fans that circulate air into the boot.

Phreerunner said...

Why not avoid wet feet in the first place by taking off your boots and socks and using the Crocs for river crossings?

G said...


Taking your boots off at every stream and mud-puddle would take too long. Sometimes the track crosses the same stream/river many times.

In places a lot of rain turns the track into a knee-deep stream -

Crossing a river in Crocs would be risky - the riverbed is full of rocks, sticks and other nasties you can't see properly. If the current is strong, you'll need all the stability and protection you can get.

Some people go to extremes to keep their feet dry - hopping from rock-to-rock or walking around the edge of the mudpool.

This risks twisting an ankle and just makes the mudpool bigger ('cause everyone does it).

Gaiters helps keeping the mud from getting inside your boots. Also gives you a little more time before water pours into the boot.

Maple Kiwi said...

I think if I'd used my Crocs for river crossing they'd be floating away to sea right now! They don't stay on very securely and have no grip on the bottom.

Mike said...

Following from @G, here's a crossing we had in January. There's no way I'd have left my boots off in this or my feet'd have been crunched under something. Personally I'm always paranoid about getting a foot trapped even in small rivers. :)

Actually it was very borderline in that video. We decided not to cross back and forth any more after that, which is how we ended up stuck camping behind a side creek for 2+ days listening to boulders being washed down the main river. Interesting experience.

Phreerunner said...

Maybe the 'soaked to the knees' image didn't do justice to the problem!
Many river crossings in the UK are fine using Crocs and walking poles. We wouldn't dream of using Crocs when rivers are in spate, but then again we probably wouldn't dream of crossing such rivers in boots, either.
It looks as if Berghaus Yeti Gaiters may be of some use to you. Perhaps.
Anyway, I suppose it's a case of staying safe, so if in doubt don't cross, if in less doubt consider boots (minus socks and footbeds), and if it's just a relatively easy one-off crossing Crocs may be acceptable.
(I appreciate the conditions and terrain in NZ can be a bit different from many parts of the UK, btw)

Happy Hiking
Martin B

Word = slipsy!

vijay said...

Great post ....

from Nagarhole

Gustav Boström said...


This is the way more and more lightweight hikers do it:

Try it, you might like it!

I switched to trailrunners a few years ago and haven't looked back. Even in the cold Scandinavian temperatures the system works great down to around +5C. After that you need to get some waterproof socks on, or maybe Neoprene socks.

Initially I thought hiking in trailrunners would be pure madness, but after having hiked in Sarek, Sweden, with constant fords several times a day, I realized that my feet were going to get wet or moist regardless of how I went about. Rubber boots are too heavy and you get too much sweat. Fording overboots are too much of a hassle when you have 10 fords a day, Sandals are too unsafe in the cold glacier water, and normal boots dry too slowly and you still get moist feet from sweat, even if you manage to keep the water out.

After my first attempt I found that when hiking in trailrunners my feet certainly got wet directly, but they also dried very quickly and my feet felt much more comfortable. I haven't had a single blister since I changed system. This seems counter-intuitive, but I think it has to do with the fact that my feet never get too hot now, which they frequently did before.

Gustav Boström said...

The in the above comment didn't seem to come out well. Here it is again:
Tripping the wet fantastic

Maple Kiwi said...

Thanks for that Gustav! I can imagine that trail runners dry a fair bit faster than boots.
I would switch but I'm a bit too clumsy to leave my ankles unsupported. Maybe some day!

Gustav Boström said...

Footwear is a very individual question. I can just speak for myself and I also was concerned about ankle support. I very rarely twist my ankles, but one thing I can say is that heavy boots make me clumsier. Having light feet makes for a more secure step for me. Even on talus. It is quite counter-intuitive but it seems to work for me.

Another thing you could try is using unlined lightweight boots such as Inov8 Roclite 370. You still get the advantage of ankle support, but with boots that dry out fast.

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