Anyone who spends a great deal of time in the outdoors knows that even the most hi-tech waterproofing is useless when you’re hiking through a wet slot canyon, fording creeks, or hiking all day in heavy rain or melting snow. In these situations, wet, soggy feet are as inevitable as aging. Once you accept that, your goal should be to minimize problems through pre-treatment and aftercare of your feet, and thoughtful footwear selection.
Here are six tips to help you achieve this grounded goal:
Wear Merino wool or wool blend socks
They dry faster than cotton. Some hikers swear that within an hour of a quick wet ford, their wool socks dry out completely as they hike. The theory being that wet feet warm up as you continue to hike, so the socks eventually dry out. That does seem to work in warm, dry weather, but could lead to hypothermia in cold ones.
A better option when backpacking is to wear ultralight polypropylene or poly-blend liners with a pair of thin Merino wool ones. Bring along a clean dry pair of wicking socks for every day you plan to spend on the trail and one extra pair of wool ones. The idea behind this is that liners are lighter than extra wool socks and they help eliminate blisters. If your feet do get wet, simply remove the wet socks and don a clean dry pair of liners and the spare wool socks. Hang the wet ones on the outside of your pack, and after they dry, later pair them with another set of spare liners as needed.
Wear waterproof hiking gaiters
No, gaiters will not keep your feet dry when you submerge them in a creek, but they will keep rain and dew off the tops and side of your footwear when walking through wet grass or in a rainstorm. They also cover the largest gaping hole in the waterproofing theory: the place where your foot goes into your shoe or boot. Your foot may get sweaty, so pair breathable socks and breathable shoes (not leather) for the most benefit.
Coat your feet with a “hydrophobic” balm
This waterproofing salve acts like a sealant and helps keep feet moisturized and will help you avoid developing “trench foot,” which is a painful blanching and death of the stratum corneum or protective outer layer of skin of the feet that left untreated can lead to gangrene. When your feet are wet for prolonged periods and your toes shrivel up like old prunes, water-shedding balms will at least keep them fairly healthy. There are several products on the market designed for this purpose, including diaper balm for babies’ butts. Ultrarunners swear by this stuff.
Wear footwear built with breathable synthetic uppers and non-absorbent breathable linings. Your feet will surely get wet in prolonged wet conditions, but when you go this route, both sock and footwear will dry out faster. Just make sure such your footwear fits well, apply the hydrophobic balm, and consider pre-taping or covering areas prone to blisters with moleskin or gel plasters. Also, make sure to dry your feet well each night and reapply hydrophobic balm.
If you’re hiking in a warm climate with a fairly light pack and fully expect to be fording creeks, consider wearing performance outdoor sandals instead of shoes, or at least carrying them along to use as needed. Pair them with a thin wool sock to help cushion feet and reduce inevitable blistering of wet sandal scaffolding coming into contact with skin.
If you’ve got a great pair of waterproof boots, use thin neoprene socks
Already own an expensive pair of waterproofed footwear and not ready to dish out more dollars for a non-waterproof? Pair them with very thin neoprene socks and lightweight polypro liners when hiking in cold and wet, or cool and wet conditions. Neoprene won’t keep your feet dry—it’s designed to allow a very thin layer of water to circulate around your feet—but it will keep your feet warm, especially after negotiating multiple creek crossings in cool to chilly temperatures. At night, hang the “neoskins” to dry in your tent, then double down on foot care: dry your feet, then swab them with an anti-fungal like tea tree oil and don a pair of warm wool socks for the night. Don’t forget to re-apply hydrophobic balm before putting socks back on in the morning.