Six Tips for Keeping Your Feet Healthy When You’re Getting Soaked

©istockphoto/kamsta

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.

Go syn­thet­ic
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.