After some interesting discussions recently concerning the whole 'keep your feet dry' subject I thought I would run through the gear I wear during summer & '3 season' conditions and how I implement it (for the last word on lightweight footwear in deep winter conditions I strongly suggest you go to BPL's excellent 'Lightweight Footwear Systems for Snow Travel' part 1, part 2 and part 3).
Firstly why this subject comes up at all. If you believe what you see and read in the outdoor media some companies promise to keep your feet dry during your wilderness experience by wrapping them in their 'waterproof/breathable' membrane-lined footwear that they spend millions of dollars advertising each year. If you hike gentle terrain, in cool, dry conditions they're probably right. But if it's hot or steep your feet will sweat and soon overpower the alleged 'breathability' of the membrane. Sweaty feet are prone to blisters.
In wet conditions it's even worse. The huge design flaw in all 'waterproof/breathable' footwear is that there is a big hole in them. The one you stick your foot in. With all the will, side-stepping and ballet prancing in the world you can't keep your feet out of the water if your hiking anywhere with streams, rivers, snow, rain or even dew. This is even more likely when you're off-trail, away from well worn paths, bridges and stepping stones across water courses. The old-fashioned way was to wrap your lower legs up in even more 'waterproof/breathable' membranes in the form of gaiters but this led to guess what... hot, sweaty, blister-prone feet at best and and more likely, creeping water ingress that eventually soaked the entire footwear system and stayed wet for days.
So what's the enlightened answer? Prepare to think outside the box here and go against everything you've been told about keeping your feet dry in the outdoors. Get your feet wet. That's right. Let the water in. Sure, it can feel a little cold for a second as the icy water first finds it's way in through the mesh of your unlined but light and comfortable trainers but it's ok. You won't die or suddenly get struck down with trench foot. After fording the river you hit the trail again and guess what happens to all that water that's sloshing around in your shoes? It comes flowing out again, back out through the mesh. If it's a warm, dry day you might even find your socks dry out in a couple of hours. Your hiking partner with the lined footwear? The water that splashed over the top of their boots, or wicked into their socks from hiking in the damp grass is going to stay there. All day. Quite possibly for a few days after you've stopped hiking.
Obviously this approach takes a little more care in equipment selection so we'll look at the individual components for a typical backpacking trip:
Unlined, highly breathable trail running shoes. Light, grippy and quick drying thanks to the mesh upper construction. The mesh also keeps them cool in really hot conditions leading to less sweaty feet.
Two pairs of socks. One pair are thin, quick drying merino wool blend or fully synthetic 'trail running' socks and the other pair is a taller, thicker pair of wool socks that I keep purely for sleeping in and keep stored in the bottom of my sleeping quilt's dry bag.Some people will take a second pair of the hiking socks on longer trips but I'm happy to use just two pairs for most backpacking trips up to four or five days.
Mini-gaiters. Not essential but great at keeping twigs, dust, stones, seeds, thorns, etc out of your socks and shoes. Forget waterproof membranes here too. Go for stretchy, breathable materials.
Waterproof socks. Not strictly necessary if you like to crash out in your tent for the night the second you stop hiking or are lucky enough to hike somewhere like the desert but here in Scandinavia they are very useful. 'Waterproof/breathable' membranes are allowed here!
Miscellaneous items. A towel to dry your feet and some foot lube. I use a 14g micro-fibre 'kitchen towel'. They're much more absorbent than those 'travel towels' they try and sell you in outdoor shops, much lighter and far quicker drying. Sure they won't last forever but have you ever smelled one of those expensive 'travel towels' after a while? Yuk!Hydropel sports ointment is awesome. Also not strictly essential but I'm a fan. A small amount smeared into your feet first thing in the morning stops your feet from macerating and becoming prone to blisters. Sometimes difficult to get hold of and relatively expensive I save it for trips over a few days in duration.
Putting it all together. First thing in the morning I apply some Hydropel to dry feet before slipping them into my hiking socks, mini-gaiters and shoes. During the hike I just keep walking. No need to desperately try and keep my feet dry. In fact, if you're hiking early in the day your feet will get wet just from the dew on the grass. Sometimes during a midday break I'll whip off my socks and shoes to let them dry out but this will probably only happen on warm, sunny days.
At evening camp my routine is to set up my shelter in my damp footwear before getting inside and sitting on my bivy. I whip off my wet shoes and hiking socks and remove the insole to speed up any drying (if conditions allow). I'll wash and carefully dry my feet before digging out my dry, fluffy sleep socks from the bottom of my sleeping quilt's dry bag where they've kept dry all day. Dry feet into dry sleep socks and then on with my 'waterproof' socks. This allows you to put your feet back into your wet hiking shoes for any other camp chores, taking photos or simply sitting around a camp fire. I wring out as much moisture as I can from my hiking socks and put them in a pocket close to my body to start drying. If you're lucky enough to have a nice camp fire then now is the time to try and dry out your hiking socks, insoles and shoes. Just be careful, I've seen plenty of socks 'crisped' and shoes melted by being left too close to the flames! The only things that should be melted are the marshmallows... When it's time to turn in for the night my shoes get left inside my shelter to keep them out of the rain and I slip off the waterproof socks and into bed. Hiking socks go back into a pocket near to my body or even under my base layer and will often dry completely overnight with my body heat. Laying them on your stomach, while your warm, high calorie dinner is in there digesting is a good place to put them.
On the second morning I stuff my dry fluffy sleep socks into my sleeping quilt's dry bag, smear on some Hydropel and fish out my hiking socks from under my baselayer. My hiking socks and shoes may not be totally dry but that's ok. They'll be comfortable enough to put on and get hiking and will probably be wet again after a stroll in the dewy grass or the first river fording. But guess what? My dry, fluffy sleep socks are waiting for me at my next camp and who knows, if the sun keeps shining today my feet might even dry out on the trail!
So the key is not to try and keep your feet dry all the time but to make sure your feet get dry and warm for a period of time every day. This is best done overnight and will go a long way to keep your feet in tip-top nick. Foot problems occur when your feet are damp and cold for long periods of time so break that cycle and treat your 'plates of meat' to some TLC every night.