Friday, 18 June 2010

Tripping the wet fantastic


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.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Joe. I've come to many of the same conclusions through trail and error. There's nothing wrong with wet feet but there's nothing more welcome at the end of the day than a pair of dry,warm, fluffy sleep socks.

Mark Roberts said...

Thanks, Joe. Nicely summarised.

Can't wait to get my feet wet.

Dave Hanlon said...

Good read but we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I've worn both boots and trail shoes (mostly in the form of fell running shoes) but for different activities. I think both have their place. I'm not anti trail shoe, for what most walkers do they are to be prefered over boots, certainly over heavy trad boots. However, for me, lightweight boots with membranes are a wonder of our modern age. I hear a lot of complaint about lined footwear (Chris Townsend hates the concept) but I can honestly say I've never had a problem with overheating or wet feet due to linings. And in ten or more years of using lightweight boots I've honestly never had blisters. Yes I accept that the hole in the top of the boot renders any claim of waterproofness invalid but here's the thing, you go out in trail shoes or unlined fabric boots and you're almost guaranteed wet feet. As you say a heavy dew is enough. Also as you say that doesn't have to be a bad thing if you know how to manage it but I'd still much prefer to keep my feet dry in the first place. I can't remember the last time I got truely wet feet wearing boots (probably Gressamoen back in 2001). Of course terrain plays a big role, the propensity of blanket bog in your part of the world does wonders for the sale of those "walking wellies" I expect. I do seem to be able to keep my feet dry in boots in the majourity of situations I find myself and, although perhaps the two things aren't associated, I don't get blisters. I may yet switch to trail shoes but it won't be this summer. I'd still much prefer a high ankle or mid to a shoe and would probably reach straight for my card if someone produced a superlightweight lined high cuff trail shoe (aka lighter boots).

Joe Newton said...

Dondo - thank you. My conclusions also came about mostly through trial and error but also a bit by reading other peoples experiences, that's why I posted this. Maybe it will stop somebody having to suffer cold, wet feet or blisters! Mmmmm, sleep socks...

Mark - you are welcome!

Dave - he he! I'm sure this subject, like tents v tarps and 'trekking poles yes-or-no' will polarise opinion. I'm certainly not telling anyone that they HAVE to switch to unlined trail runners, I'm just saying that there is another way to the "you need Gore-Tex lined, crampon compatible boots" that the staff in many outdoor shops are primed to tell you.

I do owned lined boots. Lightweight mids from Montrail (Salomon and Inov8 also do nice light boots) but the weather has to be pretty much constant, sloppy snow and ice before I break them out. I've had linings fail on me too, rendering the boots pretty useless (the water finds it's way in but then can't find it's way out!) and that's an expensive way to change footwear. Waterproof socks are far cheaper to replace.

Your lucky that you don't get blisters, I guess some folks are more prone than others. My ski boots are bad for this but with ski boots your choice is restricted somewhat. You can find dozens of different trail running shoes but probably less than half a dozen companies that offer a suitable ski boot.

Hendrik Morkel said...

Great post, Joe. I, like you, found though trial & error and reading that lined shoes are bollocks. I remember the days wearing goretex and high ankle boots, and after an hour in the rain or snow they were wet from the inside and blister grew and grew. If they work for some (like Dave) nice for them, but I will not go back. And I mean, we saw from both Jörgen & Roger that lined boots aren't of much use in our normal conditions.

samh said...

In 2005 I did a 200+ mile hike with seven straight days of rain in the middle of it. I was wearing calf-height, waterproof/breathable leather boots and my feet never got wet once. Great, right? Not even close. Little did I know at that time that I could have been wearing shoes that weighed a pound apiece, as opposed to the boots which weighed something like four pounds apiece!

Ever since mid-summer '05 I've been a running shoe convert. Wet feet are simply something you get used to hiking with. They're only cold while you're actually in the water and for 30 seconds afterward once walking.

A good read, Joe, thanks. Also, it appears by the last photo that the Nordic Lightpacking crew is sponsored by Inov-8 - - or at least SHOULD be!

Joe Newton said...

Hendrik - actually I think Jörgen & Roger had differing experiences. Jörgen was wearing the lined Inov8 288 GTX boots on test but actually switched to his Salomon Tech Amphibian & lady socks combo. Roger though I felt was quite happy in his lined Salomon Fastpackers? Hopefully they'll be along soon and let us know.

Sam - there was actually a fifth pair of Inov8s but they didn't get up in time for the photo shoot ;) but yes we should be sponsored. There was three pairs of Debris Gaiters too!

Lightening up... said...

That is the way to go! Is there any easy way to get Hydropel in Scandinavia or do you have to order it from USA?

Though I have also good experiences with traditional Goretex lined boots. Usually the lined boots stay dry if you give a thought about how you use them - same thing that applies for using light unlined shoes. The only problem with heavy boots is that they are heavy! That makes them a bit clumpsy and unefficient but for example in Lapland at the end of October GTX boots are quite nice. =)

The only problem with light unlined footwear is that I haven't found good fitting shoes yet. Salomon's don't fit, most Inov-8's don't fit, most La Sportiva's don't fit, etc. I've tried those and the next try will be La Sportivas Wildcat. Then maybe Newbalance and so on...

Joe Newton said...

Thomas - Hydropel is hard to find but a few 'adventure racing' stores sell it. Roger Brown gave me the heads-up that these guys sell it in the UK:

In addition to the brands you mentioned Montrail, Asics, Brooks, Mizuno and even Nike, everyone has trail running shoes to fit every foot shape, the hard part is figuring out which one fits you.

John Davis said...

If a river crossing is needed on what is otherwise a dry day, it is worth taking socks off then putting shoes back on before stepping into the water. Carefully tip all water out of the shoes on the far bank then replace your socks. The small amount of water on your feet will wick away to the outside of the sock and you can continue with warm, dry feet even though your shoes are drying out.

As far as Dave's comment is concerned, I think there is a different issue to mention. I had to give up on lightweight boots when manufacturers opted for wrap around midsoles some years ago. I have wide feet which would only fit into soft boots that I could distort to fit (like Joe's Terrocs). When I moved from lightweight boots to trainers, I stopped stumbling. The penny soon dropped. Winter boots are great for edging. Soft shoes are great for smearing on holds. Lightweight boots compromise both of these virtues and so reduced my stability. During the Bionic/Trionic/Brasher years I had joked about training with the Stumble, Lurch and Stagger School of Mountaineering. That is no longer necessary.

Jörgen Johansson said...

Being an advocate of 'the wet foot syndrome' for years I can only agree with what you are writing, Joe.
During our recent Vålådalen hike I started out with Inov-8 Roclite 288 GTX a k a 'the worlds lightest boots'. I am testing these boots for Outside magazine and they are wonderfully light if you have a difficulty with letting go of boots as the only possible footwear for backpacking. One of my feet got wet after a couple of soggy hours on our hike. I do not know if the membrane leaked (not likely, they are have only seen a few months of use)or if I stepped into a puddle that was too deep.
Day 3 I switched to my usual Salomon Tech Ampbian (which weigh almost exactly the same as the boots)and was perfectly happy since I now could splash through any water or brooks like I am used to.
I definetely prefer the mesh shoes. And the GTX took about 36 hours to dry out commpletely at home, even with electic boot driers inside. To dry them on the trail on tundra without fires or huts I deem near impossible. Once they become wet they stay wet on the trail.

Anonymous said...

Yup, same here. I was somewhat resistant to wet feet initially, but in summer it can be quite nice. Good socks and quick draining/drying shoes are key though. Only in sub zero temps would I be less willing to endure it...

Joe Newton said...

John - whipping your socks off for rare water crossings on an otherwise dry trail is a good technique. The numbing power of snow/ice fed streams is something to experience and wearing your shoes is highly recommended.

Jorgen - "the GTX took about 36 hours to dry out completely at home, even with electric boot driers inside" - I rest my case!

Fraser - I agree, on a really hot dusty summers day, a quick dunk in some ice cold stream can be VERY refreshing. But in sub-zero conditions there are other options. Everyone who hikes in winter should read the BPL articles linked to at the beginning of the post.

David Eriksson said...

I also find wet feet an USP for mesh shoes. It's hard to find something better than to let the water cool your feet during long walks. The only time I find this less comfortable are cold, windy & rainy/snowy days walking in higher altitudes. But fortunately these moments are less common.

If I only could find a mesh shoe with a stable sole that also has a good grip on rain wet stones it would make my season.

Dave Hanlon said...

After a weekend of DIY I come back to find this discussion still alive and well :-) but that I'm swimming against the stream :-( Still, I like a challenge here's some more counter argument:

Hendrik: "lined boots are bollocks" You're English is improving, you've been spending too much time with Joe! Are you sure your blistered feet weren't telling you your boots were ill fitting? The importance of fit can't be overstressed.

Samh: 2kg boots? Wow. Not sure I could walk in those for seven minutes let alone seven days. Lightweight boots come in at typically 500-700g each. Still a couple of hundred grams heavier than your trail shoes but we all have to find our own balance between weight and functionality.

John: Your comment on stability has realy got me thinking. I'm not exactly cat like when moving over rough ground. I've always put that down to my motor skills rather than my footwear but this motivates me to revisit trail shoes in a way that any "wet feet are happy feet argument" never will.

Joe: I don't have blister resistant feet, far from it, I wore leather telemark boots in Norway last winter, my first time in single piece leather boots in twenty years, and my feet self destructed. I just don't blister in proper fitting fabric boots. Thanks for the suggestions, I've hovered over the Inov 8 high ankle models in the past (the Roclite 390's) but was put off by mixed reviews (mixed reviews seem to be associated with inov 8 in general). Saloman's Wing sky GTX caught my attention but at 180 quid there are far cheaper ways of saving 250g against my Hanwags which appart from a few niggles are fine, good fitting, footwear. Now to the drying out lined footwear arguments: just don't get them wet in first place. I accept that there are circumstances where that's not possible. From what I can see from your latest trip photo's I doubt there's any footwear, other than chest waders, that wouldn't have been overwhelmed. Under more normal circumstances though a bit of judicial route finding and good managment and it's possible to keep your feet dry. I manage it more often than not. Also, what's the point of fast drying trail shoes if they're just going to get wet again in the first ten minutes of the next day? Drying trail shoes over the fire? You've been in scandinavia too long. Camp fires aren't an option in the civilised world :-)

Should you be so quick to rest your case? Yes, because you've found a system that works for you. I'm not convinced yet. I'll do you a deal though, I'll invest in some trail runners and I'll give them a go. If I'm convinced enough I'll use them on a trip. If get hooked I'll give you the credit.

Anonymous said...

Without having tried it, I like the concept you're describing, Joe.
However, being one of the persons having to walk with orthopedic inlays, I'm not so sure how it would work for me. When those puppies get proper wet, they're not too fun to walk with. Easier to get blisters than with "normal" insoles. On the other hand, the orthopedic insoles dry in a jiffy, so that would be an advantage, I guess.
I'm a bit torn on the subject, I have to admit. I guess there's only one way to find out how things work, and that's to try it.
/ Karl

Joe Newton said...

Dave - It's funny that you feel you're swimming against the stream when I feel like I'm swimming against tradition and a large portion of the outdoor industry! It's good though because "only dead fish follow the stream"!

I'm not sure "wet feet are happy feet argument" was the point I'm was trying to make with this post. The point was more along the lines of "it's ok if your feet get wet".

I agree that no footwear system beyond chest waders was going to keep us dry in Sweden! There is also the point here though that the conditions we faced were not 'extraordinary'. In fact when we mentioned the dire weather conditions on the third day I remember Martin stating 'Welcome to summer in the Swedish mountains!'. Maybe he was just sick of us mentioning the weather all the time... :)

"Camp fires aren't an option in the civilised world :-)" is a sad truth! Surely it's every human beings right to have a camp fire?! :)

Dave, on your trip you should go with whatever footwear you are comfortable with. My switch to trail runners was made over time, starting with day hikes. I wouldn't want to be the cause of much swearing and cursing on your trip, time in the wilderness that I know is precious to you!

Anonymous said...

My encouragement for switching to running shoes came from an odd place: a Nicholas Kristof editorial in the NYT

I've never looked back. As long is my pack is light, then boots have no appeal to me. A side benefit: I can run comfortably when I'm in the mood to quicken things up.

And I no longer have that terrible moment in the morning when I have to slide my warm feet into cold, wet boots. The runners usually dry overnight.

Now, I'm looking at a pair of Innov-8s so the muddy uphills aren't quite so treacherous.

Appreciate your advice to managing wet feet, and thanks for the links about winter as well!

Joe Newton said...

Hamilton - the BPL articles on winter footwear are the kind of articles that make subscribing worth the money, I just wished they would write more like this.

Thank you for the link to the Times article. I loved this paragraph: "In grizzly or polar bear territory, carry bear spray (which is a bit like mace). Frankly, the spray is unlikely to stop a 1,000-pound bear hurtling toward you, so experienced hikers respond to a menacing bear by using the spray in one of two ways. The first option is to spray yourself in the face, so you no longer care what the bear does to you. The second option is to spray your best friend beside you, and then run."

Maz said...

Joe, you're right - it's a strong topic and causes almost as much consternation and debate as tarps vs tents! We must challenge convention - it really is the only way we progress. The outdoor industry in the UK seems inexplicably recalcitrant when asked to seriously consider anything other than boots. I've always sworn by boots and the ankle protection is crucial but I've also day-hiked in Terrocs in the summer but on easy, low-level trails. There are a multitude of exercises to strengthen ankle muscles (Trail reproduce them every other month) so perhaps this issue is less significant but it deserves sober reflection when hillwalking in rocky terrain. I know PTC uses trail shoes on munros but I think it needs some considerable preparation. I move pretty fast and nimbly over rocky terrain in Scarpa ZG-40 boots and the support in the sole is pivotal to way in which I move. Equally, I've never had any problems with wet feet except ingress over the top as you rightly observe. The lining breathes perfectly all the time after two years of use but I clean and re-proof my boots after every trip which allows the membrane to breathe properly. Yet, I clearly notice the difference when I change into trail shoes back at my base.  

The other interesting issue is wet feet. That does not concern me, I'll be honest. I had wet feet in Glaskogen on the penultimate day and I can live with it as long as I take care of my feet at camp. With the very sensible and considered regime you dictate, cosy camp feet are guaranteed and you won't get blisters either. For the sort of trekking and backpacking the Nordic Middle-Earth Lightpackers engaged in recently, such a regime is ideal. However, I'm still not convinced it works without some training on rocky ground like the Lake District - well, not without some practice! I'm looking into Salomon & Montrail lightweight boots to replace my Scarpas but, next time I'm doing low-level stuff, trail shoes will get an outing...

Dave Hanlon said...

"Dave, on your trip you should go with whatever footwear you are comfortable with. My switch to trail runners was made over time, starting with day hikes."

Joe, Thanks. I agree. I wasn't offering next weeks trip up in teh interest of research. I'll buy, wear them out and about locally and think about using them next summer depending on teh nature of teh trip.

"I wouldn't want to be the cause of much swearing and cursing on your trip"

Believe me, you couldn't make a measurable difference to the curse and swear count if you tried :-)

logrus said...

Very nice post Joe. After reading around quite a bit lately you post succinctly sums up what quite a few people are saying between the lines. I'm certainly going to give it a try.

One thing I thought was missing was gear names/links. I'm particularly curious about the brand of those gaiters. I've been googling around and haven't been able to find anything like them!

Joe Newton said...

Maz - The fallacy that you need ankle support in the hills is instantly dispelled by fell runners. Sure they're not carrying a backpack but if your pack is light and your progress is careful I don't see that there is any reason to strap my ankles up in the hills, most of the time. Sure, if there is injury concerns I can see why people might want a little extra support but I think this can be serviced by many of the new, lightweight boots and mids that are available.

"However, I'm still not convinced it works without some training on rocky ground like the Lake District" - it can be done Maz, I live and backpack in the much rockier western mountains of Norway! Sure, a little practice is required and starting off with day hikes is obviously advised.

Dave - I'm sure it will be the mozzies that will be the cause of any swearing up north! Have a great trip!

Logrus - sorry if there wasn't enough specific links for you, I was trying not to be too specific by only mentioning items I use.

The mini gaiters are Inov8 Debris Gaiters:

but also check out Outdoor Research Flex-Tex and Rocky Mountain Lows:

or Dirty Girl Gaiters if you want lightweight with LOTS of colour!:

Tor Magnus said...

Wow, those dirtygirlgaiters are available in some atrocious fabrics!

I really like the inov-8 ones as they seem to do exactly what I want, keep debris out of the shoe at lowest possible weight. :)

Thanks for the links!

Joe Newton said...

Tor - the Dirty Girl gaiters are not for people who want to blend into the wilderness! The Inov8 ones are perfect, just the right height to keep the crap out without making your leg sweaty.

Flanksteak said...

Hi Joe - great, informative article. I've been coming to the same conclusions too, it's good to see it in words. The missing link for me was the waterproof socks that enable re-using wet trailrunners for camp tasks.

-- what model/brand are the waterproof socks you show?

Joe Newton said...

Flanksteak - thanks for dropping by. The waterproof socks shown are Trekmates Amphibians. You can read my review here:

Hope that helps!

Tor Magnus said...

Yey, Inov-8 gaiters arrived today. Had to try them out immediately in the living room. Sad? Yes... Love them though. :)

Joe Newton said...

Tor - glad you like them! Just be warned that the underfoot strap can fail. One of mine went after a couple of months, probably cut on a sharp rock. I replaced it with a length of 3mm shock-cord. The other one though is still going strong! Some people I know replace the underfoot strap with a dot of velcro, one side glued to the back of your shoe and the other stitched the inside of the gaiter.