May 29

Q & A: Footwear and Wet Environments

Prosser was recently emailed about uncertainty in relation to varying opinions on the subject of heavy, water-proof, footwear vs. lighter quick-drying footwear.

Hello Mr. Prosser,

Your 4/19/2006 article in “Backpacking Light” on backpacking gear for Philmont is wonderfully detailed, and I’m sure has been and will continue to be a great benefit to Philmont campers, indeed to hikers anywhere.

My 16 year-old scouting grandson will be going on a 10 day “trek” at Philmont this July, his first experience in any kind of hiking, and I am very concerned about the apparent contradiction between Philmont advising its hikers to wear sturdy, over-the-ankle waterproof boots with rigid soles, and the advice from you and others that lightweight, breathable, low-cut trail runners is a better way to go. I assume that the “trail-runners” will get soaked going through water, but are they supposed to dry out readily, and is the sock liner and wool or synthetic socks supposed to keep the feet dry, or to dry out after they get wet? Will hiking for 10 days with alternating wet and dry feet be a problem? I understand that a light pack is extremely important.

trail

I have no hiking experience, and will appreciate any advice you can give me.

Answer

When I talk or write on this topic of backpacking the single most important items that tends to make you carry more weight is the fears you have and those of your Grandsons. I would say your fears trump your Grandsons since you are sending the email.

All the talk about boots with gortex is to keep you feet “dry”. This is a fallacy since your feet will sweat heavily in a gortex liner that will take a long time to completely dry out. Your socks will get wet from the perspiration. Then add a liner sock to pull the perspiration away from the skin so that your feet do not macerate & then blister. So now you have a heavy boot with two pair of socks then you find out that if the boot actually gets completely wet (Heavy rains, stream crossing) it will take a couple days to dry out in the sun. Additionally note that boots + extra socks are heavy and they restrict your foot placement sufficiently to cause possible problems while almost requiring camp shoes once you get to camp.

Hiking in trail runners in rain you will have wet feet, socks, & shoes in the rain. Now let’s deal with fears about having wet feet.

Maceration

This is caused by having your feet in water/wet for an extended period of time. Think of when you take a long bath what does your fingers & toes look like. This macerated skin will tend to blister quicker. Trail runners are designed to get moisture away from feet. Thing of a stream crossing knee deep. A boot will pool the water around your feet until you take the boot off. A trail runner will start draining as soon as you are out of the water. Leather boots adsorb the water & take a long time to dry while trail runners will be dry in 60-120 minutes going down the trail at Philmont after the stream crossing.

Now socks

I wear one pair of ankle socks to hike in & take another pair to sleep in. I could change them during the day if not raining to give myself a dry pair to hike in but I rarely find it necessary. If I get to camp & my shoes & socks are wet I loosen the laces of the shoes & just continue around camp or sometimes I’ll take the wet socks off & put my feet in the wet/damp shoes without socks. When I go to bed I put my dry socks on & take my wet socks to bed with me in a pocket or the sleeping bag. The wet/damp shoes & orthotics my tent mate & myself place then toe to heal between ourselves so that our body heat drys them by morning. The socks, orthotics/liners, and trail runners sleeping with us are dry by morning.

Now comes a trick seldom discussed on how to prevent your wet feet from macerating & blistering like crazy. I have learned to use HYDROPEL Oint. I seldom every take full tube but put some in a smaller prescription vial (I’m a pharmacist). Apply to feet when dry, i.e. when get up in AM especially those days when you anticipate a lot of rain or numerous stream crossings. It sort of acts as a water proofing for you feet. Also works with chaffing in the thighs & butt areas which I found out on the Appalachian Trail in George/N. Carolina 90+degree Heat with 90+% humidity. Nothing ever dried there. Yikes.

Trail Runner Sizing

Make sure the shoes are at least a full size larger than he would normally get. Prevent toes from banging into ends of shoe on downhills. Also trail runners typically will only last for 300-500 miles before breaking down internally. They look OK from outside but all of a sudden you get pains in knees, hips, ankles. Trash them right then. You want to be comfortable wearing them 14+ hours a day.

Since you live in Carlsbad & the rainy season is just starting have your Grandson go out with the socks & trail runners + rain gear and walk around town for 4 or 5 hours and see what happens to his feet. This allows both of you to get over those fears I talked about while still at home.

Additionally practice hiking on trails with a pack in the trail runners. Get your feet accustomed to the pounding, trail rocks, pack weight etc. I’m at the point I can walk 10-12hrs/day in the same shoes without problems. When I get to camp I just unlace the shoes & they feel like slippers.

I have not worn a boot in over ten years. BPL has articles on using trail shoes or even water shoes for the snow & it works really good. That is another story though!

I have no Grandsons yet, just a Granddog!

Email if further questions. I go back to Philmont in 2013. Currently section hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and hope to have first 1,000 miles done by the end of 2012.

Thank You

Doug Prosser