Doug Prosser Answers a Question on Footware 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.

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 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. http://www.amazon.com/Genesis-C31863-Hydropel-Sports-Ointment/dp/B001FU5CEI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1326766995&sr=8-1 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.

http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/reviews/display_reviews.html?forum_thread_id=4587%22%20target=%22_blank

Socks: My favorite socks are Drymax Lite Trail Running socks: http://www.amazon.com/Drymax-Socks-Trail-Running-Black/dp/B003EUCGK0/ref=sr_1_3?s=sporting-goods&ie=UTF8&qid=1326767282&sr=1-3

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

9 Responses to Doug Prosser Answers a Question on Footware and Wet Environments

  1. John Potter May 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Mid-cut boots do offer a modicum of ankle support and some reduced risk of injury, for the hiker who does not do a lot of off-road training. Many people find the additional peace of mind well worth the weight penalty or 4 ounces or so.
    Where GoreTex shines is somewhere in between the arid climates and the creeks or pouring rain. I enjoy a waterproof breathable (WPB) membrane for negotiating days of shallow puddles and wet vegetation. But I do have to work to avoid creek dunkings and to liberate perspiration during breaks, or else my feet will be as wet as if I didn’t have the membrane. Some people say WPB membranes are a waste of money since they wear out quickly, but I find that they hold up as long as lightweight shoes do (see above).

  2. Gene Brown June 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    I have been to Philmont 3 times, once ignorant, twice ultralight. I wore trail running shoes. It rained. We crossed streams. My feet got wet. I did not feel I had any problems.

    Drying shoes in the tent? How do you control odor?

    A benfit at water crossings, just cross vs. time looking for a place to cross or trying to balance on a slippery log, which may result in an off balance dunking.

  3. Mike Danielson June 1, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    As adults, I see that getting your feet wet would not be an issue. Especially in New Mexico with the humidity so low. I live in the southeast and drying shoes out where the humidity is always high is another matter. So I avoid it. I have been going to Philmont since 1972 and will be going again in 2013. A person has to be educated and trained when it comes to proper foot care. Especially a youth who is going for the first time. When I was at Philmont in June 2003, the only dry day we had was the very last full day of the hike. We had numerous feet problems where people did not have enough waterproofing on there shoes and their feet got too soft thus blisters formed. I learned real quickly that teaching how to take care of your feet is highly important and must be stressed before any backpacking trip. Some people can get away with hiking in wet socks and shoes while others will have major issues (blisters, etc). It is up to that individual to know what works for them. Thus the practic hikes, wet conditions, etc. Thanks for the great article above and good conversation.

  4. Patrick June 6, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    I’ve been on both sides of this fence and I think I have a unique angle on how to answer this question.

    As the author pointed out, fear and the unknown are what really is motivating the author (and most everyone) when they discuss this topic. Let’s quantify the risk so we can evaluate it rationally:

    Twisting Ankle Fear
    Even if you do the injury is easily sorted out and you or your son will be fine. No one I know who who made the switched has rolled their ankle any more frequently than in boots anyway.
    –>Result: Twisting ankle is low cost, low probability

    Getting Wet Feet and thus Blisters
    If you get a blister you use moleskin/bandaids proactively and the worst you suffer is discomfort.
    Even with wet feet, blisters are not guaranteed. My feet always sweat in boots and I’ve had wet boots, but i’ve nearly never had a blister. My feet are always drier with trail runners, even in wet environments (when it rains for a long time, everything is wet no matter what your gear is so the point is moot)
    –> Result: Wet feet/blister is low cost, low probability

    Full Grain Boots are Heavy and Exhausting
    Guaranteed, and they’re drastically more expensive for good quality. Previous poster is wrong to say that they only weigh 4 ounces less.
    –> Result: high cost, guaranteed probability

    Conclusion: Quit worrying and just do it. My *first* trip in trail runners was 14 days long and it was wonderful. Everyone thought I was crazy/extreme and now they all backpack in trail runners too.

  5. Jon Dickie June 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    I completed Philmont last year. Early in the summer there is less chance of rain, and you can avoid hiking through water for the most part. After mid July you have the chance of monsoons. Would prefer trail runners over anything else.
    I have been using a pair of Solomon Mid length trail runners for the last year and a half, logging about 250 miles on them so far (They also come in a low style). They worked great at Philmont, San Jacinto, Grand Canyon and all over the San Diego backcountry. Light weight, dry fast. Highly recommended over heavy, traditional boots.

  6. Kevin Carr January 19, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

    HikeGoo is a high endurance blister prevention cream that’s sweat permeable and works well in wed and dry conditions.

  7. Sam February 18, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

    Having spent a considerable amount of time hiking in the Smokies during the winter, I believe I can share some insight on this issue.

    As it pertains to conditions that are cold and wet, I would under no circumstances recommend the following.
    1. Gortex
    2. Leather hiking boots
    3. Boots with excessive padding

    The solution to warm feet while hiking in cold and wet conditions is to ensure that your feet can dry quickly. I use a turkey bag solution.
    From the skin out, I use:
    1. drymax socks
    2. turkey basting bag
    3. shoes
    4. gaiters

    When hiking my feet tend to be warm enough (even when hiking through 6+ inches of snow, 10+ miles. My feet cool down rapidly and get cold on long breaks, or upon arriving at my final destination. I have started using down booties (down socks would be better) to help keep my feet warm at camp, and they have done the trick.

    I have hiked with other systems that are different than as outlined above, and I have had friends do the same…no system has worked better for me. The problem with insulation, leather and gortex is absorbtion and retention of the water, which (depending on temps.) leads to the shoes freezing on your feet, or in camp, leaving you with frozen boots to put on in the morning. Having watched my hiking buddies go through the agony of putting on frozen boots, I would recommend trying to avoid it, for two reasons.
    1, It does not look like fun.
    2. It can take a serious amount of time, which depending on mileage can wreak havoc on a trip.

    I hope that helps.

  8. Josh April 14, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    I am going on a seven day trip and I already have some Vasque boots and LaSportiva Raptors (trail runners). My teacher and coach, who is very experienced (though not very ultralight) and has hiked the trail, says I should wear the boots as we will be doing some slippery, possibly knee-deep river crossings and be in somewhat rough terrain. My total gear weight should not be more than 35 lbs, and I am not very pron to blisters. Which pair should I take?

  9. Call Me Ishmael April 16, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    Take the boots. Later, wear the trail runners on longer and longer hikes, with your loaded pack, until you are comfortable that they would work for you on a trip like this. A lighter pack would also be beneficial to the transition.

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