Wet feet: Usually Not Avoidable, Easily Treatable with These 5 Tips

This post comes to us from Andrew Skurka, National Geographic Explorer, guide, speaker, and author of The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Tools & Techniques to Hit the Trail. During his last ultra long-distance backpacking trip — a 4,700-mile loop around Alaska and Yukon — his feet were damp or soaking wet for about 120 of the trip's 176 days. That makes him a qualified expert on wet feet and long hikes! Read his tips below before your next big adventure. Be sure to check back next week and read my interview with this well known hiker and author. -Andy

Having wet feet is an inevitable reality when backpacking in prolonged wet conditions, such as those found early season in the Mountain West and throughout the backpacking season in the East, Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

I have tried many devices to keep my feet dry on a backpacking trip, including:

*"Waterproof" shoes, which fail due to river fords, water running down my legs, and/or gradual failure of the waterproof membrane

*"Waterproof" socks, which fail for similar reasons

*Multiple pairs of socks, which eventually all get wet

*Multiple pairs of shoes, which eventually all get wet, too

The one system I have not tried is rubber fishing waders. But I think I know how this experiment would end: The poor fit would severely blister and chaff me, and since rubber is not breathable my feet would "get wet from the inside" via the trapped perspiration, which also happens — though to a lesser extent — with "waterproof" shoes made of so-called waterproof-breathable fabrics.

Why Wet Feet Can be Bad

I don't like having wet feet any more than the next backpacker. It causes me two problems:

First, my feet become macerated or pruned, resulting from the outer layer of skin absorbing moisture. The skin becomes sore, itchy, and soft, which makes it especially prone to blistering.

Second, my skin can crack as it dries out after being macerated, because the skin has been robbed of its natural oils by the moisture. These cracks can be very painful and difficult to treat, depending on the size and location on the foot.

5 Tips to Minimize the Effects of Wet Feet

Slowly I came to the realization that having wet feet was unavoidable on some backpacking trips. And instead of futilely trying to keep my feet dry — the very definition of insanity — I learned how to mitigate the problems. Here are my five most important techniques:

1. I wear non-waterproof shoes, which drain and dry out quickly

2. I wear thin, non-cushioned merino wool socks, which don't absorb as much water as thicker socks

3. During any mid-day rest stop that will be longer than 20 minutes, I take off my shoes and socks to let my feet air dry

4. At night I give my feet 8-9 hours of recovery time by wearing dry and warm socks to bed

5. I apply Bonnie's Balm Climber's Salve, or a similar topical treatment like Hydropel or Bag Balm, to the bottom of my feet. The balm reduces the amount of moisture my skin can absorb (reducing maceration) and it also re-moisturizes my feet after they have been wet (preventing cracks).
Andy Hawbaker
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Andy Hawbaker
Andy is a hiker, backpacker, snowboarder and outdoor fanatic. When he isn't exploring the Rocky Mountains, burning marshmallows or scratching his dog behind the ear, he shares his experiences here on the Sierra Trading Post Blog.
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