“These are waterproof, right?” asked the customer to the Campmor sales clerk, as he walked around the footwear area testing out a pair of backpacking boots. Out of intrigue, I stopped to watch how the conversation would unfold, despite needing to get back to the area where my gear and skills clinic would be starting in 20 minutes. The clerk confirmed that the boots were indeed waterproof, but said nothing more.
At the risk of losing a sale for Campmor, who was paying me to present there, I had to interject. “Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, do you think you need waterproof boots for backpacking? If so, why, and do you think that they will actually keep your feet dry?”
The customer was surprised at my question, but answered, “It’s my impression that, yes, waterproof boots will keep my feet dry. And I want to keep them dry because I think having wet feet would quickly get me into trouble.”
This post is dedicated to this customer. I’ll first explain why your feet will not stay dry on a backpacking trip, especially in wet conditions like those in the East. And then I will explain my techniques to successfully cope with wet feet.
Futile attempts to keep your feet dry
Wet feet is an inevitable reality when backpacking in prolonged wet conditions, such as those encountered early-season in the Mountain West, and those encountered throughout the backpacking season in the East, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.
I have tried many ways to keep my feet dry, including:
- “Waterproof” shoes, which—as I’ve explained before—do not work as advertised;
- “Waterproof” socks, which don’t work 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 that I have not tried is rubber hip waders. 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.
Why wet feet can be bad
Attempts to keep my feet dry all proved futile. So I shifted my focus on reducing the effects and aftermath of having wet feet, which might prove more effective. Wet feet can result in:
- Maceration, or pruning, which results from the outer layer of skin absorbing moisture. The skin becomes sore, itchy, and soft, which makes it prone to blistering.
- Cracking of the skin 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.
How I treat wet feet
I do five things to reduce the effects and aftermath of wet feet:
- Wear non-waterproof shoes, which drain and dry out quickly;
- Wear thin, non-cushioned merino wool socks, which don’t absorb as much water as thicker socks;
- Take off my shoes and socks to let my feet air dry during any mid-day rest stop that will be longer than 20 minutes;
- Wear dry and warm socks at night, to give my feet 8-9 hours of recovery time; and,
- Apply Bonnie’s Balm Climber’s Salve, or a similar topical treatment, to the bottoms of my feet.
I recently purchased a wholesale quantity of Climber’s Salve, the distribution of which is pretty limited. The cost is $12 with free shipping for a 2-oz jar, which would be enough for me for a 2-month trip in daily wet conditions. Buy now.
Why Climber’s Salve helps
Climbers Salve will reduce—but not entirely eliminate—the effects and aftermath of wet feet, specifically by:
- Minimizing the amount of moisture that the outer layer of skin will absorb, thereby reducing the severity of the maceration/pruning. The Salve does not seem to clog pores, however, which would cause other problems.
- Keeping the skin moisturized, thereby minimizing the likelihood that the skin will crack as it dries out.
How to apply Climbers Salve for best results
Apply Climbers Salve before your feet get wet, ideally hours before. If you apply it after your feet are wet, or immediately before they get wet, the effectiveness is very limited. Normally, applying Climbers Salve is one of my nighttime housekeeping chores, along with looking at tomorrow’s maps and separating out tomorrow’s daytime food.
- After drying my feet thoroughly, perhaps with the help of a warm fire, I coat the bottom of my feet with Climbers Salve and rub it in, paying special attention to the rim of my heel and my forefoot, which seem to suffer the worst when wet.
- Once the Climbers Salve has been rubbed in, I put on a dry and clean sock, and go to bed. I don’t spend much time in camp—if you do, then protect your dry and now-treated feet from your (potentially) wet shoes using a bread bag or other waterproof liner.
- In the morning, and sometimes even in the middle of the night, I check my feet to determine if they need another coating of Climbers Salve. If my feet still feel waxy, then they don’t. If they are dry again, which indicates that all of the Climbers Salve was absorbed, then I reapply.