Minimizing the effects and aftermath of wet feet

Teammate Chris Robinson fords yet another creek during the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic across the Hayes Range. During the 4-day race, our feet were wet nearly from start to finish.

“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:

  1. Wear non-waterproof shoes, which drain and dry out quickly;
  2. Wear thin, non-cushioned merino wool socks, which don’t absorb as much water as thicker socks;
  3. 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;
  4. Wear dry and warm socks at night, to give my feet 8-9 hours of recovery time; and,
  5. 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.

Bonnie's Balm Climber's Salve, a wax- and oil-based topical treatment that will reduce maceration and prevent cracking.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

41 Responses to Minimizing the effects and aftermath of wet feet

  1. John Smith April 3, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    I use Geritrex Hydrophilic Ointment. It is effective and inexpensive. Having spent most of my life hiking in Alaska and now in the Cascades I think i can say I have hiked in some of the wettest conditions. I also hike in a pair of Teva water shoes. These are unique in that they are very supportive but drain great. I also hike in the wool socks as well. I don’t really air my feet out during the day, with this system unless I have been hiking all day immersed in water (which has happened).

  2. justin April 3, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    i live in the pacific northwest and have been learning to camp in the rain as it greatly extends the amount of time i can get outdoors. i really appreciate your above post as it’s information like this that is truly helpful. i would be very interested in other techniques you use to battle the rain.

  3. Brandon April 3, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    I do a lot of mountain running in the Pacific Northwest. You’re right, it’s only a matter of time before you get wet. The one thing I make sure that is on my feet are Icebreaker Merino wool socks. They never get soggy, feel wet, or let my feet get cold. They’re amazing!

  4. Stevie McAllister April 4, 2012 at 6:22 am #

    Funny you should mention Campmor,
    I was there trying on trail runners. The salesman was trying very hard to convince me that I need waterproof Goretex shoes for hiking in the damp NorthEast. I was looking for ventilated trail runners.

    To get him to shut up, I told him I needed shoes for my upcoming desert hike in the South West:-)

    • Andrew Skurka April 4, 2012 at 6:30 am #

      It’s hard to extrapolate one salesman’s recommendation onto the whole company, so I won’t go there. However, I will say that it’s common among outdoor retailers (especially the bigger stores, which have more employees and which probably have more turnover) is that the guys and gals on the floor are not avid backpackers, and they have little if any personal experience to back up their recommendations. When customers enter the store looking for good recommendations, because they know even less, this is a problem.

      I’ve seen this same problem at the manufacturer level: the employees who are designing, marketing, and selling these backpacking products have zero personal backpacking experience. I think this partly explains the overhyping of outdoor gear — the marketing reflects what they think sounds good, not reality.

      • HippiGypsi April 4, 2012 at 10:26 am #

        What is you view on neoprene socks? I use them with the teva reforge ion mask shoes when canyoneering, but have never used them on multi day hikes… have you?

        • Andrew Skurka April 4, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

          For very cold, wet conditions, I think they might be appropriate, though I’ve always been okay with just one pair of thicker wool socks, which are more comfortable and squish out water faster. I’ve tried neoprene socks and have not found a comfortable pair — there’s not much stretch to them, so they have to fit your feet perfectly; and the seams always seem to be in the wrong place.

  5. Jared April 9, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    Andrew,
    Why the switch from hydropel at night? Have you found the climbers salve to be as effective with waterproofing at the hydropel? I’ve been following your advise with hydropel before bed in sleep socks. I also take a small amount of joshua tree salve with me for any chaffing issues and am wondering if I should switch it up to applying that on my feet instead.
    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka April 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

      Re why the switch: cheaper, just as effective, and more multi-purpose (e.g. for chafing and chapped lips).

    • Michael May 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

      Another cheaper alternative to Hydropel is BodyGlide Liquified Powder.

  6. Steve Salmon April 10, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    Andrew,
    My buddy and I were planning and looking forward to attending your stop at the Campmor in North Jersey, but the date slipped by and we both forgot. Sorry we missed you. Thanks for the great advice here re. wet feet protection. Thank you also to those that have shared their recommendations.
    Anyway, this same friend, myself and a few others are going to be hiking to Bus 142 this late June. You are welcome to join us as it would be great to have you there too. I don’t know if you follow the “Into The Wild” story or not but, the hike to Bus 142 is a great experience. It’s not about worshipping anyone in particular, but, instead, getting outside and on the trail. It’s also about seeing an old bus that sadly continues to fall victim to the wrong visitor.
    Regards,
    Steve Salmon

    • Andrew Skurka April 10, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

      Too bad you missed the Campmor programs.

      You’ll need a packraft to get to the bus — you’ll have to cross a few rivers that stopped him from getting out. You can rent packrafts from my friend Ed Plumb (great guy): http://www.alaskapackrafts.com/

  7. Chris Zeller April 10, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

    I can’t speak about month-long expeditions to the arctic or in the wet northeast but I find that for 1-7 day hiking and backpacking in Colorado it is possible to keep your feet dry with full leather (treated) or synthetic with gore-tex style liners. In wetter conditions a small ankle gaiter can help.

    In these cases waterproof boots with a sturdy shank do tend to keep my feet dry and happy from wet grass, rain, crossing snowfields and muddy trails. A stiffer sole really helps off trail and a higher ankle has saved my ankle from twists and scrapes on many occasions. I can hike faster if I don’t have to be hyper-concious of every step. Trekking poles also help.

    I do not ford deep creeks in my boots as some do however. If not possible to rock/log hop I will remove my shoes and carefully wade barefoot. I do not take separate water shoes.

    That said I am experimenting with lighter-weight boots. The new materials, gore-tex and treating boots as consumables are negating the need for full-grain leather boots to last a lifetime. I now hike in boots half the weight I used to.

    • Andrew Skurka April 11, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

      Even without “waterproof” shoes, it’s pretty easy to keep your feet dry in Colorado during the summer months. Ditto for other Mountain West areas. For example, last August I hiked the entire 220-mile JMT and was able to keep my feet dry the entire time.

      My argument that “waterproof” shoes fail applies to prolonged wet conditions, like those in the East or Alaska, or in late-Spring/early-Summer conditions in the Mountain West.

  8. Brian Sims April 12, 2012 at 6:43 am #

    How do you feel about Bag Balm? Also cheap and easily available at most drug stores. Is it effective?

    • Andrew Skurka April 12, 2012 at 8:01 am #

      Haven’t used it so can’t say. The potential problem with it — and this applies to petroleum jelly and to a lesser degree Hydropel, too — is that it just doesn’t stick that well, and it gets washed out/away of the skin by water and abrasion.

  9. James D. Marco April 12, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    Andrew,

    I certainly agree that wet feet are a fact of life while hiking. Perhaps only the degree of wetness differs, Here in the NE, the ADK’s in particular, most every morning is wet.

    I may need some sort of salve, eventually. But, for the past 30 years or so I haven’t used it. I have been fine just wearing wool/merino wool socks and letting my feet dry at least 8 hours a day. This also means a seperate set of “sleeping” socks. Otherwise, I do about the same as you. On occasion, I have been hiking through streams for up to 3 days at a time pulling my canoe. The nice thing about hiking through streams is at least your feet never smell bad. I was using two pair of thick wool socks and teva’s at the time. Though my usual is a mid hiking shoe with vents. Note that at night I pull the bottom liners out and prop them to dry somewhat. The sponge ones I replace with Superfeet or the like to prevent water take up.

    Anyway, even high topped fishing waders will not protect your feet. I hiked for a couple days fishing upstream in thigh waders on the West Canada Creek (southern ADK’s.) My feet *were* soaked by the end of each day.. .just to confirm your guess.

    . .

  10. Evan Ravitz April 14, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    After 47 years of being an avid barefooter, when I’m carrying a load or going downhill I use sandals of some sort 3 seasons a year. They let your feet dry out and don’t get hot spots which cause blisters. These days I use 1. superlight Invisible Shoes, based on the Tarahumara Indian huaraches made famous in the book “Born to Run.” They’re basically cut out pieces of something like conveyor belt rubber with 3 holes and a nylon cord to lace them. 2. 15 year old Source sandals, a very simple design I found out were made in Israel. 3. Chaco Z2 sandals with the incredible toe loops which make them secure enough for basic rock climbing even when it’s sopping wet. They are heavy! I’ve used all 3 while guiding in one of the most precipitous parts of rugged Copper Canyon in Mexico -where the Tarahumara live.

    I put a few drops of olive oil on my feet if they got wet. And bag balm heals heel cracks just fine.

    In the ’80s we had a barefoot running club in Boulder -with 3 members. Now that I’m turning 60 the pads in my feet aren’t as cushy as they used to be, but I still climb the Arapahoe Peaks and other grassier 13-ers barefoot.

  11. James Schipper April 15, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    Andrew,
    Have you tried Drymax socks? I don’t have any backpacking experience with them but they do a good job of keeping my feet blister and maceration free on long trail runs in wet conditions. My shoes can be soaked and my feet feel almost dry. A lot of the runners over at irunfar.com like them. I thought I’d give them a try my next backpacking trip.

    • Andrew Skurka April 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

      I just spent some time reading up on these, since you’re now the third person I’ve heard talk highly about them — the first two people were Geoff and Tony. I’m a little skeptical about Drymax claims. Usually, “if it sounds too good to be true…” you know the rest. I have never heard before of “Drymax” fiber and I have to presume that this is simply a re-packaging of polyester and/or nylon, in which case the socks will perform similarly to other polyester and/or nylon socks.

  12. James Schipper April 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    Its some form of olefin/polypropylene for the hydrophobic inner layer and polyester for the outer layer. Its worked well in the short term for me, but as I mentioned I have yet to give it a real test in prolonged wet conditions.

    • Andrew Skurka April 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

      Okay, that makes sense. I could imagine a marginal benefit of these socks, since they probably do better at keeping moisture away from the skin than conventional socks. But the socks will still be overwhelmed by moisture rained within the shoe, and the need to know how to take care of wet feet remains important.

      • Jason December 12, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

        Ahh, drymax. Used them for years on the expedition adventure race circuit. Still do, but like your instinct, they are not perfect. They do help, bu maceration still happens. So it may buy you some little time, but they are not a panacea. Oh, and they hold odor so much that the entire team has renamed them “Stinkmax”. But we still use em, as well as ibex merino and toesox….

  13. Luke Schmidt April 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

    I’m liking the new blog Andrew! I hated that I wasn’t able to catch you on your VA stops. I’ll have to try this stuff out. I face a similar problem in the summer when I like to where sandles all the time. Do that long enough and you have a similar problem with your feet drying out and cracking. Maybe Climber’s Salve will be the solution for me.

  14. Sarah Robinson May 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    Great post.

    Have you tried using a urea cream as after-care when you do get wet and boggy? Wet masceration leaches out the urea/lactic acid in the outer dead layers of skin. The plantar skin is different; without hair and sebacious glands, oils play less of a role in maintaining hydration of this skin.

    Lactic acid and urea are present in our sweat and helps to maintain the moisture balance in the thickest layers, your heels and balls. This is why these areas are prone to cracking when they dry out after you’ve gotten trench foot and it’s gone; they have the thickest outer mature/dead layer anywhere on your body (stratum corneum).

    Once the boggy skin starts to dry, adding urea and lactic acid back in a cream form may help to reduce the cracking you experience. It’s easy to find, diabetics have to use it once they stop sweating so you can get it at any drug store.

    Preventing it in the first place with the waxy balm is best. I agree with your comment above; I am familliar with bag balm but wouldn’t recommend this to prevent masceration, it will get absorbed into the socks. Pure lanolin might be better as it is much stickier, this is half petrolium, plus dead dinosaurs don’t belong on my skin. The wax mix helps to keep everything where it should be.

    I personally prefer ankle boots, but it’s hard to find good firm soled low cut ventilated hikers these days and the soft soled stuff just won’t do for my feet.

  15. Kd July 2, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Has anyone here tried using mushers secret ( a product meant to be applied to a dog’s paws)? They claim to be petroleum free and use 100% natural waxes.

    I only ask because I’ve used it on my hands and legs in the winter after applying it to my dog and they feel great. But of course, I’ve never got completely soaked and wet for more than a few hours. So I dont know how they hold upto longer hikes etc..

  16. Martin Mazar January 4, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    20 years ago I bought several pair of fleece socks. When soaking wet they keep my feet warm. They are made like regular “gym” socks ( not the fleece socks popular at the time used for slippers ) . They have held up well and dry much faster than wool. The problem is I can no longer find them anywhere. Marty

  17. AmyL February 20, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    I’ll add one thing to your excellent advice – a nightly application of a tiny film of anti-fungal cream, such as Clotrimazote, between the small toes.

  18. Fred June 4, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

    Thanks for the great info as always Mr. Skurka. I’ve read your book through several times and glean something new each time through. I appreciate your willingness to interact here with those of us “further back” on the trail.

  19. Martin C September 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

    Andy, this is a very informative article, that touches on some things I wondered about while hiking the PCT. I was wondering if you could take this a step further and discuss how you handle hiking in prolonged rain (i.e.: gear, techniques to keep gear/self dry, etc.). Thanks !

    • Andrew Skurka October 1, 2013 at 8:51 am #

      It’s a topic worth addressing but not here. Stay tuned over the winter for some content like this.

  20. beth October 4, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    My question is about wet feet but not about hiking. My husband works in a warehouse filling 50 pound water jugs every day all day. His feet get very wet from the outside as well as the sweat from the inside. Also he has to wear steel toed shoes because of the occational 50 pound bottle dropped on his foot. Do you know of any ventilated shoes that can also protect against the water bottles? Also I was wondering if Vaseline would work as well as the salve and be a cost effective answer? Or might that be something that would clogg the pores?

    • Andrew Skurka October 4, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

      I do not know of any such footwear. But try this: http://andrewskurka.com/product/bonnies-balms-climbers-salve-2-oz/

      • WhitbyAlex February 28, 2014 at 8:56 am #

        Do you let your foot wear get wet in the winter? How do you dry your socks (or any other clothes) in -20 weather? I would think hanging them off my pack to dry during the daytime would only freeze them.

        I ask this because our winters in Ontario can have mild 0c to -1c days with wet snow followed by bitter -20 nights. My only solution has been making a fire but it’s extremely time and energy consuming.

        • Andrew Skurka March 3, 2014 at 7:48 am #

          No, I do not let my footwear freeze in the winter. However, if conditions are mild during the day and the snow becomes wet, wet footwear is sometimes inevitable. For instance, on a backcountry ski touring trip this past weekend, daytime highs were in the mid-30′s and the snow became wet, and some of this moisture absorbed into my leather ski boots. Overnight temperatures were in the teens and my boots were stiff in the morning. It wasn’t ideal but there really wasn’t anything I could have done about it besides have footwear that wouldn’t absorb moisture, e.g. plastic ski boots, but those wouldn’t have been as comfortable for touring.

          Once gears gets wet, you have to dry it somehow. On short trips, you can do this back at your house. On longer trips, you have to resort to nearby civilization, utilize a sunny warm day, and/or build a big fire.

          • whitbyalex March 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

            Thanks for the reply!

  21. Neil Larson April 7, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    Hi Andrew, thanks for the excellent blog and website.

    I came here via Mike Clelland and his love of your cat food tin stove (which I’m going to make this weekend). I’ve just started hiking again after 20+ years of family stuff, but don’t expect to be in the type of country where constantly wet feet are a problem.

    I do however have very, very sweaty feet. I’m now trialing 1000 mile socks which will hopefully wick the perspiration away from my skin, and want to try the Climbers salve.
    Do you see any downsides to using it if your feet aren’t soaking wet?

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka April 7, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

      If you have sweaty feet, the Climbers Salve really isn’t going to help you. It’s more for immersion foot (i.e. prolonged wetness from external sources of moisture), and it also helps to heal battered feet from rubbing or friction like I’m experiencing right now in the sandy washes of Escalante.

  22. Andrea May 10, 2014 at 6:41 am #

    Just wanted to add my 5 words of wisdom…
    … I have been walking long distance in Europe and amongst others the Camino de Santiago twice … which requires no outdoor skills whatsoever as you stay in nice hostels every night.

    One year I walked during the summer month and most of the people were walking with heavy waterproove boots despite the fact it was over 30 C (86F) and only rained once in 4 weeks! And then they wondered why their feed were covered in blistes and looked like prunes at the end of the day. I was walking with Columbia ‘boat’ shoes … the occational breeze flowing through the net upper … heaven! But the amount of people who would give out to me for not wearing ‘correct’ footwear was amazing

    If it’s really wet and very cold (and my shoes and socks didn’t dry overnight) then I place my socked feet into a thin freezer bag, gives great insulation layer in the boot with snuggely warm feet despite the wet.

    Not sure if you get that in the US but I have been using ‘Compeed Anti-Blister stick’ every day of hiking and never got a blister and it keeps the skin from absorbing too much moisture.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Hiking with wet feet « Tjamrog’s Weblog - April 23, 2012

    [...] Those Gore-tex boots aren’t what you want. Thinking of buying footwear? Most sources about hiking techniques write as if there was just one country out there, but Skurka dials in useful info for places where it does rain, like here on the east Coast. <a href="Andrew Skurka lays out the truth [...]

  2. Blog - Five Starr Fitness -- Personal Training & Online Programs - August 13, 2012

    [...] in these, and for extended stretches this puts you at risk for maceration (read more about that here).  You can get little toe-socks to match the shoes as well which cuts down on those last 2 issues, [...]

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