Why “waterproof” shoes will not keep your feet dry

In wet conditions, such as those in the Wind River Range in July, wet feet are inevitable despite best efforts to avoid them. Even so-called "waterproof" footwear will be eventually overwhelmed.

Here’s a reality check: if you are backpacking in wet conditions—which could entail prolonged rain, dew-soaked grass, melting snow, un-bridged creek crossings, or even just high humidity—your feet are going to get wet. So-called “waterproof” footwear will not keep your feet dry. Advertisements and marketing that makes such claims are false and disingenuous, and they exemplify a larger theme of manufacturers failing to acknowledge—or are oblivious to—the limitations of their products.

There are two potential culprits for why your feet will get wet while wearing “waterproof” footwear:

  1. Design:  it is very difficult to physically seal off footwear from external sources of moisture;
  2. Materials: the “waterproof” materials used in such footwear are not reliably waterproof and they trap perspiration.

An imperfect seal

Quite simply, water can enter the shoe or boot through the large opening into which you insert your foot. It can drip into this opening, like during a rainstorm or while walking through dew-covered grass, or pour into it, as happens when fording a creek that is taller than the height of the opening.

There are two potential remedies to this problem, neither of which is effective. First, you can try “shingling” your waterproof pants over the tops of your shoes, so the water runs down your pants past the opening. But this system is uncomfortably hot in warmer temperatures, and it offers no protection against creek crossings.

Alternatively, you can try using a shoe with an integrated waterproof gaiter, such as the La Sportiva Crossover GTX. The failure of this system is usually in its execution—I have not seen a gaiter that would truly keep the water out. Rubber gaskets like those found on dry suits could be used, but these are hardly comfortable and they are difficult to put on and take off.

Imperfect materials

The other reason that “waterproof” shoes fail is because they rely on imperfect materials. Some footwear is made of leather that has been treated with a coating, such as polyurethane. When new, this coating is completely waterproof—i.e. moisture cannot pass through it—and it will keep your feet dry from outside sources of moisture. However, it also traps perspiration inside the shoe, so your foot will bathe in its own sweat. Also, over time and with use the coating will break down and will no longer be waterproof. Do-it-yourself restorations are never as good or long-lasting as the factory coating.

The other material used to make “waterproof” shoes is a waterproof-breathable fabric like Gore-Tex. My experience is that these fabrics are greatly overhyped, in terms of their actual performance versus the advertised claims.

There are two problems with this type of fabric. First, it is only marginally breathable—moisture does not pass through the fabric as easily as their diagrams suggest, so on warm or humid days you will definitely notice that perspiration becomes trapped inside the shoe. Second, the fabric’s waterproofing is rapidly degraded by dirt, sweat, body oils, and abrasion. It’s only a matter of time before moisture begins penetrating the fabric and wetting your foot.

The solution? Embrace wet feet.

Instead of trying to keep your feet try, I recommend learning how to minimize the effects of wet feet. I have shared my foot care tips in my book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, in which I dedicated two full pages to the subject (see below), plus other tips scattered elsewhere.

41 Responses to Why “waterproof” shoes will not keep your feet dry

  1. JJ Ramos March 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Hi Andrew, I liked your article on Scouting Magazine. If it is not much to ask, I would welcome your recommendation on the following: our BSA troop in Puerto Rico is setting out this Summer to Philmont Scout Ranch, New Mexico, for a 12-day hiking trip.

    The boys are ages 14 through 16 with outdoor experience but not long multi-day hiking trips like this one.

    We are looking into equipment options: internal- or external- frame backpacks, etc. But perhaps the most controversial issue, footwear: lightweight tennis-shoes-like hiking footwear vs. backpacking boots (heavy and sturdy).

    We have been told that Philmont is rugged terrain. I like the light weight hiking shoes but info on the Internet seems to indicate that those are better suited for day-packing hiking and not more muti-day hiking trips.

    Any suggestions? Thank you much…

    • Andrew Skurka March 3, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      JJ – I don’t mean to shamelessly plug my book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, but I would suggest you pick up a copy since it discusses footwear in-depth and since it includes a Philmont Gear List that, if you were to follow it closely, would outfit you and your Scouts with about 21 pounds of gear and supplies each (including food and water) to start the first 4-day stretch at Philmont. On the adjacent page is a article on how to reduce gear expenses, which I’m sure the parents will want to read.

      In short, I think you and your Scouts would be very comfortable wearing either trail shoes or trail running shoes, ASSUMING that you carry a pack of appropriate weight (ideally never heavier than 25 pounds). If your Scouts interpret the motto, “Be prepared,” as “Carry as much as you can and assume you’ll be all right,” then you will have to rethink your footwear.

      • Art Ritter February 21, 2014 at 9:27 am #

        I love your book, you give so much good information in there. I am glad to shamelessly plug it – every one interested in hiking, backpacking, and/or trail running should buy a copy. Thank you for writing it.

        I can see that I will enjoy your blog as well, Andrew.
        Art

  2. JJ Ramos March 23, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Hi Andrew, totally understandable… I bought the book and currently reading it. It addresses my two questions. Thanks…

    • Andrew W March 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

      Even though Philmont IS rugged, all of your hiking will be done on well maintained trails that get A LOT of foot traffic. Unless you’re carrying a lot of weight, lightweight trail runners would be fine. Also, make sure you bring your own cooking pots and utensils and things like that. Otherwise you’ll get stuck with Philmont’s gear, which is oversized and overweight. And don’t let your Ranger stick you with anything you don’t need. Many of them will try. Its not their fault, Philmont just has a universal policy for everyone, regardless of their skill set.

  3. James Kennedy March 29, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Hey Andrew,
    As an Assistant Scoutmaster and an Eagle Scout myself, I really appreciate what you say about how Scouts interpret the motto as “Carry as much as you can and assume you’ll be all right.” I feel that they can learn a lot more and have a much better time if they simply weighed their packs, took out the non-essentials (books to read, etcetera) till they are sure they can carry that extra weight comfortably a lengthy distance.

  4. Charlie April 3, 2012 at 8:22 am #

    As a long-term employee of an outfitter, there is perhaps one question that gets asked more than “Are these boots waterproof?” And that is “is this jacket waterproof?”

    I always inform people to take labels with a grain of salt: manufacturer’s information is written for brand new gear being used in ideal conditions – how often does that really happen?

    People often don’t want or need to be overloaded with the technical details, but listening to their requirements and intended usage is critical. At the end of the day, there’s a lot to be said for our tendency to be loyal to certain brands; however, I like to think I educate people that when it comes to higher-end footwear, they are ALL good: what makes it great is how they fit and how your feet feel at the end of a long day.

  5. Dale Nesbitt April 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    I’m planning an ambitious (for me) 7-day hike of the Superior Trail, and gathering as much info as I can. I bought your book and devoured it.

    What are your thoughts on waterproof socks? e.g. Sealskinz? I’ve used them in a few adventure races and they worked great. But I’m a bit concerned that they’ll just make my feet disgusting (and blistered) over the week. Naturally, I’d only bring them if the weather forecast looks miserable.

    • Andrew Skurka April 18, 2012 at 9:39 am #

      Waterproof socks will not keep your feet dry in prolonged wet conditions. And they aren’t nearly as comfortable as conventional wool/nylon or polyester/nylon socks. NOT recommended.

      • Yogi1kanobi February 8, 2014 at 10:26 am #

        I live in Southwest England ( cornwall uk ) and it is notoriously wet and muddy. I enjoy long distance walking and moorland and coastal trails are my usual haunts.
        My footwear, after years of experimentation, includes a sock liner (summer hiking sock) with a long ( calf length ) sealskin waterproof sock over the top.
        This is combined with a Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra 2 trail running shoe, or Salomon Speedcross 3 GTX trail running shoe.

        It really works well even in snow and ice. my feet are toasty in the cold and breath in the summer months.

        So I would say HIGHLY RECOMMENDED…..but we are all different.

  6. Jorgen Johansson April 21, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    I’m totally with Andrew here, coming from the damp and chilly tundra of northern Scandinavia. However I always bring waterproof socks, but seldom use them. They are there in case I cannot keep my wet feet warm in any other way. Usually I can by hiking vigorously and putting on dry socks at longer breaks. But in low temperatures an incessant rain or similar conditions waterproof socks have saved my feet from becoming dangerously cold. But I use them extremely sparingly since they usually do not stay waterproof for very long.

  7. Brent Saron April 22, 2012 at 8:46 am #

    Hi Andrew – Thank you for giving me a reality check on my gtx shoes. I know that it depends on the trip, trail, conditions, season, etc., but I’m curious to know what you’re wearing right now, or the footwear you’re excited about right now. Thanks either way; I really enjoy your site!

    • Andrew Skurka April 23, 2012 at 6:59 am #

      Since La Sportiva recently discontinued the Fireblade, which had my go-to shoe for a few years, I have swapped over to the Raptor. It’s a good shoe and would recommend it.

      • Greg September 17, 2012 at 12:46 am #

        Andrew — Thanks for the shoe recommendation. I know you meant it for Brent but I bought a pair of the Raptors and they’re great shoes. Great site.

      • Robert McLemore July 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

        I bought your book (actually three of them and gave two away) and totally enjoyed it. I finally cooked my last two boots within the last month and was eager to move over to trail running shoes. Unfortunately, the model in your book is discontinued and I can’t find my size (ginormous 14ers) amongst the discount sites. I saw your note from last year and La Sportiva discontinued those too. Before I try to start looking, any recommendations on what you are wearing now? Thanks.

        • Andrew Skurka July 26, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

          Try some of the burlier models from Salomon (XA Pro), La Sportiva (Ultra Raptor) and perhaps Inov8.

  8. Matti Sillanpää May 8, 2012 at 2:05 am #

    Hi Andrew.

    Waterproof hiking shoes are pretty much joke as you said. I’ve reverted to hiking rubber boots (rubber boots with stiff sole, like Nokia Trek Plus) when I do not need to climb. They are about the same weight as hiking boots, but they are truly waterproof and while you sweat in them, you can remove them every time you stop even for a moment -> your feet stay much more dry in the long run. Also you can dry them in a moment unlike any hiking shoe.

    During the not-so-cold-time also orienteering/trail running (like La Sportiva Crosslite) shoes are quite nice. It doesn’t really matter if they get wet as they also dry in a moment.

    If more angle support is needed, some leukotape is recommended.

    • Andrew Skurka May 8, 2012 at 10:22 am #

      Thanks for the tip; good to know. In the US you will not find non-breathable waterproof boots at outdoor specialty stores, but I’m optimistic that they can be found at the rod & gun stores like Bass Pro and Cabella’s.

  9. Bryan June 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    Ever since 2009, I’ve been hiking with trail-runners per your suggestion off the PCT. Haven’t had the problems that I used to have with my feet. Sure, they’ve gotten wet… But, like you said, as long as you stay on top of things at the end of the day, you can manage. Instead of Hydropel to moisturize, I’ve also used Burts Bee’s and Climb On Bar. Salves work great too.

    Check out our tips and video on blisters. These were basically gleaned from you, Andrew, over the last few years…

    http://www.oregonoutside.net/a-backpackers-worst-enemy-the-ten-ways-you-can-prevent-those-dreaded-blisters/

  10. Jim August 13, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Question: I am looking for a solution to cold & wet feet for snow skiing. In your book, you recommend 2 pairs of Defeet socks for colder weather travel, wooleator hi-tops and eco-travelers. Do you use a different sock system inside your ski boots? Do you still use a two sock system in ski boots? I love the book; quite an education.

    • Andrew Skurka August 13, 2012 at 9:19 am #

      I’m assuming your “cold and wet” feet are due to the failure of your “waterproof” ski boots. In this situation, I think it’s important to recognize that discomfort will probably be an inevitable reality, and your efforts are simply meant to lessen your discomfort, not to make your comfortable. Without knowing important criteria — e.g. boot type, temperatures, snow composition, etc. — my recommendation would be the same for ski boots as it is for hiking shoes: one pair of DeFeet Woolie Boolie’s (similar to the EcoTrekker, which has been discontinued). I’d bring two pairs — one strictly for day-time use, the other strictly for sleeping.

  11. Max September 2, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Andrew,

    Problem. 200 plus miles of river in near freezing conditions. Some snow, always rain for some prolonged period. Because of rapids etc, one is always getting in and out of canoes, scouting rapids etc. You will be stepping in water at some point. Or many points. Waterproof does not remain that way for long inevitably. My solution so far has been a pair of looser fitting canoe shoes (sandals with toe boxes) coupled with either heavy wool socks or neoprene booties.
    This works ok, however with the long hours sitting paddling, there is minimal circulation in ones feet and your feet get severely cold. When you do start moving the cold blood further cools your body as it gets pumped around.

    Solution? Any input at all? Thanks in advance.

    • Andrew Skurka September 11, 2012 at 10:02 am #

      Those are very challenging conditions. Personally, I’d try to schedule the trip during another time of year, if possible. If not, then I’d mentally prepare myself for discomfort, and I’d bring sleeping clothes and ample fire starting supplies so that I could at least sleep well and get temporarily warm during rest stops.

    • Joshua Simkins September 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

      I don’t know if it’s too late to help at this point, but for these kind of conditions I would suggest uninsulated chest waders. Combined with a rain jacket it is very unlikely that you will get very wet from outside forces. If you are in the water often it would better to minimize your interaction with the freezing cold water, and combined with a very light wicking layer I think you should be able to stay both warm and relatively dry.

      If on the other hand you manage to stay out of the freezing cold water for the majority of the time then I suggest Andrews method, or if you can tolerate it simply go barefoot. You’ll dry off faster and if you keep your shoes and socks dry until while your in the boat and until you get to land they will be a lot more comfortable and you won’t have the headache of trying to dry something in a high moisture environment.

  12. Jason December 15, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    2 parts:

    While I have switched to non-WP shoes and love them, I’m stuck in Ohio’s wet cold winter with mud up to the ankle and cold water crossings. Is there a point at which you do switch to a WP shoe/system(vapor barrier) or do you just grin and bare it? Worried about the freezing muddy water staying in the shoe and causing frost bite even on long day hikes. In these conditions I currently have full leather boots and use gaiters but, am looking to loose weight and gain comfort.

    I have be using Burt’s Bees and found this great. This works even in my full leather work shoes (required at work) for a 10 hour day and around ten miles of walking in one building. My feet don’t get water logged with sweet and don’t dry ou and crack afterwards.

    • Andrew Skurka December 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

      Waterproof shoes don’t work in prolonged “wet” conditions. Water comes in through the ankle or passes through the membrane, or you bath in your own sweat. If I’m in prolonged wet conditions, the best course of action — as uncomfortable as it sounds — is to “grin and bear it” and to learn how to cope with wet feet. If you wear waterproof shoes in such conditions, you will still end up with wet feet, and you’ll never have dry shoes again for the length of your trip.

      When it’s wet and cold, wearing a warm sock makes a big difference. I like the DeFeet Woolie Boolie, which might be categorized as a “backpacking” or maybe even a “mountaineering” sock. I have not found a pair I like, but neoprene socks are another option — they will be warm when wet, but they don’t breathe at all and they take forever to dry out.

      Some of the Burt’s Bees products would work great to reduce and minimize the effects of maceration. I like Bonnie’s Balm but it’s certainly not the only thing that will work.

  13. Roger C. McMillion April 5, 2013 at 12:24 am #

    If keeping feet dry is of concern, it can be done with a little practice. Know the weather report of location you intend to hike. Determine if the hike is something you really want to do base upon the severity of expected rain activity. A good waterproof shoe with Gore-Tex or other similar protection is a start. You may also want to use a waterproof spray over the outer fabric and similarly around the hole opening, select an environmentally friendly substance. Once again based on your desire to hike and the weather report, use a pair of shorts with zip off bottoms, which can be used in foul weather in conjunction with the aforementioned and utilize gators on top of this, this should help keep your feet dry and cozy. You may also want to check out seal skinz a type of sock that keeps out the unwanted moisture, these in combination with the above equals dry feet.

    • Andrew Skurka April 5, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

      If you can be selective about the weather in which you hike, of course you can keep your feet dry — just hike in dry weather. But in extended wet conditions that you can’t avoid, wet feet are simply an inevitable reality. Regardless of what you try to use to stay dry, you will get from the outside of from the inside. No “practice” is going to solve the inherent limitations of “waterproof” shoes, “waterproof” socks, or “waterproof” gaiters, etc.

  14. Stuart June 18, 2013 at 3:07 am #

    What do you think about the OutDry waterproofing used by Columbia and Montrail? In terms of breathability and comfort.

    • Andrew Skurka June 22, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

      I have not used this fabric but it is the same faulted technology used by other fabrics, so I would expect the same results.

      • Stuart June 24, 2013 at 10:49 pm #

        I wasn’t necessarily asking about the fabric itself, but the way in which the laminate is sealed onto the backside of the outermost layer. Only Columbia owned brands use this kind of waterproofing. Let me know if you try it out.

        • Andrew Skurka July 1, 2013 at 12:50 am #

          Does their lamination process avoid the conventional pitfalls of waterproof/breathable fabrics? Specifically:
          1. Degradation of the DWR due to sweat, abrasion, body oils, etc. that causes the face fabric to absorb water.
          2. Moisture moving inside the fabric if the humidity level inside is less than outside, which will be the case once the face fabric becomes saturated with moisture.

  15. Matthew Brindle October 25, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Andrew,
    I loved your book. Have you tried La Sportiva’s Boulder X approach shoe? I don’t know if it dries as fast as the Raptor, but its fairly supportive.
    Matt

  16. WhitbyAlex December 30, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    Loved the book! Wondering if there is a magic solution to keeping me warm in hiking followed by long periods of sitting in cold weather situations. I have found a great remote lake to ice fish in, only accessible by snow shoe. My only solution to cold feet is bring bigger heavier warmer boots.

    I have similar problems when hunting. I like light boots for hiking, but get cold when I sit for hours. I use wool / poly socks. I’ve tried changing to dry socks as soon as I get to my sitting destination but still get cold.

    • Andrew Skurka December 30, 2013 at 6:42 pm #

      A thick puffy coat and pants that will keep you warm even when generating minimal body heat.

      • whitbyalex February 4, 2014 at 9:32 am #

        Sorry i meant to say my feet get cold when sitting. Ive got the puffy coat and proper layers (thanks to your book for explaining it all). Im using 800gram underarmour boots and ive tried all kinds of socks (as well as two pairs). Should i try the shoes you recommend in the book, oversized, and two pairs of socks?

  17. Gregory May 8, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    Andrew, I do my hiking in very tropical, very wet conditions. My mayan guides wear knee-length rubber boots, the terrain is, well, uncharted in the sense that we make our own trail. We start in heavy jungle, and.eventually reach up to 3000′ after 10-15 miles of up (mostly) and down trekking over several days. I wore 5″ muckboots on my last trip, but there was simply too much movement of my foot. Paid a pretty sum for some 8″ hand made mocs with 3 layers sewn on to a very good vibram sole. Have been treating the leather to reduce their water absorption.
    Do you have any other suggestions ? The hiking area is in Central America

  18. Philip May 18, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    Andrew, there is no perfect world. But as a long time hiker, I think you are full of horse hockey! Sure, all things fail, but I have hiked in non waterproof boots and waterproof boots. With Gore-tex and with just oiled leather. I have yet to wade water and taken a boot off to wet socks with my gore-tex boots. I have hiked in soaked socks and had blisters from non-waterproof boots many times. I learned to pack dry socks. I also, have yet to remove my boots to wet socks because of sweat. Sure, they will get damp, thats why I take dry socks. I have a pair of Keen sandles that have open holes all through the side that my feet sweat in worse that in my gore-tex hiking boots!

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