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:
- Design: it is very difficult to physically seal off footwear from external sources of moisture;
- 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.
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.