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Footwear & foot care for early-season conditions


This multi-post series discusses recommended gear, supplies, and skills for backpacking in the Mountain West in early-season conditions. These normally prevail in May/June, and in July after exceptionally snowy winters.


Bear Creek ford on the JMT/PCT, in mid-May 2007, after a very dry winter and before peak runoff in June. Due to unbridged crossings such as this, there are no reliable and safe strategies for keeping your feet dry.

What must you absolutely get right when selecting footwear for early-season conditions? As with every other season, they must fit. Period.

All other footwear characteristics are secondary. However, if you get these right, too, you’ll be much better off than having a well-fitting shoe that never dries and performs poorly on snow.

Boots & shoes

“Waterproof”

Let me be really clear about this:

Your feet will NOT stay dry in early-season conditions.

You will have to ford multiple creeks and streams, with many that are knee- to crotch-deep. You will hike for miles on melting snow. And you will slosh through standing water and waterlogged meadows.

“Waterproof” footwear will be overwhelmed by the wetness. And once they fail, you will have a waterlogged shoe or boot that never dries and that traps your foot in a hot & wet environment. Not convinced? Do some reading:

So here is my best advice: Learn to manage the effects and aftermath of wet feet. Read my full tutorial, or follow these steps:

  • Wear breathable trail shoes and thin socks that will not retain water and that will dry relatively quickly.
  • At any rest break longer than about 15 minutes, remove your shoes and socks.
  • Sleep in warm and dry socks. In very wet conditions, you may have to carry dedicated sleeping socks that are for nighttime use only.
  • After arriving in camp and allowing your feet to dry thoroughly, apply Bonnie’s Balm Healing Salve or similar to the bottoms of your feet, then put on a dry sock. The balm will help remoisturize your skin (and prevent cracks) and resist maceration the following day. Reapply in the morning if your skin feels dry.

A shoe-free rest break in Colorado in mid-June. By removing shoes & socks, feet can temporarily dry out, improving comfort and health.

Traction and stiffness

Short of wearing crampons or spikes, how can you feel sure-footed on snow? Wear a shoe with a/an:

  • Aggressive outsole tread
  • Protective upper, and
  • Reasonably stiff midsole.

Such shoes provide decent purchase on snow, allow you to kick steps without bruising a toe or making a hole in the shoe, and will hold an edge on steeper slopes.

Specific recommendations

Footwear is a very personal choice, due to nuances of fit, so I’m cautious about making recommendations. But I will anyway, so that you have specific examples of shoes with desirable characteristics. If you find a different model that is similar and that fits you better, go for it.

Four shoes that would I think would work well in early-season conditions, due to breathable uppers, abrasion-resistant toeboxes, and aggressive outsoles. L to R: Cascadia, Lone Peak, Ultra Train, X Ultra.

An aggressive outsole will have better purchase on snow. When combined with midsole stiffness, the shoe can be used to kick steps and hold an edge.

Water shoes

I would discourage the carrying of water shoes like the NRS Kicker Remix Wetshoe. They will be needed so often that they will become your default footwear. Furthermore, some fords may be unsafe in typical water shoes. Your hiking shoes are more up to the task; they have a:

  • More secure fit,
  • More protective upper, and
  • Stickier outsole.

Camp shoes

I don’t carry dedicated camp shoes on personal trips, because I’m either hiking (in my wet shoes) or sleeping (in my dry sleeping socks). But they’re a treat for longer camps, to avoid standing around in wet shoes.

Look for something that is ultralight and inexpensive, and that can be worn with socks, like the ALL CLEAN Sandals. Even lighter:

  • Spa slippers, or
  • Durable bread bags worn between your dry sleeping socks and your wet shoes.

After a long day of plodding through wet snow and runoff, Sam cooks dinner while wearing dry sleeping socks and camp shoes.

Socks

At a minimum I would carry two pairs of socks:

  1. Hiking socks that get wet and and that will probably stay wet or damp (depending on the route and the amount of lingering snow and runoff). For over a decade I have used the DeFeet Wooleator.
  2. Sleeping socks that are worn only at night. They stay clean and dry. I would recommend a heavy fleece or wool sock; I use the DeFeet Woolie Boolie, which in the winter I use as my primary hiking sock.

Some may prefer using a Woolie Boolie-like sock for hiking and for sleeping, because it better insulates than the thinner Wooleator. Snowmelt is frigidly cold, and frequent water crossings will numb your toes. The tradeoff: thicker socks retain more moisture and therefore dry more slowly; they can also become too hot on dry and exposed sections of trail. Whatever you do, I would avoid polyester socks — they are notably chillier than wool when wet.

A second pair of hiking socks is optional in the early-season. In extremely wet conditions, you will simply end up with two pairs of wet socks, which is no better than one wet pair — and twice the weight. But once there is less snow and runoff, you can begin to rotate the pairs to keep your feet drier, and to accelerate the drying out of wet shoes. Secure the unused pair to the outside of your pack so that it can dry.

In the dry air and intense sun, thin socks will dry quickly if secured outside the backpack.

Have footwear questions? Leave a comment.


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27 Responses to Footwear & foot care for early-season conditions

  1. Dennis March 14, 2017 at 11:47 am #

    What is your opinion of wearing dirty girl gaiters if the hike is snowy? Would they be useful? I plan on starting JMT NoBo in early July.

    • Andrew Skurka March 14, 2017 at 1:46 pm #

      They will keep some snow out of your shoes, which helps them stay a bit drier than they would be otherwise. Plus, snow is cold on the feet. But when postholing they will ride up, and snow will sneak up between the shoe and gaiter.

      They help most during river crossings, to keep sediment out, which is coarse. But the currents will have their way with them — you’ll probably have to readjust them on the other side.

  2. Russ Bailey March 14, 2017 at 3:05 pm #

    Excellent article and spot on in my opinion. I don’t have the vast experience you do but everything I have seen supports your points. The past year I have been using Salomon Speed Cross 3 trail running shoes – the only ones I have found where my right foot doesn’t ache after a few km.

    • Andrew Skurka March 14, 2017 at 4:52 pm #

      The only issue with the Speedcross for early-season is its flexible sole — it is not stiff, which I find makes edging difficult. In comparison the X Ultra is tank-ish. Would you find it comfortable? Hard to say. Otherwise the Speedcross is a winner: deep lugs and stiff wrap around the toebox.

      • Russ Bailey March 14, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

        I plan to buy a pair of the X Ultras after your review. Agreed that the Speed Cross is not for edging but I am not big on snow hiking either. I do have a pair of proper boots for that if I happen to go. Bought them before I started with the lighter weight shoes.

  3. Russ Bailey March 14, 2017 at 3:23 pm #

    I carry the light slippers like doctor’s offices use over my socks when walking where damp in my flip flops. They weigh nothing and require no space. Nothing worse than soggy socks in camp or bed!

  4. Richard Sullivan March 14, 2017 at 8:00 pm #

    How about trying to make the wool socks water resistant with baby oil or lanolin?

    • Andrew Skurka March 14, 2017 at 8:19 pm #

      I don’t think that would be very comfortable or effective.

    • Matt March 14, 2017 at 9:28 pm #

      You could try to make camp shoes by coating socks with Plasti-Dip or something like that similar to those cotton work gloves with a rubberized coating (for example: Atlas Nitrile Fit). I’d do it with the socks on your feet (or use loose enough socks) so that they are sufficiently stretched out to fit once the rubber dries. I’d suggest just coating the bottom of the socks so your feet don’t sweat too much if you’re using them as camp shoes.

      For cold wet trips like in caves and some canyons, I’ve used neoprene socks. Your feet will be wet from sweat and from water getting in, but they will keep your feet warmer in icy cold water. I don’t think I’d ever want to use them for backpacking.

  5. Richard March 14, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

    I think it’s worth a try, lanolin is what sheep use to keep their wool dry. Often the best science comes from nature. E.g. cyanoacrylate glues. I believe that most of the natural lanolin is removed when our wool socks are made in a factory, hence why they become soggy messes when wet.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanolin

    • Russ Bailey March 15, 2017 at 3:19 am #

      Just use the light plastic booties like they give in the doctor’s office or that real estate agents use. Much more simple and works better.

  6. Andrew Bullock March 14, 2017 at 10:16 pm #

    Any thoughts on Hoka shoes?

    • Andrew Skurka March 15, 2017 at 5:19 am #

      Did you have a specific model in mind? Among the models I have seen and used (Clifton) I have not seen any that are a natural fit early season conditions.

      • Andrew Bullock March 15, 2017 at 10:45 am #

        I apologize, that was a random comment. I was considering the Stinsons, as recommended by Spyguyver on YouTube. I just destroyed my right ankle wearing my lone peak 2.5’s (which I think is an amazing shoe for this topic).

        • Andrew Skurka March 15, 2017 at 9:12 pm #

          I don’t think the Stinsons would work well. Not enough traction. Also, all of that exposed foam (in lieu of an outsole in places, and very exposed around the perimeter of the midsole) will get shredded by rough trails.

  7. Tony Gross March 15, 2017 at 8:45 am #

    I need a bit of ankle support, especially forward resistance. Any recomendations that would fit your quick dry, light weight criteria?

    • Andrew Skurka March 15, 2017 at 9:05 am #

      I want to question the value of footwear to provide any meaningful ankle support, but won’t here.

      Once you start looking at “mid” shoes or standard boots, unfortunately they almost all become “waterproof.” It’s really difficult to find a breathable shoe with a taller ankle. Try the Inov8 Rocklite 325, Addidas CSG 9.7, Vasque Breeze III. If you poke around more you might find additional models.

    • Andrew Bullock March 15, 2017 at 10:47 am #

      I’ve been looking for the same qualities. I think I’ll be forced to wearing a brace. However if I could get the Hoka Tor Ultra High in a non-waterproof version…I’d be happier.

  8. Susan S March 15, 2017 at 7:23 pm #

    Have you had experience trying out socks made from alternative animal fibers like buffalo wool which are supposed to perform as well as if not better than wool?

    • Andrew Skurka March 15, 2017 at 8:14 pm #

      No, I have not. Frankly, after finding the DeFeet Wooleator and Woolie Boolie about a decade ago, I have never used another sock. That tell you something?

  9. Rex March 16, 2017 at 8:01 am #

    Any thoughts on a waterproof sock (see link) in combination with a shoe like the Cascadia or Lone Peak? https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B005WXNNCW

    It seems like they could be useful with a pair of pants in keeping your feet warm/relatively dry on extended walks on snow fields with postholing. Shoes will be soaked anyway, so just remove the sock before doing a creek crossing, wipe the water off and back in the sock before moving on. In a situation where there is going to be snow like 90%+ of the time like San Juans late May/early June on a CDT hike, they seem pretty useful.

    Maybe less useful on the JMT/PCT unless snow persists in the valleys where a normal sock would have time to dry out.

    • Andrew Skurka March 16, 2017 at 8:11 am #

      Overall, I’m skeptical. I think you’d be happier overall with a normal sock.

      Waterproof socks would help to keep your feet dry from external moisture while hiking on snow. But your feet tend not to get too wet anyway while hiking on snow, especially if it’s firmer morning snow. Damp, definitely, but not soaked, and usually not even that wet. You’re going to sweat more in waterproof socks.

      I’m less concerned about keeping feet warm while hiking on snow. Shoes insulates you pretty well from the snow, and usually you feel like you’re in a solar oven due to the intense sunlight and sun reflection, plus mild ambient temperatures.

      The taking off/putting on transitions could be a nuisance, if you’re having to regularly cross creeks more than mid-calf deep, which may be often. You will also have to transition out of them for any extended dry stretch, like in the lower elevations. They are too hot and stuffy for those sections of trail.

      Finally, long dry times, and added weight (especially when wet).

      • Rex March 16, 2017 at 9:33 am #

        I was thinking of the rotten afternoon snow/slush where a snowshoe isn’t even enough to keep you from going down to your knees, but better that than down to the crotch every step. Postholing into an icy puddle under the snow could be slightly more pleasant with a waterproof sock that is more bearable temperature wise because your shoes are basically being refreshed with wet snow every step.

        The extra weight of the sock as another quiver in the footwear arsenal seems pretty trivial once snowshoes or skis become a serious consideration.

  10. tahiti March 16, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

    I’m trying to dial in a snowshoe footwear setup for snow shoeing (CDT and general 3-4 day trips). I’ve seen a few recommendations that revolve around goretex mid trailrunners or regular trailrunners and goretex socks, to just using trailrunners and suffering. There isn’t really a consensus on this though. Is there a generally agreed upon footwear setup for mild weather (30s-40s) snowshoeing?

    • Andrew Skurka March 16, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

      I’m not sure if we share the same definition of mild weather (30’s-40’s temperatures).

      I’ve tried WP and breathable shoes, and I’ve hiked in neoprene socks. Pros and cons to all.

      My pick for dry/frozen snow is WP boots + gaiter.

      For wet snow:
      * WP shoes are warm but they never dry, unless you get a really long dry stretch of trail.
      * Breathable shoes + normal socks are cold, because your toe is constantly plunging into the snow when you step, and the snowshoe kicks snow back at you. But you have a prayer of drying out.
      * Breathable shoes + WP or neoprene socks is maybe the best combination, because you have the warmth of the WP shoe but the quick-dry of the breathable shoe. Add a conventional sock for dry sections of trail.

  11. Sana Farooqui March 18, 2017 at 8:47 am #

    Just wondering what your thoughts are on Saucony Perigines?Ive had saucony cohesion for daily use and found them very comfortable,I am looking for trail+road running shoes and Perigines seem to have good reviews!

    • Andrew Skurka March 18, 2017 at 9:00 am #

      I have not used them or inspected them closely first-hand, but have head good reviews for general backpacking. I think they might be more flexible than I’d want for kicking steps, but otherwise the breathable upper and traction seem right.

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