My skepticism of waterproof-breathable fabrics (like Gore-Tex) and products that utilize them (like rain gear and “waterproof” footwear) is no secret. For a history, read:
- Why I’m hard on Gore-Tex, the King of Hype
- Breathability: an explanation of its importance, mechanisms, and limitations
- Core 13 Clothing: Rain Jacket & Rain Pants
Occasionally, however, it’s healthy to revisit long held positions, whether about family planning, gun control, or Gore-Tex. So last month while hiking the Glacier Divide Route I intentionally wore waterproof trail running shoes, specifically the La Sportiva Raptor GTX, the predecessor of the Ultra Raptor GTX. Prior to this trip they had been used little, and were in like-new condition. I’ve been a longtime fan of the Raptor family, and have worn the breathable version with excellent results on many trips, including last summer on the Wind River High Route.
Since Gore has quality standards for products using Gore-Tex, I will assume that:
- My shoes met Gore’s standards, and
- Other Gore-Tex footwear may perform similarly in similar conditions.
I’m inclined to go one step further, too. While all “waterproof” shoes are not made of Gore-Tex, the underlying fabric technology and footwear construction is generally the same. Thus, I’d say that the expected experience with non-Gore-Tex waterproof footwear will be about the same as well.
I have three takeaways from my recent experience with waterproof Gore-Tex shoes:
- In dry conditions, waterproof shoes trap excessive perspiration and body heat. In addition to being uncomfortable, these are ripe conditions for blisters.
- In prolonged wet conditions, waterproof shoes are decidedly not waterproof. External moisture easily enters through the top of the shoe; it can also pass through the membrane once the DWR treatment fails, and through the seams of the waterproof bootie on well used pairs.
- After getting wet, waterproof shoes dry very slowly, because there is no airflow through the shoe to exchange humid interior air with dry external air. While the shoes are drying, feet are trapped in a hot and wet environment, which again are favorable conditions for discomfort, maceration, blisters, and the growth of bacteria and fungus.
I’m disappointed that these findings were nearly identical to those I made years ago, but not surprised. Gore-Tex and other companies that offer waterproof-breathable fabrics or products are selling us a lie: that you can keep your feet dry when it’s wet outside. You’ll have better success with minimizing the effects and aftermath of having wet feet.
Day 1: Feet on fire
We left the trailhead late-morning, and conditions were warm and dry: 70-degree temperatures, few clouds, and no major creek crossings or dew-soaked trailside vegetation.
After about three hours we took a 15-minute rest, and I took the opportunity to remove my shoes and socks. I was shocked by the heat and moisture trapped by my shoes. The insides seemed to be about body temperature (high 90’s), and there was sensible dampness.
My hiking partner Dave was wearing non-waterproof shoes, specifically the La Sportiva Bushido. His shoes were closer to ambient temperature, and they were only slightly more damp than mine despite an hour earlier having intentionally soaked his feet in a creek.
Day 3: Guaranteed to keep you dry? Whatever.
We had breakfast between our first and second passes of the day. To that point, my feet had stayed “dry,” albeit more moist than they would have in breathable shoes.
The 1,200-foot ascent to Trapper Peak Pass began with knee-high brush and incrementally faded over the 1.5 miles into short tundra grasses as we gained elevation. The vegetation was wet from a combination of overnight rain and dew.
Granted, we were off-trail, but wading through wet brush is a common on-trail experience in Glacier, too, as well as many other locations with lush understory and narrow singletrack. On the Appalachian Trail I remember this frequently being the case.
By the top of the climb, my feet were legitimately wet. As in, if I’d forded a thigh-high creek I’d be no more wet than I was now. In this case, I believe that moisture simply wicked down my pants and socks, soaking the insides of my shoes. I suppose I could have used a “shingling” system of waterproof pants, waterproof gaiters, and waterproof shoes, but I think I would have overheated so badly and perspired so much that the outcome would be exactly the same.
Not only were my waterproof Gore-Tex shoes now wet, but they had absorbed a significant amount of water. In terms of energy expenditure, it was probably equivalent to putting a pound or two of rocks in my pack.
Day 3 and 4: Forever wet
Thanks to warming temperatures and an intermittent sun, the vegetation dried out by noon on Day 3. That afternoon we had a 12-mile on-trail stretch, followed by another 5 miles on the morning of Day 4 to reach Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Twenty-four hours after my feet had gotten wet, my feet were still wet when we hit the road. Not moist, not damp, but wet. This horribly slow dry time can be attributed to two factors:
- No airflow through to the shoe to exchange humid internal air with dry external air; and,
- A soaked exterior fabric that was choking the transmission of internal moisture through the waterproof-breathable membrane.
In addition to being wet, my feet were also hot, and I experienced some of the most painful maceration in recent memory. I know how to take care of my feet, yet I could not manage this situation.
Once I rendezvoused with my car and was able to slip into other shoes, I immediately did. And then I promptly threw away my waterproof shoes, after hiking just 60 miles. If I’d paid $140 for them, I probably would have demanded a refund.
I returned to the trail in the evening of Day 4. What’d I wear? A used pair of breathable La Sportiva Raptors. My only regret was not wearing them from the start.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which help to support this website.