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.
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
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:
- Why “waterproof” shoes will not keep your feet dry
- Complete failure: I gave “waterproof” Gore-Tex hiking shoes a second chance
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.
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.
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.
- Altra Lone Peak 3.0 (my review)
- Brooks Cascadia
- La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
- Salewa Ultra Train (my review)
- Salomon X-Ultra Prime
- Scarpa Neutron
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.
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.
At a minimum I would carry two pairs of socks:
- 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.
- 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.
Have footwear questions? Leave a comment.
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