Wet Feet Walking

Regardless of the footwear you chose to go on a long walk, it is likely that they will get wet to some degree, either from inundation, rain, wet vegetation, or even sweat. Wet feet can become problematic, and depending on the scale and nature of the walk you are doing, problems can range from being a minor irritant to a major drama. Preparing and taking care of your feet is therefore very important.

We recently had a relatively minor case of blisters erupting after two days of wet walking and although minor, it was enough to stop our walker from attempting the final walk day (since she luckily had the option of holing up in her accommodation instead of having to soldier on). This has prompted us to pull together some foot care advice for wet multi-day walking.

Recap: Why you DON’T want wet feet!

Most of us are familiar with the reasons why you’d want to avoid wet feet during a long walk. But to recap, and depending on circumstances, wet feet can result in:

  • Maceration (also called ‘pruning’), when the outer layer of skin starts to absorb moisture and becomes sore, itchy, and soft. Maceration is actually the process of connective tissue fibres being dissolved! This in turn makes blistering through friction with footwear highly likely.
  • Cracking of the skin after being macerated and drying out, since the feet no longer have much in the way of natural oils. Cracks around the feet can be very painful and sometimes not simple to treat.

Not being able to enjoy or even continue a walk you have been so looking forward to are great reasons to know how to manage wet feet.

Prevention is obviously key, but as stated, 100% prevention is not likely in the real world, unless you are in super low humidity environments or you are able to walk barefoot (like on some sections of coastal walks).

Even so, prevention to a degree is the most important first consideration, while a range of treatments for wet feet (and their consequences) can also be critical if you are to stay on track.

Prevention 1: Keep feet dry while walking 

Wet boat rideIt is not easy to prescribe which materials, construction, design, style or brand of footwear is best for you or for a given walk. This is an individual choice related to the conditions of a walk, the duration of the walk, the weight you can carry and personal preferences and needs. etc. There really is no such thing as a fully waterproof boot though, and the key issue in relation to water and footwear choice is balancing prevention of incoming water with dry-ability after a wet event.

Therefore you may like to consider whether a significant amount of water is likely to be a problem on your walk when choosing your footwear and whether and how drying them out is possible.

Beyond that, there are a number of valuable tips to help keep feet dry.

  1. Wear quality footwear and quality socks. The ability to dry both of them out after they are wet is very important.
  2. Keep in mind that your feet swell when you walk for extended periods.  It can pay to purchase boots a ½ or full size larger than you would normally wear to allow for this. It also allows room to use sock liners which are a great blister preventer too.
  3. Use ‘gaitors’ higher than your socks to divert water away, preventing wicking of moisture. (Gaitors or lighter ‘sock savers’ can be a great way to keep sand out of lower shoes on beach walks as well). You might also check out fabric based ‘overboots’ which can help protect your one pair of boots and take up less space than an extra pair.
  4. If using leather boots or shoes, keep them well oiled with a suitable water repelling product.
  5. Use baking soda or other suitable commercial products in your shoes/boots to absorb sweat from your feet during and between walks.
  6. Use preventative bags to wear between a liner sock and an outer sock. You will sweat, but only up to a point, and will be less wet than you would in full rain and puddles etc.
  7. Take boots/shoes off as regularly as possible during the day to air them and your feet out (not so effective if rain is constant and there is nowhere dry to stop).
  8. Do not immerse main walking footwear unless crucial. If fording deep water, switch to a pair of rubber sandals or go barefoot if necessary.
  9. Carry extra dry socks (and keep them 100% dry in a well lined pack) if you know it is going to be wet, since you can and should wash, air and dry socks on the trail as well, as best you can.
Prevention 2: Get feet dry after being wet

Accepting that you inevitably will have to deal with wet feet, socks and boots to some degree, what is your next line of defence? Get your feet dry after they have been wet!

  1. If weight is not a major issue, carry lightweight, breathable extra shoes/sandals such as sneakers or crocs or similar, and keep them completely dry in a waterproof dry bag. These are to be used around your camp base. Or go barefoot if you can around camp.
  2. Provide plenty of time for your feet to completely dry out at the end of each day.
  3. Massage your feet each night. You can use a little baby powder when doing this before bed, to generally keep moisture at bay to prevent tissue breakdown and to allow them to recover overnight and refresh them for the next day.
  4. Always keep one pair of dry socks for sleeping in only.
Prevention 3: Dry wet socks and shoes/boots
  1. At the end of the day in camp, hang used socks up to dry.
  2. Overnight, place them around your neck, or over your chest within your sleeping bag and they will be dry in the morning. Or use an “in tent” drying line if the air temperature is high enough and humidity low.
  3. Air out your footwear frequently during the walk (frequent breaks with boots off). Dry your boots out however you can, somewhere dry and warm! (Yes, leave them in your tent if needed).
  4. Wash or bake your socks in available sunlight every few days (and hang them from your pack to dry while walking).
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Prevention 4: Foot care

Numerous Youtube videos demonstrate prevention of blisters and how to use plasters etc to prevent blisters in general conditions. The key advice is tape ‘hotspots’ ie. heels, toes – anywhere you start to experience rubbing.  Place plaster over hot spot and then use adhesive strapping tape to keep the plaster in place during wet weather. Retape daily.  Blister plasters are great for keeping toes separated and seem to last for days even in wet weather.

Looking at the broader issue of wet feet leading to maceration and cracking (and blisters), if you anticipate walking in weather that will seriously wet your footwear, maceration can be prevented by use of water repellant ointments (such as Hydropel or BodyGlide). These types of ointments are applied to dry feet before walking (and can also be used in other likely chafing areas). Carrying a tube of this between a few people can be worthwhile.

Treat Your Wet Feet

Wet feet will happen at some point, to some degree, despite all your preventative efforts. Here are the key things you can do to reduce or mitigate the nastier impacts of wet feet while on the walking trail.

  1. Take both shoes and socks off frequently during walks, for more than 20 minutes.
  2. Let your shoes/boots drain out and dry whenever possible (obvious, but significant). Leather waterproof boots when full of water, are not good at this compared with their non-waterproof, but quick dry synthetic cousins.
  3. Switch socks as needed.
  4. Again, warm and dry night socks for feet recovery are a must.
  5. Use a commercial salve or topical treatment on the bottoms of your feet before bed and well before walking, to reduce the effects of wet feet, by helping repel moisture on the outer layers of skin and reducing chances of maceration.
  6. If you experience maceration, begin to keep your feet moisturised enough to minimise chances of cracking during their eventual dry out.

Hopefully these tips will keep more people more happy on the trail, rain, hail, or mud.

Please comment and share your experiences.

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