• Ben More, Assynt


  • Keeping your feet in working order

    I think its fair to say that keeping your feet in good order is THE most important aspect of any long distance backpack. I know from personal experience having endured days of agony on long treks.

    Long distances, rough ground, heavy loads and frequent immersion are the challenges we face in the NW Highlands in winter. Get it wrong and the journey could be over very quickly. This has prompted an almost PHD level of thinking and preparation from some time trail companion Bob Smith

    The thorny question of maintaining dry feet

    The meandering musings which follow are an account of one mans search for appropriate footwear for a CWW expedition (Cape Wrath in Winter). I was forced to reappraise my original choice after a battering on the Black Mountain in August, an outing which should be a picnic compared to the north of Scotland in December. I did a lot of thinking and some research on the web, and writing it all down was my way of sorting out my thoughts. I didnt expect to come to any useful conclusion but, rather to my surprise, I did come across an approach that seems to work for me. Ill find out in four weeks time if I was right.

    Why bother? Whats wrong with wet feet? Ive walked plenty of miles with sodden sox and lived to tell the tale. And in days gone by nobody would even have imagined that dry feet were a possibility. Is it not the case that the traditional Scottish brogues had holes in to let the water out a pragmatic solution if ever there was one?

    I suppose there are three reasons for aspiring to dry feet:

    • Comfort, in a general sense, and as a morale-maintainer;
    • More specifically, avoiding extreme cold, which could be dangerous as well as unpleasant (though if it is that cold, water should be frozen, so that feet are unlikely to get wet from rain or immersion);
    • Most importantly, avoiding blisters and chafing which, if serious enough, could result in infection andor abandonment of a trip, the point being that wet skin is much more vulnerable.

    How do wet feet occur? It sounds too elementary a question, but if were going to take this investigation seriously we need to know where the wetness is coming from. The answers are:

    • Sweat. Feet sweat a surprising amount, particularly, but not exclusively, in warm weather.
    • Immersion. Obviously, putting a foot into a marsh or stream, so that water comes over the top of the boot, is going to result in a wet foot.
    • Ambient wetness. Sooner or later, water is going to find its way through most boots unless they are made of rubber or plastic. Such water comes either from falling rain or from the ground, in the form of wet vegetation (wet grass is amazingly good at this), marshy ground, slushy snow etc.
    • Intrusion. In the absence of effective gaiters, rain will run down legs and into boots.
    • For completeness, one should add that putting on wet boots andor wet sox will also have the undesired result, even in the absence of other sources.

    What strategies exist? There seem to be three broad approaches:

    1. Outer defences
    2. Inner defences
    3. Dont bother.

    Outer Defences This is the approach exemplified by my original intention to wear Koflach (plastic) boots and glued-on Yeti gaiters. The idea is to keep water at bay from all sources. Indeed, nothing will get through the plastic boots and the Yetis should provide a sound defence, even resisting immersion if very brief.

    So long as the strategy works, and temperatures are low, feet should remain warm and dry. Another advantage is that the inner boots can be worn around huts and bothies; also, for major river crossings the outer boots can be worn after removing the inners and all sox, and they will not soak up anything in the process. For me, an advantage was that I already had both boots and Yetis, making it a low-cost tried-and-tested option.

    The downside, of course, is that plastic boots are relatively heavy, cumbersome, and less comfortable than more conventional boots. However, the main objection is that the strategy itself is a high risk one: while it works, it works very well, but if a foot goes in during a crossing then three layers of sox and an inner boot get soaked, resulting in lasting dampness and discomfort as well as unwelcome additional weight.

    It seems too high a risk to take. Its still the strategy of choice for snowy or icy conditions, which is what I used to use it for, but my guess is that CWW is more likely to be wet than snowy or icy, which is why I investigated

    Inner Defences This strategy accepts that most boots arent waterproof (whatever they claim) and therefore interposes a waterproof but breathable sock or liner between the boot and foot. There are two main approaches.

    Sealskinz are a fairly thick sock, with a rubbery membrane between two layers of fabric the inner being Merino wool in some models. They are designed to be worn next to the skin. There is a bewildering number of different models, some interestingly, from our viewpoint of mid-calf or even knee length, but quite pricey as a result.

    Goretex socks are quite different. In fact, those that Ive handled or seen described are not really socks at all but boot liners, being designed to wear outside socks. They also tend to be short: the ones Ive seen reach little higher up the ankle than typical boots.

    There seem to be two or three models available in the UK, notably the Trekmates Amphibian (of which I have purchased a sample, out of interest) and ex-Army (which dont currently seem to be available but look very similar to the Amphibian). Despite extravagant claims of stretch fabrics, flexibility is close to zero: the material looks, feels and behaves as though it has been cut from a pair of overtrousers.

    It is well known that most contributions to internet forums and online reviews tend to be extreme: theres little incentive for those who are merely mildly (dis)satisfied to go to the trouble of saying so. And theres just as wide a divergence of views about waterproof sox as anything else.

    There are plenty of people who are enthusiastic about their experiences, including a large number of (presumably genuine) testimonials on the Sealskinz site. However, many of these enthusiasts seem to be runners, cyclists, fishermen etc: few if any are long-distance backpackers. Perhaps more convincingly, quite a few Army types enthused about their Goretex boot liners.

    Others have been less enthusiastic. My son used Sealskinz for backpacking and was ambivalent about them. A friend of mine is an extreme runner and says, I like Sealskinz socks for the winter. I use them both for walking and running. I dont find that they keep my feet particularly dry but they are comfortable and drier than normal socks. Is that a ringing endorsement or damning with faint praise?

    People have many reasons for condemning waterproof sox:

    • They simply dont work theyre not waterproof, andor they dont breathe;
    • If they do get wet inside, theyre worse than nothing;
    • Because of their relatively stiff construction they (particularly Goretex) are prone to crumple, causing pressure spots and blisters;
    • Sealskinz wont dry out overnight, and you cant even put them on a radiator (or, I suppose, in front of a hot fire) to assist the process;
    • Finally, they dont make a seal round the leg and so are prone to flooding from either immersion or intrusion. However, one cunning lad described his solution: he made seals by cutting off the fingers of kitchen gloves, leaving two tubes which he further sealed by the use of vaseline.

    In addition, I have three objections:

    • In all cases, the sizing is very crude: S, M, L etc. That means that it is a matter of luck whether a particular size of a particular model happens to actually fit you. It took me a long time to arrive at a sock combination that works reliably well, based on socks of just the right size and thickness: it therefore goes against the grain to introduce something crudely sized (and shaped).
    • We all know how poorly so-called breathable so-called waterproof membranes actually perform even in relatively ideal conditions, so it requires a real leap of faith to imagine them working inside the hostile confines of a sodden pair of boots.
    • And weve all had boots which claimed to be waterproof due to the inclusion of a Goretex or other membrane. Do they work? No: at least, not for very long. Why then, should a Goretex liner perform any better? Its only advantage would be that it is removable and therefore replaceable.

    The Acid Test I wore the Amphibian Goretex socks for a day outing which was designed to emulate Scottish conditions (but without the rain or midge) including miles of thick wet vegetation, difficult marshy ground and a number of stream crossings.

    I used my normal boots and gaiters, both old and now very leaky, and my normal socks: a short close-fitting inner and a much thicker and longer outer. I wore the Amphibians between the two, and sealed the tops with tubes cut from disposable gloves (more flexible than most kitchen gloves, thus avoiding the need for messy vaseline).

    The additional layer felt a little tight at first but my feet soon settled in and remained comfortable all day. After the first couple of miles of wet vegetation and marsh my boots were soaking and I would normally have been expecting to experience wet feet by then, but they only felt wet after the first stream crossing, involving total immersion. In fact this feeling of wetness was an illusion: my feet could feel the wetness of the outer sock, but they themselves remained dry.

    At other times my feet did feel rather warm, but it was a warm day and I took my gaiters off. During the remainder of the day I made a number of further careless crossings and waded through any number of marshy bits. At the end of the day my inner socks were just slightly damp, consistent with a little sweating; I was perfectly happy to put my trainers on over them for the drive home.

    It was hardly a test worthy of Which? but the outcome has to be a cautious thumbs up for the Amphibian when used in conjunction with a seal. I experienced none of the potential problems. The only thing I noticed was a tendency of the socks to creep down at the back probably because they are fractionally too small for me and thereby break the seal.

    I simply got into the habit of checking the seal from time to time and before any deliberate immersion. Despite my scepticism at an intellectual level, what I actually felt was confidence and invulnerability, which was quite uplifiting and in practical terms, of course, there was rarely any need to waste time and energy looking for ways round boggy bits: I just ploughed on through.

    I have since used the Amphibians a couple more times with complete success. This is not the outcome I expected but the results speak for themselves. This, therefore, is the combination I am going to use next month, thereby avoiding the risks involved with new boots, which was another option I considered. But what if the liners get damaged or stop working for some other reason? One then ends up with the default position, which is

    Dont Bother As already remarked, until relatively recently nobody would have tried to maintain dry feet because the necessary technology didnt exist. That didnt stop people from enjoying the mountains and other wild places. They may, however, have suffered from some discomfort, possibly worse if wetness was followed by extreme cold. More commonly, though, wet feet can mean chafing and blisters, which can in turn result in more than just a little discomfort.

    Why does this occur? Wet sox become compressed, so they do not support the foot so well, allowing it to move inside the boot. At the same time they may crumple, creating pressure points. And wet skin is more susceptible to damage.

    At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, feet are a very personal thing. Some people only have to look at a hill to break out in blisters; others seem to have cast iron appendages. My own experience is that Ive had relatively little trouble, over the years, and when I have had a problem Ive dealt with it, more or less successfully, by one of two means.

    One is to use plasters (or, rather, dressing strip, which is much more flexible) to protect raw spots. This doesnt always work since plasters dont readily stay stuck to wet skin. My main weapon, therefore, is deer tallow, a soft wax which acts as a soothing lubricant which can readily and effectively be applied to an area which is actually or potentially affected by chafe.

    It works for me and is less messy than some of the compounds recommended by others. Ive been using the same tube for years but I am delighted to have recently found a new supplier, since it isnt very readily available. Armed with an extra tube, then, Ill be prepared to face the worst even if the Amphibians let me down.

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Watercolour of Sourlies Bothy, Knoydart by Anthony Harper Return to website