Backcountry footwear for the other three seasons

As regular readers know, I spend a fair amount of time worrying about shoes.  When going into the backcountry, your feet are the most important part of your system, and often the weakest link.  On most of the big trips I’ve done in the wilderness over the last two years, sore and/or torn up feet slow me down long before conditions or metabolic or muscular fatigue.  I’m not burly enough to wander around barefoot, so what I put on my feet is of huge importance. 

Preemptive foot care is vital, as getting anything beyond trivial maladies to heal while on the go is difficult.  Footwear is also one of the few “no fail” pieces of backcountry gear.  A torn raincoat, punctured thermarest, or ripped sleeping bag would be a nuisance, but not life threatening, and field repairable.  Catastrophic shoe (or backpack) failure has the potential to seriously ruin your day.  This article is written around the assumption that preemptive foot care and bomber footwear are interrelated prolegomena to backcountry enjoyment. 

It is also written using an inversion of the usual definition of three season backcountry travel, which is typically summer conditions, expanded backwards into spring and forwards into fall either via geography or picking especially kind periods of weather.  Assembling a functional footwear system when daytime temps rarely fall below freezing and funky precip is rare becomes an easy exercise.  Today I am rather interested in hiking during mountain shoulder seasons, and full winter conditions elsewhere.  Between summer, the time of trail runners and light socks only, and full winter, where deep snow and cold call for skis and plastic double boots, lies the most challenging and perhaps most interesting backcountry conditions.  The following are guidelines I use for outfitting my feet for Yellowstone or the Bob in October or May, and the Smokies or southern Utah in January.  Strong opinions will be rife, so proceed with caution. 

Principle #1: Wear light, non-waterproof trail shoes that fit well and provide optimal traction for the expected terrain.
Underlying axoims:
-it is foolhardy to go into the woods without good balance and strong joints
-fit trumps all
-your feet will get wet anyway, and that’s not a big deal

High, heavy boots and any shoes with waterproofing are not appropriate for serious backcountry travel.  End of story.  If your physiology and load would seem to dictate heavy boots, lighten your pack and strengthen your legs.  Do balance exercises, take a hard yoga class, slackline.  You’ll need that good balance and those quick reflexes to avoid the inevitable slips and falls when you find ice under snow or when talus moves unexpectedly, so you might as well benefit by having lighter, quicker, and happier feet.  There’s compelling evidence that ankle support and pronation control devices, rather than abrogating strain and preventing serious injury, merely transfer it elsewhere.  Stiff trail shoes may save you from bruising a feet if you land poorly on a pointy rock, but at the expense of turning your ankle.  Strong legs first.  The situations in which boots are still needed, namely mountaineering and backcountry skiing, are outside the scope of this article.

Shoes must fit.  Bring your sock combos (plural, to be discussed below) to the store when trying on shoes.  Aim for a locked in heel with the thinnest rig, while not having your forefoot pinched with the widest.  The width of the shoe should huge your midfoot closely, so that side slop on rough terrain is minimized.  Forward of the joints your toes should have plenty of room to wiggle without touching the shoe in any direction, and with your thickest shock combo you should at least a full centimeter of space in front of your longest toe.  Take the time to get this right, even though it can be a huge pain in the ass.  Bear in mind that when feet swell (and they will!), they do so sideways and up primarily.  You should have slack left in the laces to ease up, and ideally a bit (but not too much) room left in side to side volume.  A tricky balancing act.  It is better to get a good fit at the expense of other desired traits than vice versa.

I’ve come to strongly prefer low to the ground, more flexible shoes.  Thicker EVA may feel nice for the first 20 miles, but after that it does little to delay foot fatigue, and the decrease in stride efficiency it gives may well do the opposite.  One thing that will save your feet over the long run is a moderately stiff, ideally full length nylon rock plate.  The one found in the New Balance Trail 100 is ideal.  They’ll spread out of the force of pointy stuff and drastically reduce point tenderness and the resulting physical and mental fatigue (insofar as the two can be meaningfully distinguished).  Those transitioning from bigger footwear will need to give themselves appropriate accomodation.  Start with dayhikes and lighter loads, ramp up the training just like anything else.

If fit gives you options, pick your tread well.  Just as with mountain bike tires, low tread is fastest on easy terrain.  If you’ll be on good, dry trails a tread pattern like the New Balance T100 or LaSportiva Fireblade will be best.  Alternately, lots of steep mud and/or loose gravel will, when combined with a low tread, force your legs to waste energy getting enough traction to engage your muscles.  For this sort of thing I’ve yet to find anything close to the tread found on the LaSportiva Crosslite and Crossleather.  On steep and muddy and steep and loose descents these shoes let me quads save a significant amount of energy. 

Rubber compound is highly relevant as well.  As a general rule, softer rubber will grip better and wear faster.  With trail shoes, your tread will ideally wear down to uselessness around the same time you kill the uppers.  LaSportiva seems to have this figured out pretty well, whereas in the period of 2004-2008, Montrail soles seemed to outlast the uppers several times over.  If you’ll be spending a lot of time on bare rock, especially wet bare rock, a stickier rubber compound may be worth getting, even if it means that sole wear will be the limiting factor.  Five Ten stealth rubber (like their Canyoneer) would fall into this category.  Of course, you may be disinclined to own multiple pairs of shoes (but that won’t last long), or more relevantly end up dealing with steep ball bearings, wet river cobbles, and steep rock slabs on the same trip.  Compromises will have to be made based on the predominant terrain, personal preference, and the ne plus ultra of fit.

Last, and certainly not least, avoid Goretex shoes like the plague.  They’re made for dayhikers and coffee shop commutes.  In warm conditions they’ll cause your feet to sweat like crazy (thus making blisters more likely), and in the conditions we’re talking about you’ll probably soak your shoes anyway.  Best get over the fear of wet feet as soon as possible. 

Why we systemically worry about getting our feet wet I’m not sure.  With leather boots that don’t drain and double their weight it makes sense, but wet feet do not have to be cold feet, and with footwear that fits and a few basic precautions, consistenly wet feet do not invariably lead to blisters and other problems.  Canyoneering, and the resultant long trudges back to the TH with soaked shoes taught me this.  It would have been nice to’ve learned to earlier.

If your shoes will get wet you want them to drain and dry as easily as possible.  Moving water out of the shoes lightens them up, allows your feet to be wet rather than sitting in a bathtub, and creates the possibility that you might have dry shoes for at least some of the trip.  Drier, if not totally dry, shoes also freeze less solid overnight, making the ritual of thawing shoes with body heat during the first 30 minutes of every day a little less miserable. 

There is a problem here, which is that the fastest drying shoes (the aforementioned T100, for instance) are also the most fragile.  Right now I’m using LaSportiva Crossleathers, which drain poorly and dry even slower, because I’m sick of trashing mesh shoes in under 50 miles.  I like the tread pattern enough that I’m whiling to deal with wetter shoes.  They also fit me perfectly.  Compromise, compromise, compromise.

Principle #2: Wear gaiters.
Underlying axiom:
-keeping crap out of your shoes is a good thing across the board

These days I always wear gaiters when I’m in the woods.  There is no reason not to.  Beyond the obvious nuisance, time suck, and buzz kill of having to stop and pick pebbles out of your shoes, keeping dust and sand out goes a long way towards keeping blisters at bay.  Gaiters also keep your laces from getting untied by sticks and brush, and keep burrs off your socks.

Pick the right gaiters for the job.  Most of the time this means a low cut trail gaiter, of which Dirty Girl gaiters are likely the best.  They’re made by ultrarunners and for ultrarunners, of a light spandex fabric in all the obnoxiously whimsical patterns you could possibly want.  They’re super light, breath very well, dry fast, and once donned disappear.  They’re also quite cheap.

Dirty girl gaiter attach via a front lace hook and a velcro heal patch, which is great because instep straps get cut by rocks very quickly (I averaged 15 miles a set on the Royal Arch route in the Grand Canyon before I wised up).  The downfall of this system comes when postholing in snow and doing swift stream crossings.  In really deep snow full gaiters (like the Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain High gaiters) will keep snow out of your shoes and provide a buffer against the direct cold for the feet and lower legs.  I wore some for Le Parcour race across the Bob last fall, and they were a good choice (I use heel velcro and instep straps here).  You can extend the utility of low gaiters by making the hell velcro much bigger than usual, something on the order of 2″ by 1.5″.  I used low gaiters with no instep strap and a big heal patch on my Thorofare traverse in May of this year, and they stayed on despite the extensive postholing.


Principle #3: Have an outside-the-box sock quiver.
Underlying axioms:
-select a smooth, tight fitting next to skin layer to buffer moisture and abrasion
-select situation appropriate insulation

Socks do three equally essential things: they move moisture away from your skin, provide a buffer against abrasion, and keep your feet warm.  In the contemporary profusion of post-Smartwool sock marketing, finding a sock to take care of the first two is easy.  For summer, when one sock does all three functions, the Darn Tough 1/4 sock cushion in merino beats everything.  It’s tough but soft enough, and comes in moral boosting colors.  For the other three seasons however, we must assume that sock layering will take place most of the time.

When selecting a very thin sock to layer next to skin, I have two favorites at present.  The most favoritest is the Smartwool PhD Ski Ultralight.  Accept no less verbose substitutes, as the genius of this sock is that it is soft and tough, knee high, and unlike many others will not sag or creep down your leg, at all!  Calf high socks are perhaps the best addition, gram for gram, that one can make to foot warmth, and the Smartwools are the only thin knee high sock I’ve found that always stays put.  My other favorite are the Injinji mini-crews.  I often get little annoying blisters when my smallest toes rub togther, and the Injinjis allow me to forego taping.  The Coolmax fabric is also quite good.  Injinji makes a knee high compression sock, but they cost twice what the already expensive Smartwools do, so I’ve yet to make that leap.

Foot insulation for the other three seasons obviously requires a different approach.  Thicker wool socks do ok, but for dealing with stream crossings, postholing, and rain when it’s near or below freezing, neoprene is the way to go, and you need look no further than at NRS socks.  Other brands maybe cheaper, but the superior NRS sizing and fit make them the only option for serious miles.  Many options exist, from the 3mm seam taped and thus fully waterproof Expedition socks to the .5 mm fuzzy rubber laminate Hydroskin socks.  I’ve used the full range, and will try to provide a scale of warmth before I move on to specifics. 

If a standard partial mesh trail runner with a very thin wool sock is a 1 on a scale of warmth, and the same setup with an Expedition neo sock is a 10, than a thin liner with a thickish wool sock (say a Darn Tough full cushion boot sock) might be a 3, and the liner with a Hydroskin sock would be a 5.  The 2mm NRS wetsock would be an 8.

Hiking gives the cold weather traveler the huge advantage of feet constantly in motion with good blood movement.  Thus it’s pretty easy to keep feet warm.  The liner and Hydroskin sock combo is all the warmth I’ve ever wanted in cold and wet hiking situations, the use of thicker neo socks has been reserved for canyoneering and cold water boating.  Hydroskins socks are also thin and flexible enough to be useable with your existing shoes.  3mm neo socks require, on average, a shoe that is a full size larger.  Which brings back up the point that foot warmth is predicated on circulation.  Make sure your shoes give you enough room, and when it’s cold out lace your shoes on the loose side of tolerable to maximize warmth.

Neoprene works best in wet environments.  For snowier, colder, and drier hikes a different approach in warranted.  For conditions below the mid-teens, I like a vapor barrier setup using Seal Skinz socks.  Seal skinz are idiosyncratic pieces of gear whos peculiar attributes can be put to good use.  They’re waterproof, but also breathable, albiet not much.  For hiking in snow in single digits, I like a shoe 1/2 to one size larger than normal, a thin liner as discussed, Seal Skinz, and than a thicker insulating sock over top.  The Seal Skinz guard the insulating sock from sweat, maintains a warm micro climate against the skin, and keep the feet dry from melting snow and/or low stream crossings.  Combined with a full gaiter it’s a very flexible and warm system.  Again, lace your shoes on the loose side.  For me, this system is good a fair bit below zero.  Any colder, at least here in Montana, and I’ll be wearing plastic tele boot with a thermofit foam liner, which are very warm indeed.  For the odd locations where extreme cold occurs absent snow, or for snow bikers, the aforementioned sock system has been used, along with a fairly pedestrian boot several sizes too big, by Pete Basinger during the 1100 mile Alaska Ultrasport.  Circulation and preservation of insulation with vapor barriers seems to trump all else here.

Principle #4: give your feet time to recover.
Underlying axiom:
-dry, warm feet will heal themselves, and fast

It’s amazing what our feet will do when you take care of them.  First that means training them properly, second it means creating conditions under which they can function well (the subject of the above), and third it means giving them time off.  This means creating opportunities for them to be warm, dry and not in use.

If you’re getting up early and staying on the go until late, and extended lunch break during the warmest part of the day can be a very effective use of your time.  Hour wise, not minute foolish.  Find a spot that’s a wind protected solar oven (in the lee of a boulder just off the south side of a ridge is ideal), and kick back, brew coffee and soup, dry your gear (sleeping bag!), and dry your feet.  30 minutes with your feet out in the dry sunny air can recharge you enough that you’ll make an extra five miles in the second half of the day.

The other time for foot rest is at night, which is why I consider sleeping socks essential gear.  A pair of the thickest, fuzziest wool socks you can find should stay in the bottom of your sleeping bag, inviolate, all trip.  Not only do they provide extra warmth, they help wick all traces of moisture away during the night, much better than bare feet would.  This is 3 oz very well spent.

To review:

-it is foolhardy to go into the woods without good balance and strong joints
-shoe fit trumps all

-your feet will get wet anyway, and that’s not a big deal
-keeping crap out of your shoes is a good thing across the board
-select a smooth, tight fitting next to skin sock to buffer moisture and abrasion
-select situation appropriate foot insulation
-dry, warm feet will heal themselves, and fast

Follow these guidelines, and you will have happy feet in the outdoors, at least in the grand scheme of things.  Those ice cream headaches after stream crossings are just part of the fun.

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22 thoughts on “Backcountry footwear for the other three seasons

  1. on my second pair or Patagonia releases – with a bit of pre-emptive seam grip the uppers outlast the soles which is unheard of in montrail et. al these days. worth a look.

  2. Sandals in the desert SW for >90% of my backcountry trips. Makes you pick a clean line, keeps you connected to what lies beneath you and forces you to keep the load light. Most importantly it encourages you to play in the water.Cheers,M

  3. B-lander, M (my wife) wears her Chacos for hiking and does just fine. I get rocks under my feet in the sandal all the time and it drives me nuts. If it works for you, more power, the benefits are certainly obvious.

  4. Dave, how are you fixing the lace hook of the Dirty Girl gaiters to the little lace cover on your LaSportiva Crosslites? I was thinking of just pushing a hot nail through the nylon mesh and hoping it would offer enough purchase to hold the hook. Any better ideas? Have you considered removing the lace cover altogether?

  5. Dave, thanks for highlighting the NRS and Smartwool Ulrtalight Ski sock combo, it works very well here on the cold wet west coast of Norway.

    Could you recommend a sock set up for use with NNN-BC ski boots (plastic boots are an over-kill for the terrain I usually tour in) all of which have a WP/B lining? I tried over-boots (Forty Below Light Energy shorties) last winter but the design allowed snow to stick to the outer fabric and the need to cut up the sole to allow access to the bindings ensured that snow pushed it’s way in, compressing into icy lumps. I was thinking this year of switching to a slightly over-size boot, the Smartwool liners, Sealskinz Thin Mid Length (as a VB) and a wool sock as insulation. Thoughts?

    1. That’s exactly the setup I used with plastic/leather three pin boots a few years ago. The Sealskin VBL is pretty good. The RBH socks might be a good alternative to the Sealskinz.

      Extra insoles and something like a neoprene high gaiter might provide some more warmth if you need it. I’ve never been sold on overboots for the reasons you detail here.

      1. Thanks. The RBH socks look like a simpler, lower bulk alternative and, unbelievably, are cheaper to order & ship from your side of the pond than buying the Sealskinz and some suitable wool socks from the shop down the road…

  6. Dave,
    I just discovered your Bedrock and Paradox and so am quite late in discovering this article written over a year ago. I hope you don’t mind replying so late in the game.
    I live in Cleveland and backpacking mostly in western PA and so have a fair amount of cold, snow and slop if it warms up.
    Recently on a backpack that included melting snow and mud in 35-40 degree temps I tried the liner sock-hydroskins-trail runner combo and it worked just as advertised. Slightly damp feet but completely comfortable. Thanks for the suggestion.
    My question is about your other combination – for colder weather. I’ll be heading out to the Adirondacks this weekend (Jan14) and have not been there in winter with anything less than Sorel-type boots. This time I want to use trail runners. I have the Sealskins and can layer liner-Sealskins-thick sock in my trail runners but am puzzled as to how to keep the outer thick insulating sock dry.
    When I snowshoe, snow gets over my shoes, and it seems, melts a bit to wet my trail runners. In the past I’ve used plastic bags OVER my insulating socks to keep them dry. You don’t mention using anything over your insulating socks to keep moisture getting through the trail runners from wetting those socks.
    So – do you not lose insulating value from those thick socks when they get damp?
    Do your insulating socks not get damp (maybe the snow is very dry in your area)?
    Why do you not use some kind of plastic bag over your insulating socks to keep moisture from the trail runners from wetting them?
    I’d appreciate your reply as I’ll likely be encountering temperatures in single digits up on the high peaks, perhaps even a bit below that.
    Thanks,
    Marty Cooperman
    Cleveland, Ohio

    1. Hello Marty, always happy to help a fellow Buckeye (grew up in Oxford).

      The short answers are that the snow around here is often dry (except this winter), and that if you wear gaiters the outer sock with get a bit damp but that’s not necessarily a big deal. In really wet snow, some sort of waterproof shoe or a plastic bag might be in order.

      Individual variations play a huge role once the temps get real, so proceed with caution and make sure a given rig works for you.

  7. I’d add to all this that after the Wilderness Classic I think that with proper training, foot fatigue and damage is no longer a limiting factor for performance (under ideal circumstances).

    If you hike in tame enough places that G-tex socks get the job done, then move along; nothing to see..

  8. Great Article! Im thru hiking the AT leaving in cold weather. My only question is in regards to the sock layering in the winter. Do you wear the Smartwool PhD Ski Ultralight as a liner and then wear a thicker sock over top of it? Also same question for the Injinji mini crew? Or do you just wear those to socks by themselves? And then do you wear the waterproof oversock on top of all these when it might be snow conditions? Also do you have experience using the Rocky Goretex socks, if so would you recommend them? Thanks so much for any information you can provide me!

    1. Thin socks as liners, or by themselves if it’s warm. Never owned the Rockys, the cost and reputation for mediocre durability has kept me away.

  9. Hi Dave,

    Love the blog! Thanks for all the info. I’ve used VBL socks for years (just a simple nylon baggie with drawstring) and they work great. Ive always used them with boots (leather or gore tex) and wool socks. Im interested in going lighter but I fear the wet and sloppy conditions of New England (Maine and White Mountains mostly) will leave all my insulation layers super wet if I use trail runners. However I’m willing to try but I wanted to get your opinion on exact use case.

    The particulars of my usage… backpacking trips all year long including winter (microspikes and snowshoes) no longer than a week long with sustained periods of sitting in the cold and/ or wet (I hunt, but mostly with a camera). It’s not uncommon for me to hike in someplace on a trail, bushwhack half a mile off trail, setup camp, then slowly track some animal until I find a nice place to sit for a few hours and see what happens 🙂

    I’m curious what you recommend here for a 3 season system, and then for winter. I’m guessing you’ll tell me trail runners for 3 seasons and some sort of plastic boot for winter. I’m down to try this out but I have a few questions.

    Besides the above footwear question, my next big question is… how do you dry out your wet socks and shoes? I can imagine a super rainy, wet fall day, where I hiked in trail runners, light wool base sock, VBL layer and some wool sock over it and now my trail runners and wool socks are absolutely soaked. It will probably dip below freezing at night. You’ve hinted at drying your socks (and other wet clothes?) in your sleeping bag at night. I’ve done this with conditions were above freezing. I’ve just been afraid of bringing wet clothes into my (20F synth or my winter -20F synth) bag below freezing. Maybe I shouldn’t be so afraid? I don’t carry 16oz lexan nalgenes but I recently read your post on those and how you put your socks around them (in hot water bottle mode) in your bag and night and that spurred this whole diatribe. 🙂

    Would you recommend wringing out my wool socks and bringing them into my bag with me? Would you recommend I switch to neoprene? If your socks are soaked do you always use the lexan nalgene trick? Are you concerned about the moisture wetting your bag? Would this trick work in a VBL bag?

    Yeah, I know… a lot. But dropping boots for super light trail runners is such an appealing idea 🙂

    Thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading Brett. I actually have a lot more to say on this subject now than when I wrote this four years ago. Hunting is very different than all-day hiking.

      First, I don’t think neoprene socks will be a good fit for you, save perhaps in fairly warm conditions. They work well for staying active only. When stationary in cool weather they enhance evaporative cooling and actually make your feet colder than they’d be with wool socks only. They’re really a strenuous hiker only tool, for the most part.

      Second, I think you might do well giving trail runners and wool socks a try during the warmer months. Unless you have circulation issues, I suspect if you give yourself a bit to adapt you’ll be surprised at how apparently cool (temp wise) you will be able to go in comfort with wet feet. Then you can perhaps push things into shoulder seasons, but I suspect you’ll probably end up staying with your current system. On the subject of shedding weight from your feet while still staying with WPB footwear, I’ve had poor results with fabric and membrane shoes and boots. Leather and snoseal seems to be the reliable way to get this done.

      Third, that major answer with drying socks and shoes is “you don’t”. Drying moist, but not soaked, socks in your sleep system can work well. If you don’t have a fair bit of excess insulation value trying to do more is a a recipe for trouble (e.g. moisture accumulation), especially over multiple nights. When I am out with a trail runner/neo socks system and facing nights below freezing, I hide my socks under my sleeping pad and use my shoes as the first layer of my pillow (with a waterproof something over them), which generally gives them enough residual body heat to not freeze. Still not fun putting them on in the morning.

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