Winter snow needn’t slow us down! Just don the right footwear, layer up, and go snow hiking or snowshoeing. It’s quiet and peaceful out there, and it’s great exercise!
The issue of cold feet has been with us since the time of the caveman – a book could easily be written on the subject. With all the high-tech gear available today, you would think that the problem might have disappeared, but it hasn’t. Keeping your feet dry and warm during outdoor pursuits in snow and slop requires:
- A basic knowledge of human physiology, physical factors, and gear function
- Awareness of footwear options and how different components interact as a system
- Skill in assembling appropriate footwear systems for different conditions
The purpose of this article is to identify combinations of lightweight footwear that effectively keep feet dry and warm during active snow travel during any season of the year.
What do we mean by “lightweight footwear systems”? Let us state right up front that Backpacking Light favors the use of lightweight trail running shoes or boots for hiking and backpacking, even in the snow. This will seem unorthodox to many traditionalists who warn of frostbite, but we do it and it works for us. Taking one pound off our feet is equivalent to taking 6.4 pounds off our backs (according to US Army research), and there is a huge opportunity to save weight from our winter footwear. Our lightweight footwear systems are combinations of the lightest shoes, insoles, socks, vapor barriers, overboots, and gaiters (everything on or around the foot) adapted to specific activities, exertion levels, and conditions. Read on to understand how these footwear components work together to save weight.
What do we mean by “snow travel”? Most Backpacking Light members are not plodders; our objective is to go light and go far. We can encounter snow somewhere in any season of the year, so we can’t let snow slow us down. When we sink in less than a foot, we can walk in it; when we sink in deeper we can don lightweight snowshoes and keep going. Winter snow hiking and snowshoeing is inspirational and a great workout. In warmer weather, thru-hikers walk on top of cement-like snowpack in mountain sections of trails like the PCT.
We encounter a lot of different conditions that require different gear and techniques. Following are the environmental and logistical conditions that this article addresses. (Contributed by master thru-hiker Andrew Skurka, who completed a 385 mile hike across northern Minnesota in January 2007.)
In this article we will cover lightweight footwear systems appropriate for active snowshoeing and snow hiking in warm, cold, and frigid conditions. We consider slightly heavier options (like insulated boots and overboots) for conditions where they are needed, and for hikers who want more foot protection and warmth. Although backcountry skiers often use specialized boots, many of the footwear components and techniques discussed here are applicable to keep feet dry and warm while skiing too. We will also consider coordinating a daytime snow travel footwear system with a snow camping footwear system to keep overall weight to a minimum.
Specifically we address:
- Part 1: Principles and Techniques for Keeping Feet Dry and Warm
- Part 2: Components of a Lightweight Footwear System
- Part 3: Model Lightweight Footwear Systems for Snow Hiking, Snowshoeing, and Snow Camping
Introduction to Part 1
The best gear won’t work without the proper knowledge. In this article we discuss the principles and techniques associated with keeping your feet dry and warm – the knowledge base that an active outdoor enthusiast should have in order to maintain warmth, choose appropriate gear, and use it wisely. Herein we round up and discuss all the factors that are important for keeping feet dry and warm. This will include physiological factors, physical factors, techniques, tips, and tricks.
Principles and Techniques for Keeping Feet Dry and Warm
Insulation doesn’t create heat, but conserves it. For many of us, there isn’t much heat in our feet to be conserved! In cold and frigid weather we want to maintain a boundary layer of warm, moist air next to our skin (which is the normal condition), but we don’t want water pooling against our skin. Insulation works by trapping air (which is a poor heat conductor) to keep body heat from escaping. We layer our footwear (base layer, insulation layer(s), shell layer) the same way we layer upper body clothing, so we have the ability to adjust the amount of insulation that is needed.
Anything but Cotton (ABC)
Cotton kills! Cotton is hydrophilic (water loving) and absorbs three times more moisture (from sweat) than most synthetic fibers, it doesn’t insulate when it’s wet, and it takes 14 times longer to dry compared to synthetic fibers. Water is a good heat conductor, so when your socks and feet get damp they will lose heat up to 25 times faster than when dry. If your exertion level is high enough, it is possible to generate enough heat to warm up wet shoes and socks, but look out when you stop – the water inside your shoes will quickly sap that warmth and you will have frozen feet. Despite their advantages, wet synthetic socks have the same effect as cotton; they conduct heat away from your feet, creating a dangerous situation when you stop.
Cotton kills! Compared to wool or synthetics, it absorbs more water, doesn’t insulate when wet, takes much longer to dry, and is more likely to cause blisters.
Furthermore, when cotton gets wet it loses its shape and bunches. Cotton’s friction point also increases when it gets wet, so when we combine those two factors we have a recipe for disabling blisters. Wet feet + friction = blisters.
To illustrate the point that water is a good heat conductor, but air is not, consider this example: if the air temperature is 60 °F, you can feel quite comfortable with a long-sleeved base layer on, but if you jump into a swimming pool of 60 °F water, it feels like ice water and you can’t stay in very long. That’s because dry clothing traps air next to the skin to insulate it, but water next to the skin rapidly conducts heat away.
Wear Socks Made of Technical Fabrics
The best cold weather sock system is a merino wool insulating sock worn over a wicking liner sock. Pictured are the Bridgedale Summit sock worn over the Seirus Outlast liner sock.
The skin on our feet is constantly giving off insensible perspiration to stay moist, and it releases sweat (as much as 1 pint per foot per day) to cool off when we overheat. Technical fabrics pull the sweat off the skin quickly and wick it to outer layers where it can be dispersed. It’s important to wear a hydrophobic wicking liner sock (Coolmax, Thermax, Outlast) next to your skin to pull moisture away. They will keep your skin dryer so your feet can retain their heat better and stay warmer longer. Also, they will help you avoid blisters because the friction point of these synthetics actually decreases as they become wet.
Wool socks are ideal for cold conditions, especially merino wool socks worn with a wicking liner sock. Wool has the natural ability to absorb moisture and still continue to insulate, so wool socks can keep your feet warm even when damp. It is the only fabric, natural or synthetic, that can do that. If you wear waterproof shoes, wool socks are imperative (more on that later). For more information on the comparative properties of wool and synthetic fabrics, read Comfort and Moisture Transport in Lightweight Wool and Synthetic Base Layers.
Further, US Army studies have found that combining technical socks with highly breathable mesh shoes greatly improved the wicking process. The sock and shoe work together to help transport moisture from skin surfaces to the outside.
Wearing more flexible shoes allows us to flex our feet more, which generates more metabolic heat and encourages the circulation of warm blood through our feet. In cold weather, it’s a good practice to take only short breaks and eat on the fly. If you do stop for a longer break add extra insulation layers to your head, upper body, and feet (if possible).
Avoid Tight Socks
Tight socks restrict warm blood flow by compressing the surface capillaries, so it’s important that socks fit comfortably. If you wear two pairs of socks or a vapor barrier sock, it’s important that the additional layers are sized large enough so they are not tight. A snug fit is ok, but not a tight one.
Wear Larger Shoes
Similarly, the shoes you wear for cold weather hiking need to have extra room for thicker socks and multiple layers. Many experienced snow travelers have dedicated shoes that are one to one and a half sizes larger than their normal shoe size. It’s very important that winter footwear fits loose so it doesn’t restrict circulation. A snug fit may be ok, but you should be able to wiggle your toes within your shoes.
If Possible, Wear Breathable Shoes
A lightweight fast-drying shoe like the Timberland Delerion Pro can be used for snowshoeing and snow hiking under the right conditions.
The combination of breathable shoes and technical socks is perfect when hiking or running on hardpack snow in cold weather or thru-hiking over snow drifts in mountain sections. The principle is the same as with warm weather hiking: your feet are better off in lightweight highly breathable shoes that allow perspiration to escape and that dry quickly as you keep moving.
However, in loose snow or slop, breathable shoes will get sopping wet. Many adventure racers don’t mind that because their high exertion level keeps their feet warm, and breathable shoes shed water faster. Alternatively, a vapor barrier sock or Gore-Tex sock (discussed later) can be worn inside a breathable shoe to keep your feet warm while still retaining the benefits of a breathable shoe. In cold weather though, when you stop, you have to get the wet shoes off and put on something dry and warm, or you end up with two blocks of ice.
Wear Waterproof Shoes When Truly Needed
If you spend a lot of time hiking in snow, rain, or slop then waterproof/breathable shoes are a good choice. “Waterproof” shoes will often have a Gore-Tex XCR bootie inside them, but many manufacturers offer proprietary membranes, and an eVENT liner is available in a few shoe models.
The Gore-Tex XCR liner used in footwear has rightfully earned its status as de facto standard. Gore-Tex guarantees it to be waterproof, and most of the time it is. Each shoe manufacturer licensed to use the Gore-Tex XCR membrane in their footwear must submit their shoes to Gore for testing to ensure they perform properly. Meeting Gore’s tests means they are “Guaranteed to Keep You Dry.” If a Gore-Tex shoe leaks, you can (theoretically) return it a retailer for a replacement.
Waterproof/breathable shoes abound! Every shoe manufacturer offers “waterproof” shoes and/or boots of various types. Shoes with a Gore-Tex XCR liner like the Merrell Chameleon Wrap Gore-Tex XCR (left) are “Guaranteed to Keep You Dry.” The Keen Ochoco (right) has an eVENT liner.
We found that the Gore-Tex XCR technology fundamentally works to keep your feet dry, but it performs best under certain conditions. Although this membrane (and other waterproof/breathable technologies) are claimed to be “breathable,” there are definite limits to the amount of moisture (sweat) they will export from the inside of the shoe. Gore-Tex’s goal is to balance waterproofness, durability, and breathability. However, breathability is compromised by the other two factors (which is unavoidable to a large extent), so the bottom line is that breathability is limited. The result is that these shoes are waterproof from the outside in, and (to some extent) from the inside out. They are sufficiently breathable for low to moderate activity in cool and cold weather, but if your feet produce excessive amounts of sweat you will exceed the membrane’s ability to pass moisture. The outcome is that your socks accumulate moisture from your own sweat, which leads to damp socks and chilly feet when you slow down or stop. They are also slow to dry out if you don’t use a shoe dryer.
Although we have not done any testing, we would expect a waterproof/breathable trail runner to breathe better than a waterproof/breathable boot. The trail runners are constructed with a thinner, more breathable face fabric over the membrane, while boots typically cover the membrane with thicker, less permeable layers. Unfortunately, we have not had a chance to compare a shoe with a Gore-Tex XCR lining to a similar shoe with an eVENT lining. That would be an interesting comparison!
Although many users attest that waterproof/breathable shoes (especially Gore-Tex) keep their feet completely dry in the wettest of conditions, we have personally found that to be true only for shorter-term exposures to wet conditions. In longer-term exposures to really wet conditions, such as walking continuously in wet snow or wet vegetation, every waterproof/breathable shoe we have tried has wetted through enough to dampen our socks to some degree. We have measured it on several occasions by wearing a liner sock, vapor barrier sock, and an insulating sock inside the waterproof/breathable shoes or boots, plus a gaiter over the top. Since the vapor barrier sock traps any moisture from our feet sweating, any moisture in the insulating sock has come through the shoe itself. When we weighed our socks we found they had gained from 0.2 to 0.5 ounce of moisture per pair, enough for them to feel damp. The inside lining of the shoes was also noticeably damp.
Another option is to wear waterproof/breathable socks inside highly breathable mesh shoes. Gore-Tex socks and SealSkinz are good options. This can be a versatile way to create an effective waterproof/breathable footwear system, and we discuss the functionality of various waterproof/breathable socks in Part 2. These specialized socks work best if you wear a wicking liner sock or merino wool sock inside them. Wearing them against your skin feels very clammy, and is counter-productive because your skin gets damp and feet get cold easily whenever you stop.
Wearing a waterproof/breathable sock like the Rocky Gore-Tex sock (left) when needed inside of a breathable fast-drying shoe like the Salomon Tech Amphibian (right) is a versatile alternative to waterproof/breathable shoes.
When you wear technical socks, the fabric transports the moisture away from the skin where it can (ideally) be evaporated away. The reality, unless your shoes are made from highly breathable mesh, is that much of the sweat from your feet is stored in your socks. This is especially true if you use waterproof footwear. It’s especially difficult to avoid moisture accumulation in a footwear system for cold/wet conditions, and even a small amount of moisture can lead to chilly feet. Merino wool is the best foot insulation because it has the unique ability to absorb moisture between its bundles of fibers but still continue to insulate, keeping your feet warm even when damp.
We weighed our damp socks on many occasions, and find that the feelings of “dampness” and “cold toes” can be caused by only a few tenths of an ounce of moisture in a pair of socks. The most effective way to get rid of the moisture and keep your feet dry and warm is to exchange your damp socks for dry ones during the day (in warmer weather, the best approach is to take your boots and socks off and dry them out). If you are snow camping it is especially important to remove your damp footwear right away and replace it with a dry camp footwear system. If you must wear your wet shoes in camp, a good way to keep your feet warm is to put a vapor barrier layer (a plastic bag works just fine) over your dry socks before you put your wet shoes back on.
To summarize, moisture from sweat gets trapped in most shoes (especially in waterproof shoes and under high exertion), and it doesn’t take very much moisture for your feet to feel chilly. The best moisture management technique is to change socks at midday in cold weather, or air them out frequently in warmer weather.
Add Layers for Extra Warmth
The 6 millimeter thick neoprene Crescent Moon Bootie can be worn over the top of lightweight shoes or boots for snowshoeing in frigid weather.
It’s easy to add and remove layers to regulate our core temperature (more on that later), and we can do the same for our feet. As the temperature gets colder, we can simply add more layers over and under our feet to insulate more. Options are insulated insoles, insulating socks, gaiters, and overboots. The actual layers will depend on the type of activity and snow/wet conditions. Each layer reduces the amount of breathability, so moisture is trapped between the layers, especially if an overboot is worn.
Dry Socks and Shoes Thoroughly Between Uses
Moisture accumulates in socks and shoes, and especially in waterproof shoes. If they are even slightly damp the next time you wear them, your feet are likely to be chilly all morning. If you are day tripping, put your shoes on a shoe dryer overnight to be sure they are thoroughly dry. If you are snow camping, put your shoes and socks inside your jacket or sleeping bag to dry them out as much as possible. It helps a lot to warm your socks and shoes before you put them on, which makes it easier for your feet to keep them warm.
Make Use of Vapor Barriers
The use of vapor barrier socks is a complex subject. We will explain the principles here and cover the options in Part 2. Here are a few key points about using vapor barrier socks:
Use them only in frigid temperatures (less than 25 °F). In warmer temperatures, the feet sweat too much with a vapor barrier on, and the disadvantages outweigh the advantages
Don’t confuse a vapor barrier sock with a waterproof/breathable sock, such as a Gore-Tex sock; they function differently. But there are some intermediates that cause confusion, which we explain in Part 2.
If you have backpacked wearing a waterproof non-breathable rain jacket, you have already experienced a vapor barrier! The moisture condensation on the inside is testimony to how well they work as a vapor barrier, but a waterproof rain jacket is a very poor implementation of a vapor barrier because your clothing within can get quite damp. The concept of a vapor barrier sock is to confine the body’s own water vapor and heat production activity and utilize it to keep your feet warm, while keeping your outer insulation layer(s) dry. In this section we will unravel the mysteries of the vapor barrier and how it can be used to keep your feet warm.
A lightweight vapor barrier sock, such as this one from Integral Designs, maintains a warm humid environment next to the foot. A vapor barrier is most effective in frigid temperatures.
Our body is equipped with a very complex thermal regulatory system to maintain our body temperature at a fairly high level (which is almost tropical) and within fairly tight limits. The skin is a highly sensitive organ that likes the air temperature around it to be about 75 °F (72 °F for the hands and feet, and about 78 °F for the head and neck) and a relative humidity of about 70-80%. It releases heat and water vapor (called insensible perspiration) to maintain those conditions in the boundary layer next to our skin. When that protective boundary layer is disrupted the skin reacts to restore it. If you overheat, the sweat glands in your skin start pumping out water vapor to cool the boundary layer back to the comfort zone. If you chill, the sweat glands shut down and your body starts to shiver, again trying to restore the boundary layer to the comfort zone. A vapor barrier worn next to (or very near) the skin works because it maintains the temperature and humidity in the boundary layer within the body’s comfort zone with minimal water vapor output. A warm moist environment is warmer than a warm dry environment, and that small bit of humidity adds to our warmth.
A vapor barrier sock works best next to the skin, but wearing a smooth vapor barrier sock (such as the one shown) against the skin gives a clammy feeling. Some manufacturers recommend wearing vapor barrier socks directly against the skin, while others recommend wearing a wicking liner sock inside, and others design their socks with a fuzzy lining to make them more comfortable. Vapor barrier socks with a fuzzy lining minimize the clammy feeling, but any vapor barrier sock worn next to skin holds more moisture next to our feet, so our toes are more likely to get cold if we stop for very long. Our personal preference is to wear a liner sock, which keeps the moisture from pooling against our skin, inside the vapor barrier socks.
With non-waterproof shoes we often wear our insulating socks inside the vapor barrier because we didn’t want them to get sopping wet from outside moisture soaking in. Our socks inside the vapor barrier gradually got damp (from sweat), but our feet stay warm all day as long as we keep moving. Wearing a vapor barrier does not eliminate the need to change socks to remove moisture from our shoes, but it is relatively easy to dry out damp socks compared to sopping wet socks. Alternatively, with non-waterproof shoes, one could wear a double vapor barrier system to keep insulating socks dry. This would consist of a liner sock, vapor barrier sock, insulating sock, and another vapor barrier sock.
The most comfortable vapor barrier layering system (left to right) is a liner sock next to the foot, then a vapor barrier sock, then an insulating merino wool sock over that. Pictured (left to right) are the Seirus Outlast Liner Sock, RBH Designs Vapr Thrm Liner Sock, and Thorlo Mountaineering Sock. With an open mesh (non-waterproof) shoe, it’s necessary to put the insulating sock inside the vapor barrier sock. In that situation, consider wearing a waterproof/breathable sock instead of a vapor barrier sock.
Again, we want to emphasize that vapor barrier socks work best at temperatures below about 25 °F. The colder it is, the better a vapor barrier works. At those low temperatures a vapor barrier will dramatically decrease the amount of insulation you need to keep your feet warm. However, in warmer temperatures and under high exertion, it’s easy for your feet to overheat and sweat profusely, making a vapor barrier system very uncomfortable (and redundant).
If you wear waterproof/breathable shoes or boots, you are already using a vapor barrier system, albeit an imperfect one because the insulating layer is inside the vapor barrier where it will accumulate moisture. Think about it – most waterproof/breathable membranes have limited breathability, and in most shoe/boot constructions the waterproof/breathable liner is covered by impervious outer layers – so how can they breathe? Only a construction consisting of a waterproof/breathable lining covered by a porous fabric (e.g., a waterproof/breathable trail running shoe) will actually breathe. The rest function like a vapor barrier, holding much of the perspiration from your feet inside your shoes. That’s why it makes no sense to wear waterproof/breathable shoes in warm dry weather.
However, in frigid temperatures a good trick is to wear a vapor barrier sock inside of a waterproof/breathable shoe. This will keep your feet warm with a minimum of insulation layers, and it keeps moisture out of the lining of the shoe. It’s also very versatile because you can remove the vapor barrier sock in warmer temperatures and at higher exertion levels when it’s not needed, and you can wear the vapor barrier socks in your sleeping bag to keep your feet warmer.
Maintain Your Core Temperature
Maintaining your core temperature is a balancing act in which you must keep warm without overheating, sweating, and then chilling. In our experience, we are most comfortable “on the cool side of warm.” However, different people require different amounts of insulation to maintain that comfort. Men and women in particular may need to use different layering techniques; Will can be quite comfortable wearing a windshirt over a base layer while snowshoeing, but at the same time Janet is wearing two additional layers to maintain the same degree of warmth.
The clothing you wear affects the warmth of your feet. There is a constant balancing act your body is going through to maintain a constant core temperature. As your core heats up, your body will pump the hot blood away from the core to the extremities. As the core cools down, it will pull the blood away from the extremities, and your hands and feet get cold. In people who have Raynaud’s Syndrome this process is exaggerated. The trick is to keep your core warm enough so it will continue to heat the rest of your body.
Using a layering system (base layer, insulating layer, outer shell layer) on your torso is a good way to maintain your core temperature and keep warm blood flowing to your extremities.
The best way to do this is to layer insulating clothing over your core. Wearing a thicker base layer, two base layers, or a base layer plus a vest all work well. If it is breezy or windy, an outer shell layer is necessary to control the chill factor from wind.
The key principle here is maintaining your core temperature. Simply opening or closing a shell layer, or adding or removing clothing is a good method to regulate core temperature during winter activities. The objective is to maintain core temperature so warm blood flows to the extremities. Doing nothing until your hands and feet get cold is not a good approach because it is hard to warm extremities that are already chilled. Maintaining your core temperature is a constant process requiring attention and effort.
Wear a Hat
In cold and frigid temperatures, wearing a hat and using the layering system on your head is a good way to maintain body temperature. In frigid temperatures, a balaclava and hood works the best.
First, let’s deal with the myth: “If your feet are cold, cover your head because you can lose up to 75% of your body heat through your head alone.” Yes, it’s a myth, and we believed it ourselves for many years. The head is only about 10% of the body’s surface area, and it would have to lose about 40 times more heat per unit area compared to the rest of the body for this statement to be true.
The folks at the Wilderness Medicine Institute ran an experiment on student volunteers and found the rate of heat loss is relatively the same for any exposed part of the body. A person does not lose heat significantly faster through the scalp than any other portion of the body with the same surface area. The idea that we lose heat 4000% faster through our head, because of the constant blood supply to the brain, is simply a myth.
It is still a good idea to put on a hat if your feet are cold? Yes, the need for insulation over the head in cold weather is the same as for any other part of the body. Wearing a hat or balaclava works in conjunction with torso insulation to regulate your core temperature. In practice, adding or removing headwear layers to conserve or expel heat is an effective way to adjust your core temperature.
Eat to Maintain Your Metabolism
You need to fuel the furnace (your metabolism) to produce body heat. Waiting until you’re hungry or “bonked” before you eat is not a good idea because it can lead to serious chilling when you stop. It’s better to eat steadily, taking in about 300 to 400 calories per hour (depending on the temperature and your exertion level). While some protein is good, the real fuel for keeping warm is carbohydrates with some fat. Active snow travel in cold weather is the perfect time to feast on energy bars!
Breathing cold dry air can result in a lot of water loss, so it’s best to drink plenty of water to keep the blood thin for transporting heat to your extremities. Think about the heat you are losing with each breath and each time you urinate. Replacing that heat with a hot beverage is a good way to maintain core temperature and stay hydrated, while drinking ice cold water puts more demand on your body’s metabolism to produce heat.
Avoid Caffeine, Alcohol, and Smoking
Each of these works against you by either constricting capillaries to reduce blood flow, or sending a flush of warmth to the skin and robbing you of the core heat you need to stay warm.
We end Part 1 with a mention of certain foot treatments that can help keep your feet warm. First, if you are preparing for a high exertion activity, you can slather your feet with an anti-perspirant to reduce sweating. This also works well when you wear a vapor barrier layer to reduce sweating inside the vapor barrier.
Another approach is to sprinkle a little cayenne pepper inside your socks in the toe and forefoot area to stimulate capillary action. It’s very important to only use a small amount of pepper, and avoid rubbing your eyes after touching your socks containing the pepper. This cayenne pepper treatment is actually a good technique for keeping feet warm. The trick is turning off the warming effect after you have finished your activity – remove your socks, wash your feet thoroughly with soap and water, and then deactivate the pepper by thoroughly rubbing lotion into the feet.
For the times when your shoes/boots freeze up and you can’t get your feet warm, or if you normally have a difficult time keeping your feet warm, this is the solution.
Finally, we can’t overlook the wonders of chemistry, meaning foot warmers. There are many different brands of chemical foot warmers available in different sizes. When you open the package they start a slow oxidation (burn) that gives off heat. They can be put on top of the toes (outside your socks) inside the shoes, or between your shoes and booties. The warmers are supposed to last up to 6 hours, but they usually fade after about three hours. If you use one for only an hour or so, you can save it for later by sealing it tightly in a plastic bag. That will stop the oxidation process and store it temporarily so you can use it again.
If you’re expecting us to discuss battery powered insoles and socks, forget it! Our principles and techniques are limited to an organic, knowledge-based approach to keeping our feet warm, not a quick fix. Well, okay, maybe the chemical foot warmers are the exception!
Here is a re-cap of the important points in this section for keeping your feet dry and warm:
- We want to maintain a layer of warm moist air next to our skin, and wick excess moisture away from our feet
- Avoid cotton!
- Wear insulating socks made of merino wool and wear a wicking liner sock under them to avoid blisters
- Wear shoes that are large enough to accommodate extra sock layers
- Wear breathable shoes when possible to allow moisture to escape
- Wear waterproof shoes when they are truly needed
- Moisture from sweat accumulates in socks, and only a small amount is enough to make your feet feel damp and cold
- The best way to remove moisture is to change socks
- Use the layering system to insulate your feet
- Dry shoes and socks thoroughly between uses
- In frigid temperatures, use a vapor barrier sock to maintain warmth with fewer layers
- Maintain your core temperature to keep warm blood flowing to your extremities
- Eat to maintain your metabolism and body heat
- Stay hydrated for better circulation
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking which interfere with circulation or cause unnecessary heat loss
- Take advantage of tricks (anti-perspirants, cayenne pepper, and chemical warmers) for some outside help
Preview of Parts 2 and 3
In the next two installments of this article we will explore the components of a lightweight footwear system, identify some of the best gear options, and assemble lightweight footwear systems for different activities and conditions.
About the Authors
Will Rietveld has BS and MS degrees in Forest Science and a PhD in Ecological Physiology and Biochemistry. He spent his entire career with the Research Division of the USDA Forest Service, where he worked as a research scientist, project manager, and national R&D program administrator.
Now retired, he lives in southern Colorado where he takes up a new career of backpacking year-round in the mountains and canyon country of the Southwest. He has been a lightweight backpacker for 40 years and an ultralight backpacker for 8 years.
Will joined the Backpacking Light staff in April 2004. For Will, gear testing and writing reviews and technical articles on outdoor gear fits in well with his passion for ultralight backpacking, and utilizes his research and writing skills from his former career.
Janet Reichl has a BS in Occupational Therapy and worked in the medical field specializing in hand therapy. She retired at the same time as Will, and also enjoys living in southern Colorado and backpacking in the mountains and canyon country of the Southwest. She has backpacked and canoe camped for 27 years and has been an ultralight backpacker for 8 years.
Janet is a professional seamstress and has made much of her own gear since she started backpacking. She is also a talented photographer and joined the Backpacking Light staff in January 2006 as Photo Editor. Janet and Will work together on gear testing and Janet provides photographic support.