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Socks.... waterproof socks, and footwear choices

OK, let me build a foundation for this question..... Where I mainly hike it is very rocky, with numerous streams that are generally 6-12 inches deep, just deep enough to go over boots. I do most of my hiking in the winter months, so there's a lot of ice-crust crunching going on. Snow is not generally an issue, but temps do sometimes stay below freezing all day. I recently (in warm weather) switched to trail runners for two reasons: lighter, and I can just blast through the creeks and keep going. Even though they dry quickly, I cross a lot of streams and so basically they stay wet all the time. Typically, when it's cold, I stop at each stream, take off socks and boots, put on water shoes, wade across, take off water shoes, dry feet, put socks and boots back on. This eats a lot of time, and I was wondering if waterproof socks were the answer, and, if so, should I just stick to the trail runners? Typical daytime temps are just above freezing when I normally do most of my hiking. Thoughts?

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13 Replies

@REI-JenK, thank you (I just love being right all the time 😉 )

Also, ANYTIME you work with waterproof materials, you have to deal with condensation (or in this case, pruning skin and blisters). Particularly if there's a good seal.

To be fair, waterproof socks are a good option IF you are more-or-less still and just trying to KEEP your feet dry (i.e. sitting or walking around camp, nothing strenuous, or trying to sleep in your bag/quilt).



@REI-JenK(and others)

BTW, to be clear AND precise, having a pair of "wet socks" and a pair of "dry socks" really only works if you wear your wet socks while your boots are wet and your dry socks while your boots are dry. Then again, if you keep wearing your wet socks until your socks AND boots are dry, then mission accomplished (which is what I do).

The other pair of socks I keep in my sleeping bag/quilt, that's so the socks I wear to sleep in are always clean and dry (which also helps keep my sleeping bag/quilt clean and dry!) Any liner socks stay with my wet/dirty socks.

ALSO, after I get to camp and square it away, I like to soak and wash my feet before sleep. For that, I use a Sea to Summit collapsible "bucket" (5ltr). And if I'm laying a lot of tracks on the trail, I try to stop about midday to switch-out [liner] socks (letting them dry as they hang from my pack).

And if you ladies are too embarrassed to dry your undies that way, try putting them INSIDE your socks and dry them both.


@SILHiker This is a really great topic, thanks for starting this conversation!

In my experience, answers to this question generally fall into two categories: prevention from getting wet in the first place, and what to do after you get wet. Most people tend to gravitate to the first option, as it makes the most sense (logically) to simply stay dry all the time. After all, 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure', right? As soon as you spend any time on the trail, however, you know nothing is ever that easy.

To address the first, typically, a pair of waterproof boots and/or gaiters will take care of the majority of water (rain, dew, small creek crossings, etc) and breathe well enough to manage heat (except in extreme cases). The issue with this solution is, of course, if/when you get wet the whole system becomes challenging, if not impossible (depending on conditions), to dry out again. Additional challenges arise when, such as in your case, you are not only dealing with being wet, but also cold, as that can rapidly escalate to a dangerous scenario if you are not able to manage staying warm.

In the second case, where you accept that you will get wet and choose instead how to manage that, is something that a lot of people don't really think about as an option. This is why this is such a great topic! Admittedly, I hadn't really thought about it until I moved to Alaska six years ago and talked with people about staying warm on winter backcountry trips when temperatures are routinely -20° F, sometimes colder. In the interior of Alaska, many winter trails travel over routes that are bodies of water in the summer (rivers, streams, lakes, marshes, etc). An interesting phenomenon happens when those freeze over in the winter and the weight of the ice forces liquid water up onto the surface. It is called 'overflow' or 'aufeis' and almost everyone who travels in the backcountry in winter in Alaska has an experience with it. Additionally, if you are exerting yourself and you run warm, you can often find yourself wet from sweat, regardless of whether you have gotten into wet snow, a river/creek, or rain. 

The most common way I found of dealing with the inevitability of getting wet on winter trips was people using non-waterproof footwear (typically insulated mukluks) with a 'vapor barrier' inside, worn over their socks (or in between two layers of socks). The vapor barrier was typically a plastic produce bag that you find at the grocery store as those are big enough to put your foot in and are super lightweight (no hesitations carrying several extras in case you tear one). People would also carry an extra pair (or two) of dry socks that can be swapped out if necessary. 

There are two caveats to this method:

  1. You need to have a solid understanding of how your body works at low temperatures. As in, do you run warm or cold? This system relies on your ability to generate heat in your feet to dry out your footwear. Moisture tends to move from a wet environment to a dry one, so cold and dry winter air can help dry your footwear out, however, your feet need to be able to stay warm enough to keep the water in and on your boots a liquid.
  2. This system only works if you can keep water out of the inside of your vapor barrier. If you're wading through streams that are deeper than your boots, then you need to be able to seal out the water. One option that may work for you, if you choose to go this route, is to find a way to seal the vapor barrier temporarily while you cross the creek and then remove the seal when you get to the other side. Products like the Revelate Designs Washboard Straps or the Redpoint Sport Straps might work for this. You'll want to be very careful to make it snug enough to keep out most of the water, but also not too tight to cut off circulation. I also recommend testing this system at home before venturing on the trail.

Lastly (thanks for hanging in for this lengthy response!), you may be able to find a pair of lightweight overboots or shoe covers that could do the trick. None of the brands we carry make something like that (that I could find) but a quick google search of 'lightweight waterproof overboots' could get you moving in the right direction. You'll just want to make sure that they are designed to step into with your whole foot going inside (some 'overboots' for cycling or motorcycling don't have bottoms). There may be a couple options that will help you get across streams and then be light enough to stash in your pack when you're done.

Hopefully this helps, thanks again for starting this conversation!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

Good GAWD!  Good ol' fashioned GUTS is still easier, faster, lighter, and simpler! (so is the wet socks / dry socks approach!!).

Still, interesting to hear how they deal with it in Alaska, although I hear water is water wherever you go. It's kinda like sand at the beach; if it's there, it's gets EVERYWHERE! Meaning you'll NEVER be able to keep it ALL out. So, we're ultimately back to EXPECTING and ACCEPTING a certain level of discomfort (after all, it IS the wilderness, yes?) 

But okay, for discussion's own sake, if we're talking a water/moisture barrier that is both waterproof AND breathable for the feet, we're taking Gore-Tex SOCKS... or did noone think of that? There are also waterproof boots designed for kayaking, useful since they are designed to be worn in water and have tough soles so you can step on reasonably sharp rocks (yes, I own those too). 

The problem is not keeping the water from getting THROUGH the barrier, it's keeping the water from getting AROUND the barrier (as in over the top of the sock/boot). You can try sealing it with velcro or laces/drawstrings, but it will feel like your circulation is cut off. You can try good ol' duct tape, that may work better for a short crossing, but all day crossings? Not without checking and wrapping fresh tape. 

I say just pretend you're a backpacker and "embrace the suck!"