How to Avoid Trench Foot while Backpacking

September 15, 2019

My weather apps are majorly letting me down. The radar will look clear, no chance of rain in the forecast, so I’ll head out only to be met with anything from a moody drizzle to a torrential downpour. Naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot while I’m out in the rain about keeping feet dry, and researching how to avoid trench foot while backpacking, once I’m home and my shoes are in the dryer.

how to avoid trench foot while backpacking - wear separate shoes for water crossings!
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

What I have been calling trench foot is actually called “immersion foot” (less fun to say, makes me feel less like a WWI soldier) and can come in a few different varieties depending on the temperature of the water your foot is immersed in. Immersion foot problems can sneak up on you easily – you can experience redness, swelling, tenderness and pain in less than 24 hours under the right conditions.

All immersion foot problems come from the fact that your skin will soak up water like a sponge. When your skin takes on water like this, it swells, which limits blood flow to the outer layers of skin, which starts to die. Sloughing off of this dead skin then can reveal tender underlayers of skin or create open sores that are a hot target for bacterial infections. Cold water and wet feet in cold weather compound this blood flow problem, since your body is already responding to the cold by routing blood away from the surface of your skin and your extremities.

So let’s say you’ve got wet weather but you’re committed to camping, or you’ve got a backpacking route that you know will involve several stream crossings. What can you do to avoid trench foot while backpacking?

  • Wear stream crossing shoes – Tevas, Chacos, water shoes – anything that will keep your hiking boots out of the water.
  • Plan for at least two pairs of socks per day – wear one, and have the other one drying on your pack. Change socks when you stop for lunch, and check your feet as you change them. Wool socks are great – avoid cotton, which is terrific at holding water. (not sponsored, but I can personally vouch for Darn Tough socks)
  • Early warning signs of immersion foot problems are pruning like you’d see if you spent too long in the bathtub, and waterlogged, paler skin. If you take off your boots and see feet that look like you just got out of the hot tub, take an extra long lunch and let those puppies dry out. Then put on dry socks before you get back on the trail.
  • Dry your feet out in camp at night! This is your best chance to get your feet back to normal (or trail normal) before you’re off again.
  • Left to its own devices, your skin will absorb a nearly infinite amount of water. You can prevent some of this by rubbing your feet with anything that will repel water – plain old Vaseline has always worked for me, but there are also a bunch of products on the market that claim to be longer lasting.
  • Watch especially for locations around blisters – covering blisters with tape can hold in more moisture, leading to dying skin next to the blister, making it very vulnerable to infection.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Scroll to Top