Ryan Jordan with wet feet on a November circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail.
Spring - the "season" that we who live and play in the mountains generally refer to as Thank-God-winter's-over - offers unique challenges as we hang up our skis and begin again to fantasize about walking long distances. In my trekking home - that high swath of mountainous land in Southwest Montana and Northwest Wyoming known as Greater Yellowstone, "spring for trekkers" comes to our foothills sometime in March and lasts into the high country well into June. Foremost among the challenges that spring hikers face is the presence of melting snow and the prospect of continuously wet feet. As such, finding hiking partners to join me in these conditions - and help me test my theories about ultralight footwear - is challenging!
Unlike during the winter, when insulated, waterproof footwear is a must, spring offers some latitude in your footwear choices.
In the spring of 2006, I evaluated many different footwear systems while I trained for a trek in the Western Arctic (see companion piece, "Roadless", in Issue 7 of Backpacking Light Print Magazine). Temperatures, which were generally above freezing, meant that keeping my feet warm on dry trail and hardpack snow was not a great challenge. But the presence of moisture-heavy snow, the prospect of postholing, and the need to wade cold creeks flush with melt water meant that having footwear that managed moisture was important. Waterproof footwear systems keep external moisture at bay but result in hot feet in drier, milder conditions. And, the well-draining footwear common among summer hikers fails to keep feet warm at colder temperatures. Selecting trekking footwear for spring walking can be a great challenge!
After trying out a variety of sock-shoe-gaiter combinations, including those incorporating vapor barrier and waterproof socks, shoes with waterproof-breathable liners, and even full-coverage (down to the sole) "super-gaiters" that I made specifically for trail running shoes, I finally settled on two systems that I found to be versatile, effective, and lightweight:
- A neoprene-overboot system for snowshoeing and colder conditions.
- A mesh-shoe system with high gaiter for warmer spring conditions.
The Overboot System
The overboot system was borne from a similar system that I use for snowshoeing in the winter. It is built around an ultralight neoprene overboot (ultralight, yes, but not unlike the overboots that high altitude climbers use), and was designed to be integrated with snowshoes in the deeper snows of the high country in early spring.
The prototype overboot was custom-made for me by Joel Attaway at Forty Below in Graham, Washington. Joel used 2-mm thick neoprene for the foot shell and 3-layer eVENT for the upper gaiter, resulting in a construction that weighed a remarkable 14 oz for the pair. When worn over a waterproof-breathable running shoe (Montrail Susitna GTX) and combined with a boot sock (Darn Tough Full Cushion), I had a footwear combination that weighed well less than two pounds per foot but could keep me warm below freezing and remain sufficiently waterproof throughout the day (so that my feet wouldn't get cold as I continued to hike into the night, or when my activity level dropped in camp). What I really liked about this system was the ability to decouple the overboot (and snowshoe) from the sock-shoe combination, so that I had sufficiently waterproof footwear for lower elevation approaches and forays into the valleys as I trekked my traverse routes through Montana's mountains.
However, this system did suffer limitations. As the temperatures rose into the 40s, the neoprene overboot sealed in warmth and my feet became uncomfortably hot. In addition, having waterproof shoes meant that slogging through lower elevation mud and slush - without a gaiter - left my feet macerated and feeling ... icky. I eventually mitigated the former problem by making some overboots that used 1mm neoprene (10 oz/pair!), and I mitigated the latter problem by including a short, waterproof gaiter as part of my kit. The addition of a gaiter was agonizing, for obvious reasons related to ultralight principle: the short gaiter and the gaiter built into the overboot serve repetitive functions and cannot be used in concert with each other.
The High Gaiter System
As spring evolved, temperatures warmed, lower elevation trails dried, and the spring snowline eked higher, I switched from an overboot to a full length gaiter made of eVENT, sewn directly to the cuff of my shoe (to eliminate the complexity and failure of a gaiter strap).
I found that the Susitna GTX waterproof shoe became too warm for snow-free trails, and too water retentive for the soppier conditions, so I fought maceration often (see sidebar for tips on mitigating maceration). I eventually replaced the Susitna with the Montrail Vitesse (a drainable mesh trail running shoe). I found the mesh shoe to offer great benefits (drier feet!) in late spring, since I was wading more creeks (the snow bridges had by now disintegrated), postholing in softer snow, and battling more mud, in addition to enjoying longer mileage days by hiking more dry trail. The high gaiter kept snow out of my shoe and pant while postholing and mudslogging and preserved warm bloodflow to my feet when temperatures dropped (if you don't believe that this is important, spend some time snow hiking in ankle high socks and low cut shoes in the absence of gaiters!).
The Warm Sock
During the summer, I'm an advocate of thin socks. In fact, my summer sock for hot, dry conditions is a simple merino wool liner sock (Smartwool) that I usually trim and resew to ankle height. It weighs about an ounce per pair.
But during the spring, I find that not only do my socks suffer more abuse (primarily from increased friction resulting from poor footing, sidehilling, and snowslogging), but they are my primary defense (especially in the absence of the neoprene overboot) against cold feet.
So, somewhat ironically (since ultralight hikers seem rather fond of ultrathin socks), I prefer a warm, high, boot sock with my spring trail running shoes. The luxury of having my foot encased in a nice thick layer of merino wool far outweighs any calorie expenditure of carrying the extra weight on my feet! My spring sock of choice is the very durable, well-fitting, and warm Darn Tough Full Cushion Boot Sock.
When spring snows finally melt away and the sun bakes the trails dry, making decisions about socks, shoes, or gaiters becomes more influenced by personal preferences and hiking style. In the spring, however, I find them to be choices that are worth spending time on, so that your feet remain as dry as possible, as warm as reasonable, and as maceration-free as practical for the duration of a long spring trek.(This article originally appeared in Backpacking Light Magazine, Issue 7, pp. 32 & 81-83. Click here to order back issues.)