River and Creek Crossings – Dealing with Wet Feet

Whether it be a canyon trip, a simple creek crossing, fording a river or the good ol’ stuff falling from above – there’s lots of reasons why you might end up with wet socks and shoes in the bush.

Check river heights online if there’s been rain in the catchment (Coxs River, Yellow Pup Spur, Blue Mts NP)

I remember my first wet feet opportunity years ago and how I stood beside the creek trying to figure out what to do for ages.

At the time, I was in my dim dark days (now long gone) of wearing heavy leather walking boots. I was so proud that they were lined with Goretex and all, but so called waterproof boots quickly become waterproof buckets when the water goes over the top of the ankle.

In off track country, the river can be your highway. (Colo River, NSW)

It’s no wonder I couldn’t make up my mind what to do. In the end, I took off my boots and plunged my feet into the chilly water and slowly crept across the creek, trying best to avoid sharp rocks as I went.

When there’s only going to be one crossing in a day and you’re not in a hurry, an approach like this is usually going to be fine… as long as you don’t cut your feet (!).

These days, I’m much less worried about it all. I wear a Merrell shoe with mesh in it. The mesh not only helps your foot breathe better (theoretically less sweaty and stinky!) but also allows water to drain better. I’ve worn these everywhere from trekking the Huayhuash Circuit in Peru (high altitude glacial moraine) to pushing through muddy/scrubby/ rocky/rough off-track terrain elsewhere. With the amount of wear and tear I give them, they’ll probably only last a year, but for me, the pros outway the cons (of which I can’t think of any).

Basically, I just walk right on through the water if it’s safe to do so. I don’t stop on the other side to drain or dry out – I just keep going and gradually dry out as I keep walking.

OK, ok, so I hear some of you wincing about blisters. On short trips of up to 3 days, I’ve never had a problem with blisters from wet feet and dry my feet out each night. For longer trips, where your feet are constantly wet, you need to be mindful that blisters may become an issue.

What are your options?

  • Change your route or find a dry crossing up/down stream.
  • Barefoot (Pros: keep shoes/socks dry. Cons: time consuming and can injure your feet on rocks)
  • Change of shoesCrocs, Teva style sandals, Scuba Booties, Volleys (Pros: keep shoes/socks dry, give feet some protection from rocks. Cons: time consuming unless you can continue in these shoes for a large part of day depending on terrain, additional item to carry.)
  • Don’t worry about it – just walk on through (Pros: fast, especially good for multiple crossings, protect your feet, nothing extra to carry. Cons: Your feet are wet – suck it up Princess!

Q: What do you do with your wet feet?

Whichever way you choose, many people find that using a stick or walking pole is helpful in negotiating the slippery and uneven rocks on a creek bed.

The important thing to do, is to dry your feet out when you’re at camp. Here’s a simple (lightweight) solution.

Shopping bags and dry socks for camp

  1. When at camp, remove wet shoes and socks.
  2. Dry your feet and put on your dry socks.
  3. Insert your feet into a shopping bag (make sure there’s no holes!).
  4. Put your (wet) shoe back on.
  5. The warmth from your feet will help dry out your shoes, whilst your skin/feet stay nice and dry.
  6. If you’ve got a fire, try drying out your wet socks by putting them on a stick and wafting over the heat… (just don’t put them too close and watch out if they stink n steam!).

The other benefit of the plastic bag option is that it keeps your feet warm and gives you protection around the campsite… [**ed: unless your name is Dot Butler] it’s never a good idea to you walk around in bare feet.

In some places there’s no alternative than straight down the guts of a creek. Such as impenetrable scrub or steep / sheer rock faces (Ettrema Creek, Morton NP)

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  1. Rebecca L says

    Should’ve sent that plastic bag solution to “Wild” – would’ve won a sleeping bag!
    Loving the blog….. : )

  2. Ken says

    Not drying shoes or boots by the fire is also a good idea. At best it will weaken the glue, worst outcome is burnt or melted footwear.

  3. Graeme says

    The plastic bag idea was around in the 80s, though it was bread bags back then. Probably been around since plastic bags were invented. The really keen went barefoot in the bags. This saved a few ounces in the pack, that is assuming you wore the same socks the next day.

    You missed one method of river crossing, that of getting someone to piggy-back you across. Worked well, especially if were a slim female!

  4. says

    Good advice! I have tried the bag trick before, except in slightly different circumstances (my boots were wet from slushy snow, rather than a river/swamp crossing). I usually have a pair of Croc-type shoes with me (used as camp shoes), so that’d be my first choice for river crossings.

  5. Michele Galazowski says

    Sealskinz (no seal products involved) do a wonderful waterproof sock. I found them to be 100% effective on the coast to coast track (UK), when it rained all day for the first week, and included stream crossings and tracks that acted as streams. Michele

  6. Pete says

    I’d also like to offer a fifth alternative to wet crossings that I’ve used to great effect a number of times. I always carry a small swimmers rubber/chamois towel in a zip-loc bag in my pack. It comes in handy for so many things, like when someone knocks your drink bottle over in the tent….
    So when you get to the crossing point, remove your socks and put them in the top of your pack nice and dry, replace your boots (lace up as normal) and walk across the river. When you arrive on the far bank with feet in good shape, remove the wet boots, tip out the water, use the chamois to dry your feet and sponge out about 95% of the moisture inside your boots. Replace your warm, dry socks and boots as normal. The tiny bit of moisture still in the outer boot layer will dry in no time and your feet will stay dry and immediately comfy to continue your journey.
    It will only add about 4-5 minutes total to the crossing time, but make the world of difference to your ongoing comfort. Sometimes it’s the small things that make the biggest difference.
    You can rinse and squeeze out the chamois in the water before repacking it if you’re worried about the smell from inside your boots being retained. Lets’ face it, the same river was just washing through your boots anyway…
    Anyone can be uncomfortable! I learnt long ago that hardship is something to be endured, but we don’t need to practice it routinely.
    I hope this wet crossing tip is of assistance to someone else too.

    • says

      Nice idea Pete! Thanks for sharing it. I’m guilty of carrying around a chux cloth (or 2) in my pack as they’re super light and good for exactly this purpose. I will have to try it next time!

      • Tony says

        I’ve just come across this discussion. Can you combine the suggestions by putting the plastic bag on over your dry socks when you’ve roughly shammied your boots dry after crossing the creek? Or do they slip around too much when you are walking?

        • says

          Hi Tony, I haven’t tried this myself, but I would imagine that they would slip around quite a lot. Not only that, but if you leave the plastic bags on too long, they will make your feet sweat from within and not breathe… ending up with wet socks again!

        • Pete says

          Hi Tony,
          I’ve used freezer bags over dry socks inside wet trail running shoes at the end of the day during a particularly soggy multi day adventure race in the UK, so I know that works. But I must admit an aversion to the practice going back to being a little tacker and wearing old bread bags over my socks at Mum’s insistence on a day trip to the snow. I hated it.
          The rubbery swim chamois is so light and instantly dry I’ve found it never fails. A few good forceful wipes inside the boots leaves them almost perfectly dry. Of course this won’t work as well with sneaker like trail shoes instead of decent boots, because the material just holds onto too much water.
          I also used the chamois trick on my boots on the overland track in Tassie at the end of each day. I’d wash all the mud of the day off at the water tank, inside and out, leaving them thoroughly wet, then spent 10 minutes squishing with the chamois and they were dry enough to wear the next day over dry socks. The walkers I was with never listened or tried to do the same, and each morning discovered their boots were still soaking wet and horrible despite being inside a hut all night, go figure!
          Good luck with whatever method you choose to use.

      • James says

        I carry a super light weight pair of these camp shoes to cross rivers. http://www.vivobarefoot.com/au/mens/ultra-pure-mens?colour=Red/Sulphur It might take a few minutes longer to change over but means you still have dry socks and boots for the rest of the day.

        A small quick dry towel is always good to have to dry your feet with after a river crossing. Also doubles up a sweat mopper on hot days, you might not want to use it on your brow though after having just dried your feet!!

        • says

          All good tips thanks James. Those shoes look good (quite exxey if that’s all you’re using them for), so if coin is an issue, there’s cheap alternatives to these or Crocs available in most Kmart/Target type stores.
          Oh and yes to that quick dry towel (a Chux is also a cheap, handy alternative)… probably don’t want to wipe my brow/face after my stinky feet :-)

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