Your feet are your motor - they keep you moving forward. If the motor fails it will be hard to continue, and few things affect your mind as much as the feeling in your feet! Keeping your feet in good condition and wearing functional ski/hiking boots and good socks are of paramount important during a winter trek.
The multi-layer principle also applies to feet: a thin, synthetic or wool liner-sock closest to the skin, a thicker wool sock for heat and ski/hiking boots made from leather or a synthetic material, depending on the activity, as the outer layer. Just like for the rest of your body, it is a good idea if the outer material can help by releasing moisture (even if, naturally, a compromise is needed for activities that require, for example, plastic ski boots). Your ski/hiking boots should have enough space that you can move your toes even when wearing a thick sock, which means about 10-15 millimetres from the toe to the shoe. It is also important for the boots to sit snugly around the heel.
Before heading out
Check your insoles - they have a limited life span - and replace them if needed. Check that your shoestrings (or buckles) are not worn down. Also check the general condition of your boots, for example that the leather is well treated and does not have cracks, the seams are intact, the soles are fully attached and the binding attachment functions properly. Treat leather shoes with fat/wax to help them withstand moisture better.
While you are outdoors
The basic rule, of course, is to keep your shoes as dry as possible, but anyone who has been out in early spring knows that this is easier said than done. Snow melts on top of the boot and forces its way through the material and seams. In order to keep the moisture at bay, you need snow gaiters in a fabric that breathes (they are even integrated with some shoes). If you do not have any gaiters, you can make your own overboots*) out of tightly woven cotton or polyester that reach up over the knee. Make sure before you head out that they work with your ski binding, but most types of bindings can be closed even if they are covered with something.
Putting plastic bags around your feet to create a moisture barrier is only an emergency solution. The combination of the moisture that builds up in the bag and cold conditions can result in immobilisation injuries (also called trench foot), which is a serious problem on longer treks.
Remember your socks
Your socks are just as important as your boots for the health of your feet. Do not break the multi-layer principle with a cotton sock! Invest in quality socks made from wool or a wool/synthetic blend. Bring several pairs and change your socks during the day. Hang the moist pair to dry on the inside of your shell garment. This seemingly small routine can make a huge difference if you are out for many days.
Tips for warm, happy feet:
• Air your feet during breaks as often as you can
• Change your socks so the ones on your feet are always “the driest”
• Dry your socks and insoles daily, even when on the move
• Dry your ski boots, hiking boots and shoes as often as you can. Never expose them to temperatures greater than 35°C. Extreme heat can melt the glue, cause the rubber details to crack and band and shrink the leather.
• Use newspaper to absorb moisture
• Brush off all snow before entering someplace warm
• Take care of your feet: clip your toe nails, wash and massage your feet and apply skin cream
Read more about:
• How to dry your socks and shoes
Footnote: An overboot is a pull-over for your boot that is like a gaiter but also covers the underside of the foot. In order to function well on different types of surfaces, it is practical if the part of the overboot that is in contact with the ground is made of a stronger, rubber-like textile.