One January when I was a Boy Scout, my troop and I went camping in Missouri to participate in an event known as “Trappers’ Rendezvous,” an annual gathering of around 6,000 Boy Scouts to trade (almost) anything, from folding knives and rabbit pelts to books and video games. This was an experience I’m very grateful to have had, as I learned not only a lot about bartering (something every serious survivalist should learn) but also a lot about caring for my extremities in cold weather. The thing about Missouri in the winter is…it’s cold! Now that I live in Colorado, I laugh at myself for thinking -6 degrees Fahrenheit at night is bad. (Where I live it gets down to -17 at night in January.) However, back then that was the coldest weather I’d camped in. That weekend our campsite was covered in several inches of snow and I (contrary to the Boy Scout motto) was not prepared for it. I had enough layers––long underwear, a couple of breathable shirts, a jacket, and a heavy coat––but for footwear I only had a pair of canvas hiking shoes that were water resistant but, as anyone who has gone hiking in water-resistant shoes or boots already knows, they were not waterproof. Water resistant pretty much means that if you step in a puddle and quickly step out of it your shoes won’t be completely soaked.
In addition to being unprepared in regards to footwear, I had only one pair of thin, acrylic gloves that I had bought from Walmart for a few dollars. Acrylic is not a bad material. (It’s actually pretty comfortable, and it’s great for spring hiking and camping.) However, for winter camping, something a bit more heavy duty, like mittens or two pair of gloves (a thin inner pair and a thick, polyester or neoprene outer pair, if you decide to wear gloves) is ideal.
After setting up camp that night, my hands and feet were, understandably, quite cold. Luckily, I had on wool socks, so I guess I did do something right. That night, I climbed into my mummy bag, shivering, and tried to go to sleep. My feet were, as one might expect, frozen. I had packed a few hand warmers (air- or shake-activated packets which produce heat), so I dropped one in each of my socks and, within a few minutes, my feet had regained feeling and warmed up to a comfortable temperature. The next morning my feet and hands were cold again, so I used two more pairs of hand warmers––one in each sock and one in each glove––to get me through the morning. Anyone who has been camping in the winter knows that you’re coldest in the morning when the sun has not risen yet; your hands and feet are stiff and numb. You haven’t eaten yet, so your body is burning fewer calories than usual, resulting in a lower amount of heat production, and your sweat has frozen to your hair during the night. If I haven’t made myself clear, I highly recommend that you keep hand warmers in your bug out bag. They’re small, lightweight, and a lifesaver when your hands and feet are numb and you need feeling in them fast.
By Sunday I was out of hand warmers, and my shoes and socks were drenched. We had loaded up our trailers with our gear, including my duffle bag, which contained my only dry pair of socks. Being the twelve-year-old boy that I was, I didn’t ask for help, thinking that asking for help would somehow be a “weak” thing to do. Frankly, this was really stupid of me. If you need help and have the ability to get it, by all means get help! There was no point in putting myself in danger when I could have easily asked for a dry pair of socks from one of the scoutmasters.
My feet became increasingly colder until I felt a very strong burning sensation. Based on my knowledge of frostbite, I had the feeling that if I didn’t get somewhere warm ASAP I was going to lose my toes. Instead of asking for help though, I (foolishly) decided to wait the few hours until we left camp. This brings me to another very important principle to remember: Do everything you can to insure your survival; don’t wait on others to help you. For me that would’ve been as simple as asking to go inside one of the cars to warm my feet up. In a SHTF scenario, that usually means relying on your skills and supplies instead of waiting for FEMA or the National Guard to assist you. If help comes, great, but don’t count on it. If you have to wait on someone else to save you, you’re as good as dead.
To conclude my story, after we left camp my feet regained their feeling in the heated car. I hope none of you ever get into that situation, but if you do remember to quickly remove your socks and shoes; if you don’t already have frostbite, warm your feet up. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and take the following precautions to protect your feet in a SHTF scenario.
This one’s pretty obvious. If you’ve ever picked up a book on hiking or camping, you’ve probably run into a paragraph or two on keeping your feet dry. It seems pretty simple to do––just don’t step in any water, right? Well, not exactly. Your feet are more likely to get wet from your own sweat– something you’ll be producing a lot of if you’re hiking much– which is quite probable if it’s TEOTWAWKI. Sadly, there’s nothing you can do to keep your feet from sweating. However, you can keep the sweat your feet produce from sticking to your skin (something you definitely don’t want, as wet feet are much more likely to get frostbite and form blisters). You should wear wicking fabrics that “wick away the perspiration from your body to the outer layer of the fabric where it can easily evaporate, helping you to stay dry and comfortable.”1 For socks, the best wicking fabric is merino wool, which you can buy from any Army Surplus or camping store.
That’s great that wool socks wick away your sweat, but how do you keep water from the outside (like rain and snow) from getting your feet wet? Your best option is to buy waterproof boots. Just remember that “waterproof footwear will keep the moisture out as long as the water doesn’t spill over the top edge,”2 so your feet will still get wet if you decide to go wading through water that is over your boots. Another option is to use leather boots that have been treated with moisture repellent. In addition to that, you could use waterproof boot covers, which are kind of like ponchos for your hiking boots.
If you find yourself in a situation like the one I was in, where you are unprepared for the elements, you can always improvise. One thing that I’ve done to keep my feet dry is wear plastic bags over my socks. The down side to this is it tends to make your feet sweat more, but if you’re wearing wool socks this shouldn’t make too big of a difference. You could also make your own boot covers out of a couple of trash bags; just be sure to cut a place for the sole of your shoe or boot to stick out to retain the grip of your footwear.
It’s equally important to keep your feet clean. Wash them at least once a day and remember to properly trim your toenails. You do not want to have an ingrown toenail during TEOTWAWKI!
Socks get wet. It just happens. That’s why it’s necessary to have several pairs of socks that you can change into throughout the day. Don’t wait for your current pair to become drenched in sweat; change your socks frequently and be sure to wash the dirt and grime out of your used pairs. Store all of your socks in ziplock bags (or other waterproof bags) and keep an extra pair of socks with you (in a coat pocket or in a day bag) so that, if you’re separated from your gear, you won’t lack clean socks.
At night, if you’re camping, throw your wet socks in the bottom of your sleeping bag. Your body heat will dry them out by morning.
Besides wearing footwear that will keep water out, you should make sure that your boots are well-fitted to your feet. There are a lot of factors to take into account when buying hiking boots (i.e., climate and terrain of the area where you’ll be hiking), so here are just a few essentials to consider:
- Are these boots too wide? If they are too wide, your feet will move around inside of them, which can cause blisters to form.
- Are these too narrow? If they are too narrow, your feet may become cramped and circulation could be cut off.
- Where is your toe relative to the boot. If your toe is too close to the tip of the boot, it will rub against it when you’re walking down hill, which I can tell you from experience is not the most pleasant feeling. Also make sure your toe isn’t too far from the tip of the boot, as this will cause your foot to shift uncomfortably inside the boot, also causing blisters to form.
There isn’t any “one-size-fits-all” formula for finding the right pair of hiking boots, so the best way to discover what works for you is to go to your nearest outdoors store and try walking around in several pairs. If you don’t like it in the store, you won’t like it when the SHTF and you have to hike 25 miles to get to your bug out location. Buy a pair of boots that work for you and remember to break them in. Don’t put your boots on the shelf until you need them. Use them now. They won’t do you any good if they’re too stiff to use when the time comes.
Below is a list of inexpensive clothing and gear that I recommend you add to your bug out bag:
- Several pairs of merino wool socks (at least 4 pairs).
- Hand warmers. (Six pair should be enough for a couple of days, but you may want more depending on how long it will take you to get to your bug out location). Make sure they last at least 10 hours.
- Trash bags, ziplock bags, ponchos, and other material that can be used to waterproof your boots, should the need arise.
- Optional: Buy a pair of waterproof boots if you live in an area that gets a lot of snow during the winter.
I’ve found that it’s more fun to read or write about guns or turning your home into an impenetrable fortress than it is to write about taking care of your feet, but sometimes it’s necessary to discuss the little things (like carrying an extra pair of socks) that can make the difference between life and death. Most beginning preppers want to get right to the “fun” stuff– guns, hunting, building a bug out location, et cetera–, but, as any experienced survivalist will tell you, it’s more important to learn how to start a fire or use a knife properly than it is to learn how to fight off an army of gang members. If you don’t know the basics (how to filter water, for instance), it doesn’t matter how many guns you have, you’ll die. I encourage you to examine your preps and make sure you’re well-rounded in each area of preparedness. Remember, it’s the little things that will kill you if you let them, so don’t let them.