It stands to reason that you’d need to keep your feet happy and healthy on, say, a backpacking trip in the remote wilderness—you’re using them to transport you from one camp to the next. But although you’re taking a raft or kayak between campsites on a river trip, taking care of your feet is just as important as on any backcountry expedition—and it’s arguably even trickier in this setting, given bacteria’s preference for damp environments.
Fortunately, there are a few best practices that can help you keep those toes in tip-top shape, even on a three-week Grand Canyon rafting trip. Following these basic rules will help you avoid painful conditions like pitted keratolysis (not-so-affectionately called “foot rot” by river guides), immersion foot (caused by continuous wetness over a long period), and other scrapes, bumps, and infections.
Before you head out on your river trip, take stock of your footwear situation. If you’re on a commercial trip, your packing list will give you a sense of what types of footwear make sense for the specific river you’ll be on. Consider bringing a pair of river shoes and a separate pair of camp shoes, which will allow you to make sure your feet dry out every night (and help you avoid the nasty blisters that can form when wet sandal straps meet sandy beaches). If either pair of shoes is new, do your best to break them in by taking them on a few test hikes before you hit the river—that way you’ll know if there are hotspots where you’ll want to proactively apply moleskin or a band-aid.
It’s also always worth throwing in an extra pair of socks, which don’t take up much room but could be a lifesaver. Considering how much we rely on our feet—even when sitting on a boat!—it’s the least we can do to keep them comfortable.
Never go barefoot
There’s something almost irresistible about kicking off your sandals and digging your toes into the warm sand as you settle into camp for the evening. (How many songs involve walking barefoot on the beach, perhaps with a margarita in hand?) The margarita part is no problem, but going barefoot unfortunately is. Even the silkiest-looking riverbanks have a knack for hiding sharp rocks, sticks, and detritus from previous river trippers, not to mention how easy it is to step on a barely-submerged sharp edge if you set foot in the water. Keep those camp shoes on anytime you’re on the move.
Feet need sunscreen too!
Ask any river guide: your feet can definitely burn, despite seeming like they’d be mostly shaded or underwater while you’re on the river—and that thin, sensitive skin on the tops of your feet makes for an especially painful sunburn. Lather up as you’re applying sunscreen to the rest of your body in the morning, and reapply regularly, since exposure to water and abrasive sand can rub sunscreen off after just a few hours. Pro tip: apply sunscreen immediately before putting your river shoes on, rather than rubbing it between sandal straps once they’re on your feet. You’ll still wind up with an impressive Chaco tan, but without the angry red spots in the hard-to-apply spots right next to the straps.
Keep your feet clean…
You know it’s crucial to wash your hands at various points in the day; your feet, too, benefit from regular washing with soap and water. This goes double if you’re prone to fungal infections like athlete’s foot. When you’re off the river for the day, take a moment to wash your feet with camp soap using your group’s Leave No Trace protocols or wipe them down with a biodegradable bathing wipe. Prolonged exposure to silty river water and sand can lead to uncomfortably dry skin, so apply a thick lotion or salve to your heels and soles of your feet as needed. Consider preventively treating the areas between your toes with Tinactin or a similar topical cream, then throw on a pair of socks and camp shoes.
Your feet will certainly get wet on a river trip, but they don’t have to stay that way. In addition to the aforementioned end-of-day routine, do what you can to dry out your feet during the day—prop them up and kick off your shoes during sections of flatwater, use a camp towel to dry between your toes when you stop for lunch or breaks during the day, and always keep a dry pair of socks handy in your sleeping bag (in guide parlance, these are often referred to as “sacred socks”). This will prevent the bacteria that likes to lurk in muddy river water and damp beaches from setting up camp on your feet.
Keep a foot first-aid kit handy
Between natural hazards and the ever-present possibility of blisters, your feet will thank you if you have a few tricks up your sleeve—even well-worn shoes and sandals can cause blisters on the river, thanks to the added friction of sand. It’s worth assembling a small first-aid kit for your feet with a topical antifungal cream, moleskin and antibacterial ointment to treat blisters, nail clippers, a pair of tweezers, and a handful of band-aids. Guides on commercial trips carry a robust first-aid kit to help treat foot problems, too; either way, be sure to treat your feet the moment you notice discomfort.