Sometimes while backpacking you have to cross streams, and from a weight point of view, it would be nicer to just cross in your bare feet, instead of bringing an extra pair of shoes along.

These situations wouldn't be raging rivers but rather streams that can't be crossed without getting your feet wet, where crossing in bare feet seems like the simple solution.

However, I have seen outdoor backpacking organizations mandate closed-toed shoes for all stream crossings.

What are the risks of crossing a stream with bare feet?

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    outdoor organizations mandate? How are outdoor organisation in a position to enforce (rather than recommend) behaviour? – gerrit Apr 25 '17 at 23:07
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    @gerrit If you are on a paid backpacking trip with a guide then they are in a position to mandate it. – Charlie Brumbaugh Apr 25 '17 at 23:51
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    @EricDuminil That's why you always need to use a stick or pole when fording. – gerrit Apr 26 '17 at 10:16
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    For some reason, when I read "risks of stream crossing" my first thought was "Ghostbusters"... – Tobias Kienzler Apr 26 '17 at 11:22
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    Please avoid this if you can, I have had fairly severe cuts on my feet in the past requiring stitches after trying this, where there have been hidden, sharp rocks on the riverbed, either where the distortion of water has hidden the fact they are very sharp or they were concealed in mud or silt. - Really ruins a hike when that happens. – Vality Apr 26 '17 at 16:46

I think there would be many times when crossing barefoot would be fine. However, a number of potential risks do exist.

Those can include:

  • Getting scraped or cut on either the bottoms or sides of your feet. Culprits could be various sharp items, including broken shells, broken glass, pieces of fish hooks, bottle caps or other sharp litter.
  • Stubbing your toes on rocks, pebbles, or unexpected items in the water.
  • Slipping on rocks, or river bottom areas, that are wet or slimy from something like algae.
  • Twisting an ankle or two due to lack of support.
  • Being bitten by something in the water.
  • Picking up a bacterial infection from something in the water
  • Losing your balance as you go in or out of the water at the crossing point

In areas of very clear water, many obstacles can be avoided, and slipping would be the most likely problem. If the water is dark or murky, you're more likely to step on something just because you couldn't see it.

Some of the hazards might be more likely if you're carrying a backpack, especially if it's heavy. For instance, if the load shifts you may lose your footing more easily, whereas the support of a shoe might keep you more steady.

Also, if anyone in the group has a pre-existing condition that makes barefoot walking less than ideal to start with, they might be more susceptible to problems in the water. That's true for me. An old leg and foot injury left permanent problems (mostly lack of feeling in one foot) so I'm not even allowed to walk in the yard barefoot anymore. Your party has already decided to cross barefoot, so that's probably not an issue in this case!

My husband and I have crossed a lot of rocky streams in the White Mountains area of New Hampshire. We don't go barefoot, but love the feel of the water rushing on and around our feet. We wear flip-flop sandals with some texture under the foot and on the bottom of the sole. They give some support, and are lightweight and easy to carry. That doesn't technically answer your question, though. I just thought I'd share it as an alternative.

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    @Paparazzi They will prevent foot lacerations from submerged objects that would be likely to get infected. – user11603 Apr 26 '17 at 7:06
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    It's a good list (+1). Many river shoes don't cover the ankles, or if they do only enough to protect from impact, not to give any real support. I couldn't fancy crossing a river in flipflops as they're too slippery but sports sandals can be very good. – Chris H Apr 26 '17 at 12:11
  • I don't think shoes would typically protect from bacterial infection, assuming you already have open wounds on your feet. – Octopus Apr 26 '17 at 17:56
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    You got my +1 after reminding me of a specific incident. I was out with some friends, some of whom were barefoot in the stream which was flat-bottom and only a few inches deep. It was, however, slippery in spots and one of the barefoot people slipped. She broke her arm (complete break, not just a fracture) and we had to carry her out. Fortunately we were only a half-mile to a mile into the hike; that was a long way to carry someone sure, but if we had been midway (multiple miles) that would have been a nightmare. – Aaron Apr 26 '17 at 19:36
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    @Sue Been on lots of outings, so I have lots of dreadful stories unfortunately =/. These just happen to be the only ones I was reminded of and were on topic for this post. We were probably too careless on some occasions. I had another friend tumble at least a hundred feet down a very steep hill and land on a log, and that guy also got hit by a car while biking (his fault, not the car's; he was being stupid). I fractured my wrist once on ice. Cut myself bad in a night forest hike when I accidentally ran full speed into a barb-wire fence that I couldn't see in dark... etc.Thank God we are alive. – Aaron Apr 27 '17 at 14:35

The principal risk is that you will slip and fall. Depending on the force of the water and what is downstream, this could be serious.

Look at the tread on your hiking boot or running shoe or even tennis shoe, and then look at the sole of your foot. Unless you can pick out a sandy route with no rocks to cross the stream, it is pretty obvious that there will be more friction between the streambed and the shoe than between the streambed and your bare foot, i.e., you will be less likely to slip and fall. The better grip of your shoes also allows you to cross the stream faster.

A secondary benefit of crossing with your shoes on is that very cold mountain streams will feel much less cold if your feet are insulated by boots and socks.

Yes, your shoes will get wet. But you can pour the water out and pat much of the moisture out with a towel or sweatshirt. You can also change to dry socks. If you have more streams to cross than you have pairs of dry socks, wear a thin undersock of some very low friction material to protect your feet against chafing.

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    Also cold water will make your feet numb in no time. Numb feet won't feel where they step. Numb feet slipping on sharp rock equals seriously injured feet. – Guran Apr 26 '17 at 7:34
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    I once crossed barefoot though a shallow spring fed stream that was moving fairly quickly. Even though the water wasn't especially cold (50F/10C) because it was moving so fast, the convection under my feet created an extremely painful cold sensation as it rapidly cooled the blood in my feet. A simple pair of sandals will protect the bottom of your feet from this effect although I would prefer old canvas shoes. – JimmyJames Apr 26 '17 at 14:04
  • While I agree with the general advice you give, I disagree with one specific thing: depending on the footwear, it is not so easy to just "pour the water and pat the moisture out." Especially combined with the chill you mention: if your hiking conditions are cold enough that the chill is a concern, I might be tempted to go barefoot just to keep my shoes dry. Cold feet for a minute is better than cold feet for hours. – Aaron Apr 26 '17 at 19:42
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    "[I]t is pretty obvious that there will be more friction between the streambed and the shoe than between the streambed and your bare foot" That doesn't seem obvious at all. Any form of tread pattern is liable to decrease friction against a rock, simply because it decreases the contact area. – David Richerby Apr 26 '17 at 20:57
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    @JimmyFix-it Slick tyres are only needed on cars because of the combination of their width and their rotational speed. Bicycle tyres are much narrower and slicks work just fine there, in the rain. Aircraft tyres have very minimal tread (just a couple of circumferential grooves) because the contact weight is so much higher. Since shoes aren't very wide and don't move very quickly, it's not clear that tread buys you a lot, though it's certainly possible that it does. – David Richerby May 7 '17 at 20:13

Barefoot danger possibilities: Nails, broken glass, discarded can lids, sharp rocks, ripping off toenails, general cuts and scrapes, lots more.

After trying various options, including barefoot, I'm going to buy light sandals for around camp, hiking on wet days, and stream crossings. I can't hike in wet shoes, even if I cross with shoes but sockless and put my dry socks back on after letting my feet also dry. Just no good for me.

If you want to experiment carefully, sacrifice a pair of thick socks (i.e., get them wet). Stockingfoot waders (which I've never personally used) have felt soles. Fuzzy dense fabric like that grips wet rocks far better than any rubber and will offer some protection, including (maybe) slipping off if you get a foot trapped between or under rocks.

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    May I also suggest wool socks instead of cotton for hiking? Much drier on the foot. – Bob Jarvis Apr 26 '17 at 3:07

Helminthiasis of various kinds does not even rely on open wounds. Schistosomiasis is particularly ugly and is on the incline.

You did not specify just where you are backpacking: there may be other parasites around. Of course, with organized backpacking trails, a certain ratio of the group is expected to use new shoes etc and thus is likely to get blisters or other kinds of potentially open sores at the feet that are great for bacterial infections. This goes in two directions: feet softened by exposure to water are more likely to break open when continuing the hike.

Some blisters are a matter of timing: the risk of infection is lower when the blister has had enough time to run its natural course before breaking.

And slipping in a river bed is a real danger and can easily lead to twisted ankles for people used to the support of hiking boots.

So all in all I consider it likely that the statistics for forcing people to wear solid footwear when crossing are favorable for keeping incidents down.

We do it often in the Philippines. But you can cut your feet. We find there a pair of flip flops improve traction. Easy to pack. Rocks can be slick.

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