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Frozen boots lead to a rude awakening in Alaska backcountry

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published April 28, 2017

When I made plans to camp at Eagle and Symphony Lakes on Sept. 18, 2015, the snow caught me off guard. Just a few days earlier, I had scouted out the location from a neighboring ridge and saw a mostly snow-free valley. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

Editor's note: This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

After hiking with a heavy pack, nothing feels better than kicking back in your tent and taking off your shoes.

That freedom! Such release! Go ahead. Wiggle your toes. Point and flex your feet. Check out the blister situation. If it's cold, you might see steam rising from your feet into the air in a cool-but-gross way.

In spring, winter and fall, what you do with your shoes next will make the difference between leaving camp happily and punctually, or hopping around on one hiking boot while making breakfast.

I had scouted out the South Fork Eagle River valley from a neighboring ridge in September 2015 and thought it'd be prime for a quick overnighter. There wasn't much snow yet from what I saw.

What I failed to take into account: diurnal temperature swings and snowfall overnight.

When I set out on the trail a few days later, a fresh blanket of snow covered the valley. It was beautiful and inconvenient, two words that describe the conditions on so many outings in our beloved Chugach.

I arrived at camp heartened by the stunning views and in denial about my snow-damp hiking boots.

After eating a quick dinner, I hunkered down — boots parked neatly in the tent vestibule — and snuggled in the warmth of my sleeping bag until I dozed off.

I woke up cold, seeing my breath in puffs of white the next morning. Willing myself to cook breakfast in the frigid morning air, I grabbed my boots and noticed something wasn't quite right.

They were frozen solid.

Nothing would budge. I couldn't even loosen the laces to cram my feet in. The outside of my boots glistened with frost. The insoles were ice cold.

After a long time spent kneading my left boot into wearability, I turned my focus to the right boot. But no matter what I tried, I couldn't get my whole foot in.

And that's how you end up limping around your snowy campsite in a one-legged breakfast-cooking fury.

To this day, when I hike, I can still feel the spot on the back of my right boot that was crushed under my weight that morning.

I left Eagle and Symphony Lakes on Sept. 19, 2015, wearing frozen boots after a frigid night spent camping. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

If you're camping at temperatures hovering at or below freezing, it's worth taking a few precautions when it comes to your footwear.

Now when I take off my boots at camp, I loosen the laces judiciously. To keep them from freezing, they stay in my sleeping bag overnight.

First, though, I'll typically put my boots in a dry sack flipped inside out so any dirt or dampness stays away from my sleeping bag. When I need to use that dry sack for storage again, I'll flip it right-side out — that way, the dirt is on the outside of the bag, and whatever's inside will stay clean. Your pack's rain cover will also do the trick.

If you've got spares, hand warmers can be used to defrost your footwear. (Not a joke.)

Trying to put on frozen boots is a terrible feeling. A close second: putting on still-wet boots.

That's why even when temperatures don't fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, you should be thinking about what you can do to set yourself up for success the next morning.

In summer, I'll keep damp boots in the tent vestibule stored upside down, so moisture is able to escape through the more breathable upper part of the boot instead of staying trapped by the sole. Have removable insoles or liners? Take them out to dry separately.

If you've got tremendous foresight, you can collect those annoying packets of silica gel (desiccant) that come with new shoes and put them in your boots to help absorb any lingering moisture.

And if you're looking for a preventive measure, wearing gaiters can help keep snow, mud and water out of your shoes.

An obvious solution for drying out boots would be to place them by the campfire. If you're in a spot where you're allowed to have fires — backcountry options are limited in Chugach State Park, so be mindful of the restrictions — that can certainly be helpful.

A few words of caution, though: Watch your boots closely. To those of you packing a flask for a fireside nip of whiskey, move your boots away from the campfire while you still have your wits about you.

Putting on wet boots is bad. Frozen boots are worse. Melted boots? Now that's just a tragedy.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at vho@alaskadispatch.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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