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Cold Feet
My Experiments in Remaining Unfrozen

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Cold Feet

My favorite time to go trekking, tramping or even camping, is in the winter. The woods are empty after deer season closes. The bugs and snakes have evaporated. The night sky is filled with stars, bringing to mind the saying, "clear as a bell and cold as hell".

There you are, snug in your half camp or diamond shelter, blazing fire reflecting in. You are comfortable, all warm and toasty, sipping hot tea or cider. Then it happens. The primordial urge strikes.

Around the warmth of the fire the snow has melted. The only dry area is in your camp. To get to the bushes there is the mud, then the slush and finally the snow. Hopefully you don't add insult to injury while visiting the bushes. Back through the snow, slush, mud and back to camp. Yes, that spare pair of moccasins is now wet.

The main pair was soaked wandering the snowy woods in search of the elusive squirrel. Stepping in that snow and thin ice covered mud puddle didn't help either. Isn't there a saying to the effect that wet moccasins are just a decent way to go barefoot?

How might a mountain man have kept his feet warm? Speaking of a winter crossing of the Rocky mountains, Capt. Randolph Marcy, in the Prairie Traveler, informs us of his choice of footwear. "In traveling through deep snow during very cold weather in winter, moccasins are preferable to boots or shoes, as being more pliable, and allowing a freer circulation of the blood. In crossing the Rocky Mountains in the winter, the weather being intensely cold, I wore two pairs of woolen socks, and a square piece of thick blanket sufficient to cover the feet and ankles, over which were drawn a pair of thick buckskin moccasins, and the whole enveloped in a pair of buffalo-skin boots with the hair inside, made open in the front and tied with buckskin strings."

The soldiers wintering at Valley Forge, after building huts for shelter, tore their tents into strips and wound them around their feet. It was also common for them to stand on their hat to help insulate their feet from the frozen ground and snow while on watch.

As long as you keep your moccasins dry, you have a fighting chance of keeping your feet warm, or at least not frozen. As soon as they get wet, the cold zips through like the wind through polyester pants. Grease does make them more water resistant, at least from incidental contact, but they transmit cold easier. They also seem to take longer to dry away from the fire than bare leather.

As an experiment, I tried dried leaves and moss stuffed into my moccasins as insulation. The leaves were rather uncomfortable and didn't seem to work well. I tried filling the moccasins and then putting them on, then by partially filling them, finishing the job after they were on. Without fail, all the leaves went directly into the toe leaving the rest of my foot bare and cramped. The leaves I managed to get on the bottom were soon crushed and the ones on top didn't seem to do anything. The few leaves on the bottom helped insulate me from the cold ground, at least until they got damp. I put this method in the "better than nothing" category.

Moss works better than leaves. Moss seems to be more crush resistant somehow. All of the dirt and other foreign material needs to be removed for it to be comfortable enough to walk on. It is much harder to find and needs to be replaced, or at least replenished, as the day wears on. The main drawbacks are getting it under your foot and out of the toe and simply finding moss in the woods when you need it. I put this method in the "use it if you can find it" category.

Rabbit skins can be turned fur side in and made like centerseam moccasins without flaps. Slipped into your moccasins, they work pretty well until they get damp. Wool liners made the same way with large flaps to wrap around your legs or small flaps that can be decorated for the warmer days also work well.

Wool socks were a common trade item at the original rendezvous. Wool works well as an insulator, even when damp. Many people make the claim that wool will retain warmth when wet, but my experience is that water transmits heat much better than wool socks can retain it. You will be warmer by wringing out soaked socks and moccasins as best you can. A spare dry pair or two to change into works even better.

When at a more lax rendezvous, or when just impressing the natives, I have found that homemade crocheted (afghan stitch) wool booties work very well. The bootie pattern that raises the least eyebrows looks like centerseam moccasins without flaps. Such slippers were worn by the gentry with a dressing gown. If your persona is a backwoods farmer or other type family man you could possibly made an argument for the booties. As a single woodsrunner or trapper, the likelihood of having such city items would seem rather remote.

My choice of footwear in the winter woods runs to two pairs of medium weight wool socks with wool liners in greased center seam moccasins with the flaps stood up, covered with a pair of wool half leggings under a pair buckskin half leggings. The whole mess is then wrapped with thongs to hold it in place. This arrangement keeps out most of the snow, and as long as I stay out of wet areas, keep my feet reasonably warm. I carry two spare pairs of socks and a spare pair of moccasins to change into as needed.

I must warn you, however, not everyone agrees with my choice. Most people do agree that warm feet makes for a more pleasant outing. Just how to keep them warm can make for long fireside chats, with as many opinions as there are people.

So, what is the answer to the wet feet we started out with? Why, just pull those wet things off, prop them up to dry and stick those feet near that warm fire. If you are camped with someone that needs to be impressed, the plan is to head for the bushes barefoot. The mountain men waded winter streams to set beaver traps, didn't they?


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