If you venture beyond the busy manicured hiking trails known as the Great Walks in NZ, you will enter a world of rough tracks and minimally marked routes with few bridged rivers and streams. Whether you wish to see this part of NZ independently or with a trekking guide on a hiking trip with our Wild Walks team is up to you. But whatever your choice - to enjoy this wilderness, understanding how to safetly cross rivers is essential. Part of this river crossing safety is to become accustomed to hiking in wet boots! Also see further our advice section on River Crossings.
For people who are used to trekking in dry environments or only on trails that have bridged river crossings, we have observed an extreme reluctance by these hikers to "get their feet wet". Our Wild Walks & Aspiring Guides trekking guides have been working in the NZ Backcountry for over 25 years and during this time we regularly see inexperienced hikers take totally disproportionate risks to avoid getting wet boots.
We often see people choosing fast flowing steep sections of rivers where they believe they can jump from boulder to boulder to avoid getting their boots wet. One misjudgement will result in injury and/or being swept into a fast flowing & dangerous section of the river. This seems non-sensical when hikers can cross in perhaps a slightly deeper slow moving section on the river with only a risk of wet boots! Injury & drowning vs. Wet boots - we feel the choice is pretty obvious!!
Other than for the shallowest, sandiest bottom river crossing, taking your boots off is a really bad idea. Firstly the water in NZ South Island is often snow-melt and rarely above 5 - 8C causing pain after even a few minutes of immersion. As the pain increases people to rush to complete the crossing, stumbling and slipping on rocks, increasing the risk of cutting or bruising their feet or even worse losing balance and falling fully into the water and being swept away.
Your hiking boots will protect your feet from damage, give you good grip and for the time taken for most crossings the retained heat in the boot will reduce the pain from the intense cold.
While this is certainly an option, the shoes must still be fully enclosed, with good grip to protect your feet from cold & rocks. But you will never see experienced independent NZ trampers with a pair of "river crossing shoes"! Firstly - they don't want to add additional weight to their packs & secondly they don't want to waste time changing shoes at every river crossing. For example on our NZ guided trek - the 8 day Gillespie Rabbit Pass hiking trip there are 3 major river crossings and over 30 minor river/stream & slip crossings. In our experience stopping to take change shoes takes approximatley 15 minutes. This would add another 8 hours to the trip!!
Gaiters that snugly cover the upper instep of your boot and come up to your knee are surprisingly effective at reducing the amount of water that enters your boots when crossing shallow water courses. They also signficantly reduce your boots from getting wet when walking through long grass during heavy dew as well as protecting your lower leg against scratches and scrapes.
While traditional full leather boots are extremely robust, they are also usually heavier when wet and much slower to dry than leather/synthetic composite boots.
Rather than carrying the weight of an extra pair of river crossing shoes, bring an extra pair of socks or two. Again socks with a mixture of wool for warmth and synthetic for drying properties often work well for hiking in NZ
This is just a personal tip from one of our trekking guides. "If I know for sure that after a major river crossing that there are no other deep crossings coming up soon, I will often take off my boots, fully wring out my socks, and squeeze my boots as dry as I can. However, if I know that in 10 minutes I have more river crossings to deal with - or it's raining heavily I won't bother but rely on the walking motion to remove most of the water from my boots."
This is a bit of a luxury and will depend on the length of your trip and how heavy your pack is. Certainly on short trips, this can ease the pain of slipping your feet back into wet boots first thing on a chilly autumn morning. But a better tip is to always have a dry pair to change into at the end of the day. And in the morning put on your damp rung out socks to warm them up before you put on your boots.
In some cases, wet feet can be more susceptible to blistering than usual. Make sure you have blister tape with you.
Director, Aspiring Guides
Snow & Ice Walks
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