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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat


Part 2: In Wellington's Footsteps

by Tamia Nelson

Last time out, I talked about the combination of sport-shoe and wetsuit bootie that I dubbed the "dynamic duo." Great for whitewater day-trips, but not so good for longer backcountry tours. What should a cruising paddler wear, then? One very popular choice is the pac—the hybrid of rubber bottom and leather top that made the fortune of a man named Leon Leonwood ("L.L.") Bean. Pacs—L.L. Bean calls their version "Maine Hunting Shoes"—are light, comfortable and almost waterproof. You'll see a lot of them in canoe country. Even some sea kayakers wear them.

They're not perfect, however. The seam which joins the rubber bottom to the leather top can chafe your ankle raw on long portages. It also can't be made truly waterproof, and the leather top is just as porous as any other leather shoe. Step in water more than an inch or two deep and—you guessed it—you've got wet feet. And pacs don't dry very fast. The foam insole and the leather top hold moisture for hours. The result? Your wet feet are wet from dawn to dark. There has to be a better way.

There is. It's called the wellie, short for wellington boot. (That's wellington as in Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, "brilliant soldier and great servant of the state," in the words of one biographer.) Not the mid-calf, slip-on leather dress boots of the same name, of course, but the form-fitting, knee-high rubber boots worn by generations of British sportsmen. Thanks in part to the public fascination with the late Princess Diana, they've even become fashion items, at least in some tweedy suburbs where folks drive Land Rovers to the train station and ride to hounds on the week-ends. The haunts of the "Landy" aristocracy, in other words.

Don't be put off by wellies' fashion status, though. They're also worn by people who work on the land. People who have to be out in all weathers, no matter what. Farmers, surveyors, geologists, archeologists. In some ways, at least, wellies give you the best of both worlds. Properly fitted, you can walk for miles in them, without getting a single blister. I've logged twenty-mile days on field surveys in mine. And you can wade through water up to your knees without shipping a drop. I spend a lot of time walking on low-lying, poorly-drained trails. On flooded sections, when the sport-shoe crowd are scrambling around in the woods looking for a dry path, or hopping gingerly from tussock to tussock, hoping not to fall in, I just plow right on through.

I try not to look smug. Honest.

But don't your feet get sweaty, you ask? Yes—or least mine do. Some people are luckier. Farwell doesn't seem to have any sweat glands in his feet. I got his share, too, I guess. I sweat buckets. The solution, however, is simple. Bring plenty of socks with you (wool or wool-blend only, please!), and put on a fresh pair at lunch-time. Then dry the wet pairs whenever you get a chance. On a sunny rock at mid-day, say, or over the camp fire or stove at night.

Follow this drill religiously, and your feet need never be more than slightly damp. I wear my wellies in temperatures from 0°F to 90°F, and I've never found it hard to keep my feet dry and comfortable

What about safety? If you dump, won't your wellies fill with water and pull you down? No. Why not? First, wellies fit snugly. I've stepped in over the top of mine many times, and just walked on. When I finally got round to draining my boots, I poured out only a cup or two of water. Second, you are wearing a life vest (what the US Coast Guard insists on calling a Personal Flotation Device, or PFD), aren't you? If you're wearing yours, you don't need to worry about a few cups of water in your boots. If you aren't—well, as Commander Walker wrote in the famous telegram in Swallows and Amazons, "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN." If you aren't wearing a life vest, you're almost certainly a duffer. I don't have to say anything more, do I?

Of course, even I would admit that wellies aren't always the best choice. I wouldn't wear them for a whitewater weekend. The dynamic duo is a better alternative here. I wouldn't wear wellies to climb an alpine peak—though I've climbed a lot of eastern mountains in them. And I wouldn't wear them to a Gala Night at Lincoln Center.

For just about everything else in and around canoes and other small boats, however, you can't do better than follow in the footsteps of the hero of Waterloo. Wear wellies. I can't guarantee that you'll end up a Knight of the Order of the Garter, but I can promise that you'll never need to worry about wet feet again.

© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

That's it for now. Tamia will be here next week. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) I won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but I can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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