Picking the Best Boots for Winter Adventures!!

One of the most important pieces of gear for winter adventures is a good pair of boots.   Regardless of what winter adventure you’re doing, if your feet get cold , it could be a miserable experience and even dangerous if your out for extended periods of time in the backcountry and  frostbite sets in.
Keeping your feet dry and warm in the cold winter months can be a challenge and takes some experimenting to find what works best for the type of activity and terrain you’re in.  You can find tons of information on the web, but it can become overwhelming at times and even a little confusing.
The best thing to do, is to spend some extended periods of time in the elements, even an overnighter, to understand the different cold weather conditions and how to control moisture.   Your feet WILL sweat or the weather can warm up, creating wet snow conditions and how you manage that moisture is what will make or break an adventure.
A lot of times when I’m out snowshoeing or hiking in the winter months I wear my Gortex running shoes with some Smartwool sox and a pair of gators.  If I’m only out a few hours and I’m moving that entire time, I don’t have a problem with cold feet even when they get a little wet.   Sometimes i’ll carry an extra pair of sox to change into if needed.   If i’m out on a longer excursion with some stops or if I’m doing  an overnighter, I’ll be sure to get into a good pair of boots or mukluks.
I’ve tried several pairs of boots from different manufacturers, some good and some not so good, the price of the boot won’t necessarily guarantee a good fit  for your activity.
As I stated before the best thing to do is get out and spend some time outdoors in different conditions and for different lengths of time.   If you live in the midwest, an expensive mountaineering boot might not be the best boot for you.   It’s important to know what your activity is and how long you’ll be spending outside in the elements.
Talk to friends who have experience and ask what type of boot they use and what works best.   My friend Matt has spent weeks in the backcountry of Northern Michigan and Canada in sub-zero temperatures and has experimented with many boots until he found the best system.   Matt’s been a valuable resource when I’m looking for the right boot for a winter adventure.
Another good way to try different boots, is through renting.   You might not find many outdoor gear retailers that rent boots, but many winter festivals or races that have gear sponsors, will have boots for trial.   The gear sponsors want to sell their brand and the best way to get you to buy is let you use their gear.   I’ve tried several pairs of boots at the Ice climbing festival in Munising Michigan.   I was able to wear the boots for the entire weekend, snowshoeing and ice climbing.
I came across this article by Michael Blair from New England on a hiking  blog that I follow, and thought it was worthy of posting here.
Don’t let cold feet ruin YOUR winter Adventure, find the right boot and enjoy the Winter months!!

Below treeline hikes often require less technical winter boots

Every season there is a lively discussion among those that hike and backpack in the winter about what the “right” pair of boots are. The problem is that the correct answer is “it depends” on what you are doing and where you are going.

You will likely need different boots if you hike above tree-line, hike below tree-line, or do overnight trips. That and the characteristics of any given  trip ( always moving or a lot of standing around), terrain (steep vs. flat), conditions (temperature, slush, snow, ice, etc.), and personal factors (circulation or “always cold”), are also factors that influence boot selection.

Below, I write about the winter boots I have seen work on the trails here in the Northeast, mainly New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. There are volumes written about this topic so I am only hitting on some of the high-level issues that I tell people new to the winter hiking scene.

I would also encourage you to do more research using the links provided below.

Types of Winter Hiking Trips

Many of the hikes that we do in the Northeast involve steep icy terrain both above and below tree-line terrain so you will probably need winter boots that are designed to handle these conditions.

Descending Mt Lafayette and Franconia Ridge in Winter

Descending Mt Lafayette and Franconia Ridge in Winter

Intermediate-level trips that climb peaks often require hiking for 8-10 hours in winter conditions in cold temperatures with slush, snow, and icy trail conditions. In New Hampshire, some examples of below tree-line winter hikes are the Hancocks, the Kinsmans, and the Osceolas. Above tree-line hikes include Franconia Ridge and the Presidentials. Overnight trips usually involve both above and below tree-line travel.

Types of Winter Hiking Boots

The boots you wear on a summer trip are not usually acceptable for use in winter because if they get wet, they and your feet will freeze. Besides being painful, frozen feet can result in disfiguring frostbite injuries.

There are basically three types of winter boots:

  1. Single layer uninsulated boots
  2. Single layer insulated boots
  3. Double layer insulated boots

Within each type there are multiple sub-types and different configurations. For example, there are double layer insulated boots that consist of rubber/leather outers with removable felt liners, rubber/leather outers with removable thinsolite liners, or plastic boots with removable thinsolite liners.

In addition, winter hiking boots should be:

  • waterproof (rubber lowers and leather or plastic uppers)
  • well insulated (400 grams or more of insulation, rated at least to 20 below zero)
  • snow shoe compatible (make sure your snowshoe binding works with your boots – in advance)
  • crampon compatible (if the sole is flexible you need crampons that are also flexible or they will break)

Make sure your winter boots fit with all of your "traction devices"

Make sure your winter boots fit with all of your “traction devices”

Matching Boots to Weather Conditions

Below Tree-Line Hikes

Before last year, I used Keen Summit County winter boots (rated to -40) and had no problems hiking to any of the highest summits in New Hampshire or Vermont, even above tree-line. They were warm and worked well with light traction (MICROspikes and Hillsound Trail Crampons), snow shoes (MSR Evo Ascents), and mountaineering crampons (Black Diamond Contact Strap – modified with a flexible leaf spring).

Last year I started wearing the Garmont Momentum Mid (-15 degrees) boots because the Keen boots were out of stock and I got a good price on them  – I have been very happy with them too. For even colder temperatures I have a pair of Garmont Momentum GTX boots (-50 degrees).

Above Tree-Line (or steep icy) Hikes

I have used the Keen Summit County boots with no problems when going above tree-line but only for a short time. If I am going to be above tree-line for an extended period of time, I prefer to use a boot with a rigid sole since I will likely be spending a lot of time either wearing crampons or kicking steps into the slope.

If you have ever tried either of these things with flexible soles you know why it is easier with a more rigid sole. Last year, I got a great deal on the La Sportiva Nepal boots and while they are not really insulated they are very warm: I have used them in cold and steep conditions in the White Mountains and up in Maine’s Baxter State park without any problems.

Overnight Trips

If you plan to do overnight trips,  get boots with removable liners so you can put them in your sleeping bag to dry them out and keep them from freezing at night. I haven’t done any winter overnight trips but the boots that I hear the most positive things about are listed below.

You may want to consider renting some from REI or EMS before buying them to make sure they’re right for you.

Try your boots on with multiple sock combinations to get a good fit

Try your boots on with multiple sock combinations to get a good fit

Buying Winter Boots – Return Policies Matter

When buying winter boots, especially more technical mountaineering boots which cost can cost between $250 – $600 per pair, do yourself a big favor and buy them from a retailer like REI or Eastern Mountain Sports that have a 100% guarantee, no-questions-asked return policy. No matter how much you wear a technical boot indoors, you won’t be able to predict how well it will fit until you use it outdoors, try it with many different sock combinations to dial in the fit, and actually hike with it for a few hours on snow. Buying the wrong pair of boots can be misery, not to mention financially ruining.

As of last year, many REI and EMS stores began accepting returns of boots even after they had been used outdoors if they didn’t fit. Don’t misuse this generous return policy, but if you make a mistake, return the boots and try again.

Final Thoughts

I know there are many other opinions and people have had success using other boots so keep that in mind – do your own research and get what works best for you for the types of hikes that you plan to do.

I hope this helps answer some questions, but I am sure there are still more. In any event, don’t hesitate to leave a comment if you have any more questions that Philip, myself or other more experienced winter hikers can weigh in on.

About Michael Blair

Michael has been hiking since 2007 and runs one of the largest and most active hiking groups in New England – the Random Group of Hikers, with over 2500 members.  Michael is a four-season hiker that enjoys taking people out on both day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips anywhere in the Northeast. When he’s not leading trips he is a volunteer field instructor at the various Appalachian Mountain Club Outdoor and Mountain Leadership Schools.

Written 2012, Updated 2013.

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