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The Problem with Pac Boots for Winter Hiking

Pac boots, like the kind you get from Sorel, Kamik, Cabelas, or LL Bean, are not a good option for serious hiking in winter terrain. While Pac boots were the only inexpensive alternative to buying expensive mountaineering boots about FIVE years ago, the winter hiking footwear landscape has changed dramatically since then and much better-fitting, insulated, winter hiking boots are now available.

Pac Boots
Pac Boots

The Problem with Pac Boots

While pac boots can be used for casual walks on packed trails, standing around at winter sports events,  walking your dog, or shoveling your driveway, they usually fit quite badly, they’re difficult to get gaiters over because they’re so large, they’re heavy, they’re often too wide for crampons, and they provide no ankle support, eliminating your ability to use the footwork skills (kicking steps, front pointing, or edging) that form the basis for hiking up mountains in winter.

Pac boot liners also dry very slowly making them particularly bad option if you want to do any overnight backpacking, where you need to sleep with your liners to prevent them from freezing overnight and dry them out for use the next day.

Lightweight, Insulated Winter Hiking Boots
Lightweight, Insulated Winter Hiking Boots

The Evolution of Winter Hiking Boots

About 5-7 years ago Pac boots were the only economical alternative to buying much more expensive “plastic” waterproof mountaineering boots that had a separate insulated liner and plastic shell, but cost hundred of dollars to buy. Since then, Pac boots have been replaced by a new generation of insulated and waterproof winter boots that fit like regular hiking boots and are compatible will all snowshoes, microspikes, and more aggressive strap-on crampons.

Made by Keen, Salomon, Vasque, Merrell and others, these lightweight insulated winter hiking boots are a much better choice for beginner winter hikers and snowshoers, even if you want to test yourself in more challenging terrain.

When purchasing these boots, you want to look at how much insulation they have. Four hundred grams of insulation (usually Thinsulate) is good for hiking in temperatures between 30 degrees, down to 10 below zero (Fahrenheit). Two hundred grams of insulation is good for warmer climates where temperatures are between 40 degrees and 20 degrees, while six hundred grams of insulation is good for temperatures colder than -10 below zero. However, that’s dangerously cold and I wouldn’t advise hiking in that weather if you can avoid it.

What About Mountaineering Boots?

Good question. A lot of hikers who used to wear old-time plastic mountaineering boots for most of their winter hikes, including myself, have switched over to using the lightweight insulated hikers I describe above and I use my newer lightweight insulated boots for almost all of my winter hikes now.

For more technical climbs, especially ones where I’ll be above treeline all day and need to carry an ice axe, I like to wear my old school plastic mountaineering boots because they’re so warm (and I don’t feel like buying new boots). But like the new generation of lightweight winter hiking boots, there’s a new generation of single layer mountaineering boots available that fit more like normal hiking boots and not cinder blocks. These range from mountaineering boots with little to no insulation like the La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX and the Scarpa Rebel Pro GTX to the slightly warmer and more expensive boots like the La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX. Even warmer, high-end mountaineering boots with separate liners are still available for colder temperatures, high elevation, and expedition mountaineering, but tend to be overkill for day hiking and non-professional climbers.

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33 comments

  1. These winter hiking boots don’t have removable liners, correct? Is it safe to assume that since they are insulated, they’re going to fill with sweat while hiking and then freeze up at night? Are these only good for day hikes or am I missing something?

    • Nope you have that right. They will get moist from sweat and are only good for day hiking unless dried at night.

    • You can use a vapor barrier liner sock to keep the sweat from wetting the insulation, then they won’t freeze at night and will stay warmer during the day.

    • I have worn the last 3 years, Northface 400 gram insulated boots with a Gore Tex (GTX in any manufacturer’s model name) liner for active winter outdoors and winter camping. With mesh uppers and the Gore Tex liner, I have found the boots to remain dry from both melting snow and your feet sweating. I assume the Gore Tex liner and hydrophobic materials are the primary reason for the boots remaining dry. I do not have to put my boots in my sleeping bag to dry them out, nor have cold feet after having some hot drinks in the morning and putting them on. I am so glad I now use my Sorels only for snow shoveling!

  2. I use Scarpa Invernos when I believe the temperature could hit sub-zero(F). Moving forward I usually recommend new hikers to buy SLIs like you were talking about. In my opinion a good progression for a hiker would be to buy a good set of SLIs and then if they keep at it get a plastic boot.

  3. I would not expect todays Hikers to understand this and the Marketing Maggots of today are surely not going to tell especially from one of these companies that should know better but is not telling you.., but us old guys do…From my Original Issue of “Hunting-Fishing and Camping” 1944 Price $1.00, by none other than the creator of these Pac Boots! Mr. Leon L. Bean, less formerly known as L. L. Bean. It was due to the many hours of tramping through the Maine woods in Winter on Deer and Bear hunting Trips some on his own and some as a Guide which he was well known for and actively sought by City hunters, that Mr. Bean became very unhappy with all Leather Boots offered on the Market for Winter use, and the hours of wasted time sitting in camp before a Blazing fire in front of a Brush Wood Lean-to waiting for the boots to dry. And then usually after each Winter and Hunting Season the boots had to be throw away or given to the Dogs to chew on because of the breakdown in the Leather for constant cycle of the wetting and drying process involved in every Hunt or Camping Trip. It was from these experiences that the inventive Mr. Bean came up with the original idea to meld Leather and Rubber together in to the Pac-Boot. Pac-Boots were never meant for long distance recreational hiking, they were meant for a short trip to the Deer Stand, or a short walk on a Deer Drive (which we hear of rarely today, to dangerous because of the City folks shooting at every thing that moves) and or walks across the fields for Pheasant and Dove and other upland Game animals. On Page 31 of his book under the Chapter Title “Wearing Apparel” the Pac-Boots are mentioned as such; ” Shoes: One pair 12″ Leather Top Rubbers. I also take along a pair of 61/2″ Moccasins to wear dry days on the ridges and before snow comes”.. Mr. Bean invention was called Leather Top Rubbers and later on the competition came up with the name Pac-boots… One of the tips in the book tells of what to do if you are caught in snow where you are constantly sinking or “Post Holing” and did not bring a pair of Snow Shoes with you….Find a tree with some thick pliable Bark like Cedar…cut two sections of Bark off the tree, do not “Girdle” the tree unless you want to kill it,,But cut out two pieces of bark twice as long and wide as your feet. Poke a few holes on either edge of the Bark and then using some string tie them to your feet. Find a pair of matching 2 inch wide trees and cut them the down and to length for Ski Poles…Since most of us modern day hikers carry and use Hiking Sticks now we do not need to cut those trees down…If you can find a Copy of this Book, and are a serious Outdoors person the Information contained in the 98 pages and 43 Chapters contain a wealth of sensible Outdoor information, superior in some ways to some of the 250 plus page books I have on my shelf…But it does not cover Backpacking.

    One boot you might look at, but again I do not think it was developed for Long Distance Hiking though we did cover 10 miles on a couple of occasions, in our Winter bivouacs in the high Sierra’s at Pickle Meadows we used what we called “Mickey Mouse” Boots and carried our Leather Combat Boots in our Mission Packs to wear in bivouac..You can find them pretty easily on-line via many Military Surplus stores…

    • LL Bean was pretty much the main (only?) source of “muck boots” (what we called the pac boots) in the 1960s. These are pretty decent for dealing with heavy clay mud and for mucking out stalls (hence the alternate name).

  4. Like you said, pac boots are heavy but they are also “clunky”, a technical term meaning “you won’t make many miles backpacking in these things.”

    I spent 2 years wearing Sorel pac boots in the mid 1980’s because I was tired of frozen leather boots and wet socks and cold feet. I bit the bullet and trudged my life away. Like you say the neato felt liners eventually get soaked and so you’re back where you started.

    For my winter backpacking I use the lightest full boot I can find that will support me and my winter pack loads routinely in the 75 lb range. The lightest are usually some fabric/leather combo or a full leather like Asolo 520s. These boots are the most popular winter boot I have seen in the Southeast mountains of TN and NC and VA, but they are not insulated except for the inner GTX sock.

    It’s common to find my boots frozen like a rock on some winter mornings, no matter what they are made of, even the Sorel leather tops will freeze solid though not the rubber bottoms.

    I went to a backpacking store in Chattanooga this week and they didn’t have a single insulated hiking boot like you show in your picture, and buying boots online isn’t going to work unless it’s replacing something I already have. I don’t think Asolo makes an insulated winter boot??

  5. THe old pack boots worked well for their intended purpose, cold weather hunting, ice fishing, snowmobiling . Sports where the wearer wasn’t doing a lot of activity and probably not producing a lot of sweat. Since my winter hikes are all day hikes ( so far) I still wear my old military wolverines. They are insulated so they are reasonably warm, leather, and I can slip a toe warmer in if needed. I suspect i’ll be upgrading shortly however to one of the models mentioned above.

  6. I used the Keen Summitt County III boots last year on winter day hikes and loved them. The coldest I wore them in was -18F(ambient, not wind chill) and they worked well. But at that temp if you stood around for more than 15 minutes or so your feet would start to get cold.

  7. My feet are either cold, or they’re perspiring. Sometimes it seems like they even perspire when they’re cold. It’s OK as long as I’m active, but I need a system that lets me get rid of the moisture in the boots and socks overnight. What has worked for me for multi-day winter trips is Bean boots, unlined, with 2 or 3 pairs of socks. This is for snowshoes in rolling terrain and hills, not mountaineering. Northern Wisconsin and Michigan. The socks dry out overnight in the sleeping bag, and it doesn’t matter if the boots freeze. I would love to have the comfort and support of one of these new winter hiking boots, but they can’t manage the moisture I produce.

  8. Great discussion, just in time for winter backpacking.
    So far I’ve been happily camping in Keen’s Summit County too, they even take 10 point strap-on crampons.

    What would you recommend as a really cold weather (-20F) mountaineering/backpacking (possibly ice climbing) boot if you were making a first time decision to buy now?
    Would you still recommend the Plastic Invernos or something more modern like Scarpa Phantom 6000, which are whole 1-2 pounds lighter.
    Would the durability play a big role in your purchasing decision against the more fragile Synthetic Double Boots as opposed to durable Plastics which will last years?

    I had bunch of issues trying to find warm mountaineering boots that fit my wide feet which are always cold. I finally discovered that Scarpa boots fit me well if i upsize +2 sizes to 14US.

    Thanks for any insight.

    • I would never buy an Inverno. They’re the definition of cinder block. If I wanted a really warm boot, I’d probably by a La Sportiva Spantik ($750/pair) or a La Sportiva Baruntse ($525/pair). Koflach is also a less expensive possibility.
      Durability would play second fiddle to comfort.

      • I use Invernos. They are plenty warm but heavy. at $325 they are considerably cheaper than the other options listed.

  9. Thank you very much for quick reply, Philip! I really wanted to hear your honest unbiased (by the fact that you already somehow acquired these boots earlier in your life) opinion about the plastics and you pretty much confirmed my observations.

    I’ve tried few plastic boots but unfortunately Koflach and La Sportiva’s are too narrow, like vise on my feet.

  10. Hmmm… not seeing a d-ring to attach the front of your gaiters to on the Salomon Men’s Toundra Mid WP Snow Boot.

  11. My problem with most insulated winter boots is they don’t come in wide width sizes. I can’t even consider hiking in a regular width boot summer or winter. I wear the Columbia Bugaboot which was about the only wide winter boot I could find. Had to order up a half size and I have to tape my heels to prevent blistering as the fit is not perfect. For many winters I just used my leather hiking boots. Luckily my feet don’t get cold easily. Hoping manufacturer’s start introducing more wide selections. Hiking with bunions is no fun if the boots are too narrow.

  12. How much more comfortable are the La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX compared to plastic boots? Are they just as warm, warmer? Are they noticeably lighter? Do they fit true to size? I wear the same size in all my other boots, not sure if these run big, small or true to size. Thanks.

    • They have less insulation and Sportiva’s run narrow. But you’re going to have to try every one on and every different european size bracketing your own to get a good fit with the sock you want to wear. It’s worth going through thi sprocess, even if it does take 4 months!

    • The Evos are not nearly as warm as the plastics. I use Scarpa invernos and Evos as my 2 winter boots. I wouldn’t trust Evos below zero. If the forecast is for single digits or lower during the day I always go for heavier boots.

  13. The challenge with the trying to get the right fit is most stores either don’t carry the boot or they have limited sizes. I don’t have a wide foot so that is good. How do they compare warmth and comfort wise to your plastic boots?

    • You have to order them. Try them at home and return before your credit card bill is due.

      Plastic boots are always warmer than single layer boots because they have separate liners. The fit is always worse though because there is more between you and the snow/ice. My plastic boots happen to have a surprisingly good fit / control (Scarpa Omegas) but Scarpa stopped making them last year. I will need to upgrade sometime in the next year,

  14. Thanks. I have Scarpa Omega plastic boots, how do the Invernos comapare to the Omega’s?

  15. I would have to before my wife sees 6 charges for boots on the credit card statement. ; )

  16. What do you mean by SLI’s?

  17. What is this hiking in winter you speak of? This time of the year, I somehow find my feet mysteriously grow two planks on them for backcountry winter activities. ;)

  18. On our winter dog sledding trips we used Pac Boots with removable liners. Since we were hot tenting we could dry them overnight. Not suitable for hiking or snowshoeing, but ideal for dog sledding.

    • Keeping your feet & boots dry is the key to warm and healthy feet. I have worked ski areas in MT,WY,CO, OR and lived in AK. The real key in really cold weather is to change your liners and footbeds, also change of socks wouldn’t hurt. Most of the ski areas offer a good deal to their employee’s on snow boots. Leather top Sorels I think the model was Caribou.are the ones I used most & usually last several seasons if you winterize them. With the footbed they are a lot easier to walk in. Don’t leave your boots in a cold place like the cab of your truck or you will pay the price. LOL Ski boots well change of socks may be the only way to keep your feet dry. Boot heaters are great but create a perfect place for the dreaded nail fungus to grow.

  19. Thanks for the article. I live in Chicago and do a lot of ‘urban hiking’ (walking around avoiding potholes) and average a few miles a day throughout the year. As one might expect it can get rather cold and sloppy come January and February such that a regular boot just doesn’t provide enough warmth and Pac boots are just too heavy and activity adverse. The north face chilkat and similar Columbia bugaboot aren’t bad, but they lean more towards a Pac boot than they do a hiking boot and I was looking for the opposite. Found the Lowa Oslo boot and it’s perfect. It is very light, small profile, waterproof boot with decent insulation. Very comfortable and I often forget or don’t care to take them off when I get to work (I’m an engineer not a banker):). My feet are very happy that companies started to make a warm boot that is also a joy to walk in.

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