The Best Boots for Winter Hiking by Michael Blair

Below treeline hikes often require less technical winter footware

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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13 Responses to The Best Boots for Winter Hiking by Michael Blair

  1. Michael Blair November 8, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    Thanks Phillip.

  2. Earlylite November 8, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    I think this is a great intro on the topic Michael, especially because it includes your own experience. I’ve also had excellent results with the Garmont Momentum series and think they are very warm/waterproof boots that are good for non-technical hikes and bushwhacks. They can be awful hot though – which is by design – so don’t try to wear them if the temp is above freezing.

    On the topic of overnight boots, I’d encourage newcomers to weigh your boots or boot candidates. There is a huge difference between walking in a pair of 5 pound boots and a pair of 3 pounds boots, especially if you are a woman. Michael is a big guy who is built like a hockey player and can wear or carry just about anything he wants. Lifting your quads with a heavy boot for 10+ hours is very fatiguing.

    Finally, for the benefit of your fellow hikers, make sure you take practice hikes – think of them as dress rehearsals – where you put on and take off all of your footware and traction devices before you go one a group hike. This includes your boots, gaiters, microspikes, crampons, and snowshoes. Don’t assume they’ll fit together out of the box and get good at putting them on and taking them off quickly. People don’t like to stand around in very cold weather waiting for other hikers to try their crampons on for the first time. Considered very bad form.

    Finally, if your looking for a great overnight boot with liner, check out the Scarpa Omega. They are very light, warm step-in crampon compatible mountaineering boots.

  3. Tom Murphy November 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Great article, I especially like the paragraph explaining that the different boots are needed for different winter trips.

    For day trips into the woods and lower summits, I love these.

    http://www.ems.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3652399&lmdn=Brand&cp=3677336.12223091.12223092

    My overnight trips are below treeline and I turn back on any trails that require crampons & an axe. With those qualifications, I have had very good results using a pac boot from BAFFIN. Mine are most similar to this year’s model.

    http://www.baffin.com/product-p/epicm003.htm

    Your liner socks, VBL, outer sock, boots, gaiters, and various traction devices all need to work together as a system.

    <3 Winter is coming, even if I need to head to northern Maine to find it <3

  4. mazzachusetts November 9, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Great info and perfect timing as I’m in the market. Would love to see a post like this on Winter day/overnight packs as well. As always you guys are a wealth of helpful information!

    • Earlylite November 9, 2012 at 10:35 am #

      Lots of different opinions on that one too, but an excellent question. Let me see what we can pull together!

    • Tom Murphy November 9, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

      mazz,

      I have a day pack [Osprey Kestrel 48] You definitely need a way to lash your snowshoes to the outside. The Kestrel makes that very easy.

      My overnight pack [Kelty external 5500] allows me to fit all the bulky winter gear.

      On multi night trips in the woods, I drag a pulk behind me and base camp.

      bring a good friend or a good book, cause winter nights can be long….

      TJM

      .

      • Michael Blair November 10, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

        I received a question from a member of my group about this very question – here is my reply.

        You will need a bigger bag for the winter than you do in summer because you will be carrying a lot more clothing and gear. How much bigger, that all depends – here’s my set-up …

        In the summer I use an Osprey Stratos 36 L pack that I only fill about 75%. I like having the extra capacity if I need it but rarely use it. In the winter I have two bags – both are Osprey Variants. One is 37 L and the other is 52 L. They are designed for winter climbing and have space in a rear pocket for crampons and extra lashing points on the outside to attach snowshoes and other tools like an ice axe or some wands.

        There are also loops on the waist belt (instead of little pockets) where I can hang my water and a small nalgene filled with snacks (cheese its are what I am eating right now). This keeps them handy so I can easily drink and snack while I keep moving.

        I use the smaller one most of the time and fill it with extra layers – I tend to hike “hot” so I’m often in just wearing lightweight long underwear, pair of hiking shorts, and a short sleeve tee shirt. I may also wear a vest and a pair of removable fleece sleeves that are used by bikers (http://www.rei.com/product/837215/pearl-izumi-elite-thermal-arm-warmers). This gives me a lot of flexibility but that means I also need to carry enough stuff in my pack to stay warm if I have to stop for a long time.

        In my bag are the thing I use to stay warm during breaks (i.e. puffy jacket, hat, mittens, etc.) and for longer periods (i.e warmer pants) along with the other regular and emergency stuff that I bring with me for me and the group. I am ofetn leading group hikes so I also have to carry extra stuff like a larger first aid kit and I usually have a small stove. I think my girlfriend Monica has a 30 Liter Osprey Kestral. I know it’s a Kestral but not exact on the size but 30 L will likely suffice for day trips.

  5. Shawn A November 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    What I find sufficient for our climate is a good mid-height gortex boot with wool socks. I don’t hike above tree line ever since we do not have mountains here. The coldest days I go out are around 0 degrees F, I try to avoid outings when the weather is projected to be lower than -10 which happens a handful of times here in southern WI. As long as you aren’t going above treeline or wearing crampons my Gortex mids with a wool sock are more than sufficient. I get by with just a wool liner sock, but anyone who gets colder feet can just upgrade to a thicker sock. This system works well with my snowshoes as well. That is the only traction device I have needed around here. Great article thanks for the advise if I plan on hiking in the NE.

  6. Moondoggy November 10, 2012 at 6:10 am #

    Im curious ,I’ve just used one pair of boots year round ind never had any problems but I have yet to have had to hike for any amount of time in snow in them! I se Vasque Rangers and have had them down to nine degrees! I will be doing 65 miles of the Shenandoa in March this year and I’m curious if you think they will still be my best bet ?

    • Earlylite December 4, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

      If you are backpacking you need to use vapor barrier sock or get removable liners that you can sleep with in your sleeping bag to dry them out at night. Wet boots (each foot sweats 8 oz o liquid per day) freeze at night. This is hazardous – think frostbite – as well as uncomfortable.

  7. Michael Blair November 27, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    Send Spyro this article, I have also purchased a pair of Koflach Degre plastic boots and I got to use them a few times last winter. They were definitely warm enough (warmer than the La Sportiva Nepal Evos) but I wasn’t overly excited about the fit or feel. No matter how hard I tried, I was never able to replicate that “boot-like” feel that I liked with the La Sportiva’s.

    While I wrote this article strictly from personal experience, there were a number of people who told me that they had fantastic experiences using the Solomon Toundra winter boots. I am still very happy with the Keen Summit County winter boots that I wear most of the time, I may pick up a pair of these Solomon boots this year to give them a try. I think my Keen boots have lost their waterproofing and the Solomon boots seem to be a little more waterproof.

  8. Kendra the Hiker January 11, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Just found these on Amazon at a cheaper price and here’s the list of hiking boots that qualify for free shipping: http://amzn.to/KTSdkq – pretty good deal.

    • Philip Werner January 13, 2014 at 10:38 am #

      There’s a big difference between a waterproof boot and a winter boot. I’d ignore most of the boots shown here. They’re not insulated.

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