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.
- REI has an excellent expert advice page about how to choose hiking boots – it isn’t focused completely on winter boots but provides some good background information.
- Read page 23 of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Winter Mountaineering School Manual for a detailed description of the boots they recommend for hiking in winter in the Adirondack Peaks of New York which have similar winter conditions to the mountains in New Hampshire and Maine.
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.
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:
- Single layer uninsulated boots
- Single layer insulated boots
- 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)
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 Revo Ascents), and mountaineering crampons (Black Diamond Contact Strap - modified with a flexible leaf spring).
- Columbia Men’s Bugaboot Plus II
- Salomon Toundra Mid WP Winter Boot
- Merrell Moab Polar Waterproof Winter Boot
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.
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.
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.
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 the Author: 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 and 2014.
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