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The Best Boots for Winter Hiking

Best Boots for Winter Hiking and Backpacking
Best Boots for Winter Hiking and Backpacking

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 Revo Ascents), and mountaineering crampons (Black Diamond Contact Strap – modified with a flexible leaf spring).

Also recommended:

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 that have a 100% satisfaction guarantee return policy good for 1 year. 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.

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 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 4500 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.

Updated 2012 – 2016.

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

    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.


    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

  2. 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!

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

    • 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….



      • 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 ?

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Thanks.im looking for best hiking boots now.

  7. Great article!! Thanks Michael. I have never hiked in the winter but am thinking of snow shoeing this year and I had a question on the size of the boots. Someone told me that you should go a size higher than the one that fits you to compensate for the thicker socks etc. I wanted to see if you would recommend this

    • That’s about right although you may not need a full size if the boot already provides a lot of insulation. It’s important that the boot still lets you wiggle your toes inside to promote blood circulation, otherwise you’ll cut off blood circulation and your feet will get cold. Kind of depends on the boot.

  8. I have used the Salomon Toundra boot mentioned above with great success hiking the Winter ADK 46 and Winter Catskill 35. Snowshoes, spikes and strap on crampons work well with these boots and have hiked many miles in temperatures below -20F without issue.

  9. Thanks for the advice! I’ve all of the NH4K’s in winter, besides the Presidentials. I’m looking forward to finishing the list this winter! I’ve been working on trying to find good boots for me…

  10. Good to see the redoubtable Scarpa Omegas making a cameo in the ‘traction devices’ image.

    Over here in the UK, with its maritime climate, plastics can be seen as a bit left field.

    They make a great, solid, all-round winter boot, though.

    Horses for courses!

    • Unfortunately Scarpa stopped making the Omega last year. Not a huge problem because mine will likely last forever, but I’ve blown through the liner and they don’t make it anymore.

  11. 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.

  12. If the hiking trip involves sitting around in winter, such as during ice fishing, boots like Pac boots or Sorel or Kamik or even traditional mukluks can be a good option.

  13. Since first writing this back in 2012 I have made one change to what I wear on my feet – I switched from the Keen Summit County to the Solomon Toundra. The lacing system on the Keen boots that I was wearing fell apart (they were a cloth loop and not a metal eyelet) and I couldn’t find a replacement pair anywhere so I picked up a pair of the Solomon boots. I wasn’t disappointed. As I wrote I had several friends that swore by the Toundra’s and I quickly learned why – they are warm and light (instead of heavier solid insulation they use a gel for insulation). Also, the bottom half of the boot is rubberized so they seem more waterproof than the Keens. Learned this on a hike to Isolation when I broke through a snow bridge and was standing in ankle deep water – at the end of the hike we nearly had to cut they frozen straps of my snowshoes but my feet were still dry and warm.

    • Michael – Just bought a pair. of the Solomon Toundras. My old Garmonts crapped the bed today when one of the canvas eyes tore out. – same as you. Amazon has them on sale at a ridiculous discount. Can’t wait to try them.

  14. Choosing boots is such an intimidating and expensive decision! I struggled with this for a long time. my system is: Scarpa Mont Blancs for vertical and day trips and Scarpa Invernos for overnight stuff. The Mont Blancs are similar to the Nepals and aren’t super insulated but they feel like walking in a boot instead of a ski boot. The Invernos feel like a ski boot but they will keep your feet warm in all conditions.

  15. I was in several EMS stores this summer in Vermont and New York on some thru hikes. They no longer have a return policy. In fact, the store in Manchester Center, VT stated all sales are final on gear now. It might be worth it to check into that before deciding to purchase from them.

  16. This great information, but any advice on women’s winter boots?

  17. I have a pair of Salomon winter boots I bought about 5 years ago give or take. They look like just like the pics of the Toundras (haven’t actually seen these in person). Not sure whether they are the same or not. Anyway, I am not sure whether others had a similar experience, but while the fit is wide, the length itself is short for its size.

    • I think it’s hard to generalize based on 5 year old experience. That’s an eternity in footwear manufacturing. However, I am wearing a new pair of Salomon Toundras and they feel a wee bit short in a size 10.5. I just switched to a lighter sock and they work fine since the insulation is so good and a heavy sock isn’t really required.

  18. Zappos does have a no questions asked return policy, but (unlike REI) items must be unworn. That’s a huge difference, and probably one worth mentioning.

  19. Great information. I am signed up with the AMC to do some winter hikes this year. We will be above treeline and using crampons. Would that require me to get a stiffer boot than the Salomon Toundra?

    • I wear the Toundra boots and they work fine with strap on Black Diamond crampons.

      • You’d still want a crampon that has a flexible center bar (called a leaf spring). BD sells these. Otherwise, you really risk breaking the crampon due to the flex of a soft boot.

    • Tom – suggest you contact the trip leader and ask them. The AMC leaves boot requirements up to individual trip leaders and for above treeline hikes, MANY leaders will require a real mountaineering boot instead of a soft sole one like the Toundra. The boot stiffness determines which crampon you should use. For example, for an above treeline hike that requires any front point work you definitely wouldn’t want to use a Toundra…to soft. But it all depends on the hike route and leader preferences.

  20. The return policy at EMS has changed since this article was originally written, so the “Return Policies Matter” section could perhaps be updated.

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