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Insulated Winter Hiking Boots FAQ: Expert Advice

Winter hiking boot FAQ

There are three kinds of winter hiking boots: insulated winter hiking boots, mountaineering boots, and pac boots. Which kind of winter hiking boot is right for you? Here’s a detailed guide that explains the differences between these so you can pick the right footwear for winter hiking, snowshoeing, winter backpacking, and winter mountaineering.

What should you look for when buying a pair of winter hiking boots?

Winter boots should be insulated and waterproof to keep your feet warm, they should have laces and not be slip-ons, they should be comfortable so you can walk or snowshoe in them all day, and they should be compatible with winter traction aids like microspikes, snowshoes, and crampons. While the amount of insulation you need will vary on the distance and temperatures you hike or snowshoe in, winter boots with non-removable synthetic insulation are the lightest weight and therefore the easiest to hike in. Boots made with synthetic materials are also lighter weight and more waterproof than leather boots. The most comfortable boots for winter hiking are the ones that come over your ankles like regular hiking boots:

winter hiking boots

While all winter boots are compatible with traction devices like microspikes and snowshoes, it important to make sure that they don’t create undo pressure when attached to your boots that can lead to discomfort and blistering. Crampons are a little trickier, since you need the right type of crampon to work with the insulated winter hiking boots described above. This is explained further below.

What are the differences between insulated winter hiking boots and mountaineering boots?

Mountaineering boots have very rigid soles so they can be used with crampons for ice climbing and scrambling over ice-covered rock. Leather and synthetic mountaineering boots also tend to have less insulation, they’re heavier, and less comfortable than most insulated winter boots, which have softer flexible soles that are easier to walk in. While special flexible crampons are available for softer-soled insulated hiking boots, they cannot be used for ice climbing which requires a rigid mountaineering boot sole and an ice climbing crampon.

Mountaineering boots

There are two types of mountaineering boots, single layer boots and double boots. Single layer boots are intended for day hiking in alpine terrain, unprotected by tree cover. Double layer insulated mountaineering boots have removable liners which make them warmer for people who get cold feet. They’re also preferred for overnight and multi-day trips, since the liners can be removed and put into your sleeping bag to prevent the perspiration that’s accumulated in them from freezing overnight.

What are the differences between insulated winter hiking boots and pac boots?

Pac boots are winter boots that usually have a rubber lower half and a leather or synthetic upper, often with a removable liner.

Pac Boots

Pac boots are designed to keep your feet warm in the harshest weather conditions but are ungainly for walking and snowshoeing because they are heavy, they run up well above the ankle, and they have very poor ankle support. In general, pac boots are best used for less vigorous winter activities like snowmobiling, hunting, or ice fishing.

Why can’t I use my regular hiking boots for winter hiking?

It really comes down to waterproofing and insulation. Most insulated winter hiking boots are guaranteed waterproof out of the box. Many have lowers made with rubber or waterproof synthetics so you can tramp through puddles and wet snow without worrying about the fabric absorbing water. If you do get moisture in your boots because it comes over the tops or your feet and calves perspire heavily, insulated winter boots will still keep them warm. The same can’t be said about regular leather or synthetic hiking boots, even when treated with waterproofing creams and sprays. If your regular hiking boots absorb water in winter, they can easily freeze, and lead to discomfort, frost nip, or frostbite in extreme cases, on long winter hikes.

How important is it to have Gore-tex or waterproof/breathable insulated winter boots?

You often don’t have a choice. Most insulated winter hiking boots are only available with built-in waterproof/breathable membranes. While breathability is important in winter, perspiration is bound to accumulate in your socks and boots when your feet sweat, even if your boots are made with a waterproof/breathable liner. If your feet do get damp, the most important thing is to have insulated boots to keep them warm.

How accurate are warmth ratings for boots?

While some boot manufacturers provide warmth ratings for their products, there’s no standard way for measuring the warmth of winter boots. Understand that these ratings are directional at best and that users will have varying experiences based on their activity level, health, weight, sex, metabolism, and other factors. My advice: read customer reviews and try to buy winter hiking boots that have been available for multiple seasons so more is known about their performance. Referrals from friends and trusted sources are best.

How much insulation should winter boots have?

Some insulated winter boot manufacturers publish the amount of insulation in their boots, while others don’t. For example, some boots have 200 grams of Thinsulate insulation, a popular synthetic insulation, while others have 400 grams. While boots with more insulation are likely to be warmer, comparisons between different models depend on the type of insulation, boot design and individual user differences in terms of activity, health, weight, etc. That said, winter boots with more insulation are preferred for hiking in subfreezing temperatures on long hikes or for highly exposed alpine routes without vegetation cover.

What are the most popular forms of insulation in winter hiking boots?

Manufacturers use a wide range of synthetic insulations in winter hiking boots, many of them proprietary. One of the most popular forms of synthetic insulation is called Thinsulate and is made with polypropylene fibers. Boots with 200 grams of Thinsulate are best used in early winter or spring in moderate temperatures or for high activity levels. Boots with 400 grams of Thinsulate insulation or more better for much colder winter temperatures below freezing.

What are the most important features to look for on insulated winter hiking boots, beyond waterproofing and breathability?

Temperature rating: While you need to take manufacturer’s temperature ratings with a grain of salt, they are a good indication of the relative warmth of a boot.

Amount of insulation: While it’s difficult to make warmth comparisons between boots that have different kinds of insulation, knowing the amount of insulation used in boots can help you compare the warmth of different models made by the same manufacturer.

Reinforced toe cap: In addition to providing kick protection, a sturdy toe cap won’t collapse the front of the boot and potentially cause blisters when used with tight-fitting microspikes or crampons.

Gusseted tongue: This is just like a regular boot or shoe tongue, except the sides of the tongue are closed and sewn to the interior of the boot. This helps prevent water from leaking through the laces and into the boot when you step in deep puddles.

Cuff: The top of your boot, where it surrounds your calf is called the cuff. Looks for boots with a soft cuff that closes off the gap between your leg and boot while staying comfortable during a long day of hiking. It will also trap heat and prevent snow from falling down your boot if you have to walk through deep snow.

Lugs: The soles of your boots should provide good traction when walking on loose or packed snow. Look for boots with a deep tread like a Vibram sole. When walking on ice, you’re likely to augment your boot with traction-aids like microspikes or crampons.

Gaiter ring: A gaiter ring is a small ring attached to the top of the toe box that you can hook your gaiters onto to prevent them from riding up your leg. It’s not the end of the world if your boots don’t have one: you can still usually hook the gaiter to your boot laces, but most insulated winter hiking boots have them.

How should winter hiking boots fit?

It’s important not to wear tight-fitting boots because they will restrict blood flow resulting in cold feet. There should be some wiggle room for your toes, you want minimize the amount of lateral movement in the boot without feeling like your foot is being squished, and make sure that your heel doesn’t lift when walking with the boot laced up. Be sure to try on winter hiking boots with the socks you intend on wearing to hike, especially if you use thicker, warmer socks in winter. If you’re between sizes, it’s always easier to shim out the extra space by wearing thicker socks or by replacing the boot’s insoles with higher volume insoles, like Superfeet, than trying to fit into boots that are too small.

How can you avoid getting blisters in winter hiking boots?

Make sure you break them in well before hiking in them in winter, even if it means sweating through some hikes in warmer weather to soften them up. Learn how to lace your boots to relieve any pressure on the top of your foot, eliminate heel lift, or keep your laces from slipping loose when you tie them. Test out and fit all of your traction devices in advance of needing them, including microspikes, snowshoes, and crampons, so you can identify potential hot spots and take the necessary corrective actions in advance. This may include taping your feet with leukotape, wearing different socks, or re-adjusting traction aids so they don’t rub you in a bad place.

What are microspikes?

Microspikes are like tire chains for your boots. They’re pointed pieces of metal connected to short chains and elastic bands which wrap around your boots to give you traction when walking on ice and snow. While they work with all boots, it’s important to get ones that fit your boot size so they don’t break when overstretched. You also want to make sure that the toe box of your boots doesn’t collapse under them, which can cause discomfort and toe blistering.

What kind of crampons are compatible with insulated winter hiking boots?

Insulated winter hiking boots have softer soles that bend when you walk, flexing in the middle of the sole under the ball of your foot and the arch. If you want to use crampons, you need ones that have flexible center bar connecting the front and heel spikes than can bend with the sole and not break.

flexible bar hiking boot crampons

These attach to your boots with what are called universal bindings, plastic hoops that wrap around your heel and the front of your boots and are secured using webbing straps. They’re not intended for ice climbing but are good for walking across crusty snowfields and low angle ice.

Are insulated winter hiking boots, mountaineering boots, and pac boots all compatible with snowshoes?

Generally yes, but it can depend on the size of your boots and the length of your snowshoe bindings. High volume boots, especially double-layer mountaineering boots and pac boots, may require some binding adjustment such as longer binding straps or webbing. Be sure to test their compatibility before you need them on a winter hike.

How often do you need to replace winter hiking boots?

Winter hiking boot soles last much longer than regular hiking boots because you’re hiking on snow and ice, not abrasive dirt or gravel. Winter hiking boots tend to wear out when one of their seams works loose and splits. You can usually extend their lifetime when this happens by having them repaired by a shoemaker or by pre-emptively strengthening your boot seams using Silicone seam sealer or Shoe-Goo to strengthen them.

This is an actively monitored web page, so if you have any questions, please leave a comment below. 
Updated 2018.

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  1. Thanks for the great article. I am looking at getting a new pair of winter boots, which I want to use for hiking, shovelling the drive way etc. I’m in southern Ontario, it gets down to -15 to 0 Fahrenheit sometimes. While I likely wouldn’t hike in temps colder than -15 I get cold feet easily.

    I see a lot of boots only have 200g and I’m wondering if I should seriously consider 400g insulation boots. Something like the new NorthFace Chilkat 4 or something similar.

    I don’t mind spending a little extra $$$ if they will be really good and last a long time.

    Thanks a lot

    • Get the 400 gram boots

      “Boots with 200 grams of Thinsulate are best used in early winter or spring in moderate temperatures or for high activity levels. Boots with 400 grams of Thinsulate insulation or more better for much colder winter temperatures below freezing.”

  2. Philip,

    Thank you for posting the article, I found some helpful information in it and I think that the first time winter hikers need to read this to educate themselves before their first hike.

    I hope to see more postings in the future.

    Thanks again,

  3. Vapor Barrier Liners (VBLs) are essential to keep the insulation of boots DRY.

    The very best solution I have found is Us Divers sox of 3 mm closed cell neoprene over thin liner socks. They are factory seam sealed and come in Left and Right shapes for a good fit with no bunching at the toes.

    At night in my tent or snow shelter I remove the divers sox and liners. I turn the divers sox inside-out to dry for 15 – 20 minutes then put them in the foot of my sleeping bag to dry further and be warm in the morning.
    Next I put the skanky smelling liner socks in a ZipLoc bag and don a fresh pair of liners and then my heavy sleep socks.

    As a VBL diver’s sox work great B/C they stay in place and keep your feet warm with the closed cell neoprene.
    Liner socks hold a lot of your sweat and stink so the diver’s sox dry faster and smell better.

    I also use this VBL system (along with knee high GTX gaiters) in my uninsulated GTX lightweight Merrill Moab Mid hiking boots for warmth in temps above 20 F. in snow. Works great, even when not moving.

    * You can make these VBLs warmer by getting 5 mm diver’s sox but be shut your boots are large enough to comfortably accommodate them.

    • Eric, thanks for sharing the info on VBL. Regarding the divers sox, do you recommend a certain height? I noticed they vary in height and am concerned with the boot fit if they are low cut. Any advice here?

  4. I found a boot with 800g at Field & Stream, is this too much insulation for a hike in Colorado in November?

  5. most useful information that you provided here.

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