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 or TEN years ago, the winter hiking footwear landscape has changed dramatically since then and much better-fitting, insulated, winter hiking boots are now available.
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.
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 hundreds 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 Since then, Pac boots have been replaced by a new generation of insulated and waterproof winter boots that fit like regular hiking boots and are compatible will all snowshoes, microspikes, and more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 gram insulation (usually Thinsulate) is good for hiking in temperatures between 30 degrees, down to 10 below zero (Fahrenheit). Two hundred gram insulation is good for warmer climates where temperatures are between 40 degrees and 20 degrees, while six hundred gram 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 lightweight Gore-Tex insulation like the La Sportiva Trango Tech GTX and to 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.