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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)

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. Moosejaw.com has the best online selection.

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 90 days. 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 5500 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.

This is an actively moderated web page, so if you have questions, please ask them below in a comment. 

Updated 2018.

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20 comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Yep – they just changed that this year after they went into Chapter 11.

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

  6. Given your sizing challenge, I’d recommend getting a pair of custom boots from Peter Limmer and Son Boots. They’ll set you back a bit, but they’ll be tailor made for your feet and probably last you the rest of your life.
    http://www.limmercustomboot.com/cgi-bin/CustomBoot/index.pl

  7. Erik,

    Where in the ONP are you going in January? Just curious, I live in the area. My experience is that my gaiters and rain gear is the most important equipment in the ONP.

    Shawn

  8. With my wide foot and increasingly compromised foot circulatory issues (getting up there in years,) I’m looking for a boot that doesn’t constrain the toes as much as my current boots do. I generally like to walk on light snow-covered trails (day trips) – no longer do any climbing or use snow shoes or crampons. Of your suggestions for below tree-line boots (or for that matter, any other models you might have in mind) – which would you recommend for me?

  9. I’m in the process of getting my first pair of winter boots and crampons. I ordered Black Diamond Contacts with straps, Salomon Toundra Pro CWSP and Vasque Pow Pow Ultradry boots. Neither of these boots’ heals fit in the crampon. So I’m back at square one. I need a warm boot that I can do lots of hiking mileage in and also wear crampons near summits. My current winter hiking grounds are the Catskills and ADKs. I have been given the impression that stiffer sole mountaineering boots will not be comfortable over lots of rolling mileage. I am slated to attempt the Saranac 6er in March and Mt. Washington in February; is there a boot that is appropriate for these two hiking scenarios? I welcome any insight and suggestions.

    • Maybe you should just adjust your crampon. For example, the Toundra works well with a Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro up to a size 11 boot, men’s.

  10. I have had great success with mukluks as my winter boot. I use Steger mukluks ( http://www.mukluks.com ) I have found that you can do about 75-80% of winter hiking in them. They have a flexible footbed aka more moccasin like than boot so for really steep, icy stuff ya’ gotta go with good old fashioned ” plastic ” boots. That being said, with mukluks I only use on pair of socks as my feet never get wet from sweat aka never get cold. I was out one year at -23F and the only thing warm was my feet! I have used crampons with them as well on moderate steep stuff with great success. They also work well with snowshoes. Long story short, if your not doing technical stuff mukluks are worth investigating

  11. I thought I would get less resistant to cold as I aged but since I wrote this I have had to make a slight adjustment to my boot system. The Keen Summit County and Solomon Toundra are both rated to -40 and my feet began “overheating” last winter so I have switched to a -20 boot. I really liked the Keen Durand Polar Shell (http://www.keenfootwear.com/product/shoes/men/durand-polar-shell) because the bottom is rubber and great for early/late season sloppy hikes. The problem was the flex – the rubber “folded” and cut into my toes as the shoe flexed. I’ve been happy with the Keen Revel III (http://www.keenfootwear.com/product/shoes/men/revel-iii) right now.

  12. 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.

  13. (Hmmm… the comment count says 19, but there seem to be only seven. [?])

    I know Philip has mentioned them favorably elsewhere, but just a quick plug for the Baffin Borealis. Not quite like any other boot i’ve seen. They have a completely waterproof outer layer in a material which is akin to a somewhat hard, but still very flexible, silicone-y kind of stuff. With an inner, removable, insulating bootie that, while not all that thick, seems to provide adequate warmth. I’d describe the sole as just a step above midway on the bendiness/stiffness spectrum.

    Had these out a few times last winter, and can’t find anything to complain about. Maybe not the warmest if you’re out in extreme conditions. The removable inner layer simplifies drying it out. Normally, i take an 11 or 11.5 (U.S.). Got these in a 12. With a thicker sock and Smart Feet insert, they fit well. Scored them for less than $150 (new) off the bay of evil last year.

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