Feet in Snow and Cold

In colder weather, people often struggle with their feet getting cold.  There are a number of reasons for this

  • Feet are the furthest point from your core which is generating heat.
  • Feet are subjected to conductive cooling through the soles of your shoes/boots.
  • Feet sweat a lot.  Many people’s shoes hold in all the moisture.  Wet moves heat much more quickly than dry.
  • Tight fitting footwear (often caused by extra thick socks) constrict blood flow.

While there are a number of issues which make keeping feet warm enough challenging, there are a number of approaches which have been proven to be effective.

Vapor Barrier Socks

VP socks can be used with any of the below footwear options. I have found VB socks a huge win once the temperature is below around 10F. Warmlite and  RBH Designs make vapor barrier socks.  The cheapest vapor barriers can be plastic bags. Bags holding sandwich bread or provided at some office buildings for wet umbrellas are an ideal shape, though you should expect them to last just a day or two before you rub a hole in them.  Small Mylar cooking bags are a bit more durable, but are hard to find in the right shape. My first attempt using vapor barriers was a pair of liners, a bread bag, wool sock, another bread bag to keep my wool socks dry, and then boots. Dave from owareusa suggested that rather than sliding the outer bread bag in and out, to put your insole inside the outer bag… leaving the bag in the shoe. He noted that he gets 5 days out of the bag then rather than a day or two. Haven’t tried this yet, but it makes sense. For the last couple of years I have used a pair of RBH insulated vapor barrier socks and trailrunners. This has been good for me down to 0F without any problems.

Trailrunners and Water Protective Socks

This is the approach I most often use.  On most trips I have found that waterproof socks and trail runners (goretex oversocks + trail runners + gaiters) worked well in 20F conditions, even in deep snow. I recently went on a trip that this didn’t work well. For some reason my feet felt cold and damp. Even though it was moderate weather and only dropped to 28F, my feet were freezing but my socks didn’t leak. Other people have reported good results using neoprene socks. In the winter of 2007/8 I picked up a pair of Inov-8 RocLite 390 GTX to try out. I expect these boots plus my vapor barrier socks and toasty feet insoles should keep my feet warm enough down to -10F or so. I don’t have enough experience to report on them yet.

Hiking Boots & Socks

A classic approach to keeping feet warm are thick wool socks and a water”proof”  hiking boot. The boots protect against external moisture and the socks provide insulation. A slight variation on this theme are boots which have additional insulation. Socks are periodically changed and dried (place over your shoulders under your jacket, around a hot water bottle, or over your stomach while you are in a sleeping bag.) Hiking boots typically have a hard sole, with an aggressive trend which provide good traction except when facing extremely icy conditions. One thing to watch out for is that the boots will absorb some water, and in colder conditions the boots will then freeze. It takes a lot of work to thaw solidly frozen boots. Don’t let your boots freeze. My favorite light weight, insulated boot today is the Keen Growler.  I think this is a good option for -20F through 20F.

Synthetic Boots w/ Foam Insulation

There are two different types. Some are designed for hardcore mountaineering, and have hard, plastic exteriors. Others are primarily designed for protection against the cold such as those made by Baffin and will be softer. This approach will keep feet quite warm. The synthetic materials doesn’t absorb water, so the only moisture problem will be what your feet produce. In extreme cold (< -20F) I think this is the best solution.

Mukluks

Traditional Inuit footwear made from animal hides. Steger Mukluks seems to be one of the best regarded manufacturers. Mukluks don’t have high traction soles which are needed for walking on ice, but if you are on ice, you already have crampons (stand-alone or part of your snowshoes), so not having this on your shoes should work just fine.

Overshoes

NEOS, Forty Below, Outdoor Research’s Brooks Range can be an effective way to keep feet warm in very cold conditions. When using overshoes, you typically are wearing some sort of footwear inside the overboot which  provide a good footbed. Some people don’t wear shoes inside the overshoes, but rather use them as sort of a high tech mukluk. I found overshoes in basic cold (>=0F) to be overkill, and more bother than they were worth. In extreme cold I can see whether they could be quick useful.

Booties

Once you are in camp, it is often useful to have comfy, insulated footwear.  There are a variety of companies that make down or primaloft booties including GoosefeetWestern MountaineeringFeathered Friends, etc.

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