Your feet are number one when hiking. They carry all the weight, so you’ll want to make sure they are comfortable for your next outing in the snow.
So, can I wear hiking boots in snow? You can wear your hiking boots in snow. But, if you’re planning to hike in conditions that have more than a couple patches of snow here and there, you want a hiking boot specifically designed for snow travel. It is easy to find a pair of hiking boots specifically made for hiking in snow. Combining them with accessories like gaiters and crampons, will better waterproof your boots and provide safer traction.
Snow is frozen water. Meaning, once snow melts, it becomes water. Snow can change forms with fluctuations in temperature. The change is fast and happens constantly. For example, on an early spring morning the snow might be frozen and the consistency of ice, by the afternoon it can be slush, and by evening it refreezes again.
A good winter hiking boot will accommodate the whole days’ worth of conditions. It will be stiff with insulation and traction for hard-pack and icy conditions and be waterproof to fend of slush and water.
Winter Hiking Boots
The key components of winter hiking boots are sturdiness, waterproof, and insulation.
Sturdiness – Winter hiking boots and mountaineering boots are heavier, stiffer, and give the most versatility in tough terrain, whether packed, loose, icy, or slushy snow conditions. Sturdy ankle support is important in winter for trails where you are post-holing every step or trails that are packed-down from usage. Each scenario causes uneven ground and can make for difficult hiking terrain.
Winter hiking boots are built to have a sturdy and secure fit around the ankle. They are made with sticky rubber soles with plenty of traction features. You’ll see the difference between your street snow boot and a hiking boot as the snow boots don’t typically have the extra ankle support and are more flexible.
Another advantage of plenty of ankle support is that the high ankle collar keeps snow out of the boot. Once snow gets in your shoe, it melts and causes your sock to become wet. Wet socks can lead to hot spots and painful pressure in your boots, as well as frostbite if the temperatures are cold outside.
Waterproof – You don’t want your feet to get wet in winter. If your feet get wet, the winter temperatures will cause them to freeze. This can lead to frost nip, or worse, frost bite. Frostnip is a cold injury due to vasoconstriction and causes numbness. Frostbite is cold exposure that causes the top layer of your skin, and some tissues, to freeze. Both are painful and require recovery time.
The difference between water repellent and waterproof is huge. A water repellent material usually has a shorter life span and will more quickly loose its ability to repel water the more its used. Waterproof will lock out water completely. Sometimes that also may mean that it doesn’t breathe. However, materials like Gore-Tex, are waterproof and breathe.
Breathability is a great feature because as you walk, your feet naturally sweat, thereby making your feet wet. If your boot breathes, the moisture can escape and keep your feet drier.
Insulation – The ability to withstand the cold is very personal. It depends on your activity level, weight, age, metabolism, and other factors like health, fitness, and proper layering. So, while insulated hiking boots are rated for a variety of temperatures and have varying thickness of insulation, it comes down to your own personal preference.
Insulation is either built-in or removable. Built-in is usually made of synthetic material or a down filling, while removable insulation is made from synthetic materials or felted wool. Winter boots range from 200-gram insulation to 800-gram insulation. Depending on the environments you hike in (whether a basic winter hike or an extreme winter camping trip) you’ll want to make sure you have the appropriate amount of insulation in your boot.
Winter Hiking Boot Features
- Gusseted tongue is a feature on many winter boots that refers to the tongue of the boot being sewn closed on the sides to prevent water or snow from leaking into the boot underneath the laces.
- Reinforced toe cap adds more protection for stomping steps in snow, keeping you from stubbing your toe, and to make the boot compatible with crampons, microspikes, and snowshoes, which without the reinforced toe cap could damage your boots.
- Removable liners are useful for longer winter adventures if your boots get wet. You can take the liners out and dry them completely. Whereas, liners that are not removable are harder to dry out when they get wet. There’s nothing worse than having to put frozen wet boots on again the next morning.
- Mid-cut to high-cut boots will keep the snow and water out of your boots and provide plenty of ankle support for traveling in winter terrain.
- The weight of winter hiking boots is slightly heavier than regular hiking boots. This extra weight accounts for the insulation, the waterproofing, and bulkier winterized sole material. There are lighter weight winter boots on the market for more extreme backpackers and mountaineers.
Ultimately, the best hiking boots out there will be the ones that fit your feet best. You want to be comfortable throughout the hike and long after you take your boots off.
When fitting boots they should feel snug everywhere, but not tight. You should be able to wiggle you toes but not be able to slide your heel up. A boot that is too tight will cut off circulation and create pressure points causing your feet to ache and get cold. Throughout your hike, your feet will naturally swell, so make sure there’s room for them to expand a little.
Account for the type of sock you prefer to wear as well. Best idea is to bring your favorite winter hiking sock with you to the store when you are buying new boots to make sure you have the best fit. Because our feet also swell by the end of the day, that’s the best time to go in and try on boots.
Take the time to walk around in the boot and feel for any hot spots – spots that rub can cause painful pressure points in the boots. Hot spots can lead to a lot of discomfort and blisters. This will be a good test of whether or not that boot is the right fit.
Also, make sure not to purchase a boot that will be too warm for your hike, which can cause you to overheat and be uncomfortable. A boot that is meant for the coldest Antarctica climate temperatures will be overkill for your mildly warm winter day in the Rocky Mountains.
Additional Winter Boot Accessories
Thick wool socks wick water and moisture away from the body. If your feet are prone to sweating, the wool will help to circulate the moisture away from your feet, through your socks, and out your boots.
Additionally, on those extra cold days, thick wool is a great insulator, even when wet, and pairs well with most boots’ insulation. On longer hikes, consider packing an extra pair of Smartwool or Darn Tough wool socks, just in case they get wet you’ll have a fresh dry backup pair to trade out.
Gaiters come in different lengths, either stopping at the top of the ankle to just below the knee. Most hiking boots are equip with a gaiter ring that allows it to attach the top of the boot. They also have a duel purpose as they are great during other seasons for protecting your boots from mud and for keeping out insects like mosquitoes and ticks.
Extra Traction: Hiking boots these days are made with a lip on the toe and heel to accommodate a crampon, microspike, or snowshoe bindings. Be sure to check ahead of time to be sure your equipment is compatible together.
Crampons are essential if you plan to do mountaineering or more extreme winter hiking and backpacking. Having compatible boots for attaching crampons is a great feature to look for in your winter hiking boots or mountaineering boots.
Microspikes help with traction on icy and packed-down snow on fairly level terrain. They attach easily and quickly to most hiking boots or mountaineering boots. MICROspikes have longer and sharper traction than something like YakTrax, which help you navigate snow while getting to your car or going for a morning walk.
Snowshoes are useful in hiking conditions where there is a lot of new, deep snow that hasn’t been packed down yet. The idea is to be able to walk over the snow instead of sinking and having to “post-hole” your way over the terrain.
Waterproof Coating: Some boots, i.e. leather hiking boots or an older pair of boots, will actually absorb water. Treating them with a waterproof coating will help repel water instead. Several good brands for waterproof coating include Merrell Rain and Stain, Atsko Sno-Seal, and Nikwax. Just note that new boots with waterproof synthetic will be pre-enhanced with the waterproof coating, so no need to apply it immediately.
4 Recommended Winter Hiking Boots
- Salomon Toundra Pro CSWP are developed by NASA for spaceflight. They are rated for -40F temperatures. Sturdy, comfortable, and plenty insulated.
- Merrell Moab 2 Mid Gore-Tex boot is made of synthetic leather and Vibram traction. The Gore-Tex membrane is waterproof and breathes well.
- Baffin makes great quality winter boots for hiking. There are various models for women and men that each have the combination of the above attributes you will want of a great winter hiking boot.
- Oboz’s Bridger Insulated has a supportive fit and 200g 3M Thinsulate of insulation with a sturdy and durable winterized rubber sole and snowshoe compatibility.