Ah, Winter. The word itself has such a fantastic connotation in my mind. If I think back and imagine the times I was outside, in the world of frost, it feels as if I have lived a lifetime in the winter months. Being outside when the air is crisp and the only adornments on the trees are evergreen is an amazing experience, but comes with its own fair share of logistical issues. One of the most important decisions you will make is what boots to wear while hiking!
If you are looking for warm, general purpose winter boots, and do not plan to venture far off a level, packed path, check out my article for Best Winter Boots here! I also have a great article up for the Best Boots to wear while Snowshoeing.
In this article I am going to discuss the best winter boots for hiking for men or women. I will be sure to include a pick for each gender in my Top Picks. If you are looking for the best insulated hiking boots you are in luck! If you live in a place with heavy snow-fall and deep drifts of powder, hiking is nearly impossible without Nordic skis or snowshoes, so for the purposes of this article I am going to assume that you will encounter some snow and ice but not extreme amounts that indicate a need for extra equipment. However, we want this option available, so most of my top picks are rated for snowshoes and cramp-ons!
For example, I LOVE the Great Smokey Mountains! In the winter months I generally find a good amount of snow, but not enough to justify skis or snowshoes. The boots I choose to hike in need to be specially suited to the mix of snow, slush, and ice I find in this type of environment.
So what makes a great winter hiking boot?
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A WINTER HIKING BOOT
• WATERPROOF/BREATHABLE: When dealing with cold, wet conditions and generating body heat from an aerobic activity like hiking, your boots need to keep your feet dry and also allow the moisture from inside to evaporate. A FULLY WATERPROOF BOOT is great when the temperature is consistently below freezing and the snow is normally frozen (i.e. not in a stage of melt throughout the day). However, on a hike in a day where the temperatures rise with the sun, fully waterproof boots can actually be uncomfortable because they do not allow your feet to breathe.
• INSULATED: No matter where you are, what level of snowfall or ice, you need to keep your feet warm during the winter in order to be comfortable. Because it is highly likely that your boots will encounter some level of moisture, synthetic insulation is best to have because it insulates even when wet. Natural materials like down lose their insulation ability quickly as they soak through.
• TRACTION: Hiking in the winter months means you have the opportunity to encounter seriously slippery surfaces! Even a thin sheet of ice over a flat rock can send you flying if your boots do not have the proper soles and grip on the ice or snow.
• RIGID SOLE: You want a rigid sole that does not flex much in order to minimize the amount your foot has to work during your hike. If you are fighting a loose, flexible sole, your feet will tire out that much quicker!
• FIT: The fit of your boots is extremely important. If your foot is sliding around you will not get very far! A good fit is crucial to being able to hike in the winter!
• COMPATIBLE: In winter hiking you might need snowshoes or cramp-ons, so it is a good idea to make sure your boots are compatible with this equipment, even if you don’t need it every day!
HOW TO CHOOSE THE PROPER SIZE BOOT FOR WINTER HIKING
As I mentioned, the proper fit is very important to ensuring you have a great experience in the back country while hiking in the winter. I am going to go over my process when choosing a good pair of boots. If you are ordering on line from Amazon or another reputable vendor, give the boots this test inside before committing to them; if they do not fit well, exchange them!
STEP ONE – COME PREPARED!
I always bring the socks I plan to use during my winter hiking. I have heard a lot of people talk about wearing two pairs of socks, but this mentality is somewhat dated; a pair of good liners with a pair of heavy socks will work far better! Two pair of socks will bunch and rub, creating places where you will have blisters!
I happen to use custom orthotics for arch support, so if you do as well, bring them along to your sizing trial. You want to mimic the exact conditions in which you will be wearing the boots outside in the winter while hiking.
WEAR THE BOOTS INSIDE FOR A LONG TIME! Yes, if you are in a store this might seem silly, but walk around, sit down and stand up, perhaps look at some other piece of gear you are interested in buying. If your boots feel at all uncomfortable in the first moments this will continue to get worse as you hike! EXCEPTION: The boots, when new, will feel stiff. Be careful not to mistake this for discomfort from improper sizing!
PERFORM THE INCLINE TEST! When wearing the boots fully laced as you would while hiking, find a 45deg angle to walk up and down on to see how the boots actually fit. I like to “stutter-step” down the incline to see if my toes will slide up to the front of the boot. This can actually cause a medical condition called hammer toe. Be sure your feet are secure and will not slide forward!
I like to stand on the edge of a chair with only the front half of my boot resting on the edge. This will mimic the constant action of hiking uphill. Does the sole flex uncomfortably? Do you feel secure?
Now that we have an idea of how to chose the proper fit for your boot, let’s get into my Top Picks!
Selecting the Right Winter Boots for Hiking
BOOTS FOR HIKING IN SNOW (MEN’S) – THE VASQUE SNOWBURBAN ULTRADRY INSULATED SNOW BOOT
The Vasque Snowburban Ultradry Men’s Winter Boot is also my top pick for use with Snowshoes! This boot is just an all-round great winter hiking boot! It does everything well. Great insulation, super waterproof yet breathable, lightweight, and a beast in the snow. I would suggest pairing this boot with some four-season gaiters if you plan on taking on deep drifts or kicking steps into a summit incline!
- 400 grams of 3M Thinsulate® insulation will keep your feel warm all day!
- Metal D-ring for gaiter in front of the laces (in the snow if you attach your gaiter to the bottom lace, when it pulls up some moisture will enter in through the tongue! Not with this boot!)
- Rigid (EVA midsole and TPU shank)
- Leather upper with coated finish
- Fleece lined collar for comfort and warmth
- Waterproofing can wear as the boots age – be sure to treat regularly!
- Runs narrow, not great for wide feet
BOOTS FOR HIKING IN SNOW (WOMEN’S) – THE KEEN WOMEN’S DURAND POLAR WINTER BOOT
The Keen Women’s Durand Polar Winter Boot is made for the trail! Keen is a company who is simply dominating the market for truly waterproof footwear. While “waterproof, breathable” might be idle words coming from another company, when Keen puts their name behind it, you can count on dry feet!
The Durand Polar is heavily insulated, with deep grooves of traction for snow and ice, and ready for anything you have planned this winter!
- 400 grams of Keen.Warm® insulation to keep your toes toasty!
- Fully waterproof membrane
- Excellent traction on snow and ice
- Consistently reviewed as “Best Cold Weather Boot”
- Listed as non-compatible with custom orthotics
- Can run narrow
EVEN IF I DON’T USE CUSTOM ORTHOTICS, CAN I STILL HAVE SUPER FEET?
Yes you can! A custom footbed insert can extend the life of your boots and VASTLY improve your walking or hiking. These custom footbeds reduce the strain of hiking by providing firm arch support and impact displacement. If you have ever experienced foot pain while hiking, this is definitely a must-have for you!
I began using custom footbeds on the Appalachian Trail. As the trail crosses through Pennsylvania, instead of the soft, even earthen terrain I was accustomed to, the path lead me over miles upon miles of rocks. The custom inserts allowed to me hike farther each day and lead to me purchasing custom orthotics for maximum hiking comfort!
LIGHTWEIGHT WINTER HIKING BOOT (MEN’S) – THE MERRELL MEN’S MOAB POLAR WATERPROOF WINTER BOOT
The Moab is one of my favorite winter hiking boots. With the pac-style lowers these boots are made for cold, slushy days when your feet are submerged in wet snow and ice! Add to this the design specifically for snowshoes and cramp-ons, heavy insulation, and stylish lines, and you have a great winter hiking boot that will move through the between times with you! The quality of these boots is apparent as soon as you get them out of the box.
- D-ring for gaiter attachment (crucial in deep snow!)
- Fully waterproof and breathable
- Well-made and durable
- Compatible with snowshoes and cramp-ons
- Great traction!
- Run very narrow!
- Complaints of insulation issues
LIGHTWEIGHT WINTER HIKING BOOT (WOMEN’S) – THE VASQUE COLDSPARK ULTRADRY SNOW BOOT
The Vasque Coldspark is a great balance between hefty winter protection and lightweight footwear. This boot will provide around half the insulation a heavier boot will, but some seem not to notice! An integrated D-ring for gaiter attachment is a great option, too.
The Coldspark is a great women’s winter boot for hiking!
- UltraDry® membrane keeps your toes from getting cold and wet!
- 200 grams 3M Thinsulate ® insulation
- GREAT traction on snow and ice
- Kickplate for snowshoe bindings
- Fleece collar for extra warmth!
- Lighter weight = less insulation (will not be as warm as heavier boots)
- Size up for thick winter socks
WINTER HIKING BOOTS FOR FLEXIBILITY(MEN’S) – THE SALOMON MEN’S X ULTRA WINTER CS WP PERFORMANCE BOOT
One common complaint I hear often is that winter boots are inflexible, that the thick insulation and heavy materials used in construction are so stiff that it is not pleasant to hike in them! That is not an issue with the Salomon Men’s X Ultra!
These boots are made for winter but manufactured with flexible materials so that you can still feel as if you are wearing a lighter summer boot!
- 200 grams of insulation for colder days!
- Waterproof booties (super dry!)
- Leather and NuBuck Uppers
- Aggressive tread pattern for some extreme traction!
- Again, less insulation = less warmth. These boots are great for highly active winter hikers!
WINTER HIKING BOOTS FOR FLEXIBILITY (WOMEN’S) – THE MERRELL MOAB FST ICE + THERMO WINTER HIKING BOOTS
The Merrell Moab FST ICE + Thermo winter hiking boots have the lightest insulation of any of my Top Picks. There are certain trade-offs when you are looking for flexibility but by including a conductor fleece lining these boots are ready for anything winter has to throw at you!
- Lightweight and flexible!
- Merrell quality is apparent as soon as you take these out of the box
- Vibram® ArticGrip means that you will stay on your feet, no matter how slippery the terrain gets!
- Nylon shank
- Air cushioning in the heels for maximum comfort!
- Low-cut boot, gaiters are a must with these!
- Size up for thicker socks
WINTER HIKING BOOTS FOR ECONOMY (MEN’S) – THE HI-TEC MEN’S SNOW PEAK 200 WP WINTER BOOT
This category is all about bang for the buck, how you can find a good pair of economy winter boots that will still get the job done on cold days of hiking! The Hi-Tec still comes with a full winter shell and 200 grams of insulation, but it won’t break the bank and is a great option for lighter use or growing kids who need a size up each year!
- Speed lacing system great for gloved hands
- Surprisingly warm, comparable to more expensive boots!
- Waterproof and breathable bootie keeps you dry in wet conditions
- Less durable than more expensive models
WINTER HIKING BOOTS FOR ECONOMY (WOMEN’S) – THE COLUMBIA WOMEN’S BUGA PLUS II OMNI HEAT BOOT
I have seen these boots for as little as $30! That is just amazing, to get a boot of this quality from a great manufacturer like Columbia, and still pay so little! The Buga II for women is ready to go out of the box for anything you have planned and will keep you toasty warm this winter!
- 200 grams of insulations
- Padded tongue for extra warmth
- Great selection of colors, including white!
- OmniHeat® reflects your heat back into the boot, reducing the need for insulation!
- Back (resting against the calf) can be stiff and rub
So now that you have your new winter boots, a word of warning; frostbite sets in QUICKLY! These boots will work well for snow and ice, but you need to monitor your body and know when to turn around.
As a final note, if you are interested in learning about mountaineering boots, check out my article here!
Back in 2014 I was in the process of making my second attempt on Tupungato, the 14th highest mountain in South America (and North America, for that matter) and had decided to go with a lighter, single layer boot as opposed to the double I had been warned that I would need. While snow and ice at lower altitudes were no issue, once I reached altitude my feet were cold!
The summit attempt was abandoned when a storm came through that buried my basecamp in snow, but I kept my toes: check out a short video I made after this trip!
Good luck and Happy Trails!