Choosing the Right Winter Boots and Socks

December 27, 2017
Choosing the right winter boots and socks
Jayne Iafrate/AMC Photo ContestSelecting the right winter boots and socks will keep your toes toasty in the snow.

The coldest season is upon us in all its frosty, freezing glory. Stride forth upon the snow-covered trails and do not let the chill dissuade you: The right gear will keep you perfectly warm and comfortable throughout any winter adventure.

Protecting your feet from the cold is particularly crucial. Icy feet and wooden toes will quickly freeze the fun out of any outing and are especially at risk when temperatures really plummet. Investing in the right pair of winter boots and socks is essential for keeping the fun going all season long. 

Your toes are the front lines of freeze. Far from your heart but close to the snow and ice, they are often the first part of your body to go cold. That makes it essential for your winter boots—essentially any boot with insulation—to provide adequate warmth while also providing sufficient traction and support for your winter outdoor needs.

When it comes to evaluating a boot’s warmth, keep in mind that the thicker the insulation, the warmer the boot. Thinsulate is perhaps the most common insulation and is proven effective; Primaloft, on the other hand, is lighter but also less durable. Ignore manufacturers’ temperature ratings, except as a guideline for comparison between different models from the same company. They are almost always overly optimistic.

A stiffer sole will provide increased support and stability underfoot and is generally better for longer hikes on winter trails, for strapping into snowshoes, and for attaching a pair of crampons. You can test a boot’s stiffness by holding its toe in one hand, its heel in the other, and twisting it side to side.

Avoid super-flexible models, like duck boots, for longer winter hiking and snowshoe adventures. They provide minimal support over rougher, steeper terrain and will fatigue your feet over time. At the other end of the spectrum, hard plastic mountaineering boots are ideal for regular crampon use and extreme conditions but are expensive, cumbersome, and overkill for many winter hikers.

A range of reasonably stiff and warm options exist in between; expect to pay roughly $150 to $250 for a quality pair. Many styles feature rubber around the lower portion of the boot and a waterproof lining, nice options for the wet and sloppy conditions that often define winter in the Northeast.

Regardless of the style, it’s crucial that winter boots fit securely. Your heel should not lift up and down as you walk, but the boots shouldn’t fit so tightly that they restrict blood flow, one of the fastest ways to frozen toes. Once laced up, you should be able to wiggle your toes freely inside the boot, and the area over the top of your foot should not be so tight that it impedes circulation.

As a general rule, you’ll want to wear the warmest pair of socks you can comfortably fit inside your boot. One of the most common mistakes, however, is trying to cram an overly thick sock into a snug-fitting boot. This will compress both the sock and your foot, reducing overall warmth and comfort.

Wool socks are ideal. They are able to absorb a remarkable amount of moisture (a.k.a. foot sweat) while still effectively insulating your feet. For extra warmth, consider adding a pair of synthetic liner socks underneath your main winter woolies. They’re like long underwear for your feet and also help wick away moisture from your skin.

Lastly, make sure your socks fit securely and do not slip around or bunch up as you move. Taking off your winter boots to adjust bunchy, lumpy socks in the cold is a fast track to chilly feet.

Stay warm out there!

Sweat is your nemesis on cold-weather adventures. Perspire heavily, and your damp clothing will steal precious body heat. Minimize this risk—and your sweat—with the following techniques.

  • HIKE SLOW AND STEADY NOT FAST AND SWEATY. Maintain a low to moderate pace to avoid overheating, especially on uphill climbs.
  • DON’T OVERLAYER. You need surprisingly few layers when you’re exerting yourself in the cold. If you’re already warm at the trailhead, once you start moving you will rapidly overheat.
  • SENSE YOUR SWEAT. Learn to recognize the moment when you begin to sweat perceptibly. Stop immediately to adjust your layers.
  • VENTILATE. Help moisture escape from inside your layers by opening the pit zips on your jacket, uncinching the waist, and unzipping the front zipper.
  • DON’T WEAR COTTON, especially for your base layer! It soaks up moisture like a sponge and takes a long, bone-chilling amount of time to dry.

Vibram Arctic Grip is a new proprietary rubber compound that provides improved traction on wet and slick ice. Originally released in 2016 in an exclusive partnership with Merrell and other Wolverine brands of footwear, Arctic Grip is now available from a wide range of companies. Among them is Muck Boot, which has launched a new Arctic Ice Line of its iconic pull-on stompers ($170 to $180), and Maine-based L.L. Bean, which has incorporated the technology into its beefy Storm Chaser boots ($159).


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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.

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