When it comes to selecting hiking equipment it doesn’t get much more serious than choosing your winter hiking boots.
Salomon Men's X Ultra Winter Boot
Merrell Men's Fraxion Shell 6 Winter Boot
KEEN Men's Koven Polar Hiking Boot
Columbia Men's Bugaboot II Snow Boot
Kamik Men's Nationplus Boot
Heading into the wilderness in poor quality footwear is foolish enough in the summer, but while your friend might, just might, get away with wearing Converse for a day’s trekking in July, winter will find them out.
Winter hiking boots have to withstand continual low temperatures, icy streams and snow. They have to provide purchase on mud, rock and ice - and, more often than not, the insidious peril that is ice coating rock.
Winter is when nature throws its worst at us. Your feet will need a comfortable coat of armor to survive. Let’s take a look at the kind of features that make up the best winter hiking boots.
Features to Look Out For
You’ve walked into an outdoors store - or, if you’re quintessentially modern, a virtual outdoors store. You intend to buy a pair of boots suitable for hiking in the deepest depths of winter.
What features should you look out for?
The most obvious choice you’ll be confronted with when you walk into the store (or teleport there via your virtual reality headset) is the type of boot you want to buy.
There is an ongoing debate in the outdoors community, growing fiercer every week, about whether low-cut, lightweight trail-running shoes are a better bet on hiking trips than traditional high-cut backpacking boots.
Kyle O’Grady, writing on thetrek.co, makes a strong case that trail-running shoes are, at the very least, a match for backpacking boots in many situations. They dry out quicker, are generally more comfortable and weigh less, he argues.
Crucially, however, O’Grady concedes that, much as he loves trail-running shoes, “you can’t hike in trail runners in the winter.” Winter is when robust, high-cut backpacking boots come into their own - particularly their superior waterproofing qualities and insulation, critical for keeping your feet as warm and dry as possible.
It should be noted that there is a third option. Day-hiking boots offer a mid-way choice, providing some of the comfort and flexibility of trail-running shoes but with a mid-cut and sturdier build. They aren’t, however, as durable or supportive as high-cut hiking boots so it seems likely that when you’re facing the toughest conditions (ie winter) you’ll want to take the toughest boot.
You’ve argued with the annoying salesperson and agreed that you’re going for hiking boots, but you know what salesmen are like. They’d be happy to flog you an inferior product for an inflated price so if they start banging on about high-tech materials it’s best to be prepared in advance.
Leather is the traditional material of durable boots for a very good reason: it’s extremely robust and offers strong water resistance. If you’re looking for reliable boots the chances are they’ll have significant amount of leather in them, but different types of leather have different pros and cons
Full-grain leather is “the most durable out of all the leather types” (1) but the durability comes at a cost - it isn’t as breathable as…
Split-grain leather, which is usually blended with a synthetic material like nylon for greater breathability, though at the cost of less natural resistance to water and wear and tear.
Nubuck is a type of leather “which has been lightly abraded on the grain surface to create a velvety finish or nap” that makes it look similar to suede (2). It’s almost as durable and waterproof as full-grain leather but can take a long time to break in.
Synthetic materials like nylon and polyester can be used in conjunction with real leather or without it. Boots made purely from synthetics are often marketed as “artificial leather.” The debate about whether synthetic boots can match the durability of real leather is ongoing and often vociferous. It seems likely, however, that how a pair of boots are made is every bit as important to their performance so a well-reviewed pair of synthetic boots could turn out to be a better investment than poorly reviewed leather ones.
Membranes take synthetics to the next level. We’re talking Gore-Tex and other trademarked products that make lavish claims about water and windproofing. Membranes are generally used to coat the uppers of boots to provide added waterproofing, though they’re likely to reduce breathability at the same time.
Anecdote time. A former flatmate of mine, with significantly more money than most students, decided to accompany a friend on a five-day trek. SInce money wasn’t an issue (at least, for his parents), my flatmate went straight to the nearest outdoors shop and returned with a brand new tent, sleeping bag, backpack and boots.
Equipment wise he was probably ready to take on Everest, yet he and his friend returned from their hiking trip the day they left. My flatmate’s new boots had given him blisters within a few miles!
The moral of the story may seem obvious - wear in new boots! - but it emphasises the importance of a comfortable fit. Rei.com offer this advice on the best way to break in a new hiking boot. They also recommend having your foot measured by a specialist to see if you have any specific footwear needs and that, if possible, you try out new boots before you commit to them..
A Closer Look At Some Of The Best Hiking Boots
Now that you’ve done your research on what to look for in winter boots it’s time to get that salesman working for you. Let’s send him to the stockroom to pick out five pairs of high-quality boots so you can have a closer look at their features and decide which one’s the best!
First up is a hiking boot with a mid cut - a relatively low cut in the context of hiking boots. Salomon note that the cut level is designed to increase freedom of movement and comfort, exactly what my tortured flatmate lacked on his ill-fated 5-day/3 hour hiking trip!
The boot does have some of the hardcore features. The uppers are made from a blend of leather and textiles, for durability and breathability, while the climashield waterproof membrane adds waterproofing. Insulation is present, too. 200 grams of Thinsulate multi-loft insulation, to be precise. The X Ultra Winter Boot seems to tick a lot of boxes.
- Fully waterproof
- Insulation present and does it’s job
- Boots designed for comfort
- A lower cut sacrifices some stability
- Mid-to-high price
- Some people found the boots a tight fit and recommended buying a size up from regular to compensate for this
Another pair of mid-cut boots are next up. The Merrell Men's Fraxion Shell 6 Winter Boot is made of sturdy stuff - leather with a polyurethane coating for waterproofing - and features 200 grams of insulation.
The heel has an air cushion to absorb shock - handy for clumsy types like me who have a bad habit of standing on the jagged edges of stones - while 6 millimetres of depth on the sole offers plenty of grip for slippery winter conditions. The boot has also been designed to comply with snowshoe straps, signalling Merrell’s intent to make a boot that can be used in the coldest conditions.
- Very comfortable
- Waterproof and insulated - arguably the two key requirements
- Mid-cut just above the ankle inevitably sacrifices some stability and weather protection compared to high-cut boots
Made from a blend of leather and synthetics, the KEEN Men's Koven Polar Hiking Boot is waterproof, breathable and comes with 200 grams of insulation. The KEEN.DRY™ membrane that coats the boot is not only waterproof but breathable, an attractive feature to those who have suffered from the paradox of waterproofing: no fluid gets into the boot but none gets out either!
A thermal heat-shield footbed adds to heat retention within the boot and helps to keep that all important body heat from leaking out into the brutal cold of winter. Once again, the boot has a mid-cut, allowing greater maneuverability but sacrificing some stability.
- Waterproof and breathable - a winning combination
- Thermal heat shield and 200 grams of insulation means that these should be pretty cosy
- These boots really suffered from the mid-cut with a lack of stability around the ankles a major problem
- Questionable grip, Tough to enjoy a hike when you’ve lost faith in your grip!
- Mid-to-high price
The first pair of high-cut boots on this list have an old-fashioned feel to them. As well as reaching well above the ankles to offer support, the boots are made purely from leather and use an injection-molded shell to provide waterproofing.
They’re the kind of boots that seem to ask you to “stomp” not walk; to respond to the challenge of slush and snow with belligerence rather than trepidation. 200 grams of insulation and a thermal-reflective inside lining help the boots to retain heat and give them a pretty handy heat rating of -25F/-32C.
- High-cut offers stability and a greater sense of protection from the elements
- Insulation and heat-reflective lining promise cosy feet
- Low-to-mid price
- Boots are a bit tight and you should probably order 1 size larger than normal
The most attractively-priced boots on this list have a number of similarities with the Columbia Men's Bugaboot II Snow Boot. They have an even higher cut - the shaft measures ten inches from the arch compared to 8 inches on the Bugaboot - and a leather-only upper.
Waterproofing might be a concern for some, as the leather has no membrane over the top of it. It comes with Thinsulate insulation for warmth and a lining designed to wick moisture away from the feet. Do we have a winner?
- Low price
- Wicks moisture away from the skin and successfully harnesses leather’s natural resistance to water to keep feet dry
- A high-cut and insulation make them robust and warm
- Boots are a bit tight and you should probably order 1 size larger than normal
And the winner is...the Kamik Men's Nationplus Boot. Not only was the Kamik boot the cheapest option on the list, it met more of the performance criteria for winter hiking boots than any other product on the list except the similar, but more expensive, Columbia Men's Bugaboot II Snow Boot.
In the previous section we established that high-cut boots are the best bet for winter, when slippery conditions and the potential for deep snow put a premium on stability. Waterproofing and insulation were also key. The Kamik Men’s Nationplus Boot have these covered and wick away moisture to stop feet become wet from the inside.
Your feet shouldn’t fear the snow, the snow should fear your feet! With the Kamiks on you should be able to stomp holes in the snow with impunity. Your wallet needn’t be afraid either - one of the best winter boots is also one of the cheapest!
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