For those who live and work outdoors, rain boots are an integral type of footwear. And depending on how rainy it is where you live, it's extremely helpful to have a reliable, dry pair of shoes to slip on for errands and chores. But make sure you consider how you intend to use your boots - rain boots for subfreezing farm work are very different than rain boots for kicking around town. There are a few critical factors that will help you make your decision about which rain boot is best for your intended uses, and we'll help you identify them.
Types of Wet Weather Footwear
There are a few different boot options out there for when conditions get wet and cold, depending on how you're planning to use them.
Winter boots are primarily designed for cold conditions, and are always insulated, often with Thinsulate™ or some other proprietary insulating material. Depending on how much insulation they're made with, winter boots can be rated down to -40°F. And since snow and cold are roughly synonymous in most areas, winter boots are almost always waterproof, though this waterproofing may only cover the foot (and won't necessarily extend above the ankle). Winter boots can be designed for a variety of activities (from recreational use like hiking and snowshoeing to outdoor work), and are a great option if you only plan to wear them when it's cold out (not during a spring drizzle). There's definitely some cross-over between winter boots and rain boots (which can be insulated), but here's one informal difference: winter boots (typically) have laces, while rain boots are almost always slip-on.
If you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, chances are you already have a pair of waterproof hiking boots, and these are a great option if you don't want to shell out more money for another specific boot. Backpacking boots typically come up over the ankle, are generally waterproof, and are rarely insulated. They're typically made of a leather or synthetic upper, a solid midsole that resists twisting, and an outsole specialized for dirt, rocks, and whatever else you'll find on a trail. All our testers have used backpacking boots in the place of rain boots, and depending on the depth of the water and mud, they do fine. For a while, our lead tester worked on a sheep ranch farm in an earlier model of the Vasque St. Elias FG GTX, which worked out fine (though some insulation would have been really helpful in the chilly New Zealand mornings).
Waterproof Low-top Hiking and Casual Shoes
There are many waterproof shoes available nowadays using some waterproofing (from name-brands like Gore-Tex and eVent to proprietary technologies like "Keen.Dry" and Oboz's "BDry"). These can look like sneakers or hiking shoes, and, depending on their construction, can be great for trails or around town. They're not great for the rainiest conditions, but they're typically more subtle around town. They'll keep you dry from puddles and light rain, but they won't be enough for much more than that.
Rain boots are always waterproof, generally made of rubber (or foamed neoprene), and typically slip-on. They can be insulated, and depending on the design, they may be from ankle-height up to almost knee-height. They're extremely common on farms and boats, due to their comfort and the ease with which they can be hosed off at the end of a long day, and different brands can be found all around the world.
A short history lesson - Rain boots date back to the early 1800s when the 1st Duke of Wellington had a leather Hessian boot modified to fit more tightly around his calves. The new style caught on, and in 1852, Hiram Hutchinson realized the footwear potential for vulcanized rubber and began to create rubber boots in France. The waterproof calf-high boots were immediately popular among French farmers, who had traditionally gotten their feet soaked and muddy in wooden clogs. Rain boots were a big improvement.Let's start with the drawbacks to rain boots:
- They're (generally) rubber tubes you put your feet (and sometimes lower legs) in. They do not breathe, and if it's warm out (or if you're exercising hard), you'll get sweaty feet.
- Since they're mainly rubber, they're almost always heavy. The lightest (ankle-high) boots in our test weigh around 2.5 lbs per pair, but the average weight of the 13 rain boots in this year's test is 4.7 lbs - which is extremely heavy. For context, sneakers usually weigh 1.5 pounds per pair or less.
- As they don't have laces, they often fit loosely, especially in the heel. To avoid blisters, we typically wear them with thicker socks.
- As a result of this looseness, they're often not comfortable over long distances (we would never willingly wear a rain boot backpacking).
- They typically look different than regular shoes (and if it's not currently raining, people will always ask why you're wearing them - trust us on this).
The benefits to rain boots:
- They keep your feet dry and warm even in terrible conditions.
- They help you stay on your feet in slippery conditions.
- They are typically really easy to get on.
Not everyone needs rain boots. But if your feet keep getting wet and uncomfortable in other footwear, rain boots are the best option.
The Rain Boot Spectrum
All rain boots are not designed for all conditions. On one side, there's the casual boot, on the other, the work boot. And there are some boots that exist in between.
If you want dry feet, but don't expect to be constantly slogging through water and muck, casual rain boots are a great option. Compared to more intense work boots, casual rain boots typically don't come as tall, weigh as much, or provide the same amount of traction. Casual rain boots will typically not feature much insulation and are better suited for puddles and urban errands than mucky fields and freezing creeks. And they will typically not be built for all-day comfort (though this was not always the case). When we've worked on farms, no one is wearing a casual boot, except for the occasional trip to town.
These boots fit between casual and full-scale work boots, due to their weight, stiffness, and general trustworthiness in rough conditions. They are typically mid-calf height. You could do hard labor in these, but you might not love them if this is your main goal.
These will have higher shafts, better traction, (generally) more comfortable insoles, and will weigh more because of these features. We used these when bushwhacking to climbing crags, kicking around rivers while car camping, and wading through knee-deep snow on trips to the mountains. In our experience, farmers in Maine, New Zealand, and Argentina wear this type of rain boot from fall to spring, and some even wear them through the summer.
All the boots in this category are solid, but each will be geared towards a different type of work, depending on which features they have (we'll examine these features in detail below).
The general weather in your area will determine whether rain boots are a good option for you. There's no certain annual rainfall cutoff, above which you need rain boots, but if you spend more than three months in wet conditions, rain boots are really nice to have. And if those wet months are generally below 40°F, you should definitely check out insulated boots.
There's nothing wrong with the low boots, and depending on your intended use, you may need anything more. Lower boots can make them a lot more comfortable for casual use. But remember, if your boot only stands a few inches high, it's surprisingly easy to splash your ankles, even in shallow water. When we tested the boots in Puget Sound, we were constantly worried about waves and splashes in the shorter boots, while the highest boots allowed us to confidently stride around without worrying about errant droplets.
And if you're really concerned about water getting in the top of the boot, choose a boot that will fit more snugly around your calf (the Arctic Sport). It can be a pain to shove your feet and pant legs in, but there won't be a big space for rain to fall in.
Not everyone needs an insulated boot, and if you're hoping to use the boot in moderate temperatures, they're not a great idea, as your feet will get unpleasantly warm. But if it'll be reliably cold, insulated boots are a wonderful idea, as you can simply slip them on and head out the door, no matter whether how snowy it might be. And if you're going to be shoveling snow, or spending a lot of time in cold temperatures without moving, an insulated boot is essential.
Once you've decided how warm a boot you're looking for, check out the warmth scores of all our boots, but remember, warmer boots are not always better, and you may be happiest in an uninsulated option like the Baffin Enduro.
If you're hoping to use your rain boots for quick errands and walking to your mailbox, comfort isn't a big consideration. But if you're like us, and you want to invest in something that you can wear for hours or more at a time, comfort is king, and comes down to a few different factors.
Some boots, designed for more casual use, have ambitiously squiggly patterns on their bases. These will be sufficient for general light use, including yard work and walking on concrete, but you'll likely be disappointed if you're hoping to use them in snow or mud. If you are looking for better traction on a variety of surfaces, large and deep lugged options like the Arctic Sport or the Kamik Icebreaker can hold on when lesser boots slip. Keep in mind that the rubber type, outsole geometry, and intended substrate all affect traction ability. We assessed all the boots in our test on wet grass, mud, snow, ice, stream beds, and in standard urban terrain, and found that generally the larger the lugs, the better they held, though rubber type also seems to matter.
Ease of Use
This also shouldn't be a huge factor in your decision, but it's very nice when a pair of boots are well designed and are easy to use. And we were totally won over by the handles built into the Bogs Ultra Classic High as well as the heel studs, which made putting them and taking them off a cinch, no matter how thick our socks. In general, the boots with the larger circumference shafts will be easier to slide in and out of, while the snugger Original Muck Boot Company Chelsea required some fiddly finger work to get our heels into. And obviously, models with laces require a little more finagling to get on.
And we also assessed how easy the various treads were to hose off - if you're using these boots the way they're designed, they're going to get muddy! Typically, the deeper and skinnier grooved boots were the most difficult to clean, and the XTRATUF boots especially grabbed gravel and kept it stuck up in the tread for days.
While style may not be the most important factor in your rain boot decision, it's nice to have something that looks good. During our tests, we talked to friends (and to the many people who wanted to comment on our boots as we tested them fearlessly in dry, warm weather) about the looks of all the boots. Generally, the more casual boots will look "more stylish" though we all disagreed on which were our favorites. It also has to do with your style - the Hunter boots looked pretty strange with our more utilitarian (read: Carhartts and old jeans) aesthetic, but many women wear and love the Hunter boots around Seattle, and we got a lot of compliments on them when we were dressed up.
Style tip - rain boots are designed for you to tuck your pants into! If you don't, they'll fit badly and look strange. This runs the opposite of cowboy boots, which, our Texan friends assure us, you should never tuck your pants into (if you're a guy).
Every type of footwear is designed with a "last," which is the manufacturer's deliberate approximation of a human foot. Every brand and (generally) every model of footwear is going to be designed with different lasts. The category of footwear will also change the last - dress shoes and climbing shoes are patterned on far snugger lasts than backpacking boots and rain boots. Laces can help make different shoes fit, even if the last isn't ideal for your foot, but rain boots don't have laces, so the fit is necessarily going to be on the loose side. Rain boots also rarely come in half sizes, so you may not be able to find your specific size. We recommend against sizing rain boots to your exact foot size (due to the enormous variety of foot issues that can develop from overly tight shoes).
How to Measure Your Foot Size
Option 1 - go to a footwear store and ask a clerk to measure you with a Brannock device.
Option 2 - follow these directions!
You will need a pencil, paper, a ruler, an affection for low commitment arts and crafts, and potentially someone to help during step 1.Length
- 1) While weighting your feet, draw an outline around both feet. This step is a lot easier with someone to help!
- 2) Using a ruler, measure both feet, from the back of the heel to the end of your longest toe.
- 3) Write each length on the paper and check if your feet are different sizes. Most people's are. If your feet are more than two sizes different, you'll want to consider getting two different size shoes.
- 4) Match the larger number to a U.S. size in the table below. If you're between sizes, go with the larger one. This size should roughly correspond to your general shoe size, but keep in mind that our feet often change size as we grow older.
- 5) We recommend wearing a shoe sized a half size up from your U.S. size.
- 1) Using the outline from the length measurement, mark where your first metatarsal head is (on the inside of your foot, the bony lump where your big toe ends, and your foot starts. If it's tricky to find, bend your big toe and mark where the joint is).
- 2) Measure the width of your foot starting at your first metatarsal head.
- 3) Find your length on the left of the chart, then track right to your width.
- 4) If your feet are different widths, this is normal too! Get a size that matches your wider foot.
Rain boots should not be snug, as you can make up the difference somewhat with midweight socks or thicker (which we recommend to increase cushioning and comfort). Our testers both have size 12 feet with a D width, and we went with American size 13's in all but one boot (the Baffin Enduro, which runs big). And if your feet are extremely narrow or wide, or are injured (with bunions, hammertoes, neuromas, metatarsalgia, or any of the other delightful things that can go wrong with feet), recognize that you may need to take some time to find something that will feel good for you.
Cushioning and Insoles
There's a wide range of cushion and insoles present in all of these boots, from some without any insole whatsoever (the Kamik Icebreaker), to boots with extra padding under the insole (the Arctic Sport). But it's important to recognize that manufacturers sometimes cut costs when it comes to insoles, and even the shoes with the most highly hyped and squishy insoles may not feel great for long. In our experience, many people are better served by more supportive insoles, which hold their feet (and arches) in a comfortable configuration for the entire day (rather than letting their feet flex and unflex for hours at a time as their arches struggle to keep up).
We are specifically partial to the Superfeet brand and have worn their Green and Blue models for various activities over eight years, though any brand of insole that is designed for your specific arch type will be an improvement over generic insoles. We found that adding our own specialized insoles to the boots made them all fit slightly snugger (volume-wise) and were even capable of making some initially uncomfortable boots bearable for hours.
No rain boot will be perfect for all conditions. Depending on your priorities, you may lean toward low cut models or tall-shafted beasts. The most important thing is to consider your needs before ordering a new pair of boots. All we hope is that you end up happy with whatever you choose!