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How to Choose the Best Winter Boots

Using snowshoes to go for a hike in the still shallow snowpack at the top of Red Mountain Pass in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The X Ultra Winter CS WP is a great choice for winter hiking adventures  although a gaiter may be needed due to its relatively low ankle cuff.
Thursday December 21, 2017

Purchasing something as simple as a pair of winter boots might not seem like a complicated decision. However, putting in the extra effort to learn about the product that will keep your feet warm, comfortable and dry, will let you spend less time thinking about your feet and more time enjoying the winter. Winter boots are a very broad category, with both subtle and drastic differences between models. In this article, we discuss the differences between styles of boots as well as individual models and talk about specific features and whether they are useful for your needs. Finally, we will lay out the most important considerations for making your boot buying purchase.

We gathered up the most popular and highly rated men's winter boots and compared them to give you the best information to make your buying decision. Our testing team spent months in these boots in all sorts of conditions and then scored each model based on their Warmth, Water Resistance, Fit and Comfort, Ease of Use, and Traction. You can head over to our full Winter Boot Review to see how the different models scored. Keep reading for some tips to keep in mind when selecting your next pair.

The Kamik Nationplus  left  and Sorel Caribou  right  are two of the Pac style boots we tested.
The Kamik Nationplus, left, and Sorel Caribou, right, are two of the Pac style boots we tested.

Types of Winter Boots


While we could divide and sub-divide the different types of winter boots out there, we found it easier to break them into three main types. We described these categories in our main Best in Class article, but here we go into more depth.

Pac Boots


Pac boots are a modern-day incarnation of the mukluk and kamik boots developed by the Inuit to survive the harsh conditions of the Arctic. A Pac boot, by definition, is comprised of a soft and flexible inner boot liner that slips inside of an outer waterproof boot, much like a ski or snowboard boot. Pac boots are notoriously warm thanks to the thick insulation used in the inner boot and are quite waterproof as a result of the leather or rubber exterior used for the outer boot. Sorel is the brand that catapulted the Pac boot into the modern lexicon when they introduced their now famous Caribou model in 1962. Two years later they released the Sorel 1964 Premium T. Since then many manufacturers have begun producing similar styles.

Pac boots are lightweight for their warmth, are comfortable, and are well protected from water and snow. The inner boot design does make for a less secure fit, and they are typically clumsier to walk in than your normal single-layered insulated hiking boot. We like this type of boot for short excursions to the grocery store, shoveling the walk, heading out to the sledding hill, or for more sedentary outdoor activities like snowmobiling and sleigh rides.

Pac boots are usually not supportive enough for long hikes but they work great to get you outside for a dog walk. Here the Kamik Nationplus boots are keeping out tester's feet warm and happy.
Pac boots are usually not supportive enough for long hikes but they work great to get you outside for a dog walk. Here the Kamik Nationplus boots are keeping out tester's feet warm and happy.

For this review, we tested three Pac boots, the Sorel Caribou and the Kamik NationPlus and Kamik Greenbay 4. These boots are similar in that they are designed with the signature Pac boot features — namely a warm inner boot and a water-resistant outer shell.

Slip-On Boots


Slip-on boots are defined as being any boot that does not use a lacing system to secure the boot. They often have large handles or pull tabs to help get them on, or a loose enough cuff that sliding a foot right into the boot is an easy task. Slip-on boots can be made out of many materials, including rubber, neoprene, leather, textile or sheepskin. They may or may not be insulated depending on the application the boot is designed for and may have varying degrees of water resistance and walking comfort. The main advantage to slip-on boots is convenience.

The two slip-on models featured in our review were the Bogs Classic Ultra Mid (left) and the Blundstone BL566 (right)
The two slip-on models featured in our review were the Bogs Classic Ultra Mid (left) and the Blundstone BL566 (right)

While we found that this genre of boots performed lower than either Pac boots or insulated winter hiking boots in our tests, we still found ourselves reaching for them often due to their incredible simplicity. We tested these boots in high, cold mountain towns in the winter where little outside chores such as running to the post office, getting firewood from the pile, and shoveling snow are frequent occurrences. In this world, a very convenient boot is very much appreciated.

For this review, we tested three different models of Slip-on boots, one of which was new from last year. The Bogs Classic Ultra Mid, Kamik Greenbay 4, and the Blundstone Thermal 566 are lace-less models. Of the three, the Greenbay 4 is the most convenient, with its easy slip-on fit. Since we found ourselves slipping them on countless times each day over the course of months of testing, we felt we had to recognize them with a Top Pick for Ease of Use award, despite their relatively low score in the final rankings. The Blundstone boot was not very warm and also leaked water in through its elastic ankle panels.

The winter hiking boots of our review were the Salomon X Ultra Winter CS  Vasque Snowburban II Ultradry  Keen Summit County  and Columbia Bugaboot Plus III Omni-Heat.
The winter hiking boots of our review were the Salomon X Ultra Winter CS, Vasque Snowburban II Ultradry, Keen Summit County, and Columbia Bugaboot Plus III Omni-Heat.

Insulated Winter Hiking Boots


This category is made up of any boot that is single-layer, meaning that it has no removable liner, is insulated against the cold, and has a means of lacing that allows for a secure fit. Unlike Pac boots and slip-on models, winter hiking boots are meant to walk over longer distances, so they need to have a good fit without any side-to-side slip. What makes these boots different from their summertime hiking boot counterparts is that the materials used for the outer need to be more impervious to wetness as they will be under constant exposure on wintry hikes. They also need to be much better insulated than summer boots where daytime temperatures are much warmer.

Because of the application, many people intend to use their boots for, namely walking in deep snow, insulated winter hiking boots also need to have a higher than usual cuff height to keep snow and slush from getting over the top and inside the boot. These are good boots for hiking day trips, especially snowshoeing, but may prove inadequate for overnight missions due to the difficulty of drying them out quickly in the field. If you're looking for something for multi-day winter camping or hiking trips, you can read our Mountaineering Boot Review for more options on double-layer boots.

Six of the boots tested for this review fit into this category. They are The North Face Chilkat 400 and Chilkat II, Keen Durand Polar and Summit County, Columbia Bugaboot Plus IV Omni-Heat, and lastly the Vasque Snowburban II UltraDry. Despite the fact that they are all made of a variety of different fabrics and materials, by and large, we found this selection of boots to be waterproof up to the top of the tongue. What sets them apart the most was the comfort and fit, as well as their warmth.

Slip-on boots were the easiest to use by far  and we preferred them when getting back from a long day in ski boots.
Slip-on boots were the easiest to use by far, and we preferred them when getting back from a long day in ski boots.

Factors in Choosing Winter Boots


With many models to choose from that are all insulated, water resistant, and cozy, most consumers will find that many of the models we reviewed will get them through winter comfortably. Here are some helpful things to look at when considering new winter footwear.

Sizing and Fit


When sizing your boots, consider what you want it to be used for. A loose fitting model will offer exceptional warmth and comfort but will not have excellent long-distance comfort for walking. Tight boots will lead to circulation issues and colder feeling toes. Size your boots appropriately using the socks you intend to use and make sure you have enough room in the toe box to wiggle your toes around. Warm feet are happy feet, and a pair of properly fitting winter boots will make you a happier person.

Those with specific foot shapes, namely wide or high volume feet, will want to look at the Keen Summit County, Sorel Caribou, Bogs Classic Ultra Mid, or the Kamik NationPlus and Greenbay 4, as they have a wider last and fit broader and higher volume feet more comfortably. The Vasque Snowburban II UltraDry fits true to size if not a bit loose, which felt perfect for an average foot wearing thick winter socks. The North Face Chilkat 400 was quite a bit undersized, and so we recommend trying these boots on before purchasing or sizing up a full size when purchasing these boots.

The Chilkat 400 boot has 400g of Primaloft Recycled insulation and is one of the warmest we tested.
The Chilkat 400 boot has 400g of Primaloft Recycled insulation and is one of the warmest we tested.

Insulation


To keep feet warm in cold temperatures, the boots need to have some insulating material to trap heat inside. Insulation combined with an exterior waterproofing material will result in a quality piece of footwear that will excel in both wet and cold environments.

The boots we reviewed have two types of insulation: synthetic fiber insulation and neoprene. Neoprene, which is used only in the Bogs Classic Ultra Mid, is the same textile used in cold weather fishing gloves and wetsuits. Neoprene is warm, very durable, and will not pack out and lose its insulating properties over time. In tight-fitting neoprene garments, there is often a clammy feeling as it does not breathe well. When used in the looser fitting Bogs boots, we did not have those issues. It is not the warmest material though, so it is most appropriate for moderate climates and wet weather.

Removable Pac liners make it easier to dry out your boot. The Sorel Caribou is on top the Kamik Nationplus on the bottom.
Removable Pac liners make it easier to dry out your boot. The Sorel Caribou is on top the Kamik Nationplus on the bottom.

Synthetic insulation is made of spun plasticized fibers that are then integrated into the boot lining. Much like the synthetic insulation used in puffy jackets and sleeping bags, the insulation is most effective at trapping heat when allowed to expand and "loft." This loft gives Pac boots like the Kamik Nation Plus a soft and cushiony feel, as the room between the outer boot and liner allows the Thinsulate insulation to fully loft. However, this leads to a looser fit. The amount of insulation used and how it is sewn into the inside of the boot will also have a bearing on fit and warmth. If the insulation is tightly packed, it might feel as warm as a boot that used much less insulation but allows it to loft up. Synthetic insulation feels softer and provides more cushion than neoprene.

A unique insulation method used in the Columbia Bugaboot Plus IV Omni-Heat is a reflective metallic lining that reflects more body heat back into the boot. While uncommon, this lining allowed the Bugaboot to insulate relatively well with only 200 grams of additional synthetic insulation.

Most of the synthetically insulated boots in our review disclosed the amount of insulation used (check the specs column under each boot for that number). Most boots use between 200 and 400 grams of synthetic insulation. The top-performing boots for warmth, like the The North Face Chilkat 400, Keen Durand Polar, use 400g — and the difference is noticeable. In our ice bucket test, we could easily tell how much warmer these two boots were than the rest, and they ended up with the two top scores for warmth.

Not all winter activities are fun and games - sometimes you have to get outside and work too! We tested these boots in all manner of conditions  from deep snow days to icy terrain  standing around in bitter cold or working hard at our wintertime chores.
Not all winter activities are fun and games - sometimes you have to get outside and work too! We tested these boots in all manner of conditions, from deep snow days to icy terrain, standing around in bitter cold or working hard at our wintertime chores.

Water Resistance


Water conducts temperature much faster than air, and in the winter time, whatever water you may encounter is likely to be very cold. Boot makers protect the foot from outside moisture in two ways. The boot can be made using inherently waterproof materials like treated leather or rubber, or it can be constructed using a thin waterproof membrane, not unlike a rain jacket that is sewn into the interior lining of the boot. Using fully waterproof materials like neoprene and rubber will keep water out, but often at the cost of breathability. Depending on the material used, the outer shell may need to be periodically treated to keep them shedding water as well as when they were brand new, especially if they use an animal leather to exclude water.

Boots that incorporate a waterproof/breathable membrane ensure that water coming in from the outside will never reach the wearer's foot. While this may be true, attention must still be given to the outer materials, since waterlogged fabrics will inhibit the transference of perspiration from the inside of the boot, resulting in a feeling of coldness and dampness — akin to the model having let in water.

Some boots are more waterproof than others. The Chilkat III  left  lets moisture in through the seams at the base of its tongue. The Keen Durand Polar  right  is impervious.
Some boots are more waterproof than others. The Chilkat III, left, lets moisture in through the seams at the base of its tongue. The Keen Durand Polar, right, is impervious.

All of the insulated winter hiking boots that we tested claim to be waterproof and many of them proved themselves to be just that, up to the top of the tongue, of course. Our submersion testing revealed that a few of our competitors are not, in fact, completely waterproof. That said, all of the models in our test will keep your feet dry in most situations.

Lacing


The type of laces used will have an impact on the fit of the boot and are also a pretty large consideration when assessing Ease of Use scores. Pac boots with many lacing eyelets allow for a comfortable fit but are difficult to lace over the top of the foot tightly. They tend to be easy to pull once and tighten all the way but leave a looser fit overall.

On the other hand, insulated winter hiking models often use speed lacing eyelets over the top of the foot for a quick and secure fit. Then lacing hooks at the top allow you to customize security around the ankle. While these systems are the most customizable for foot security and a tight fit, they are also the most labor intensive to use.

Some boots are very warm  but also quite heavy. You don't want to have to hike for very long in these.
Some boots are very warm, but also quite heavy. You don't want to have to hike for very long in these.

Weight


Also, consider the weight of the boot. All winter boots will be heavier than a pair of running shoes, but there is some variability in the weights of the models we tested. The Blundstone Thermal is the lightest boot in this review, weighing in at only 2 lbs. 14 ounces per pair. At the other end of the spectrum is the Sorel Caribou, weighing about 5.5 lbs. per pair. That couple pounds of difference might not matter very much when shoveling the driveway for 20 minutes, but if you spend the whole day out in your boots, you'll certainly appreciate having a lighter pair. Keep weight in mind particularly when choosing a pair of boots for winter hiking.

Choosing a Boot Based on Intended Use


What do you need to accomplish while wearing your boots? If you only need to don a pair of waterproofed and insulated kicks to make brief trips into the winter wonderland to shovel the driveway, pick something up from the market, or get to work in, then your options are broad. You will likely be happy wearing any winter boot.

That said, it's also nice to keep your options open so that when you think to yourself, "You know, I wouldn't mind trying out snowshoeing this weekend," you have a pair of boots that work for that too. Below is a list of winter activities and our winter boot recommendations for each one.

Winter chores  like cleaning of the car  slow you down. That's when pull-on boots like the Bogs come in really handy.
Winter chores, like cleaning of the car, slow you down. That's when pull-on boots like the Bogs come in really handy.

Snow Shoveling


Almost any boot in this review will work just fine for shoveling snow, or for quick trips outside for any other purpose, like heading to the grocery store or grabbing more wood off the pile. For outdoor chores, we find that we like the most convenient boot that is super easy to slide on and off again, as we are likely to use it many times a day. For this purpose, we have highlighted the Kamik Greenbay 4 as our Top Pick for Ease of Use. Other slip-on models also make a good choice, as do Pac Boots. While insulated winter hiking boots will work great for these tasks, we find that we get annoyed lacing them up and then untying them repeatedly all winter.

Working Outdoors


If you are a lift operator or work guest services at a ski resort, you probably spend all your time outside in the winter. Likewise, if you work construction in a ski town, then building season doesn't stop just because it's numbingly cold outside. For standing around or working hard in the cold all day, we want the most comfortable and warmest boots we can find. Pac boots are the most logical choice, as they are easy to dry out around the fire or in front of the heater each night, and are both comfortable and warm.

You want solid traction when hiking on slick spring trails.
You want solid traction when hiking on slick spring trails.

Winter Hiking


For winter hiking, you want a boot that is waterproof, lightweight, and comfortable for walking around in all day. The genre you need to focus on is the insulated winter hiking boots. We reviewed a number of these models, and they all have unique advantages and disadvantages. We found the North Face Chilkat 400 to be our favorite for being active outdoors. The Vasque Snowburban II UltraDry and Keen Durand Polar are a couple of our other favorites in this category, although any of the boots in this class will work great as long as you find them to be comfortable. We avoid slip-on and Pac boots for actual hiking, as both tend to be too loose to be comfortable and precise for all day use.

The tall  warm and waterproof Chilkat 400 is a great boot for snowshoeing.
The tall, warm and waterproof Chilkat 400 is a great boot for snowshoeing.

Snowshoeing


For snowshoeing, your needs are much the same as for of winter hiking. Snowshoeing comes with one added implication — deep snow. Although it is not uncommon to see people wearing snowshoes on packed down trails in winter, we find it is only worth dealing with their oversized clunkiness when they are truly needed — for venturing out off trail through the deep snow. All of the insulated winter hiking boots will work for this purpose; however, be aware that unless you are wearing a boot with a very high ankle cuff, like the Chilkat 400, you are going to want gaiters to prevent snow from entering the tops of your boots.

Winter Mountaineering


We don't recommend any of the winter boots in this review for winter mountaineering. In general, they are not stiff enough or protective enough, and also are not compatible with crampons. Check out our Best Mountaineering Boot Review if you need some mountaineering boots.

Ice Climbing


Same, same. Despite the fact that these are winter boots, they most certainly cannot handle climbing ice. Again, refer to the Mountaineering Boot Review for information about what you need for climbing ice.

Part of the testing process is wearing all of the boots next to each other so that it is easier to compare them head to head. We often wore one boot on one foot and another on the other.
Part of the testing process is wearing all of the boots next to each other so that it is easier to compare them head to head. We often wore one boot on one foot and another on the other.

Sledding, Building Snowmen, Being a Kid


When we were kids, we called our winter boots, "snow boots," and lived in them for about five straight months. Our favorites were cheap slip-on models. However, we can remember countless days of frozen, wet feet after spending all afternoon after school playing outside, because our slip on snow boots had wide openings around the leg that invariably got stuffed full of snow. To allow a whole foot to slip into them, they have to have substantial leg openings, but that makes them less than ideal for playing in the snow. Kids love these kinds of boots because they don't have to tie any laces, and they can shove them on lickety-split and be out the door, but for an adult who simply wants to play with their kids, but not deal with little kid problems, we recommend Pac boots instead.

Conclusion


A good pair of winter boots is a critical piece of gear for enjoying the coldest time of the year. With a wide selection of styles and models to choose from, it is useful to ask yourself what activities you will most likely use your boots for, and then nail down some options from there. We hope that this article and review have introduced you to your new boots.


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